A Biography of Jonathan Knight

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Jonathan Knight 1787 – 1858

by: T.B. Deem

(This was in the Banner in 1940)

To the people along the route of the National Road through Henry County, Indiana the name of Jonathan Knight, who was one of the chief engineers who surveyed and laid out this great highway – the greatest in America and the world’s history – sounds as the title of some mythical personage in the great past. About all they know is that the town of Knightstown was named for him, and that it is the only town of its name in the wide world.

It has seemed to me for several years that our people should seek more information concerning our city’s progenitor; and to this end I have spent a good deal of time looking up matters and data which, when joined, would make up a coherent narrative of Mr. Knight’s life, works and personality. I have been more successful than I expected to be when I began my inquiries. Subjoined is a statement of what I have found out regarding this interesting character:, T.B. Deem…

Jonathan Knight was the son of Abel and Ann S. Knight, and was born in Bucks County, Penn., on the 22nd day of November, 1787. His father was a weaver by trade, but could survey land and teach school. He removed his family in 1801 into East Bethlehem, Washington County, where Jonathan lived until the date of his death. In early life the limited means of his father did not permit of his being educated in an academy or college. His facilities for instruction were confined to ordinary primary schools existing at that time in the country. He was required by his father to be industrious. When quite young his unquenchable thirst for knowledge impelled him to read and: study at home—mostly at night. He thus acquired a habit of close application to work and study, laying the foundation of a good American education. He early showed a peculiar talent for the exact sciences and mathematics; at the age of 12 years he had worked Dilmith’s Arithmetic through, and had set the result down in a blank book. Soon after commencing with this arithmetic he was looking forward in the book and discovered the process of extracting square root and so told his father, who hesitated to believe it, but Jonathan satisfied him by immediately working a number of examples. After this he needed little instruction as he advanced in the science of numbers.

He studied surveying with his father; and when 18 years old he obtained Bonny Castle’s Algebra, and studied it successfully into quadratic equations. At this time he had never met a person who understood Algebra. During the next year, being informed about a person who was teaching Algebra in a near-by town, he went there and received lessons for three or four months. This was the extent of his schooling in mathematics. About this time he cultivated the habit of solving questions or problems by mental process while engaged in work on his father’s farm, or in drawing wood home in the winter season. Upon starting to the woods for a load he would read a question which he would work out while away; and when he returned and had unloaded the wagon, he would go into the house to warm, and while there he would set the solution down, and read up on another problem before again starting to the woods, and so continued to obtain a grasp on the most intricate parts of scientific facts.

He was in the habit, at an early age, of close observation. Upon entering a building in process of erection he would observe its dimensions and then proceed to estimate the quantity of materials needed in construction, if brick, the number of them and even the number of shingles and nails to be used. In 1809 he married Ann Heston in a meeting of the Society of Friends and in accordance with their rites; and he continued during his lifetime in the fellowship of that Society.

When twenty-one years old Jonathan Knight commenced teaching school and surveying land on his own account. These occupations he pursued until the spring of 1815 when he purchased land intending to become a farmer and surveyor. His engagements for surveying land became so numerous, however, that he found little time to attend to his farm. The next year, 1816, he was appointed by the Pennsylvania State government to make the survey and map of Washington County as a necessary part to facilitate the forming of Melish’s Map or Atlas of the State. This duty involved much field labor. The instrumental surveying requiring100 days in its performance. This service having been satisfactorily performed, Mr. Knight served three years as County Commissioner, to which office he was elected by the people.

Jonathan Knight

Soon afterward he entered the field of civil engineering having served in subordinate stations in the preliminary surveys of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, and in those for the National Road between Cumberland and Wheeling. The greatest work of the country in those days was the National Road from Washington City to Wheeling.
In 1825 he was appointed Commissioner by the Federal Government to extend that road from Wheeling through the states of Ohio and Indiana. Mr. Knight, a profound mathematician and an able, honest man was brought into the service of the new company. He brought along with him his Superintendent of Construction a Mr. Weaver, who had built miles and miles of turn-pikes in Ohio.

These men came from a sandstone country where rock could be cut like cheese and they encountered many problems in handling the granite formations in the mountains. A mission of engineers was sent to England for technical information, while the surveying was going on at home. Everything was done with an eager enthusiasm unequaled in our enterprising annals, and the work was pushed through without graft.

After the organization of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Co in April, 1827, Mr. Knight and Col. Stephen H. Long were selected by the Board of Directors to make surveys of the country through which the railroad was to pass. The effect of turning curves of 400-foot radius at fast speed was new in the history of railroads. It was developed to a greater degree of perfection on the B. & O. than on any other contemporaneous line, through
the efforts of these able engineers. A judicious and scientific construction of the tread of the main wheels was introduced by Mr. Knight; by combination of cone and cylinder construction, which expedient had never been attempted in this country or Europe. During his work on this road Mr. Knight again visited England to acquire more knowledge of the intricate problems surrounding the gigantic undertaking.

In 1835 he made a personal examination of the country between Cumberland, Md., and the Ohio river to ascertain the best route for the railroad across the Alleghenies,. In this work he exhibited that correctness of eye and accuracy in distance and observations for which he was so remarkable.
In 1842 he resigned his position as an officer of the B. & O. and retired to his farm in Pennsylvania. However, he was employed as Consulting Engineer of the Company on important questions.

In Stuart’s “Lives and Works of Civil and Military Engineers of America,” is to be found the following comment upon the attributes which made Mr. Knight famous: “The leading characteristics of Mr. Knight, as a professional man, were strongly marked and entitled him to a high rank. His aptitude for the acquisition of knowledge in the exact sciences was unsurpassed. The habit of close thinking into which he was led by the natural tendencies of his mind to mathematical investigation made him reason rigidly in all subjects, and gave him a philosophical cast to his conversation upon every subject that he touched”.

In political economy Mr. Knight was well versed and expressed enlightened and comprehensive views upon subjects of banking, trade, manufacturing and agriculture. Politics also was a favorite theme with him, and upon public measures he always expressed broad and national views. He discussed the characters of public men with spirit, and often with a sarcastic humor which marked his conversation upon most subjects. The character of Henry Clay seemed to be his ideal of a statesman and orator.

He reared a large family, ten children, fulfilling his domestic duties in an exemplary manner. He left a comfortable estate after having settled all his children during his own life time. He was taken suddenly ill with bilious colic in a very severe form and died on his birthday anniversary, Nov. 22, 1858, aged 71 years.

Many people, when they hear I’m from Knightstown, have asked me if I am related to the town’s founder. Well, in the first place he didn’t have anything to do with founding the town.
In fact, I have read a couple of other articles about Jonathan Knight in addition to this and have come to the conclusion that it’s highly unlikely that he ever set foot in Knightstown. Knight seemed to have been more of a mid level government bureaucrat who organized the overall project and managed it from an office, not a worker in the field. I believe some low level surveyor or possibly Knight’s assistant, Mr. Weaver, was the one that actually laid out the first plat of the town.
However, It turns out that I am, in fact, related to Jonathan Knight but I never knew that until I was in my late 60s. He was the brother of one of my Grandfathers with a lot of Greats in there.

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