Josiah Meigs (#98) was the 13th and last child of Return (#29) and Elizabeth (Hamlin) Meigs of Middletown, Connecticut. He was born on August 21, 1757. He receive a public school education then went on to Yale graduating in 1778. Among his classmates were Noah Webster and Oliver Wolcott.
During the years 1781-1784 he was a tutor in mathematics, natural philosophy and astronomy at Yale, and at the same time studied law. He was admitted to the bar of New Haven, Connecticut, in 1783, and during February 1784, at the first election following the establishment of a city government, was chosen city clerk of New Haven. Later in 1784 he started a printing office where he published the New Haven "Gazette" which later was called The New Haven Gazette and the Connecticut Magazine. Meigs, through the paper, was often involved in the political passions of his day including a strong support for the adoption of the Federal Constitution and an attachment to Jeffersonian Republican principles. He also published the first American Medical Journal in 1788.
Meigs resigned his position as city clerk during 1789 and left New Haven for St. George, in the Bermuda Islands. There he cared for the interests of some of his law clients. He became involved in defending the owners of United States vessels that had been captured by British privateers. He was a man of hot temper and occasionally was reckless in his speech. As a result of his unpopularity and unguarded statements, he was arrested for treason, but acquitted. In 1794 he returned to the United States and, on October 8, 1794, took the chair of mathematics and natural philosophy at Yale where he remained until 1801.
In 1801, Meigs was chosen the first president of the University of Georgia, or Franklin College as it was called in its early days. The University was located on 633 acres donated for the establishment of the town of Athens and the school. "In the fall of 1801 Meigs hastily erected a few log and frame buildings, sold town lots to raise money for the University, and soon began to impart his precise culture to a handful of young men in a wild and lonely land. The peaceable Cherokee did not interfere, and in 1805 construction was finished on the first permanent building."1
Meigs worked long and hard to establish the foundation of this University, but "a group of Presbyterians became entrenched on the board of trustees. This group was supported by various elements throughout the state who desired that education in the University have a definitely religious basis."2 He had neither a religious preference or pretensions. In the face of this increased opposition, criticism of the discipline at the school and in reaction to his political pronouncements, Meigs was forced to resign his position in 1810.3 He continued as a professor for one more year, but continued to criticize the trustees so they dismissed him.
In November, 1812, President Madison appointed him surveyor-general of the United States. He moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. Two years later he was appointed the Commissioner of the U. S. Land Office in Washington, D.C. It was his job. to supervise and report on the progress of the surveys of the public domain which contained vast tracks of western wilderness. "In 1819 in a widely reprinted statement in the National Intelligencer he took a long look ahead, explaining the five principal meridians and extolling the system of rectangular survey. 'The principle of this system... will unquestionably be adhered to until the public surveys shall reach Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia river, in longitude 48 degrees west of the capital. It has been said that 'man brings down the Heavens to the earth, for his convenience.' A few geographical positions on the map of the public surveys being accurately determined by astronomical observations, with very little difficulty the longitude and latitude of every farm, and of every log-hut and court house, may be ascertained with great precision.... About sixty million acres (twice the extent of England) have been surveyed.... So wise, beautiful and perfect a system was never before adopted by any government or nation on earth. It is...the 'divided feast' of Homer. The government with a temper and spirit truly paternal, has divided, for the children of the republic, that patrimony in which they all have a right and an interest.'"4
As commissioner, Meigs also instituted the nation's first system of daily meteorological observations at the land offices throughout the country. He was also the president of the Columbian Institute, one of the original corporators and trustees of Columbian College (now George Washington University), and professor of experimental philosophy there.
He was described as "tall and spare...he had a large and capacious head with a high forehead, a long and prominent chin, a square mouth and a rather long and pointed nose; and his eyes were mild, but bright, and of a blue tint. In general effect, his face has certainly marked power and is very alive and of a peculiarly benevolent appearance."5
Meigs married Clara, daughter of Col. John Benjamin of Stratford, Connecticut, on January 21, 1782. She died on August 13, 1849, and is buried in Columbia, Georgia. Josiah died on September 4, 1822. He was buried in Holmead's Cemetery in Washington, D.C., but it was given up as a cemetery, so his grave was moved in July, 1878, to the lot of his grandson, General M.C. Meigs, in Arlington National Cemetery (Side Note: In 1998, my family was privileged to provide funding to restore Josiah's grave to new condition.) His grave stone records that he died on September 5, 1822, but his son, Ezra Stiles, writing to his brother Henry on September 5, 1822, stated that their father died at a quarter before eight o'clock "last night."