Miles Withers Conway, Pioneer Mason County, Kentucky

The following article was published in the Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky, 2009, University Press of Kentucky

Conway, Miles Withers (b. 1752, Stafford Co, Va.; d. February 28, 1822, Mason Co., Ky.). Sometime before 1786, Miles Withers Conway and his brother, John (1757–1842), settled in Mason Co., Ky. Unlike most of the early surveyors in Ky., Miles Conway and fellow pioneer, Henry Lee, were familiar with the use of new surveyor’s instruments, such as quadrants and transits with the mathematical underpinnings of professional surveying.

Miles W. and John Conway were the sons of Captain Withers Conway and Dulcibella Bunbury of Stafford Co., Va. The Bunbury family was socially well connected but improvident. The Conway family was descended from Dennis Conway, an early settler (1665) of Va’s Great Wiccomico River, and his fifth son, Christopher Conway, who married Sarah Withers, one of the wealthiest women living in the American colonies.

Although Miles inherited 300 acres in northeastern Fauquier Co., Va., from his grandmother, Sarah Withers Conway, the family’s main fortune, as well as 1,350 acres of Stafford Co., Va., lands, were entailed to the Withers family’s male heir in England upon Sarah Withers Conway’s death. Powerful landed gentry in Va., such as Augustine Washington and Col. Henry Fitzhugh, wanted the Withers family’s land, but Sarah refused to vacate her plantation. Fitzhugh called her “that old hag,” but Sarah apparently outlived them all, including her own son, Capt. Withers Conway, because when she died at age ninety, she was still residing on her plantation’s lands.

Captain Withers Conway, Miles Conway’s father, served as captain in the Va. Militia during the French and Indian War and for his military service was entitled to land warrants in Ky. The DAR lists Miles Conway and his brother, John Conway as Revolutionary War soldiers from Spottsylvania, Va. Somehow, the Conway brothers became friendly with the sizeable Berry family clan in Frederick Co., Va. John Conway married Mary (Mollie) Berry. and Miles married Susannah, who was probably Mary Berry’s sister. The Conway brothers’ father-in-law was Joseph Berry, who was married to Mary Fairfax Berry, from the well-connected Fairfax family of Va.

In 1787, Miles Conway filed a survey and patent in his name, using a 1785 Fincastle Co., Va., treasury warrant from Joseph Berry for 637.5 acres along the Kentucky River in what was then Fayette Co., Ky. From the transaction sequence on these lands, it appears that this might have been a dowry or a wedding gift from Joseph Berry to his son-in-law Miles W. Conway. That land was not sold until after the Miles Withers Conway’s estate was settled in 1831, and by then, at least thirty acres from the original tract was located in Owen Co., Ky.

In 1786, Miles Conway purchased several in-lots and became a trustee of the town of Washington, Ky., in Mason Co. Joseph Berry owned two houses down the street. Miles soon began work as a surveyor.  Miles’s brother, John Conway, meantime, had purchased land along the Mill Creek southeast of the town of Washington with two of the six Berry families then residing in Mason Co.

Miles Conway fit easily into the class of people who became magistrates in Mason Co. He served on the first court as a gentleman justice, and, in August 1786, became district commissioner of the western side of Mason Co. Conway platted the town of Mayslick, Ky. and was called upon by the Va. courts to resurvey disputed earlier land claims. Miles was elected sheriff of Mason Co. in 1790. He had the dubious distinction of serving a warrant issued in Bourbon Co., Ky., for breach of contract and non-payment of debt on Simon Kenton, the famed pioneer and Indian fighter who was, at the time, a Major in the local militia. Using uncommon judicial restraint, Miles, as the arresting sheriff, set a parole perimeter wherein Kenton was to stay. The ten-mile diameter of the parole perimeter included the taverns located in Limestone, Ky., (Maysville), Kenton’s house, and Kenton’s favorite hunting and fishing spots. Upon such good and popular judgment, Miles was re-elected sheriff in 1792 and as a delegate from Mason Co. to the state constitutional convention at Danville, Ky., in the same year. At Danville, this slaveholder from a slaveholding Va. family did a surprising thing. He voted with the seven preachers present to strike Article IX of the proposed constitution. Although not going so far as to institutionalize slavery in Ky., Article IX permitted slaves to be brought into the state with their masters, and it provided for local governments to regulate slaves within their jurisdictions. The article passed over the raised objections, and Miles, in the end, signed the first Ky. Constitution. The 1795 Mason Co. tax list showed Miles owning six slaves, seven horses, and twenty cattle.

In December 1802, Miles W. Conway and Henry Lee were appointed associate judges to the circuit court in Ky. Both men were well acquainted with the land interference and criminal mischief cases that dominated early Ky. court dockets; thus they were uniquely qualified to assess many overlapping claims brought into their respective courts.

Sometime between 1802 and 1805, Miles Withers Conway wrote a Treatise on Practical Surveying based on Robert Gibson’s Treatise on Surveying, a two-volume text that used English land claims in Northern Ireland for its worked examples; the second volume was entirely given over to log tables, sine, cosine, and tangent tables. Gibson’s first editions were printed in London, England. Joseph and James Cruckshank of Philadelphia, Pa., printed the fourth edition in 1785. Miles W. Conway used Gibson’s seventh edition of 1794, also printed in Philadelphia, as the guidebook for his own treatise.

In May 1805, Miles Conway took a simplified version of his earlier treatise to Thomas Tunstall, Clerk of the U.S. District Court, where Conway cited his publication as being “an act for the encouraging of learning by securing the copies of Maps, Charts and Books to the authors and proprietors or such copies during the time therein mentioned.” By this action, Conway had applied a very early copyright protection for his surveying book.

Daniel Bradford, son of John Bradford, the pioneering editor of Ky.’s first newspaper, the Kentucky Gazette, published Conway’s book in 1807 at Lexington, Ky. Its full title was: Geodosia, or a Treatise of Practical Surveying, wherein Several Things that Are Useful and Necessary in that Art are Considered and Explained, particularly several Very Consise Methods for Determining the Areas of Surveys by Calculations in Different Forms, and several Different Tables Adapted for that Purpose, Made for the Use of the Western Surveyors in Particular, or May be Useful to Any Other. Recognizing that few frontiersmen in America had a sufficient knowledge of math or the proper surveying instruments to apply Gibson or John Love’s more exacting scientific surveying principles directly, Conway emphasized, in his treatise, a method called Latitude and Departures. Applicable chiefly to plane surfaces, this method required a compass reading of latitude and then the establishing of a grid of measurements of deviations from that latitude, by use of a compass ring and simple calculations.

Obviously written to satisfy basic surveying in wilderness areas, Conway’s book had only sixty-four pages and is 4¾ inches by 7⅞ inches, easily portable in a saddlebag, or in the inside pocket of a greatcoat or hunting jacket. All examples given in the book were very practical and taken directly from Miles Conway’s experiences surveying in Ky.

Conway died in 1822 and is buried in Mason County.

Conway, Miles W. Geodosia, or a Treatise of Practical Surveying. Lexington, Ky.: Daniel Bradford, 1807.

Journal of the First Constitutional Convention of Kentucky, Held in Danville, Kentucky, April 2 to 19, 1792, Lexington, Ky.: State Bar Association, 1942.

The Kentucky Gazette. January 2, 1790, May 17, 1792, May 25, 1793, June 4, 1796, November 5, 1796, May 17, 1796, August 15, 1798, September 15, 1800, December 28, 1802, March 22, 1808.

Lane, Ben, Richmond, KY, personal collection—“A Few Facts and Events Surrounding the Town of Washington in 1786,” George H. S. King to the Rev. Melvin Lee Steadman, January 20, 1962, and Mrs. Stanley Reed to George H. S. King January 15, 1962, original in Va. State Archives, “Stations and Settlements and Preemptions in and Around Washington.”

“Surveyor’s Measurers,” TM, from Kentucky Historical Society vertical files.

Diane Perrine Coon