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Collection George Washington Papers

Washington as Land Speculator

In 1752 Washington made his first land purchase, 1,459 acres along Bullskin Creek in Frederick County, Virginia. This act inaugurated the second and more profitable phase of his cartographic career, in which he assumed the role of land speculator.

Building a Gentleman's Estate

In 1752 Washington made his first land purchase, 1,459 acres along Bullskin Creek in Frederick County, Virginia. This act inaugurated the second and more profitable phase of his cartographic career, in which he assumed the role of land speculator. Over the next half century Washington would continue to seek out, purchase, patent, and eventually settle numerous properties. His will, executed in 1800, lists 52,194 acres to be sold or distributed in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Kentucky, and the Ohio Valley. In addition to these properties, Washington also held title to lots in the Virginia cities of Winchester, Bath (now Berkeley Springs, West Virginia), and Alexandria, and in the newly formed City of Washington.

A Plan of Mr. Clifton's Neck Land, 1760

In 1758 Washington left military service and returned to civilian life and in January 1759 married Martha Custis, a wealthy widow. No sooner had the couple settled at Mount Vernon, which had become Washington's home, than he begin to expand the estate. In 1760 a neighbor, William Clifton, approached Washington with an offer to sell a 1,806-acre tract on the northern border of the estate, and the two men settled on a price of £1,150 sterling. Shortly afterwards, however, Clifton agreed to sell the same tract of land to another neighbor, Thomson Mason, for a slightly higher price. Despite Clifton's original agreement and a series of angry letters, Washington eventually paid £1,250 sterling to secure the land for himself.11 The area became the Washingtons' River Farm.

The Geography and Map Division has two manuscript maps that Washington drew of the land he purchased from Clifton. The earlier is a map Washington copied in 1760, presumably during the purchase of the property. Titled Plan of Mr. Clifton's Neck Land from an original made by T.H. in 1755 and copied by G. Washington in 1760, the map includes survey courses and distances of the perimeter and of each field under cultivation in the tract. The map also includes a lengthy list of farmers working the property. In 1766 Washington prepared a map of a much smaller portion of the property, entitled A Plan of My Farm on Little Hunting Creek. This map covers an 846-acre portion between Little Hunting Creek and the smaller Poquoson Creek. Both items are among the earliest extant maps of individual farms at Mount Vernon.

Over the course of his life, Washington maintained an interest in his farm, even while serving as President. Between 1786 and 1799 Washington exchanged nearly thirty letters with Arthur Young, a British agricultural supporter, in an attempt to refine and improve his farming methods. In a December 12, 1793 letter to Young, Washington enclosed a map of his farms which described the total amount of acreage on the Union, Dogue Run, Muddy Hole, Mansion House, and River Farms as well as the type of crops under cultivation.

Western Lands and the Bounty of War

Washington's lifelong interest in land speculation is illustrated in the fight over bounty lands promised to the veterans of the Virginia Regiment who fought with him in the French and Indian War. In this episode Washington acted on behalf of his fellow veterans as well as vigorously, sometimes aggressively, in staking out his own land claims.

In 1754, Lieutenant Governor Dinwiddie issued a proclamation designed to encourage enlistment in the local militia for the war against the French. In addition to their pay, those who enlisted in Lieutenant Colonel George Washington's fledgling Virginia Regiment were offered a share in two hundred thousand acres west of the Ohio River. Unfortunately for the men who fought under Washington in the Braddock and Forbes expeditions against the enemy at Fort Duquesne, they were not to see these bounty lands until more than twenty years had passed, during which time Washington led the struggle to secure their title.

At first, the formal conclusion in 1763 of the worldwide war between Britain and France, of which the French and Indian War had been a part, aroused hope that the land would be quickly granted. These expectations were overshadowed by the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which (among other provisions) forbade colonial governors from issuing land grants west of the Allegheny Mountains. Yet Washington chose to forge ahead, as evinced by a September 1767 letter to William Crawford, a Pennsylvania surveyor:

. . . I can never look upon the Proclamation in any other light (but this I say between ourselves) than as a temporary expedient to quiet the minds of the Indians. It must fall, of course, in a few years, especially when those Indians consent to our occupying those lands. Any person who neglects hunting out good lands, and in some measure marking and distinguishing them for his own, in order to keep others from settling them will never regain it. If you will be at the trouble of seeking out the lands, I will take upon me the part of securing them, as soon as there is a possibility of doing it and will, moreover, be at all the cost and charges surveying and patenting the same . . . . By this time it be easy for you to discover that my plan is to secure a good deal of land. You will consequently come in for a handsome quantity.12

Washington was clearly willing to take considerable risks in seeking out choice land for himself. In the same letter, however, he warned Crawford "to keep the whole matter a secret, rather than give the alarm to others or allow himself to be censured for the opinion I have given in respect to the King's Proclamation." He concluded by offering Crawford an alibi should his behavior be called into question. "All of this can be carried on by silent management and can be carried out by you under the guise of hunting game, which you may, I presume, effectually do, at the same time you are in pursuit of land. When this is fully discovered advise me of it, and if there appears a possibility of succeeding, I will have the land surveyed to keep others off and leave the rest to time and my own assiduity." In fact, the letter marked the beginning of a very profitable fifteen-year partnership. Less than two weeks after he had received it, Crawford informed Washington about several tracts in the vicinity of Fort Pitt, and the two men continued to collaborate until Crawford's death in 1782.

[Eight survey tracts along the Kanawha River, W.Va. showing land granted to George Washington and others]

Washington persisted in his attempts to secure the military bounty lands. In 1769, Governor Botetourt of Virginia at last gave him permission to seek out a qualified surveyor and to notify all claimants that surveying would proceed. Once the surveying was completed the land could be divided among the remaining Virginia Regiment veterans or their heirs. Washington arranged to have Crawford appointed the "Surveyor of the Soldiers Land." In the fall of 1770 Washington, Crawford, and a fellow veteran named Dr. James Craik set out from Fort Pitt by canoe to explore possible sites for the bounty lands, making notes and observations as they journeyed to the junction of the Ohio and Great Kanawha Rivers and several miles up the Great Kanawha.

The next year, Crawford began to survey the tracts he and Washington had identified on the Great Kanawha expedition. Eight of these tracts are shown on a composite map now in the collections of the Geography and Map Division that Washington drew in1774 from Crawford's surveys. Out of a total of 64,071 acres apportioned on the map, 19,383, or approximately 30 percent, were patented in Washington's name. In a 1794 letter to Presley Neville, Washington said that these lands were "the cream of the Country in which they are; that they were the first choice of it; and that the whole is on the margin of the Rivers and bounded thereby for 58 miles."13In addition to Washington's acreage the map shows the lands surveyed and apportioned to other Virginia Regiment members, including Colonel Joshua Fry, Colonel Adam Stephen, Dr. James Craik, George Mercer, George Muse, Colonel Andrew Lewis, Captain Peter Hog, Jacob Van Braam, and John West. Several of these individuals were distinguished in their own right. Joshua Fry, for example, was one half of the team which produced the well-known 1755 Map of Inhabited Parts of the State of Virginia, considered to be one of the finest examples of colonial mapping; Jacob Van Braam had been Washington's interpreter at Fort Necessity in the French and Indian War; and Dr. James Craik was Washington's lifelong friend and physician.

Cartography and Leadership in Revolutionary Times

A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia, 1755

Any discussion of Washington's cartographic career would be incomplete without reference to the American Revolution. Deeply concerned about the lack of accurate maps available to his army, Washington created the office of Geographer to the Continental Army and appointed Robert Erskine to fill it in July 1777. Erskine, a Scottish-born engineer and inventor, may have come to Washington's attention with his plans for "Marine Chevaux de Frise" designed to block British ships from sailing up the Hudson River.14 Erskine's assistants in his Continental Army post included William Scull, author of a 1770 map of Pennsylvania and grandson of the noted cartographer Nicholas Scull; Simeon DeWitt, who would later become Surveyor General of New York State; and Thomas Hutchins, author of A Topographical Description of Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina, published in 1778.15

Washington died at Mount Vernon on December 14, 1799. In 1810 the executors of his estate prepared an inventory of Mount Vernon's contents. While Washington had a fairly extensive library, he was not a voracious reader and probably acquired many of the volumes as gifts. The library inventory listed more than ninety maps and atlases, including John Henry's 1777 Map of Virginia; Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson's Map of the State of Virginia; Reading Howell's 1777 Map of Pennsylvania; Thomas Hutchins's Map of the Western Part of Parts of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina; Lewis Evans's Map of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Delaware; "Sundry Plans of the Federal District" (including "One Large Draft"); Thomas Jefferys's West India Atlas and American Atlas; Molls Atlas; William Faden's North America Atlas; Christopher Colles's 1789 Survey of the Roads of the United States; and Jedidiah Morse's 1789 American Geography. These items might be found on any serious map collector's list of desiderata today.16

Jedidiah Morse is remembered not only for publishing the first geographic work in America, but for a short section in his 1789 American Geography that (according to the historian Rosemarie Zagarri) is actually the first and only authorized biography of Washington. Colonel David Humphreys, one of Washington's aides-de-camp during the American Revolution, originally conceived the project as a full-scale biography to be edited by Washington himself, but it was never finished. At some point Morse received a summary and published it in American Geography without attribution.17 Given Washington's experience organizing the western frontiers of Virginia as a public surveyor, the impact of the map and report he made of his expedition to the Ohio Valley in 1754, and his lifelong involvement with the making and using of maps, it is altogether fitting that he should have been celebrated in the first American geography.

Edward Redmond
Senior Reference Librarian
Geography and Map Division
Library of Congress
Washington, DC


11. W.W. Abbot, ed., The Papers of George Washington: Colonial Series (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983-94), 6:407-11.
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12. George Washington to William Crawford, September 20, 1767, George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. For the full correspondence between Washington and William Crawford and his brother Valentine Crawford, see C. W. Butterfield, The Washington-Crawford Letters (Cincinnati: R. Clarke & Co., 1877).
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13. George Washington to Presley Neville, June 6, 1794, George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
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14. For additional information on Robert Erskine, see Albert Huesser, George Washington's Map Maker (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1966). A detailed account of the maps William Scull produced while he was working under Erskine and his successor, Simeon De Witt, that are now in the collections of the New-York Historical Society can be found in Peter J. Guthorn, American Maps and Map Makers of the Revolution (Monmouth Beach, N.J.: Philip Freneau Press, 1966).
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15. Walter W. Ristow, American Maps and Map Makers (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1985), 37. See also chapter 5 of this work, "Simeon De Witt, Pioneer Cartographer," for a detailed discussion of De Witt's impact on American cartography.
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16. Appendix 2 in Eugene D. Prussing, The Estate of George Washington, Deceased (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1927), 401. For additional information on Washington's library at Mount Vernon, see Joseph M.. Toner, Some Accounts of George Washington's Library and Manuscript Records and Their Dispersion from Mount Vernon (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1894).
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17. Rosemarie Zagarri, ed., David Humphreys' "Life of General Washington" with George Washington's "Remarks" (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991). For biographical information on Morse, see Ralph E. Brown, "The American Geographies of Jedidiah Morse,"
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