Washington as Land Speculator  |  George Washington: Surveyor and Mapmaker  |  Articles and Essays  |  George Washington Papers  |  Digital Collections  |  Library of Congress

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

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.

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.

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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.

* * * * * *

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.

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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

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