George Washington Defies the Proclamation Act and Takes a Leadership Position in Western Land Development

It is at this point that we intentionally and directly enter into the development of Washington’s trans-Appalachian land development, transportation infrastructure, settlement-building, economic base development, facilitation of domestic commerce to create national unity against bordering hostile European neighbors economic development strategy-nexus or paradigm. Perhaps obviously it did not start in its full-blown form as he outlined it in his 1796 Farewell Address to Congress at the end of his two presidential terms. It started immediately previous to the French and Indian War, and it seriously developed and became Washington principal objective in his personal “business plan” to acquire personal wealth and social status during the period after the French and Indian War and during the interregnum caused by the 1763 Proclamation Line.

But before we trace his “land jobbing”, it is valuable we review his life and experience during this turbulent period to see how these years (1) affected at least one member of the Virginia planter oligopoly, and (2) how and why his career was able to combine both agriculture and land development. After all, a theme I have developed thus far is that a variety of factors and dynamics had “stressed” the planter oligopoly, and over two decades had transformed many of them, by necessity if nothing else, into a new business plan that diversified their income and took advantage of the great western movement into the interior by a series of ethnic migrations into Virginia’s western counties–and beyond. That almost natural evolution of many planters into land development and diversification into agricultural-related manufacture, however, ran into a wall with the 1763 Proclamation Act. The reaction of affected planters to the Act motivated, if not fueled their opposition to continued British colonization and injected these elites into the forefront of American colonial resistance to an “unreformed” British rule.

Washington’s Early Life

Born in 1732 to a middle-status Northern Neck royalist-period plantation owner, Washington was a “third” son whose fortunes were vastly enhanced by the marriage (1743) of the first son, Lawrence, to the daughter of Lord Fairfax’s land agent, and cousin “Colonel” William Fairfax–who had only recently built his estate-manor house, Belvoir, in eyesight of Lawrence’s inherited plantation–today’s Mount Vernon. Lord Fairfax himself was deeply enmeshed in London attempting to legally secure the King’s/Board of Trade’s approval for his vast Northern Neck holdings. The Colonel Fairfax was in charge of his Virginia lands. As the Colonel’s son-in-law, Lawrence acquired some lands as dowry, but became deeply involved in the Fairfax nexus. Along with the Colonel, Lawrence was one of four principal founders of the Ohio Land Company in 1749.

Lawrence, educated in England, fit in well with the high status society, and his bent to military activities put him on the Cartagena Expedition in Colombia–the expedition that badly wounded Virginia Governor Fauquier. Lawrence was not a planter by inclination or talent, and Mount Vernon accordingly was neglected as a business and as a physical asset. By the time George had become a teenager, he often visited both Mount Vernon and Belvoir, and in time became close friends with the Colonel’s son, George William–and George William’s wife, Sara with whom George Washington developed what seems to have been a life-long attraction and somewhat complex romance. That, however, is its own story, which sheds considerable light on his personality, and what was inside that marble image he has today [2]. George Washington was hired in 1747 (he was fifteen years old) by the Colonel to develop survey lines required by the Board of Trade approval of Lord Fairfax’s Virginia land holdings. He “held the chain” for the surveyors on the team and learned his surveying through extensive trips and expeditions into Virginia’s interiors–he also made the acquaintance of Lord Fairfax, and apparently used his survey books in the latter’s library at Belvoir–and his relationship with Fairfax’s land agent, the Colonel developed to the point historians such as Ferling (and others) consider him as George Washington’s “surrogate father”. Washington probably met the leader of the Fairfax clan when he was a budding teenager. Douglas Southall Freeman comments that …

[Washington] was precocious in all that related to business, he was still [at thirteen] to understand the full meaning [of Fairfax’s 1945 legitimization of his Northern Neck holdings] of Fairfax’s victory, and of the vast speculative movement that began as soon as the Colonials knew where [Fairfax] would set his stakes. Around young George, whenever he was at Mount Vernon, the talk was of patents [land sales], of surveys, of trails, of settlements, and of the profits that might be made by organizing land enterprises beyond the farthest bounds of Fairfax’s grant [2a].

On the series of Fairfax-related surveying expeditions that followed over the next years, Washington became a professional surveyor with his own business, and began his land jobbing career. “He was just eighteen when he purchased his first western tract, over 450 acres in the Shenandoah Valley (Dutch George); soon after he acquired a second, one thousand acres on today’s West Virginia border [3]. George Washington was a professional surveyor and land jobber, over a decade before he inherited Mount Vernon. During this time his brother and Northern Neck investors started the Ohio Land Company, with George, still in his teens, involved only as a hired surveyor. When Lawrence became sick with tuberculosis, George accompanied him on several health-related trips, including a stint in Barbados, where George caught smallpox and nearly died. On his return he made acquaintance Governor Dinwiddie who was much impressed with the young man; Washington returned home and picked up on his surveying and land-jobbing.

Washington’s First Military Career

It was at this point in 1753 that George sought out an appointment as a Virginia military adjunct despite his young age and lack of military experience. He was appointed to two adjunct position by Dinwiddie–and during this time the Ohio Company, with Dinwiddie as an investor began its settlement and Ohio land development, destined to end in failure when the French and Indian War erupted several years later. Previous that war, George was recruited by Dinwiddie to sort out French movement into the contested Ohio frontier–beginning what would be a nearly six year military career as Colonel in the Virginia Regiment, loser at Fort Necessity (Great Meadows), and hero in the Braddock disaster. He remained, somewhat tenuously, in the Virginia Regiment as it was reconstructed by a new British General John Forbes. Forbes led a counter invasion of Pennsylvania’s Ohio region and secured a major victory over the French in 1758.

Primarily military in this period, Washington spent a great deal of time in the wilderness areas in which he would later invest heavily–acquiring experience which legitimately reinforced a robust frontiersmen image–a rugged adventurer, knowledgeable about nature, Native Americans, and the mid-states trans-Appalachian territory. In addition, with Lawrence’s death Washington inherited additional properties, and in 1754 Lawrence’s wife, Nancy (Colonel Fairfax’s daughter) rented Mount Vernon to George, leaving it forever. George, however, after an initial involvement in Mount Vernon soon left taking up service with the Regiment attached to Braddock’s ill-fated expedition. After that debacle, Washington, viewed as a legitimate, if low-status hero in the venture, struggled to upgrade his position with the British forces, and simultaneously engaging in an feud with retiring Governor Dinwiddie. By this time he was Virginia’s highest ranking colonial officer.

Seeking an audience with the British commander-in-chief, Governor Shirley of Massachusetts, Washington left his command on a thousand mile trip to Boston, a meeting with Shirley, and a turn-down for the royal commission. His absence from command had not gone unnoticed, and public and private comment seriously undermined his military position in the Virginia Regiment. Even Colonel Fairfax met with him to urge him to change what had become a rather obnoxious personality, out of favor with his troops and officers, and an checkered and costly military track record on the Virginia frontier–Washington at that point (1756-7) was only twenty-five.By now his relationship with Dinwiddie had broken down completely.

In 1757, he hit his lowest point; his health collapsed to the point of near-death (the bloody flux), his protector, Colonel Fairfax died. Washington, ill, left his command and returned to Mount Vernon where his neighbor Sally Fairfax nursed him to health, causing their relationship to become controversial and she broke off her relationship with him–which devastated Washington. Quick off the rebound (February, 1758), Washington, visited Martha Dandridge Curtis, nine months a widow–alleged to be the wealthiest widow in all Virginia (100 slaves, 6,000 acres, with liquid assets estimated at about 12,000 pounds (a considerable sum)) .  After a courtship that lasted about two weeks, an estimated twenty hours of personal contact, they agreed to be married [4]. They married a months later in January, 1759; George was twenty-six.

Returning to his military unit in mid-1758, George was elected for the first time to Virginia’s House of Burgesses–in an election campaign in which his close friend, George William Fairfax, husband of Sally, served as his local campaign manager–“barkeeper” more precisely because he was alleged to have bought the vote with liquor and good tines at the tavern (BTW, George and Sally still corresponded). Washington beat three rivals with about 40% of the vote. George returned to command his regiment,  and participated (in a series of engagements with decidedly mixed results) in General Forbes successful expedition that recaptured Fort Duquesne. Around Christmas in 1758, Washington resolved to end his frustrated career with the British military and begin his career as a husband and planter. He made have had few options at this point. He had burned through his series of wealthy and powerful proteges, a failed romance, a successful marriage, failure to obtain British military commission, and on the edge of being fired by General Forbes, who sent him off on an extended supply mission to Williamsburg, an election to Burgesses; 1757-8 were as volatile as could be, on his twenty-seventh birthday, February, 1759), he and Martha settled in to Mount Vernon.

Washington: the Virginia Tobacco Plantation Planter

The manor and plantation was pretty beaten up, mismanaged for years by hired managers, Washington and Martha commenced an extensive rebuilding program, enlarging upon the manor house, and adding a host of auxiliary activities (brick-making kiln, for example). Mount Vernon acreage was about 4,500 (five distinct farms), Martha’s acreage, and his past land acquisitions, along with a handful while he was in the military. George had always been around plantations, but lacked direct experience in managing them and with their agriculture. His success in tobacco production in the years that followed were not distinguished. For whatever reason the quality of his tobacco was less than competitive, and production volumes (he used sharecroppers extensively) were adequate at best. By 1760, his first crop sold at a near loss. He went into debt. Tobacco plantation economics had worked their wonders.

He blamed everybody when things to steadily worse over the next few years, but remained sure of his own efforts: “Certain I am that no person in Virginia takes more pains to make their Tobo fine than I do and tis hard then to [comprehend why] I should not be well rewarded for it”.  By 1762 he was compelled to admit that tobacco farming was “an Art beyond my skill“, and in 1764 that he could not produce “even tolerable Crops“. In that year he switch from tobacco to wheat, and after two years never produced any tobacco on Mount Vernon.His wheat yield in 1766 was only 257 bushels, but by 1770 reaped over 6,000 bushels. In the interim he remade Mount Vernon’s economic base to include cloth-making, a flour mill, a fishing schooner which tolled the Potomac for shad and herring, livestock, bred horses, orchards of fruit trees, dairy, smokehouse for meat sale, cider press and distillery. He also built a shingle logging facility to sell shingles from his cypress trees in a Great Dismal Swamp land development venture. He had reduced his outstanding debt by half. In 1759 he owned about twenty slaves; in 1770 about eighty-seven. Between 1770 and 1775, that population nearly doubled. Washington had expended over 2,000 pounds for the purchase of slaves. There is no reason that Washington likely treated his slaves any differently than neighboring slave-owners [5].

Washington: the Land Jobber

With Washington’s retirement from the military and new marriage in 1759, Washington, a well-connected twenty-seven year old war veteran and hero, from a royalist Tidewater family which had married into to the Northern Neck Lord Fairfax nexus, was determined to pursue a career in both land development and plantation agriculture. In 1761, he formally inherited Mount Vernon from his brother, although he had rented it from his half-sister since 1754. Lord Fairfax protege/surveyor, Dinwiddie’s negotiator and hero of Braddock’s defeat, Colonel and commander of Virginia’s only professional military force, the Virginia Company, and inheritor of his brother’s responsibilities in the Ohio Land Company Washington had gravitated to the traditional life and style of the Virginia planter oligarch–a neighbor to the Fairfax’s. Washington had since he was eighteen, engaged in the land development nexus, as a surveyor, land jobber, and explorer into the wilderness with at least one weather-eye looking about for possible land suitable for sales. Initially, Aside from his budding, but less than massive land development portfolio, Washington had two additional “aces” in his land development aspirations: (1) the near-defunct Ohio Land Company in which his brother and neighbors were founders, and (2) a proposal by then-retired Governor Dinwiddie to award (Kentucky) land grants as reward and payment to Virginia veterans.

The Ohio Land Company was the first project upon his military retirement. Washington attempted to revitalize the then-defunct Ohio Land Company, after a half decade of French and Indian War implosion. It took three years to reassemble the inner core sufficient so that in 1763, with the issuance of the Proclamation Act, a “resuscitated Ohio Land Company hired a Washington former military aide-de-camp, George Mercer and sent him off to London (where he stayed until 1767) to persuade the Board of Trade to reissue the 1749 land grant to the Company, amend its terms, so it could recommence its stalled settlement of the southern Ohio valley. That got nowhere fast, and Mercer spent his time representing larger Virginia interests in rolling back the Proclamation Act itself–fruitlessly. The Proclamation Act and the inability of the Ohio Company to reverse that decision stalled any action on the Washington’s second initiative: Dinwiddie 1754 land grant to military veterans.

In anticipation of the oncoming French and Indian War Dinwiddie had legally set aside 200,000 acres on the borders of the Ohio Land Company land grant for the purposes of supplementing the pay of volunteers to the Virginia Company, requiring “such lands shall be divided amongst them … in a proportion due to their respective merit, as shall be represented to me by their officers [Washington in command], and held and enjoyed by them [the recipients] and also free from the payment of quit rents for a term of fifteen years”. There is some thought that Dinwiddie did not mean the officers were to be eligible for the land grant, but Washington thought himself eligible, and as ranking officer he assumed responsibility for the matter. With Dinwiddie gone, and the Proclamation in effect, the veteran land grant was placed in a legal limbo.

In 1763, that is from the onset of the Proclamation Act, Washington was in opposition to it, actively involved in its renegotiation, and on a personal level committed to active trans-Appalachian land development, if necessary–in full contravention to the Proclamation Ac.t Washington in that year characterized in writing as a “scrap of paper[6] and observed, correctly, that the Act was intended to be temporary, a contrivance to pacify Native Americans. Knowing full well, the Crown, and the Virginia Governor, not to mention the British Army lacked any effective means to monitor the affected area, nor to frustrate any attempts by squatters, Washington was determined to do the preliminary work of identifying the best land for purchase once legal title could be made. He wasted no time in ignoring that scrap of paper by forming a new land development company in 1763, the Mississippi Company. Among his partners were the next door Lee family, previously mentioned above) on whose behalf he unsuccessfully applied to the Board of Trade for a 4,000 square mile grant of land (ten million acres) from the Wabash River to the Mississippi (Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee). The Board of Trade, of course, being the body responsible for London’s trans-Appalachian Proclamation Act.

Simultaneous with the Mississippi Company, Washington also enlisted friends and former military acquaintances to actively explore, identify good pieces of land, map, and mark lands of future purchase–observing in correspondence that the time was ripe for land investment in the trans-Appalachian and that standing on the sidelines “neglects the present opportunity of hunting out good lands … which will never again regain it [e.g. never happen again] [7]. In these letters to assemble an active group to engage in property identification of the trans-Appalachian, he did enlist a former officer under his command, William Crawford to develop a workable package of land assets from scouting out territory which ranged from Kentucky to literally downtown Pittsburgh, including an area in western Virginia (Kentucky) that Dinwiddie had set up as eligible for land grants to pay veterans of the French and Indian War.

In his letter carefully detailing his expectations for Crawford’s expedition, Washington committed in private his intentions to not only purchase this land but to begin a settlement of the region. His business plan involved discounted rental of the land, with tax abatement, intended to encourage renter installation of some infrastructure (wells, path, fences, barns). initial clearing of land, and homestead. He urged secrecy to Crawford, presumably because he knew it was a violation of the Proclamation Act, but perhaps more because he wanted to keep it from his Ohio Land Company associates, competitors, state-colony governments–and the Board of Trade. Crawford apparently conducted the mission and prepared an inventory of good land for Washington’s purchase.

I shall find it absolutely necessary and convenient for he better furthering of the design to let some few of my friends be concerned in the Scheme and who must also partake of the advantages. By this time it may be easy for you to discover that my Plan is to secure a good deal of land. You will come in for a very handsome quantity … I would choose if it were practicable to get pretty large tracts together … to have them as near your settlement or Fort Pitt as near as we culd (sic) get them, but not to neglect others at a greater distance … I would recommend you keep this matter a Profound Secret or Trust … [making this expedition] a silent  management and the Scheme snugly carried on by you under the pretense of hunting other Game … I will have the lands surveyed to keep others off and leave the rest to Time and my own Assiduity to accomplish [8]

What is apparent from these letters is that Washington viewed land development as a private wealth-creating enterprise, and Crawford acquired some 20,000 acres for Washington, as well as 700 Carter-estate lands in Virginia. He also retained an agent to search our potential properties in Spanish West Florida.It is worth note that Washington’s agricultural career at Mount Vernon was pursued simultaneously with these land development initiatives. It is also noteworthy, that at this point, trans-Appalachian land development is devoid of any expressed public purpose. It is a major element in his personal “business plan” to acquire wealth, and in the 1760’s is considered a business “Scheme” between him and his investors. Certainly it provides insight into our First President as to how he was devoted to, and did successfully acquire a considerable land portfolio, in direct violation of the Proclamation Act.

In 1763 made the first of four personal expeditions to areas called the Great Dismal Swamp (I am not making this up). ” a melange of thickets, trees bogs and coves that sprawled inland from south of the Chesapeake, lapping over the Virginia border into North Carolina“. [9] Specifically, Washington got emotionally attached to a land development schemes that required draining the Great Dismal Swamp, converting it into farm homesteads (the Swamp is near Portsmouth/Virginia Beach south into North Carolina). Washington invested several years of trips, investigations, surveys, and eventually purchased land and made investments in the Swamp project. As ,mean-spirited a location as I can think of, Washington was intrigued. He formed a land development company, attractively named “Adventurers for the Draining of the Dismal Swamp“.-

Only a true economic developer could be attracted to such a hopeless endeavor, and attract so much significance to it. It did become evident after a couple of years that draining swamps  wherever one finds them, was a fruitless endeavor, and he adjusted his business plan to clearing land of its cypress trees, planking them and sending them to Mount Vernon for additional processing and manufacture as shingles. Methinks Ebeneezer Scrooge would have liked this fellow? In any case this was the start of a lifelong commitment to projects involving the Swamp. His last, and most successful, was a post-Revolutionary War canal project on the coastal areas which eventually got constructed (with the U.S. Supreme Court’s confirmation that its financing involved the first state tax abatement of the Early Republic). Today, it is the first few miles of the well-known Inter-coastal Waterway–where I suspect many camp on its shores thinking they are sleeping in a place where George Washington slept.

The Veterans Land Claim

In any event, during the mid 1760’s Washington got diverted from his western interior land development schemes and did not return to them until the late 1760’s. What sparked his interest in Dinwiddie’s old land grant was in 1769, the Burgesses passed legislation requiring the colony provide lists of all veterans who had applied, and what they applied for (land grants). The old Dinwiddie land grant to veterans immediately crashed into its and his agenda. Much of that land was in western Virginia, in Fincastle County (Kentucky), and area presumably included in Crawford’s earlier described project. Washington, the commander of the Virginia regiment in which many-most of the veterans fought, lobbied to establish his personal eligibility for a land grant, To this end Washington met with as many officers as possible and submitted a petition to the Burgesses requesting that the land grant be made (despite the Proclamation Act], specified the location and boundaries, and that officers were eligible. The petition was approved and  in 1770 Virginia’s rather new Governor Botetourt concurred.The legislation provided 15,000 acres for each officer, and 400 for each private. Washington, fearing that other colonies and the British might contest the land grant (and also the Board of Trade), quickly assembled eligible soldiers at a meeting and secured an understanding that he would conduct a formal expedition and survey and the soldiers would pay their share of the costs of the survey and allocation plan that would follow. Washington followed up by having the Governor appoint William Crawford as surveyor of the project No conflict of interest there! [10].

1770 Veteran Land Grant Map Submitted 1774

His travels into the interior with Crawford to survey and allocate the veterans land grant produced more controversy than one usually associates with George Washington. In the Fall of 1770, Crawford  Over the three years, he would assume the lead position and responsibility for preparing maps, surveying parcels from on which allocation of land grants were to be made.

The final product was formally submitted to claimants in 1774. Initially the maps looked fine, but onsite it became apparent to some that Washington had laid claimed to the best patents/claims. Several were irate and complained to him. Washington did not deny he had excellent parcels. The question was why he had gotten “the cream” parcels? The answer?

On Oct 5, 1770, while Crawford was working on site,  Washington and his personal friend and doctor, James Craik set out by canoe from Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh). Claiming to be engaged in recreational hunting, they ventured into the earmarked territory at the junction of the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers. the midst of Crawford-related territory. They joined up and over the next three years conducted a series of expeditions in the area–and other territory as well. The last venture in 1774 consumed nine weeks. On the scent of western lands and future profits, Washington became had become obsessed: “If Washington worked tirelessly to develop the swamp, he was like a man possessed in his efforts to secure the bounty land he believed he had been promised [by Dinwiddie, even though it was always unclear whether the land grants were eligible to officers] … he realized he had to act quickly, for not only were Virginians and Pennsylvanians  certain to vie for the land, but [feared the land might be the location of a proposed British settlement for a new colony] [11]. Washington set up with his own team and inspected and surveyed the relevant territory. Washington through his surveyor, William Crawford, almost certainly set aside the prime acreage for himself and allocated the remainder to his soldiers and officers. He claimed–and eventually purchased– nearly 20,000 acres for himself (although eligible for only 15,000 Washington apparently got some veterans to sell their claim to him). The Library of Congress reports that of the  64,000 acres surveyed on the Map, over 19,000, over 30% were patented in Washington’s name. In a 1774 letter Washington himself referred to these patents “as the Cream of the Country … the first choice of it …and bounded thereby for 58 miles[12]

Washington defended his actions and position by claiming it was his leadership and influence, and he took the physical risk of surveying that made it all possible. In effect, he simply assert it was his right to take the prime parcels: “If it had not been for my unremitting attention to every favorable circumstance, not a single acre of land would ever have been obtained[13]. For its day, this was a public relations disaster, and it exploded just as Washington was taking over command of the new Continental Army. From our perspective, we can see Washington could easily convince himself that his personal profit and the larger and moral interest were one and the same. In some cases this will prove a reasonable argument, but not in this case. The timing, literally on the eve of the Continental Congress (September, 1774), of which Washington himself would be the presiding officer couldn’t have been worse–and the conflict of interest couldn’t have been more obvious, whatever the rationale. Washington’s personal reaction today would be characterized mildly as bullying and shaming the complainants.

Certainly, the forty-two year old Washington in 1774 had for over a decade engage in land development projects, bought tens of thousands of western acres, and had devoted considerable sums and huge swatches of time on a goodly number of expeditions in hostile, dangerous and difficult wilderness territory. A great deal of all of this contravened the law of the land, the Proclamation Act, and it is certainly correct that his net worth, considerable, as it was, lacked cash liquidity–he was “land poor” in the sense many Americans today are “house poor”. He had sunk a fortune and committed himself and his Mount Vernon estate to a business strategy that was at the moment, illegal–profits could not be achieved because he could not deliver a clear legal title to whom it sold the land. So the land accumulated in his portfolio, unsold. This some will claim is the “dog” Washington had in the fight for American independence. He was far from alone on this vulnerability. Many of those who would become Founding Fathers were engage in varying degrees to similar land development adventures (Benjamin Franklin, many Virginian revolutionaries including Patrick Henry, and no less than Robert Morris of Philadelphia, allegedly America’s wealthiest man, and future financier of the American Revolution. One could also say much the same about John Hancock whose wealth was in shipping and smuggling.

Like it or not, Washington et al., and Donald J. Trump shared some business practices. They were Founding Fathers, not necessarily saints or role models. One suspects on one level they all could have benefited from Jacob Marley and any of the several Dickens’s ghosts that followed. On another level or perspective, it could be argued that American land developers–the prime path to personal wealth, social status, and even political influence in the American colonies–were sandbagged unfairly by the Proclamation and Stamp Acts. For the most part their activities and role had been not only widespread throughout the colonies and across economic classes–but were perfectly legal according to the white man’s law (until 1763). This economic gazelle accelerated in the middle 18th century fueled by hordes of potential clients, the ethnic immigrants, who descended on their properties to achieve their American Dream.

The Canal Project

Upon his return from an extended 1774 trip into Maryland, Pennsylvania and Ohio hinterlands, Washington personally proposed to the House of Burgesses that at public expense a passageway be installed along a specified route into the hinterland.  The rivers were the James and Kanawha, and the passageway required canals and canal locks, as well as dredging and clearance. That project would be too expensive was the reaction of Burgesses delegates. So Washington immediately countered with an amended proposal that the Legislature empower private individuals through a state chartered corporation to conduct the enterprise. Washington’s proposed route, ignored the Potomac where he himself had heavily invested) but the James could reach to the veterans land grant territory and the watershed of the James included a greater number of Burgesses districts. This time northern Virginia (Potomac-based) legislators opposed his amendment.

So a final bill was drafted to include the Potomac River–but it never made it to the vote [14]. The amendment, it appears had the votes to assure passage, but the session term expired–which requires additional explanation which we will provide shortly. It might be added, there is no mention in the public record of that session of Burgesses that a formal motion had been filed on this matter. Likely, as we shall see, it was not. Washington was there and he did address the session–badly as several diaries have indicated. But the topic is not mentioned. The obvious question this raises is why then, and, certainly why at all does the canal infrastructure rises to center stage. It seems to have come out of the “blue”, and canals and river passageways have not been mentioned in our land development discussion.

Although we cannot be certain how long river passageways and canals had been in George Washington’s mind–and business plan–there are some who endorse it was always there. John Pickell asserts, without footnote, that they were discussed by Washington when he talked with Governor Dinwiddie concerning Washington’s expedition to negotiate with the French in 1754 [15]. In any event, the basic geographical reality he confronted was that America’s Atlantic coastal rivers flowed from high in the Appalachian Mountains to its coastal port cities (west to east–from high to low). As one might suspect, rivers also flowed from the westward side of the Appalachians, which meant extending the project scope to include a different river system that flowed into the interior–and frequently touched the mother-of-all American rivers: the Mississippi. One had to connect at least two river systems to penetrate into the interior.

No longer are we talking about a private land development scheme in the remote wilderness, we are now engaged in a public-private, very visible and expensive infrastructure project. The first recorded action I was able to find by Washington on rivers and passage to the West, was a letter to Maryland planter and oligarch Thomas Johnson (he was seven years later to be Maryland’s governor) in which Washington argued the case the Potomac should become a channel of commerce “between Great Britain and that immense territory, a tract of country which is unfolding to our view the advantages of which are too great and too obvious“. In effect, since the Potomac had a different state on each side of the river, he was proposing that a bi-colony initiative be commenced. Washington commenced the correspondence because, on filing a bill in that year in the Burgesses, he discovered that a technicality in the original charter of Maryland placed the Potomac entirely in the state of Maryland. Overtures to Maryland were rebuffed because of a loud and unhappy Baltimore delegation [16].

The obvious common sense answer to which is that in 1750 and thereafter, rivers were the highways of the day–and the land grants, and land claims followed the path of navigable rivers. Without river access a land grant was worthless. Rivers flow in one direction, in Virginia from west to east–to the Atlantic, from the Appalachian Mountains (on both sides, of course). At certain points rivers climb creating rapids and rocky sometime unnavigable sections. This occurs along what we have refereed to as the Fall Line, for examples. Canals are an ancient technology, as were locks. Accordingly, the easy answer is that rivers and canals were always a part of the land development scheme, but more along the lines as phase II.

Certain it is that  from this time {Dinwiddie’s meeting][the canal] remained a favorite project of Washington, and that he lost no good opportunity to bring it prominently forward. He discussed it repeatedly with his friends, referred to it in his letters, , and published in the colonial gazette extracts from his journals bearing on the subject. with a view of arousing public interest on the project.. … When  Washington made his western tour in 1774, he was surprised to find the change that had recently taken place in the valley of the Ohio… and believing the conditions to be ripe for legislative action, Washington brought the subject before the House of Burgesses at its regular session in 1774 [17].

The ED project that stirred his juices, as he wound-down his military obligations during the Peace negotiations, was his long-neglected Potomac/James Rivers DTIS opening Virginia’s hinterland. By that point a combined river and canal system extending deep into (West) Virginia seemed the only feasible mode of transportation. As the largest Potomac River landowner, he wanted such  a canal to open up western hinterlands for economic growth, population migration, and his personal profit. As a younger man in the 1770’s he advocated the James River and the construction of a Kanawha Canal. The James, wholly in Virginia, was the easier route because Pennsylvania’s/Maryland’s cooperation, required for a Potomac venture was uncertain.

The idea of a single canal up, over, and down the Appalachian was dead on arrival. So the James River, Kanawha or Patowmack Canal is a bit of a misnomer. Canals were employed only in troubled spots; for the most part, the river itself was used. With a few exceptions, one major, when we refer to a canal it was a hybrid river/canal system from the start–and remained so for its entire existence (although in later years rail could substitute for canal). Canals were necessary to deal with trouble spots on the river, which for the most part occurred around the infamous “Fall Line”. As rivers descended, they often encountered areas in which the descent was more rugged and dramatic, while in most other areas the descent did not create insurmountable problems.

The Fall Line was obvious a stretch of geography which ran along the entire mountain chain where the descent was dramatic, causing rapids, rocky interrupted waterways, and extremely shallow depths. Portage, avoided the river entirely, and carrying boats and cargo on one’s back was the usual recourse to the Fall Line. For this reason a series of small urban centers ran from Pennsylvania to Georgia along the Fall Line (for the James, it was Richmond); they were “break-bulk” transshipment centers where one switched from one vehicle to another and where cargoes had to be transferred manually. The Patowmack project also had to at minimum overcome this Fall Line issue. Canal and lock technology, imperfect and relatively expensive, was on the whole questionable for the Virginia Fall Line in 1770. Instinctively, Washington sensed, even then, he was proposing to travel to the moon without a rocket ship. That topic, transportation innovation and technology development, was the second introductory module of this history: the steamboat.

By 1770’s Washington felt he was at the point that phase II had to be tackled. In 1774 he tried yet again. To prove a point that Washington was a businessman and not a professional politician, his attempt to bring the matter to 1774 Burgess was incredibly bad, obviously bad timing. The American colonies, certainly Virginia was in an uproar over the imposition of the Intolerable Acts over the City of Boston. On the first day of the session, the Burgesses approved a motion to set aside a day of fasting, Humiliation and prayer” in support of the Bostonian resistance. That did it for Governor Dunsmore, who on the second day, shut the session down, and locked the doors. The Burgess then went to its usual haunt, a tavern, and voted to create a colony-level Non-Importation Association (all of which will be discussed in future modules)–Washington voted favorably in all these actions. The Delegates then agreed to an August meeting, which when held became the First Revolutionary Convention–a reconstituted House of Burgesses into a state legislature–the first of five. Five and one half months later, hostilities erupted at Lexington and Concord.

In the immediate aftermath, all sorts of Indian and political troubles intervened, and oh yes, the Revolutionary War was fought. The in question land remained largely untouched, and America was at war until 1784. When the War end, George Washington returned to Mount Vernon and to his canal and river projects. He wasted no time–he actually began his initiatives while he was still commander in chief in New York–that is where our first introductory module of this history commenced. This module is its prequel.

Happily for us, the George Washington that came back home in 1783 was not the same Washington that left in 1774. In the meantime, he became the Father of our Country.


[1] John E. Ferling, the First of Men (University of Tennessee Press, 1988), pp. 1-19

[2] John E. Ferling, the First of Men, p. 42, p. 51, p. 62, pp. 76-78

[2a] Douglas Southall Freeman, Washington (Simon & Schuster, 1995), abridgment by Richard Harwell, p. 15

[3] John E. Ferling, the First of Men, p. 14

[4] John E. Ferling, the First of Men, pp. 51-2

[5] John E. Ferling, the First of Men, pp. 64-9

[6] [A. M. Sakolski, the Great American Land Bubble (Martino Publishing, 2011), p. 5

[7] John E Ferling, The First of Men, p. 70


[9] John E Ferling, The First of Men, p. 71

[10] See the tale a retold by Bruce Bueno De Mesquita & Alastair Smith, the Spoils of War: Greed, Power and the Conflicts that Made our Greatest Presidents (Public Affairs, 2016), pp. 30-6

[11] John Ferling. First of Men, pp. 71-2


[13] David Hackett Fisher & James C. Kelly, Bound Away, pp. 167-8; see also Ferling, First of Men, pp. 73

[14] Wayland Fuller Dunaway, History of the James River and Kanawha Company (Columbia University Press, 1922), p. 12.

[15] John Pickell, A New Chapter in the Early Life of Washington: Concerning  a New Connection with the Narrative History of the Potomac Company (Palata Press, 2015, Classic Reprint),p. 24

[16] Joel Achenbach, the Grand Idea: George Washington’s Potomac and the Race to the West (Simon & Schuster, 2004), p. 39

[17] Wayland Fuller Dunaway, History of the James River and Kanawha Company (Columbia University Press, 1922), pp. 11-12