In An Unpublished Letter, Written Just Two Weeks After Returning From War, George Washington Turns From Public to Private Affairs, Managing His First Land Acquisition West of the Allegheny Mountains

An increasingly uncommon completely handwritten letter of Washington, with a free frank, showing Washington's vision in early land speculation in what was then the American frontier.

He writes a noted newspaper publisher that his advertisement for leasing his property should make clear that he is the sole owner

George Washington had a 1,644–acre tract of land, called Washington’s Bottom, on the Youghiogheny River in western Pennsylvania. This was his first land acquisition west of the Allegheny Mountains, a...

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In An Unpublished Letter, Written Just Two Weeks After Returning From War, George Washington Turns From Public to Private Affairs, Managing His First Land Acquisition West of the Allegheny Mountains

An increasingly uncommon completely handwritten letter of Washington, with a free frank, showing Washington's vision in early land speculation in what was then the American frontier.

He writes a noted newspaper publisher that his advertisement for leasing his property should make clear that he is the sole owner

George Washington had a 1,644–acre tract of land, called Washington’s Bottom, on the Youghiogheny River in western Pennsylvania. This was his first land acquisition west of the Allegheny Mountains, a remarkable moment in the life of the budding land owner.  He obtained the tract in 1768, and first visited it in 1770. In need of a settler to hold the tract against squatters and to begin clearing it for profitable cultivation, Washington was pleased in the fall of 1772 to receive a letter from Gilbert Simpson, Jr., son of the reliable man who for many years rented land from him on Clifton’s Neck at Mount Vernon, proposing a partnership to develop Washington’s Bottom. Washington would provide the land; Simpson his personal services as manager; and both an equal amount of slaves (this was eight years before Pennsylvania abolished slavery), livestock, and supplies. “I should think it my greatest duty,” Simpson told Washington, to act in this business “with the utmost Care and honesty…I make no doubt but it would in a five years add something worthwhile to your Fortune and a Reasonable…good living to my Self.” Articles of agreement between the two men were promptly signed, with Simpson getting a 600 acre farm out of the tract. A gristmill on the property was completed in 1775 at a cost of about £1,000.

However, Washington soon had reason to regret the agreement, for the partnership almost from the start proved to be more troublesome than profitable to him. Simpson did clear some land, build a cabin and outbuildings, plant crops, and eventually secure several tenants for various parts of the tract. Nevertheless, he sent to Mount Vernon not profits, but a flood of excuses, a remarkable self-pitying litany of troubles: bad weather, bad health, bad times, and a shrewish wife. Simpson was a careless manager who knew only one art well: that of ingratiating himself with a studied humility and professions of good intentions, while feathering his own nest.

Simpson’s excuses, his remoteness from Mount Vernon, and the unavoidable neglect of Washington’s personal affairs during the Revolution all combined to stay the day of reckoning for the partnership. Adding to Washington’s displeasure was word that came to him that Simpson was making lots of money from the mill, yet he was remitting little to Washington.

In February, fresh from his return from war, he wrote Simpson, “Having closed all my transactions with the public, it now behooves me to look into my own private business, no part of which seems to call louder for attention than my concerns with you….How profitable our partnership has been, you best can tell;& how advantageous my Mill has been, none can tell so well as yourself. If however I am to credit the report, not only of one, but every body from that country, I ought to have a good deal of wealth in your hands, arising from the produce of it; because all agree, that it is the best Mill, & has had more custom than any other on the west side the Allegheny mountains; I expect something very handsome therefore from that quarter. I want a full settlement of this Account from the beginning, clearly stated. I also require a full & complete settlement of our Partnership accounts, wherein every article of debit is to be properly supported by vouchers; & the sums received to be mentioned for what, & from whom they were received. In a word I expect every thing relating to the partnership…The world does not scruple to say that you have been much more attentive to your own interest than to mine. But I hope your Accounts will give the lie to these reports, by showing that something more than your own emolument was intended by the partnership; & that you have acted like an honest, industrious and frugal man for the mutual interest of us both, which will justify the opinion I entertained of you at the time of our Agreement, & would be complying with the conditions & professed intention of our associating together.” These were harsh words for Washington, ones he seldom used, but he was clearly fed up and angry at being treated, as he suspected, dishonestly. By demanding a “settlement,” he was dissolving the partnership.

Simpson defended himself in a long letter dated April 27, and asked for time to be able to sell his share of the assets. But Washington had left Mount Vernon on the day before to travel to Philadelphia to preside at the first meeting of the Society of the Cincinnati, which was held May 4–18, 1784. He received Simpson’s letter in May. On July 10, Washington responded to Simpson setting out the terms for the dissolution of their partnership. In the meantime Washington prepared an advertisement, dated June 24, 1784, announcing that on September 15, at the site, Simpson’s farm would be offered for lease and that Washington’s share of the effects would be offered for sale. The ad was inserted into the Maryland Journal in Baltimore.  The ad that was printed indicated “pasture and tillage…quality of the soil inferior to none in that country and the situation advantageous for a Tavern.”  There were sheep, cattle, hogs, slaves, etc….

That newspaper had an interesting history. In 1762, 22 year old William Goddard opened the first newspaper in Providence, Rhode Island, and the next year began publishing the annual West’s Almanack. A few years later his sister Mary Katherine Goddard joined him, and in 1766 when William went to Philadelphia, she made the print shop a hub of activity.  She added a bookbindery, and in addition to the Gazette and almanac, published pamphlets and occasionally books. She was the first woman publisher in America. In May 1773, William left Philadelphia to start a paper in Baltimore, the Maryland Journal and the Baltimore Advertiser, which was the first newspaper in that city. Mary followed him, and moving to Baltimore, she once more became active in her brother’s newspaper. Mary Katherine Goddard officially assumed the title of publisher of the Maryland Journal and the Baltimore Advertiser.  She put “Published by M.K. Goddard” on the masthead on May 10, 1775, the first woman in America to place her name before the public as publisher. She ran the newspaper until January 1784, when William resumed his role as publisher. A few months later William received this letter from Washington.

When you are dealing with someone you do not trust, precautions are always best. So here, Washington wanted readers of the advertisement, and who might be familiar with the property, to be under no misapprehension that Simpson had an ownership interest. He wrote a supplemental ad, pointing out clearly that Simpson had no ownership in any of the property being sold in the September 15 sale.  Thus this remarkable and unpublished letter setting this out. Autograph letter signed, Mount Vernon, July 13, 1784, to Goddard. “Be so good as to insert the enclosed advertisement in the Maryland Journal twice – in different weeks. Ingraft the postscript, and the part which is upon the margin into the body of the advertisement so as that it may appear a continuation, attending however in the order of them to the circumstance of Mr. Simpson’s having no interest but in the farm of 600 acres & the stock thereon. Please to let me know what I am to pay for the insertion of this, and the former advertisement, & the amount that is to be paid to you, or your order.” On the verso is the address panel addressed to “Mr. Goddard, Printer of the Maryland Journal, Baltimore,” along with Washington’s free franked signature. So this piece has two fine signatures of Washington.  It also has the docket of William Goddard, who has written “to be inserted in our next – first page.”

Washington’s completely handwritten letters are becoming increasingly uncommon, this being the first we have had in the past few years.

Washington retained the land until his death.

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