ON CHRISTMAS EVE, 1783, George Washington returned to Mount Vernon, which he called “this retreat from all my public employments.” He had heard nothing about the affairs of the Dismal Swamp Company for more than nine years; yet he still trusted that those “sunken lands … will in time become the most valuable property in this Country.”
The first reports on the company were bad. They came to Washington from Dr. Thomas Walker, who in turn heard them from David Jameson. By express messenger Jameson warned that people were taking warrants at the Land Office in Richmond, encroaching on the company’s grant. He urged Walker to seek legal advice from Thomas Jefferson. Walker promised to do so. They must act quickly to protect the company’s title. There was talk in Richmond of cutting a canal through the Dismal Swamp to connect the Elizabeth River in Virginia with the Pasquotank River in North Carolina, creating a waterway between Chesapeake Bay and Albemarle Sound. Walker wrote to Washington: “the Company having Shewed the value of those Lands, many are so mean as to wish for what is undoubtedly their property”—that is, the partners’ property. The next year, one of the men who had taken warrants with his eye on “a large Tract” in the Dismal Swamp made the mistake of calling at Mount Vernon to seek Washington’s approval of running a survey in the swamp. Washington gave his opinion “unreservedly, that they had no right to.” General Washington spoke “unreservedly” only on special occasions.
Jameson and Walker had taken earlier precautions. They paid property taxes and in October 1781 obtained an act of the General Assembly confirming the company’s title to all land granted it by the colonial Council. The partners must file a survey in the Land Office, as they had promised twenty years earlier to file one in Secretary Nelson’s office. After several delays, county surveyors marked the boundaries of the company’s 40,000 acres in the summer of 1783. With some deviations on the western side, the lines formed a rough rectangle without its northwestern corner. Beginning about a mile and a half east of the road from Suffolk into North Carolina, the line ran eastward along the boundary dividing North Carolina from Virginia for about 5¼ miles. It ran due north just east of Lake Drummond for 14 miles, then west for about 3½ miles. From that point it ran southwestward to meet the western boundary about 11 miles north of the North Carolina line. These lines enclosed all of Lake Drummond and most of the northwestern quadrant of the Dismal Swamp. Dismal Plantation and the ditch to Lake Drummond lay about halfway down the western side of the company’s tract. Suffolk lay just northwest of the missing corner of the rectangle.
David Jameson tried to assemble a quorum of partners in Richmond on Wednesday, November 5, 1783, hoping to get a decision about whether to file this survey with the Land Office and rest content with 40,000 acres or to press a claim to all the swamp in Virginia. Few partners gathered on the appointed day. Those present agreed to confine the company’s holdings to the bounds of the survey. Jameson wrote apologetically to Samuel Gist: “I fear we shall not be able to support a claim to more—in truth if the matter is brought before a Court I wish we may be able to support our right to that quantity.”
Dr. Walker did not fear courts. He said: “Lawyers are fond of Business on which I suppose their opinions are founded.” He had won an important case in May. The Supreme Court of Appeals unanimously confirmed the titles of the Loyal Company and the Greenbrier Company to lands surveyed before 1776. Walker’s bygone “secret Surveys,” which everyone seemed to know about, were upheld.
Prodded by Samuel Gist, in search of payment for his past shipments to the Dismal Swamp Company and remittance of profits, David Jameson worked to interest his partners in revival and expansion of the work. He found this difficult. George Washington showed a keen concern for the company’s success and for the proposed new canal. Yet, twenty years after first embracing a scheme to drain the swamp, he realized that “a considerable advance” of money beyond regular expenses still would be needed to “reclaim” the submerged acres and “render them fit for cultivation.” He could not add to his present expenditures. Jameson wrote to Secretary Thomas Nelson, who was nearing his seventieth birthday, to remind him that he had owed the company one more slave since 1765. In 1771 the partners had imposed a charge of £7 per year on anyone failing to provide a full complement of slaves. Jameson called upon Nelson to pay the arrears of this fee—almost £150—to defray expenses of a survey and of getting title from the Land Office. Nelson said he had “no money,” but he had an old bond for £100, signed by Dr. Walker on May 10, 1771, promising to repay Nelson for money advanced to the mother-in-law of Walker’s son, John. Bernard Moore, the father-in-law, was supposed to redeem the bond. Though Moore was insolvent, if Jameson could get money from him the company was welcome to it. If not, Dr. Walker of course was liable.
From David Meade, Jameson received an opinion that the Dismal Swamp Company was “in a state of Bankruptcy,” a view Jameson refused to share. One copy of his circular letter seeking to revive the company went to Rosewell. John Page, trying to ward off vertigo, still felt angry at his late father for sticking him with a failed copper mine and a half-share in the Dismal Swamp Company in lieu of a rich plantation. In search of more income, he advertised land in Gloucester County for sale, lease, or rent. He was not likely to make new investments in the Dismal Swamp.
Robert Tucker’s share in the Dismal Swamp Company remained part of his estate, in the hands of his son-in-law, Thomas Newton, Jr. He stood ready to help Jameson protect the company’s title. But he could hardly be expected to sink his own money into Tucker’s estate, which of course still owed more than it held in assets. Newton offered for sale 170 acres adjoining Portsmouth, site of the ruins of Tucker’s mill and bakery among remains of British and American fortifications.
John Lewis, executor of Fielding Lewis’s estate, found himself in a predicament similar to Newton’s when he received Jameson’s letter. George Washington would not sell their jointly held land, yet the estate bore a heavy burden of debt. Early in 1784, John Lewis’s half brother, Fielding Lewis, Jr., was held in confinement by the sheriff of Frederick County at the suit of unpaid creditors. The younger Lewis wrote to his uncle, George Washington, asking for money. In reply he received a lecture on the virtues of being sober and frugal.
Joseph Hornsby was prosperous when he received Jameson’s letter. Between April 1781 and April 1784 he entered at the Land Office for 4,800 acres in Kentucky, south and east of Louisville. He displayed his success in Williamsburg most clearly in February 1783 after the death of Elizabeth Harrison Randolph, widow of Speaker Peyton Randolph. Hornsby bought the Randolph house for £1,800 in currency. His partners in the Dismal Swamp Company, Jameson and William Nelson, Jr., witnessed the sale and deed. Thereafter, Hornsby walked among rooms paneled in pine and oak, formerly a gathering place of Virginia’s greatest men since the days when the elder William Byrd returned to Virginia from London. Decorative touches “in the Chinese taste” along the balustrade and elsewhere made this two-story frame house one of the most admired in Williamsburg. But despite his new comfort, Hornsby did not respond to hints that he should furnish money needed to get the Nansemond County surveyor’s signature on the company’s survey.
William Nelson, Jr., with his brother, Nathaniel, inherited President William Nelson’s share in the Dismal Swamp Company. The younger William had his father’s good humor without his father’s application to business or desire for power. He served the company’s interest as he served his own—intermittently, with good intentions. In September 1782, three years after he graduated from the College of William and Mary, Nelson was licensed to practice law. The following winter his wife, Polly Taliaferro Nelson, gave birth to their first child, a daughter. With the baby Betsey and “the pure, the modest, my affectionate Polly,” Nelson found “perfect happiness.” A sentimental lawyer, he did not aspire to rise to the top of his profession. He liked to read literature and philosophy amid “the calmness of the Lyceum.” He was a loving husband, a loyal friend, and an inefficient partner.
The early months of 1784 brought Virginia another stormy, bitterly cold winter like the one four years earlier. In the lower James River, “great Quantities of Ice driving up and down” sank ships. Trees did not begin to bud until late in April. Slaves on Dismal Plantation went without meat after the company’s hogs were killed by black people from other plantations and by bears and wildcats from the swamp. Jameson told Jacob Collee to buy pork to maintain the usual allowance. Early in the harsh winter two of the company’s absent slaves, Tom and Lewis, who had been “lying out” for a long time, were locked up. These two skilled evaders came into Collee’s custody at almost the same time. Apparently, the winter was too cold for them to remain free as fugitives.
Though Jameson’s appeals to his partners yielded little, he refused to dismiss the Dismal Swamp Company as a failure. Clinging to its original scheme, he concluded that success required a large infusion of slave labor to drain the swamp. He talked with “surveyors and several others well acquainted with the swamp.” They told him that effective drainage would need “a very great force” of laborers—one hundred slaves digging ditches “throughout in certain directions.” The company had eleven adult male slaves, two of whom, enduring winter confinement to get shelter and food, would not stay on, much less work on, Dismal Plantation.
Having learned that his partners “cannot or will not advance any thing like a sum necessary to prosecute the work,” Jameson put the question to Samuel Gist. Would Gist lend £5,000 or £6,000 sterling to the Dismal Swamp Company? For collateral he could have a mortgage on 40,000 acres of swamp. In words reminiscent of William Byrd’s first proposal more than fifty years earlier, Jameson described to Gist the “healthy young men & women” the partners could put in the swamp to work and to produce more slaves through childbirth, thereby remedying the “great oversight” of originally ignoring Byrd’s advice to combine procreation with drainage.
Appealing to Gist’s vanity, Jameson wrote that Gist might “easily procure” the needed sum if he did not wish to furnish it from his own funds. Appealing to Gist’s greed, Jameson said: “it is shameful to let an Estate of such value lie waste.” But he tempted in vain. By the summer of 1784 he saw that the best the company could do was “hiring at least ten strong hands for the year.” He told William Nelson, Jr., that “there was not a chance” of buying slaves.
Ever since Samuel Gist had established himself as a consignment merchant in London, he had provoked criticism in Virginia. Though his hostility to the American Revolution was widely known, his property in Virginia evaded escheat, thanks to the special law vesting it in his daughter. She and her husband intended to join Gist in London. His Petersburg agent, Thomas Shore, already had done so. Gist’s dunning letters seeking payment of old debts started to arrive in Virginia in 1784. In the autumn the House of Delegates debated a bill to end further confiscations of loyalists’ estates. Some “warm” delegates threatened to seize Gist’s property on the grounds that in 1782 delegates had been “deceived by Mr. Anderson, who they insist holds it for Mr. Gists use.” In September the Virginia Gazette, or, the American Advertiser published an unsigned defense of Gist, presented as a letter from London, urging readers: “Ship your tobacco to him, for my sake; persuade your relations to do so, and advise your friends to do it for their own advantage.” The letter described Gist’s “friendship and generosity,” assuring Virginians that, among all the tobacco merchants in London, “Mr. Gist is the only one whose benevolence, whose humanity, and whose integrity I can speak of with truth and confidence.” The letter could hardly have praised him more highly if he had written it himself. Gist’s property again escaped confiscation, and some planters, Robert Beverley among them, consigned tobacco to him.
A few weeks after the date of the London letter in the Gazette, Gist testified before the Royal Commission for Enquiring into the Losses, Services, and Claims of the American Loyalists. He supported Thomas Macknight’s request for compensation for his lost property in North Carolina. Since this included the Campania Company’s claim to part of the Dismal Swamp, Gist appeared as an expert witness able to set a value on land in the swamp. He told the commissioners that he had been “a Joint proprietor of the whole of that part of the Swamp wch was in Virginia.”
Experience with American loyalists made the commissioners cautious. They asked whether 2,000 acres of the Dismal Swamp would sell for sixpence per acre. Gist assured them that it would sell for “a great deal more.” He said that in 1774 he would have been “puzzled” to decide whether to accept an offer of five shillings per acre for his share of the Dismal Swamp Company’s grant. The commissioners asked what made the swamp so valuable—the soil or the timber growing on it? Gist replied: “the Timber is rather an Incumbrance.” He estimated the value of the soil as almost 90 percent of the value of a tract in the Dismal Swamp. Gist had known Macknight twenty years earlier, while both of them were in America. Gist did not hold the Campania Company’s futile attack on the Virginians against the luckless Scot. He tried in his testimony to induce the British government to pay more for land in the Dismal Swamp than anyone in Virginia or North Carolina ever had paid. Gist intended to apply for compensation himself, on the grounds that the state of Virginia had taken his property from him and given it to his daughter.
Leaving the governorship of Virginia in 1779, Patrick Henry wrote: “A long and painful attention to public matters obliges me to go for a while into retirement which is equally necessary to my health, finances and domestic life.” He resumed the office in 1784. A proposal to dig a canal through the Dismal Swamp won his eager support. The spring and summer of 1784 seemed a good time to acquire part of the Dismal Swamp. In cooperation with others he chose 5,000 acres on the eastern side in the Green Sea, the broad tract of tall reeds where few trees grew. For a while Henry carried a few ounces of dirt wrapped in paper, showing it as proof of “the excellent quality of the Green Sea lands.” He wrote: “My Land below is very rich in soil.” The following year he and his associates acquired about 10,000 acres of the swamp in North Carolina. Henry also took more property in and near the swamp on the Virginia side. In 1787 and 1788 he paid taxes on 12,000 acres in Norfolk County. A critic wrote of Henry’s acquisitions: “His Excellency then degenerated into the land-monger.”
Taking out warrants in the Land Office for acres of the Green Sea was easy. Mongering them was not. Residents of Norfolk County knew that the Green Sea was “a low sunken Morass, not fit for any of the purposes of Agriculture, when dry will burn readily, little or no timber.” Henry’s new holdings had “no natural advantages except lying near the Canal” if one ever came. Allowing for some cutting down of nearby cedar trees and some past fires, the expanse of thickly massed green reeds looked much as William Byrd had seen it sixty years earlier.
The Virginia Gazette published on October 2, 1784, an advertisement by Dr. Thomas Walker, summoning partners of the Dismal Swamp Company to meet in Richmond two weeks later “on business of great importance.” In Galt’s Tavern on the appointed day, Walker found only David Jameson and one other member, presumably William Nelson, Jr., who lived in Richmond. Though they were not a quorum, they acted for the company. Three days later, Walker paid fees for the company’s grant of 40,000 acres. A patent for the surveyed land was issued the next day in the names of William and Nathaniel Nelson, devisees of the late William Nelson, the only partner named in the Council’s original grant. The money Dr. Walker paid came from David Jameson. Eager to placate Samuel Gist, Jameson reminded him that such fees and taxes were “not a trifling expence”; the company’s title was now safe. The Nelson brothers made out deeds to other partners, apportioning 40,000 acres according to the number of quarter-shares each person held. Jameson told William Nelson “to make one in the name of Samuel Gist or rather in the name of Mary Anderson (following the act of assembly).”
The Dismal Swamp Company had a new neighbor on the North Carolina side of the line: the Lebanon Company. Hugh Williamson, a Pennsylvanian transplanted in North Carolina, was a delegate to the Continental Congress and a partner in the Lebanon Company. He and his associates claimed 40,000 or 50,000 acres—he left the total vague—adjoining the southern edge of the Dismal Swamp Company’s tract. Unlike James Parker and Thomas Macknight, who had left the land almost undisturbed, Williamson put men to work in the swamp south of Lake Drummond, felling white cedar trees for shingles. Patrick Henry, looking for easy purchases in the swamp, found that “the Lebanon Company hold their lands higher” in value than he had supposed.
As George Washington had done, Hugh Williamson studied the Dismal Swamp closely. He, too, believed that “After the Timber is removed, such land cannot be exhausted by Agriculture.” The two men also agreed—and Williamson urged Washington to use his influence in Virginia—that a canal giving North Carolina’s products a waterway to Norfolk would enrich everyone with an interest in land between Albemarle Sound and the James River.
After his return to Mount Vernon, George Washington often said that his plantations and his affairs lay in disarray. During the war he fretted that his private concerns were “declining every day,” threatening him with “capital losses, if not absolute ruin.” At Mount Vernon his books showed that two-thirds of his Virginia tenants owed him back rent. He grew convinced that, whichever way he turned, people were cheating him.
Anxious to guard both title to and possession of his land along tributaries of the Ohio River, Washington spent the month of September 1784 traveling. With his nephew, Bushrod, his friend, Dr. James Craik, and others he went up the Potomac, along Braddock’s road, down the watershed between the Youghiogheny and Monongahela rivers, to his land west of Pittsburgh. He asked men along the way about the lay of land and watercourses farther west; he took copious notes. On his property he found fourteen families with their houses, barns, and fences—members of the Seceders’, or Associate Presbyterian, Church, who were, he sarcastically noted, “apparently very religious.” They rejected his terms for their purchasing or leasing his land, and he rejected their offer to buy on long credit without paying interest. Having lived there for more than ten years, they said they would “stand suit, & abide the Issue of the Law.” In a Pennsylvania court Washington began ejectment proceedings, which he later won.
Word that Shawnees were attacking settlers who had encroached on their land north of the Ohio convinced Washington to go no farther west. He had to forgo a visit to his tracts along the Ohio and Kanawha rivers. He returned to Mount Vernon by a more southerly route taking him up the Cheat River and across the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge. His trip confirmed his experiences before the war: he had trouble keeping his tracts free of people who would not pay; he did not find enough tenants who would pay on his terms. Learning that strangers were offering his lands for sale in Philadelphia and Europe, he prepared “to take measures for rescuing them from the hands of Land Jobbers & Speculators.”
Completing a tour of 680 miles, Washington reached his home late in the afternoon of October 4. In his diary he wrote a long summary of the information he had gathered about routes and distances. And he put down his thoughts about keeping western settlers attached to the eastern states commercially and politically. He concluded: “The more then the Navigation of Potomack is investigated, & duely considered, the greater the advantages arising from them appear.” His travels showed him that Virginians must act: “A combination of circumstances make the present conjuncture more favorable than any other to fix the trade of the Western Country to our Markets.” The following week he sent his thoughts to Governor Benjamin Harrison. The time had come to revive an enterprise begun before the war.
The Potomac River could become the main channel of western trade only if a canal enabled vessels to pass rocks and rapids at the falls upriver from Mount Vernon. The House of Burgesses had adopted a proposal for a canal in 1772. When people spoke of resuming the project after the war, they linked it with George Washington. Thomas Jefferson wrote in February 1784 that Washington had the Potomac canal “much at heart. The superintendance of it would be a noble amusement in his retirement and leave a monument of him as long as the waters should flow.” Washington wrote many letters to win support for investing in improvement of the Potomac to “draw the produce of the Western Settlers” and “bind those people to us by a chain which never can be broken.” He assured his correspondents: “This is no Utopean Scheme.” A guest at Mount Vernon heard Washington talk about his vision: “The General sent the bottle about pretty freely after dinner, and gave success to the navigation of the Potomac for his toast.… He never undertakes anything without having first well considered of it and consulted different people. But when once he has begun anything, no obstacle or difficulty can come in his way but what he is determined to surmount.”
Virginians also revived their design for a canal around the falls of the James River at Richmond. Although ten years and more had passed since the first subscriptions, prospectuses, and diggings had been proclaimed for the James and Potomac rivers, Washington and his fellow promoters of interlocking routes of waterborne commerce still remembered John Ballendine, entrepreneur of canals in the 1770s. Washington had received warnings that this man was a “Lurking Scoundrel” with “superior Talents” in “the art of being a Villain.” But a chance to open the Potomac route with his help proved too tempting to resist.
After the House of Burgesses voted for canals in 1772, Ballendine announced his intent to tour the great canals of Europe, then bring his new expertise back to Virginia. Creation of a separate western colony, Vandalia, seemed imminent. Virginia must compete with Pennsylvania for its trade. Early in 1773, Ballendine wrote from London to the Virginia Gazette, through a friend, to say that he had acquired “Plans and Models of all the necessary Machines.” He had “engaged several ingenious Mechanicks to go out with me to Virginia.” There was no doubt of passing the falls of the James, and the new proprietors of Vandalia would “contribute largely towards opening both James and Potomack Rivers.” In London, he won the backing of Samuel Gist. Though he failed to raise money by subscription in England, he got from Gist a letter of recommendation saying that Ballendine “has not only been Countenanced by the first People here but has a very handsome Subscrip[tion].” Gist showed his confidence that work would “go on immediately” by furnishing Ballendine on credit tools and equipment worth more than £500.
Gist and the Virginians lost money on Ballendine, who returned to Virginia in the summer of 1774, proclaiming himself “fully qualified” to “remove the obstructions to the navigation of Potowmack river.” Washington and others invested. Though he failed on the Potomac, Ballendine advertised in the fall of 1775 his intent to dig a James River canal, financed by his own capital, in anticipation of “large and generous contributions from all who benefit” after its successful completion. During the war he linked his work with an iron foundry the state needed. He tried to make himself Virginia’s Anthony Bacon, producer of pig iron and cannon at government expense, until Benedict Arnold’s raid on Richmond destroyed his operations. He extracted money from the state for his canal on the grounds that his ironworks needed its water. In four years Ballendine completed only 5 percent of his projected canal. He died deeply indebted to the state. Jefferson, Washington, and other promoters in the 1780s had dealt with Ballendine to their cost. Yet his name vanished as they envisioned new successes.
Eager to begin, they found another entrepreneur in 1784. James Rumsey, a builder and inventor living in Bath, at Berkeley Springs, went to Richmond in the spring to seek the General Assembly’s patronage of his design for a new boat. He said he had conceived a mechanism of paddles, wheels, and underwater poles which would propel a boat upstream, using the force of the current it was moving against. The faster the river’s flow, the faster his boat would go upstream, needing little energy other than that of the current itself. He offered to sell the secret of his invention to the state. The delegates made fun of him.
Early in George Washington’s trip to the forks of the Ohio in September, he stopped at Bath. Rumsey explained his invention, and, swearing Washington to secrecy, showed him a model. Washington admitted he had thought that making a swift current propel a boat upriver was “next to, if not quite impracticable.” Yet the model seemed to work, and he gave the inventor a certificate saying that there was “no doubt” of Rumsey’s success and that “the discovery is of vast importance—may be of the greatest usefulness in our inland navigation.” Rumsey then approached the General Assembly a second time. It voted him a ten-year monopoly on his invention, the state reserving a right to buy it for £10,000. Rumsey wrote to Washington: “I Long to have the Opertunity of Convinceing those that Remain Unbelievers.” He applied to other states and to Congress for protection of his invention.
During Rumsey’s return to Richmond he already was talking about a different kind of boat, one moving against a current using energy from steam. He turned his attention to bringing a steamboat “to the greatest perfection.” Enduring “the pelting of ignorance and ill-nature,” he never perfected his earlier invention. He learned that “dark assassins had endeavoured to wound the reputation” of Washington for having endorsed it. In a pamphlet Rumsey told the public that he would have vindicated his supporters by building successful mechanical boats had not a rival inventor stolen his ideas for a steamboat and tried to obtain a monopoly. Rumsey must defend his latest invention.
In the second week of January 1785, William Nelson, Jr., wrote from Richmond: “Opening a communication with the western-country, by extending the navigation of James River and Potomack, has lately engrossed much of the publick attention here.” A visitor to Mount Vernon the following week listened to George Washington talk at length about the Potomac River and the interior. Washington went to both Richmond and Annapolis, persuading legislators to authorize the projects and fund them with a mixture of public money and private subscriptions. The James River company began with a capital of $100,000, the Potomac Company with $220,000. Dividends for investors were to come from tolls paid by users of the canals. Directors of the Potomac Company advertised for a manager. Meeting on July 1, they found that none of the applicants had furnished “proper Credentials.” Washington suggested to his fellow directors that they consider James Rumsey. The next day he wrote to Rumsey: “I have imbibed a very favorable opinion of your mechanical abilities … I dare say if you are disposed to offer your services, they would be attended to under favourable circumstances.” On July 14 the directors appointed Rumsey manager. Within three months he had “upwards of one hundred hands employed in blowing Rocks &c.”
Promoters of the canal companies also wished to link the upper reaches of rivers flowing into Chesapeake Bay with rivers flowing into the Ohio. If all went as planned, they would reduce land carriage between eastern and western waters to 20 or 30 miles. A British visitor wrote: “the nation which, even in the first years of its political existence, has the genius to form such projects, and the patriotism to dwell upon them with confidence and enthusiasm, has already established the probability of their execution.” Beyond improving commercial and political ties, such channels would swell the flow of people to Kentucky—“this Eldorado”—expecting to find there “the Richest Land in the World.”
After Virginia’s Land Office opened in 1779, Kentucky attracted even more migrants than in previous years. A European traveler said of Americans soon after the war: “they are always jabbering about the distant wonders of other provinces.” As William Byrd had tried to sell his Neu-gefundenes Eden to Europeans, John Filson advertised Kentucky to easterners in 1784. In his account, getting title to land looked easy. He assured his readers: “scarcely any such thing as a marsh or swamp is to be found.” He sent a copy of his book and his map to George Washington, saying: “these Sir I request and presume you will patronise.” Kentucky seized many people’s imaginations. A few years after Filson’s book appeared, Moses Austin watched families passing through Cumberland Gap in December, walking in ice and snow, wearing too little clothing in the cold: “Ask these Pilgrims what they expect when they git to Kentuckey the Answer is Land. have you any. No, but I expect I can git it. have you any thing to pay for land, No. did you Ever see the Country. No but Every Body says it is good land.” A traveler in eastern Virginia in 1785 heard reports of “a new Country Called Kaintuckey … affording almost all the necessities of life Spontaneously.”
Unfortunately for pilgrims, surveys and Land Office warrants and other claims already covered Kentucky, often overlapping. Hardly any tract was free from dispute, and every transaction was open to suspicion. While being duped by land jobbers could happen anywhere in America, Caleb Wallace wrote from Kentucky, “Here it is reduced to a System, and to take advantage of the Ignorance or of the Poverty of a neighbour is almost grown into reputation.” Though a political economist, such as Adam Smith, or a man of affairs, such as George Washington, insisted that in America owning land was a better investment than putting money out at interest, Kentucky showed that ownership was hard to establish; settling property’s value depended upon “opinion, the art of speculating and long credit.” Assessing the results of postwar migration twenty years later, a British traveler wondered how so many people had allowed themselves to be “abused by the dreams of enthusiasts and the falsehoods of knaves,” who had led them “to this ‘Land of Promise.’ ”
In 1781, Virginia offered to cede to the United States its land north and west of the Ohio River. The Continental Congress was slow to accept this cession on Virginia’s terms, which confirmed the state’s title to Kentucky and voided royal grants and purchases from Indians in the ceded region. Such conditions defeated the claims of land companies dominated by speculators from Pennsylvania and Maryland, including promoters of the Vandalia grant before the war. They urged Congress to assert its sovereignty over the west, ignore Virginia’s title, and confirm theirs. Delegates in Richmond in the fall of 1783 heard that most western settlers hoped Congress would set aside Virginia’s authority beyond the mountains, thereby voiding warrants and deeds. These pilgrims were “busied in building Huts on other Peoples Lands.” Congress’s need for revenue through sale of public land, as well as Continental Army veterans’ expectation of grants in the new domain, proved stronger than the companies. Congress accepted the cession on March 1, 1784.
A canal through the Dismal Swamp looked like an easier project than the large undertakings on the James and the Potomac. In his first proposal to drain the swamp, William Byrd listed this commercial connection by canals as one benefit of his scheme. More than forty years later, the Dismal Swamp Company had made little headway in transforming the swamp. When the House of Burgesses approved other canals in 1772, it appointed commissioners to obtain surveys and choose a route for a canal to link the Elizabeth River with the North River, flowing into Currituck Sound. These men represented the borough of Norfolk and counties around it. Among them were Severn Eyre from the Eastern Shore, Lemuel Riddick from Nansemond, Peter Singleton—known as “Czar” in Princess Anne County—and Thomas Newton, Jr., of Norfolk. The committee submitted its report the day before the battle of Bunker Hill.
Before peace with Britain became final, a bill to authorize a canal through the Dismal Swamp appeared in the House of Delegates. A bill for the Elizabeth River–North River route passed in December 1783. Hugh Williamson and his North Carolina associates pressed upon George Washington a different route. Williamson said that getting into Virginia waters from Albemarle Sound by way of Currituck Sound would be “equal to an east India voyage, not quite so long but rather more troublesome.” The course ought to run from the head of Pasquotank River to Lake Drummond, then to a navigable river in Virginia. This would take it through the sectors owned by the Lebanon Company and the Dismal Swamp Company. Washington said he long had thought a canal feasible and desirable; he approved of going by way of Lake Drummond. Washington sent copies of his and Williamson’s letters to Dr. Walker, who sent copies to David Jameson. Jameson said that he supposed a navigable canal would facilitate draining and greatly benefit the public and individuals, “but there is very little probability that our present Compy. will ever engage in it.”
Governor Henry and the Council could not easily find three men willing to go to the Dismal Swamp to choose a course for a canal. Those recommended in January 1785 declined to serve. A few months later, the Council named three friends of the Dismal Swamp Company: William Ronald, Robert Andrews, and David Meade. Meade wrote to Governor Henry, professing to believe that the governor and the councillors did not know that he was a member of the Dismal Swamp Company. Of course, he said, “that connexion evidently interests me in the question, with respect to the course” the canal would follow. Meade added that he had a new route in mind; he would be “obedient to your future commands.” He remained a commissioner. Andrews, who had supervised the survey of the Dismal Swamp Company’s boundary, said he would serve “very cheerfully,” so much did he wish to increase Norfolk’s trade with North Carolina. He believed the canal should run through the Dismal Swamp. Just before the commissioners visited the swamp, “a most tremendous gale” struck the Chesapeake on Thursday, September 22. The storm blew until Saturday. Water in the Dismal Swamp rose and spread, convincing the commissioners a few days later that they “could not take a very particular View of the Ground.”
In October, Meade and Andrews recommended abandoning the route leading into Currituck Sound, pointing out “the great Dangers & Difficulties” in navigating it. A better course ran through the eastern side of the swamp, beginning just south of Portsmouth, passing within three and one-half miles of Lake Drummond, and joining the Pasquotank River north of Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Such a canal, 22 miles long, would lie near but not in the Dismal Swamp Company’s tract. William Ronald presented to the House of Delegates in November a bill designating that course. The delegates deferred legislation until North Carolina was ready to pass a similar law.
Years before digging began, the prospect of a canal encouraged people to look differently at land in and near the Dismal Swamp. The Herberts of Norfolk County, with two associates, announced in 1783 that their 25 acres between the eastern and southern branches of the Elizabeth River had been “laid off into lots and streets for a Town by the name of Washington.” It was “likely to become a place of considerable trade.” Early in 1785 the state offered at auction three hundred lots in Gosport on the opposite bank of the southern branch, telling potential buyers: “the canal proposed to unite the waters of North Carolina, with the Chesapeak, will greatly enhance the value of those lands.” From Paris, Thomas Jefferson replied to Hugh Williamson’s description of the Lebanon Company and the canal route: “I am glad to find you think of me in the affair of the Dismal. It is the only speculation in my life I have decidedly wished to be engaged in. The uniting the navigation of Chesapeak and the sound renders the enterprise so interesting to the public as well as the adventurers that the embarking in it can never admit a reproach.” Jefferson had no doubt that the Lebanon Company and the Dismal Swamp Company would “harmonize in their operations.” He asked Williamson to buy shares in the canal on his behalf.
George Washington wrote to Jefferson, reporting on preparations for Virginia’s canals. Eager for work to begin, Washington nevertheless warned that friends of the Dismal Swamp Canal were “better stocked with good wishes than money.” Might Jefferson find “monied men” in Europe who could “be induced to become adventurers in the Scheme?” After Meade and Andrews reported their chosen route, Washington looked forward to the day when all the canals would be in use: “the conveniences to the Citizens individually, and the sources of wealth to the Country generally, which will be opened thereby will be found to exceed the most sanguine imagination—The Mind can scarcely take in at one view all the benefits which will result therefrom.”
Hugh Williamson and George Washington had studied the Dismal Swamp. Washington estimated that its elevation did not vary more than two feet. He was almost right, the swamp’s surface of peat varying between 15 and 20 feet above sea level. The two men agreed that a canal would need only one lock at the Virginia end to control movement of boats into and out of tidal waters in the Elizabeth River. Williamson concluded that the expense would be “inconsiderable.” After Robert Andrews suggested the need for one lock at each end, Washington disagreed with the locations Andrews chose but not with his estimate of the number. No one guessed that a successful watercourse would require eight locks. Thirty years later, directors of the Dismal Swamp Canal Company, looking back at its early days, regretted that “So little … was then understood of the probable expense & difficulty of cutting a Navigable Canal 22 miles in extent, through a heavy timbered Morass.”
Early in 1783, Virginians seeking to learn whether peace had returned did not wait for slow official news. They watched express messengers come to the Rappahannock, York, and James rivers from Philadelphia and New York. Arriving daily, sometimes hourly, riders brought orders to Virginia agents representing Northern merchants, telling them to buy tobacco. The war had shown how much money could be made from Europeans’ desire for tobacco and Americans’ desire for manufactured goods. Merchants raced to gratify these demands as soon as peace made trade lawful. Instructions to buy tobacco came to Virginia, and vessels sailed from British ports, laden with goods no one had ordered but Americans were sure to buy.
Officially, Virginia shipped 68,000,000 pounds of tobacco in 1783 and an equal amount in 1784. Prices were high, as much as 65 shillings currency for 112 pounds of the best James River leaf. The British government knew that smugglers evading customs duties brought tobacco and other products to “every accessible part of the coast of this kingdom.” In Scotland in 1783 and afterward “vessels arriving directly from Virginia” were “landing their cargoes upon the coast.” British merchants appeared in Virginia—not just old faces from the past but “Strangers” coming to Norfolk from all quarters and “modern adventurers, who now crowd every house and every shed” in Richmond.
These newcomers were selling as well as buying. Before the British government proclaimed the end of fighting, “Verry large Quantitys of dry Goods” left London and other cities for “every Port in America.” Brook Watson went from Lloyd’s to Whitehall to assure the Board of Trade that Americans would continue to buy British goods even if their new government tried to shift their commerce to other countries. He was right. His fellow underwriters, John Ewer and Abraham Hake, estimated that in the winter of 1783–84 more merchandise went from Britain to America than in any two-year period before the war. Through wartime trade and expenditures by the French and British armies and navies, Americans had amassed gold and silver. Virginians’ specie quickly flowed to Britain; their tobacco shipments, though large, covered less than half the cost of their purchases. British merchants marked up goods for high return, but much of the profit on their books was new debt contracted by eager consumers. A veteran merchant in London calculated in the summer of 1784 that “more real value of goods have been Exported from Britain this Season than America will be able to raise of produce for Two years to come.”
One eager young merchant arriving in Virginia was a large Scotsman, Alexander Macaulay. Still in his twenties, he had made money during the war by selling British goods in New York and in Philadelphia during the army’s occupation. Demand for merchandise extended far beyond British lines. By 1780, New York imported at the same volume as in the years before the war. Macaulay already had a record of success when he visited the widow of the retired merchant, Francis Jerdone, in Louisa County in 1782. Macaulay and Sarah Jerdone’s daughter, Elizabeth, were married in December. The couple left for York Town two months later, carrying letters from William and Mary Anderson addressed to Samuel Gist.
Macaulay was in a hurry to get “home” to New York. He feared that his business affairs “may be materially injured By my absence at the present critical Juncture,” as lawful trade resumed. Reaching New York in the spring, he hoped to make money by shipping tobacco from Virginia to Britain. Well read, with a quick wit, he had little leisure to devote to science and the arts. He wrote to a friend: “I am doom’d to act the part of a mere drudge in Business; & not a Philosopher.” The departure of the British left him little reason to stay in New York. In 1784, the year he turned thirty, he moved to Virginia, settling at York Town, where Francis Jerdone long had competed with William Nelson for business. There Macaulay met David Jameson and grew interested in the Dismal Swamp Company.
The expensive carriage with painted copper panels which Samuel Gist shipped to Sarah Jerdone in 1784 caused comment in Louisa County. People said that “a plain one would have done equally well.” Macaulay’s mother-in-law was one of many Virginians whose indulgences showed their love of luxury. British merchants could always rely on “a proper Buckskin” to be “fond of a Little Tinsell.” They had flooded the state with “Feathers, Powder, Umbrellas &c &c &c.” Moralists denounced the spreading influence of “British debts, British goods, British deceptions.” Americans had been seduced into wasting their money and running into debt. In Paris, Thomas Jefferson heard from home that “Extravagance and dissipation has seized all Ranks of People. It has become fashionable to import even Hay from the Northern States and Coffins from Europe.” After winning independence, Americans had restored the bulk of their trade to Britain. Many Virginians resumed the habit of spending more money than they possessed; while others newly experimented with buying more than they could afford. George Washington’s cousin, Warner Washington, produced 100 hogsheads of tobacco a year but claimed to be unable to pay his debts. He “squanders the whole in profuse living.”
Beginning early in 1785, British merchants curtailed shipments of goods. By October, London warehouses were filled with Virginia tobacco. They had no room for hogsheads still in the holds of vessels moored in the river. The price of tobacco fell below 20 shillings per hundredweight. Merchants who rushed to ship goods to America at the return of peace miscalculated the extent of a rise in demand after trade again became lawful. During the war, the flow of merchandise to the usual destinations had found new channels as well as familiar ones. Peace did not suddenly reopen a long-closed door. Instead, it made easy and direct a trade which in wartime had become clandestine and roundabout. Hence, peace did not yield a fortune to everyone shipping goods and importing tobacco.
The Bank, Bank Buildings, Royal Exchange and Cornhill. Courtesy of the Henry E. Huntington Library. The Bank of England is on the left; the front of the Royal Exchange is on the right.
Many Virginians blamed the collapse of tobacco prices on one man: Robert Morris. Serving as superintendent of finance in the war’s last years, Morris had rescued the Continental government from the threat of insolvency, using, in part, his personal credit as a merchant. For peacetime, he formed far grander designs than privateering and running cargoes through the West Indies. He set out to control the sale of tobacco to France.
In April 1785, Morris contracted to supply the state tobacco monopoly of France, the Farmers-General, 20,000 hogsheads per year for three years. The Farmers-General agreed to buy no other American tobacco and advanced Morris 1,000,000 livres, the equivalent of about £670,000 in Virginia currency. The price he charged the French, about 24 shillings per hundredweight, was low. To make a profit he must buy tobacco at a still lower price. His agents offered 20 shillings, not in cash but in Morris’s notes. Though his contract in France was later changed and was not renewed, the price of tobacco remained around 20 shillings through 1787. Since the French were not buying in Britain, merchants there bought less tobacco from Virginians. They took advantage of Morris’s price to lower theirs. Virginians had begun to learn a lesson about Robert Morris which experience already had taught Joshua Johnson, a London merchant in the Chesapeake trade: “I have long known this Mans Commercial Character & I tell you that I never wishd any concerns with him he is a dangerous Friend.”
A glut of tobacco in London—twelve vessels from Virginia arrived in ten days early in August 1784—and a decline in debtors’ remittances as the last gold and silver ran out were followed by a run of stoppages and bankruptcies among merchants trading to America. Several, including Frederick Pigou, Jr., stopped payment in the first week of August. Pigou’s failure “very much surprizes the City in general & it is much to be fear’d many others will follow.” They continued for the next two years. Throughout 1785 tobacco was a drug on the market. Merchants were “tumbling to pieces every day”; bankers looked with suspicion on every man who owed money and who dealt with Americans.
A veteran merchant and underwriter, James Dunlop, went bankrupt in November 1785. Rumor said that his assets would not yield six shillings for each pound of his obligations. In 1775, Dunlop had imported more tobacco than all but four London houses. He had joined Samuel Gist and other London merchants in their wartime memorials to Lord North’s ministry, then to the Marquis of Rockingham’s ministry, urging the government to help merchants collect debts in America. After the war he continued to ship “Cloaths Silks Irish Linens Muslin Hosiery Haberdashery and Millinery Goods.” But remittances in crops or cash were too few or worth too little. He no longer appeared on ’Change.
Samuel Gist imported tobacco in the summer of 1784. He dispatched a new ship, reminiscently named the Planter, to the James River in August. While she was loading for her return voyage, Philip Grymes wrote to Edmund Randolph: “What Tobacco have you for S. G[is]t or is any gone for London? The Planter takes all that can be obtained for him.” Eager for his daughter and son-in-law to come to London, Gist established an income for Mary Anderson: the interest on £10,000—£500 per year. In the spring of 1785, William Anderson auctioned his property in Louisa County, and he and his wife sailed for London, presumably in the Planter, in July. Seventeen years after their elopement they were returning to live on Tower Hill. Gist gave Benjamin Toler instructions about the Virginia plantations the Andersons had preserved from confiscation. Judge Peter Lyons again warned that signs of his “interfering with the Estate here” produced “great clamour” in the House of Delegates, reviving the danger that the state would seize Gist’s property.
While the Andersons crossed the Atlantic, a Virginian from the Eastern Shore sought out Gist at Lloyd’s. Severn Eyre, Jr., had come to London to study medicine. His father, Severn Eyre, and his grandfather, Littleton Eyre, had known Gist in Virginia. The young man expected to derive “many advantages from such a connection” as rich Mr. Gist. To pay his way in London he had brought a bill of exchange for £400 drawn on Donald & Burton by Virginia’s former governor, Thomas Nelson, Jr., who was generous but insolvent. In the crowded subscribers’ room Gist told Eyre that Robert Burton would not accept the bill, and this prediction came true. Gist tried to educate Eyre by telling him that Burton’s partner in Virginia, Alexander Donald, might have promised such an advance to Nelson only to obtain Nelson’s crop of tobacco on consignment, without intending to honor the bill. Gist invited Eyre to dine with him the next day.
During their meal Gist extracted information about Virginia planters from Eyre, while Eyre tried to persuade Gist to lend him £100. Eyre pleaded that without money he would be compelled to give up his hope of becoming a physician and take the first vessel back to Norfolk. Gist said he knew of one that would sail in about a week. Back in his rooms, Eyre wrote of Gist: “you damned old Jew, Turk & infidel, worth upwards of £300,000 & will not lend one hundred to the child of him you call your friend, what do you intend to do with all of your money?” Nevertheless, Severn Eyre did not return to Virginia at once. A merchant gave him an advance. Americans new to London soon saw that “Every Thing is at high Charge in this Country, no Body ashamed to take Money.” Eyre swallowed his resentment and continued his efforts to ingratiate himself with Gist.
A few days after dining with Gist, Eyre went to Drury Lane Theatre to see John Home’s play Douglas, with Sarah Siddons in the role of Lady Randolph. It was a command performance, with the royal family in attendance. The king and queen admired the art of Mrs. Siddons, as everyone called her, who was far advanced in pregnancy. The queen sent her a box of powders of the kind the queen herself took when in that condition. Two weeks later, Eyre returned to Drury Lane and “saw Mrs. Siddons die” in a “soul-harrowing” performance of one of her most celebrated roles, Belvidera in Venice Preserv’d.
At the end of the American War and in the years following, Sarah Siddons established herself as the pre-eminent artist on the London stage. She appeared three times a week in a wide variety of roles. She was “the Empress of Tragedy.” The king told her that he had never caught her in a false emphasis. A French traveler who recalled the greatest tragedienne of the reign of Louis XV said that Mrs. Siddons’s acting reminded him of “les grands talents de l’immortelle Clairon.” Drury Lane Theatre, decorated in crimson and gold, was always crowded. Her Shakespearean parts were Lady Macbeth, Rosalind in As You Like It, Isabella in Measure for Measure, and Desdemona. But audiences praised her most for her tragic heroines in more recent plays: Euphrasia in The Grecian Daughter, and Matilda, the Lady of Saint Valori, in The Carmelite. After seeing her create the latter role, the playwright, Richard Cumberland, said: “Mrs. Siddons was divine, and crown’d with unceasing peals of applause.” A member of the audience wrote: “It seems to be contrived only for Mrs. Siddon’s Powers. She does more Honor to the Author than the Work itself.”
Amid these years of commercial trouble and financial ruin in the City, playgoers were transported by Mrs. Siddons in the title role of Isabella; or, the Fatal Marriage. Edward Gibbon thought it “a wretched play,” but he watched her performance “with the most exquisite pleasure.” She made people weep. Before the curtain rose, women in box seats spread their handkerchiefs on the front railing, in preparation for tears. Her mad scene in the fifth act was “terrifying”: “she appears with the genuine pallor of death, with her hair really dishevelled and her clothing in dire disorder. Her laughter and certain tones of her voice are truly harrowing.” In one audience, “Five ladies were taken out fainting in the last act, and hardly a man could stand it.” Laetitia-Matilda Hawkins later recalled: “Physicians forbade patients to see her in Isabella.”
Mrs. Siddons and Her Son in the Tragedy Of Isabella, J. Caldwell, after William Hamilton. Courtesy of the Henry E. Huntington Library. Sarah Siddons and her son, Henry, in the opening scene of Isabella; or, the Fatal Marriage.
Lady Sarah Napier described herself as “Siddons mad.” Crowds gathered in the street to watch Mrs. Siddons as she arrived and departed. People surrounded her carriage. Early in 1783 she gave the rising artist George Romney several sittings with a wreath in her hair. The Morning Chronicle said that he created a work “which Raphael would be glad of.” In 1784, Sir Joshua Reynolds completed his life-size, full-length portrait, Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse. At her first sitting he said to her: “Ascend your undisputed throne and graciously bestow upon me some grand Idea of the Tragick Muse.”
Early that year she and her husband and their children moved into one of the new houses that trustees for the young Duke of Bedford had built in a uniform row in Gower Street, extending from Bedford Square. This was the outer edge of northwestern London. The backs of these four-story brick buildings were “most effectually in the country, and delightfully pleasant.” Strangers came to Gower Street to see the Siddonses’ house, Number 14, which looked like all the others. Some only stared; others came to buy tickets for benefit performances in which the box office receipts went to her. Others, she complained, “forced their way into my Drawing-room, in spite of remonstrance or opposition.” One woman who intruded into Mrs. Siddons’s upstairs room told her: “I am in a very delicate state of health, and my Physician won’t let me go to the Theatre to see you, so I am come to look at you here.”
When Severn Eyre arrived in London, people of “the beau monde” had to see not only the acting of Mrs. Siddons but also the performance of the Amazing Learned Pig. In a building just off Whitehall near Charing Cross, gentlemen and “women of the first Fashion waited four hours for their turn” to enter and pay five shillings, later reduced to one shilling, for a thirty-minute exhibition. Using its mouth, a large trained pig arranged cards bearing letters and numbers to give the date and the time, to add and subtract, to tell people their names and their thoughts, and to answer questions. It enjoyed so much success in “the polite end of the town” that its owner took it on the stage in the summer of 1785. The Learned Pig became the headline act at Sadler’s Wells Theatre. Skilled acrobats and tightrope dancers performing there “made great objections” to being reduced to a warm-up act for a pig. The manager did not try to keep them from leaving. He could readily find other tumblers; the Learned Pig was a star.
The Planter arrived in the Thames in the first week of September; the Andersons joined Samuel Gist in his home in America Square. Gist told his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, their husbands, William Anderson and William Fowke, and his longtime clerk, Aiskew Birkett, that he planned to retire. He was sixty years old. The City had too many merchants shipping to America, as daily bankruptcies proved. Two years of effort to reopen trade and collect debts in Virginia had given him more vexation than it was worth. Instead of remittances he had received whining letters, such as John Tabb’s: “really sir, for want of information & other disappointments, since the conclusion of the war you have lost me more than 2000 £, all was quite in your power to have prevented.” Gist offered to turn over his trade, his goods, and the Planter to a new company in which Anderson, Fowke, and Birkett would be partners. It was established early in 1786. In mid-March, William Anderson & Company announced Gist’s retirement and invited planters to benefit from “our knowledge, and experience in the Tobacco trade” by consigning tobacco to the new firm. With those letters to Gist’s customers the Planter sailed from the Downs on April 6.
Gist remained available in the subscribers’ room at Lloyd’s. He was there on Monday, January 2, 1786, when a panic-stricken Severn Eyre, Jr., approached him to relate a long, complicated story about his former landlord in London. Though he had moved out of those lodgings after a short stay, the landlord was demanding payment of six months’ rent, threatening him with a writ and daring him to go to court. He feared that he would soon be thrown into Newgate Prison. After hearing Eyre out, Gist laughed and said that Virginians “were not smart enough to live in London.” He advised Eyre to see an attorney. After making inquiries and receiving more threats, Eyre paid in full. He then was visited by the wife of his hairdresser. Her husband had been apprehended while committing highway robbery. She asked Eyre to settle his account.
Seeking “a transitory respite to my depressed spirits,” Eyre turned to the theater. After paying his hairdresser’s wife on the last Saturday in February, he went to Covent Garden to see Mrs. Siddons a second time as Belvidera in Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserv’d. No longer pregnant, she appeared in a benefit performance for the widow of an actor, John Henderson. The boxes and the pit were “lined with people of rank.” In the first gallery Eyre was so tightly wedged among “an innumerable mob” that his hips were sore. But in the last act, during the mad scene, after Belvidera sees the ghost of her husband, who had killed his friend and himself on the scaffold rather than die at an executioner’s hand, Eyre felt his tears on his cheeks as Belvidera says:
My love! my dear! my blessing! Help me, help me!
They have hold on me, and drag me to the bottom.
Nay, now they pull so hard—farewell—
Belvidera’s death looked so convincing that Eyre heard a man near him say that Mrs. Siddons was certainly dead and would never rise again. Later that year she played the title role in Robert Dodsley’s tragedy Cleone. As Cleone in the third act walks with her child through a wood, the corrupted servant Ragozin, masked, attacks with a dagger. Mrs. Siddons cried “Help! Mercy! Save! Kill not my infant! Murder!” in “such a note of unison to the feelings of the house that in an instant everyone cried ‘Murder’ too, and ladies screaming and fainting were carried out by dozens.”
Less than six months after William Anderson & Company went into business, Anderson learned that Samuel Gist’s retirement consisted, in part, of second-guessing his son-in-law. Gist opposed an investment he thought too risky, and he told Joshua Johnson that he feared Anderson was “going too fast.” Johnson said of Gist: “he is a tight hand.”
A new system of tobacco duties announced by the British government in the spring of 1786 confirmed the wisdom of Gist’s decision to quit the trade. In the old days, merchants made an extra profit of about £3 per hogshead on tobacco intended for the British market by charging planters full duties while taking advantage of a discount allowed by the government for payment in cash. The new system allowed no discount. The “old Merchants” of Gist’s generation spoke of “giving the Business up” and predicted more smuggling.
After a few years of contending with a glutted market for tobacco in Britain and a market in France obstructed by Robert Morris’s deal with the Farmers-General, Anderson had warehouses filled with unsold tobacco. He had to offer bargains, and he admitted to Joshua Johnson that William Anderson & Company had “lost a great deal of money.”
In retirement, Samuel Gist frequented Lloyd’s rooms and appeared in the Virginia Walk on ’Change, “a spruce little man.” Meeting any new arrival from Virginia, he was “polite & particular” in his inquiries. In the summer of 1786 his onetime mentor in the slave trade, John Shoolbred, was elected to the governing committee of the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa. Shoolbred also was forming an alliance with James Hennessy and John Saule, brandy merchants of Bordeaux and Cognac, in their rivalry with the House of Martell.
Despite reverses in business, William and Mary Anderson lived well in America Square. They entertained visiting Virginians. While staying in London, Lewis Littlepage, newly appointed royal chamberlain to Stanislas II Poniatowski, last king of Poland, heard about his Virginia relatives from Mary Anderson. The younger Carter Braxton called after Gist spotted him on ’Change. The Andersons laid out an “elegant” dinner, with “fine wines, & pleasant fruits.” After meeting Gist and dining with the Andersons, Braxton went to Drury Lane Theatre to see Sarah Siddons as Mrs. Beverley in Edward Moore’s The Gamester, one of the roles in which “she outdid all description.” He was struck by the “invariable stillness & attention” of her audiences. “We forget that she is Mrs Siddons, but believe her Mrs Beverley, Belvidera, Isabella.” Seeing the “misery & anguish” to which the heroine was reduced by the gambling of her husband, played by Mrs. Siddons’s brother, John Philip Kemble, Braxton said: “no person with a particle of love or pity in his composition can refrain vowing, eternal abstinence from gaming.”
Samuel Gist decided to leave the Andersons in possession of his house and counting room in America Square. His business address in the City remained Number 16, America Square, but for his residence in retirement he leased from the Duke of Bedford’s trustees Number 37, Gower Street, and became Sarah Siddons’s neighbor.
Crossing the Atlantic from Virginia in 1785, William Anderson took with him the Dismal Swamp Company’s power of attorney, authorizing him to borrow £5,000 sterling on the company’s behalf. The partners made this request at their first meeting in ten years. Anderson attended it a few weeks before he left Virginia.
By a newspaper advertisement George Washington summoned the partners to gather in Richmond on Monday, May 2. The company’s affairs, he said, were “in a deranged state.” The partners ought to take “some decisive measures.” Reports from Dismal Plantation were gloomy: the company had only “a few old worn out Negroes,” four of whom were retired, “incapable of labour.” In wartime Jacob Collee had worked the plantation “without ever touching a Ditch.” Drainage ditches begun before the war were “much broke & require a deal of Work”; the “Remnant of old Negroes” could not do it. Collee had not hired slaves to replace those who left with the British. While the partners worried about ways to drain the swamp, heavy rains flooded Dismal Plantation.
Near noon on Monday, May 2, members of the Dismal Swamp Company, walking through a cold east wind, entered the ugly capitol and assembled in the Senate chamber. George Washington had come from Mount Vernon. He had a dinner engagement with the Sons of Saint Tammany after the meeting. David Meade had come upriver from Maycox to represent both the Meade family’s share and the share owned by the four young granddaughters of the late Francis Farley. John Page had come from Rosewell. From York Town, David Jameson represented himself and Samuel Gist. William Nelson, Jr., represented himself and his brother, Nathaniel. Neither Dr. Thomas Walker nor his son-in-law, Joseph Hornsby, was present, but Dr. Walker had sent from Albemarle County another son-in-law, Reuben Lindsay, to act on their behalf. Secretary Thomas Nelson, Anthony Bacon, and the estate of Robert Tucker had no one attending the meeting for them.
For three hours that afternoon and for another six hours on Tuesday, while a steady rain fell, the partners conferred. On Monday, they discussed paying for the survey of their 40,000 acres and paying Samuel Gist for tools and supplies. They voted to call Jacob Collee, who was leaving their service, “to a speedy and accurate settlement of his accounts.” They discussed the possibility of dividing their 40,000 acres in proportion to the number of quarter-shares each partner held, a step that would end the dream of draining the swamp, but they voted that the work should still “be carried on jointly.”
On Tuesday morning, the partners were joined in the Senate chamber by Nathaniel Nelson and William Anderson. They approved a change in operations in the swamp, one Washington wished he could make on his plantations: “get quit of Negroes,” as he put it. In lieu of slaves the company ought to hire “German Redemptioners” or other laborers in Baltimore. If that effort failed, the company must hire slaves temporarily until the managers found as many as three hundred “Labourers acquainted with draining and other branches of agriculture” to be imported from Holland or Germany “or other parts of Europe.” This scheme required money. For months David Jameson had urged his partners to borrow. Despite ten years of felling cedar trees for shingles before the war, the company’s sector of the Dismal Swamp looked little changed from its appearance in the days when the dividing line’s hungry surveyors rushed through it almost sixty years earlier.
Washington recommended skilled European workers, and Jameson’s proposed loan seemed the best way to pay for them. Jameson and Anderson knew that Samuel Gist, though unwilling to lend, would question them closely to learn what they had done to make the Dismal Swamp Company profitable, especially since it owed money to him. The partners asked Anderson to borrow £5,000 for them when he reached London. They made themselves liable for repayment.
A few more matters remained to be settled before Washington left to dine with Governor Henry. The company’s managers were to investigate strangers’ encroachments on the company’s property and get legal advice. They were authorized to purchase adjacent land or mills to support the company’s operations. And Reuben Lindsay said that Dr. Walker was too old and infirm to continue in the management. George Washington also asked to withdraw. John Page took Washington’s place, and Joseph Hornsby was appointed to the place of his father-in-law. Then the partners walked out of the capitol into the rain.
Back at Mount Vernon, Washington repeated that “reclaiming” the Dismal Swamp would make it “invaluable.” In the following months he wrote letters and inquired in person about a loan and the possibility of getting someone “to deliver 300 able labourers, Germans or Hollanders, not more than eight women, at Norfolk” as indentured servants of the Dismal Swamp Company. He did not receive satisfactory replies. Once William Anderson settled at Number 16, America Square, and established William Anderson & Company, the partners of the Dismal Swamp Company heard no more about a loan in London.
To replace Jacob Collee as the company’s resident manager in Suffolk, the partners chose John Driver, son and executor of John Driver, partner of David Meade’s father. The firm of Meade & Driver, though defunct for decades, still owed more than £7,600 sterling to British merchants. The sons, unlike many other Virginians, acknowledged the debt after the war. With his second wife, a minister’s daughter, Driver still lived in his father’s house on the outskirts of Suffolk, surrounded by apple and peach orchards and “a good garden.” He operated a store in Suffolk, priding himself on being “punctuall” in paying his debts. But neither he nor David Meade contrived to pay their fathers’ debts.
Nansemond County and Suffolk revived from the damage done by British invasion. Buildings increased so rapidly and the price of land rose so fast that in the autumn of 1785 inhabitants of Suffolk petitioned the General Assembly to add 16 acres of lots and streets to the town, giving more room for “mechanics and tradesmen.” The General Assembly made Driver one of the trustees laying out new lots. This prosperity induced three “pirates” armed with muskets and cutlasses to board a schooner in the James River and sail off with her and her cargo of dry goods. They were soon “apprehended in the County of Nansemond, where they intended to open a store.”
John Page urged David Jameson and Nathaniel Nelson to visit Dismal Plantation to “look into the Affairs of the Co. on the Spot & see what the Carolina Co. will be willing to do towards opening the Canals.” Hugh Williamson of the Lebanon Company reassured his fellow physician and fellow native of Pennsylvania, Dr. Thomas Ruston, that the Dismal Swamp property in Virginia which Ruston had acquired was valuable, worth £1,500 sterling. And one could buy adjacent parts of the swamp at a price of $750 for 1,000 acres.
Dr. Ruston, after taking his degree at the University of Edinburgh, had lived in England for twenty years. Upon his father’s death he decided to return to America. If he wished to continue “taking a slice at Physic,” as Williamson put it, he might do so, but he expected to make a fortune by land speculation. In the spring and summer of 1785, Ruston took leave of England. At Drury Lane Theatre he saw Sarah Siddons in her last performance of the season, playing Rosalind in As You Like It. Ruston took most interest in watching the royal family. Later, he prevailed upon George and Sarah Fairfax to write a letter of introduction to George Washington. And he stopped at Number 16, America Square. He gave Samuel Gist power of attorney to manage his investments in England.
In the months after the company’s meeting, Driver resumed production of shingles at Dismal Plantation. He could do little to repair drainage ditches. David Jameson still hoped that the company eventually would get “some white servants.” He told Driver “to continue to manage as well as you can.” He apologized for his partners: “I am truly sorry that the necessary steps have not been taken to put the Company’s affairs on a better footing.”
During John Page’s stay in Richmond in May he paid Alexander Donald £300 for a thoroughbred stallion, a “beautiful bay” named Sampson. Page had just offered another “fine blooded stud Horse” for sale. His finances remained desperate. “Duns and Sheriffs” often called at Rosewell. He tried to sell “several young Negroes” and two tracts of land: 800 acres in Gloucester County and 1,300 acres in Loudoun County, inherited from his father-in-law, Robert Burwell.
For several months before the company’s meeting, William Nelson, Jr., spent most of his time in Williamsburg, preparing to take over the law practice of Henry Tazewell, who became a judge of the General Court in Richmond. They advertised the change in June. Among Nelson’s clients were John Norton & Son, still striving to get Virginians to pay for goods shipped them before the war, and Otway Byrd, executor of the estate of his father-in-law, Robert Munford. Byrd and Nelson paid as many of Munford’s debts as his insufficient estate permitted. William and Polly Nelson enjoyed Williamsburg. They had met in the governor’s palace while Thomas Jefferson lived there and William attended George Wythe’s law lectures. Their happy return to the “peaceful city” lasted a little more than six months. Early in 1786, Polly Nelson died, apparently in childbirth, leaving a baby son, who did not live long, and a young daughter. William felt “a vacuum.”
The health of William’s brother, Nathaniel, was failing. He left the House of Delegates in January 1786 and wrote his will in March, bequeathing his interest in the Dismal Swamp Company to his son, William. If his children left no heirs, Nathaniel’s half-share was to go to his brother, William, and their three brothers. Hoping to recover, Nathaniel sailed for Bermuda in April to visit St. George Tucker’s father. He “seem’d very anxious to Live,” but his condition grew worse. He died in June.
In those months William Lee contracted to buy John Page’s Loudoun County land for £1 currency per acre. In subsequent weeks Lee changed his mind, believing he had offered too much, but Page held him to the bargain. Then Page reconsidered the sale. Lee held him to the agreement, paying £676 sterling, but Page needed more. He asked Lee to lend him money, offering to pay 10 percent interest per year, twice the customary rate. Lee said he would not do so even if he were a moneylender. Such loans, he wrote, had “almost in every instance been followed by the ruin of the borrower and the disgrace of the lender.”
After more than two years of practicing law in Williamsburg, making little money, William Nelson, Jr., took stock of his career at the age of twenty-seven: “Every day’s experience the more confirms me in the opinion that I shall never be eminent at the bar, & shall not go beyond the line of mediocrity except by attention & length of standing.” Still, he could read widely, one of his chief pleasures. And he found a new wife: Otway Byrd’s half sister, Abby Byrd, fifth child of Mary Willing Byrd and William Byrd. She was twenty. Nelson began to spend more time at Westover.
At Nesting, upriver from Westover, the widow Elizabeth Farley lived with her four daughters. She was, a visitor said, “a very handsome woman.” She looked at the youngest partners in the Dismal Swamp Company, ranging in age from six to eleven, and wrote: “I am Mother of four homely Girls.… They really are by no means pretty & I am silly enough to be sorry for it.” She could not help having a discriminating eye, like that of her grandfather, old Colonel Byrd.
The five relied for support partly on the yield of the Saura Town plantation in the Land of Eden, where the slaves sent from Antigua still worked. After the return of peace she also received from Antigua rum and sugar worth £300 sterling per year, the annuity provided in Francis Farley’s will. She and her daughters were served by four slaves borrowed from Westover. In December 1784, though she did not know him yet or know that he was coming, her second husband was crossing the Atlantic in search of a woman such as she.
John Dunbar was “an Irish minister.” Sailing from London, he did not seek a parish in Virginia. He told a fellow passenger that “he was determined to have some of the rich Virginia widows.” He went ashore at York Town in December or early in January. He struck people as “a genteel man.” He and Elizabeth Farley were married on Sunday, February 27, 1785. Dunbar moved in with his wife and stepdaughters, Elizabeth, Rebecca—known by her middle name, Parke—Maria, and Mary. One of the people calling on the couple on the first anniversary of their wedding said that John Dunbar “seems to be very happily situated here.”
Francis Farley’s will stipulated that his daughter-in-law act as executrix only as long as she remained an unmarried widow. John Dunbar took steps to get courts in North Carolina and Virginia to make him administrator of Farley’s estate within their jurisdictions. That estate and the Mercers Creek plantation in Antigua belonged to the four girls, subject to payment of their late father’s debts. Farley’s executors in Antigua had not yet begun to send them the profits of the plantation. Dunbar visited Antigua and arranged to get remittances. Only as administrator could he lawfully raise money to pay the estate’s debts by selling some of the land the girls had inherited in Virginia and North Carolina. Only as administrator could he lawfully sell any of the slaves at Saura Town or buy more slaves with money from the estate. He retained St. George Tucker, a friend of Elizabeth Farley Dunbar’s, as his attorney.
In the spring of 1786, Dunbar obtained an authenticated copy of Francis Farley’s will. In the autumn the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions in Rockingham County, North Carolina, made him administrator of the Farley estate. Virginia law required a person seeking appointment as administrator to exhibit the original will, but Antigua law prohibited removal of the original will from Antigua. St. George Tucker drafted a bill for the General Assembly, authorizing Dunbar to administer the estate. He submitted it to the House of Delegates with a petition, which was referred to the Committee for Courts of Justice, apparently never to emerge. Dunbar turned to a new attorney: Patrick Henry.
At the beginning of this process, Dunbar published an advertisement, giving notice that he would apply to the General Assembly. Having applied, he acted as if his request had been granted, signing documents “Jno Dunbar Admr.” A few years later he broke up the community of Antiguan slaves at the Land of Eden. Leaving about thirty people at the Saura Town plantation—most were either children or “old & infirm”—he brought thirty-eight people to Charles City County. He held a slave auction, buying some of the slaves for himself. They stayed with the Dunbars and the young heiresses.
More than a year after the Dismal Swamp Company’s meeting and John Page’s attempt to sell property, he still held land and slaves he had advertised. He owed money to John Norton & Son in London, to Alexander Donald in Richmond, and to tidewater merchants. Large obligations fell due on October 31, 1786. Page hoped that Robert Carter of Nomini Hall, heir to part of King Carter’s Frying Pan Company tract, would buy the portion Page had received from his father. Page wrote that he had heard “there is a good Copper Mine thereon.” Carter replied that his attorney, John Taylor, handled all such matters.
Page advertised for sale one-fourth of his interest in the Frying Pan tract, his Loudoun County land which William Lee was or was not buying, his 400 acres of the Green Sea in the Dismal Swamp, and one of his two quarter-shares in the Dismal Swamp Company. He assured the public that the company’s land and the Green Sea tract were “equal in soil and timber to any lands in the State.” He offered to sell thoroughbred mares and colts, as well as the stallion Sampson. He planned to have slaves taken from Rosewell to Petersburg to be auctioned, beginning on the first day of the racing season.
Too much Green Sea acreage came on the market. Patrick Henry tried to sell some to Mary Willing Byrd. She was suspicious. In 1784, Henry had written: “I have many offers for this land,” but he still owned it. She replied: “as I understand your offer I should be making an absolute purchase of land, which there is no certainty of my selling for cash.” She had struggled with her late husband’s debts for almost ten years. She needed to make money, not lose it in paying more taxes. She felt “encircled with Difficulties,” and she did not buy. Nor did anyone buy Page’s holdings in the Dismal Swamp. A few months later, winter storms caused “overswelling of the swamps,” flooding roads and breaking causeways. The Green Sea reeds stood in deeper water than usual.
John Page entered a long period of grief in January 1787 over the death of his wife, Frances Burwell Page. They had enjoyed twenty-two years of “sweet domestic Happiness,” during which she had given birth to twelve children. For Page, the ensuing months “passed off like a Dream.” He wrote to St. George Tucker in June: “Rosewell which was once my Paradise, is now less grateful to me than would be the Desarts of Arabia.” Yet for the sake of his children, and the hope of keeping the estate and its grand mansion in his family, he must find money to pay his debts.
In March, Page placed his affairs in the hands of trustees: Matthew Anderson, his neighbor, and Mann Page, Jr., his son, who was twenty-one. Anderson and the younger Page advertised an auction at Gloucester Court House, to begin on Wednesday, May 1. They offered more than sixty—“probably 90”—slaves, including smiths, carpenters, sawyers, hostlers, spinners, “and an excellent laundress.” They again offered Page’s tracts of land, adding a few more. They failed. Their efforts produced £55 cash. John Page wrote: “I was disappointed cruelly in my Expectation.” He said that his struggle with his money troubles distracted him from his grief. In June he advertised the property again, adding to it Claybank, a plantation adjoining Rosewell.
Since the days of John Page’s grandfather, Rosewell and other Page estates had never produced enough to sustain the plantation above the York, its slaves, its owners, and the expense of building and maintaining its elegant mansion. In the spring of 1787, Page almost lost even the tobacco he shipped to London in the brig Jolly Tar: on June 10, sailing along the southern rim of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, she struck a large iceberg. Though it broke away her bowsprit and foremast, the brig sailed on, arriving in the Thames on July 7 with Page’s tobacco, consigned to William Anderson & Company.
As John Page grew more desperate, George Washington began efforts to sell some or all of his land in the west. Mount Vernon had not made ends meet since his departure for the Continental Army. He said he felt “exceedingly anxious” to clear himself of debt. He almost conceded that his terms for leases were too high. To a Frenchman considering a settlement of immigrants in the west he offered his tracts on the Ohio and Kanawha rivers, more than 32,000 acres, for £31,500 sterling. He believed, he wrote, his holdings were worth twice this sum, but he abated the price to sell everything at once. He knew his land would rise in value more rapidly than 5 percent per year, the amount the purchase price could earn if instead put out at interest. Washington also offered for sale Pennsylvania tracts reclaimed from squatters.
Early in 1787, Washington received a letter from Henry Emanuel Lutterloh, a former Continental Army officer living in North Carolina. Describing himself as “a German, and well-acquainted with all the different Principalities,” he tendered his services in bringing Germans to Virginia as tenants, workers, miners, canal diggers. Washington at once thought of the Dismal Swamp Company. He consulted John Page, who wrote: “The Members are too Lukewarm to advance Money if they had it, & too indolent to attend to the Execution of any Plan which requires any Attention on their Part.” Page agreed that the company ought to offer part of its 40,000 acres as payment for procuring such workers. Washington then told Lutterloh that the company’s portion of the swamp was “capable of being made as valuable a tract of Land as any in the Country.” Regretfully, Washington admitted that his partners were “in a manner, inattentive to the business.” He knew they would not advance money, but they might give Lutterloh a portion of the company’s holdings, which “would be highly advantageous to the Settlers” brought to the swamp. Upon receiving a good proposal, Washington wrote, “I would in that case use every endeavor to convince the Company that an agreement might be entered into.” In reply, Lutterloh made clear that he sought a contract or subscription, payable in cash. He suggested that he visit Virginia to sell his idea to the partners in person, but Washington knew that his coming would do no good.
The summer of 1787 brought severe drought to Virginia. In the first week of April, Edmund Pendleton heard that “the good old women” in Caroline County were terrified by a report from Gloucester County, where “a Speaking Cow” had predicted a “dry, bloody & fatal” summer. London had a learned pig; Virginia had a clairvoyant cow. Pendleton thought this was an April Fool’s joke that had taken on a life of its own. The cow turned out to be partly right. By the first week of July, the heat in and around the Dismal Swamp was “intollerable.” A traveler doing no heavy work felt “almost Sweated to death.” The rest of Virginia suffered similar dryness. George Washington’s corn crop was “an almost total loss.” At Dismal Plantation the greater part of the rice was “entirely blasted,” and the corn looked “very indifferent.” John Driver reported to David Jameson: “the place is getting much out of order.”
Neither George Washington nor John Page found buyers for his land. The fall of tobacco prices, overextension of credit ending in unpaid debts, and great reduction of circulating gold and silver meant a commercial depression. The times did not favor selling good land for a high price with prompt remittance. Nor did Washington get many payments from his debtors. After the drought of 1787 and Washington’s return from presiding over the convention which drafted a new Constitution for the United States, he said that those months “have caused me more perplexity and given me more uneasiness than I ever experienced before from the want of money.”
Ten days after the meeting of the Dismal Swamp Company in Richmond, Anthony Bacon, at the age of sixty-seven, wrote his will in his home facing the Cyfarthfa blast furnace across the River Taff from Merthyr Tydfil. His wife, Elizabeth, lived with him. His and Mary Bushby’s youngest son, William, was fourteen months old. In his will Bacon acknowledged that he was the father of all five of Bushby’s children, four sons and a daughter named Elizabeth. A month later he signed and dated the will in the presence of witnesses, including Richard Crawshay, his partner managing operations at Cyfarthfa.
Across the Atlantic, the government of North Carolina advertised an auction of three tracts, totaling 660 acres, which the state had seized from Bacon by law the previous year. Before the war he acquired this land from Aquila Sugg, a merchant and justice of the peace in Tarboro, who owed him more than £3,380 sterling. Bacon’s records showed more debts due from North Carolinians than from citizens of any other state: about £19,180 sterling. Virginia law prohibited foreigners from owning land in the state. Still, the partners of the Dismal Swamp Company treated Bacon’s share as his property, though they had not heard from him in years. Bacon’s debtors owed him more than £6,000 in Maryland and almost £5,400 in Virginia. Nearly half of the Virginia sum was due from the estate of Fielding Lewis.
Bacon’s will disposed of his three ironworks—those at Cyfarthfa, the Plymouth furnace south of Merthyr Tydfil, and the Hirwaun furnace in the Cynon Valley just west of the Taff—by dividing them among his first three sons. The oldest, Anthony, was sixteen, attending school in Gloucester under the name William Addison. He was to receive the Cyfarthfa furnace and forge, with the land leases at Merthyr Tydfil. Thomas was to receive Plymouth, and Robert was to receive Hirwaun. The daughter, Elizabeth, who suffered from “lameness,” and the baby, William, were to be supported by a fund consisting of profits from all his holdings. To Mary Bushby, Bacon bequeathed £1,000 and an annual payment of £50 for support of each of the four youngest children as long as they lived with her. To his wife he left an annuity of £700 per year and the use of his house, offices, and gardens at Cyfarthfa, later to go to his oldest son after her departure or death. She was also to receive his coach and the furniture and plate in his homes other than Cyfarthfa.
Bacon’s bequest to his cousin and former partner, Anthony Richardson, was the unpaid money their partner Gilbert Francklyn owed Bacon. After a visit to England during the war, Francklyn had returned to Tobago in 1779 and lived there until 1789, when he moved to London. There he began a new career with the Society of Planters and Merchants. He wrote pamphlets defending slavery and denouncing humanitarians, egalitarians, and reformers.
Anthony Bacon bequeathed his share in the Dismal Swamp Company to his half brother, William Bacon. William’s residence, Number 26, Thavies-Inn, was Anthony’s last business address in London. Thavies-Inn was a street running south from Holborn just east of Hatton Garden, between St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Inns of Court. On the site occupied until 1773 by ruins of an Inn of Chancery from the time of Edward III had risen a range of “handsome” new houses. Like Samuel Gist, William Bacon preferred to live in modern comfort. Anthony also left him a bequest of £500 and the proceeds of any North American debts he collected. Anthony asked him to pay one-fourth of that money to their nieces, the two daughters of the late Reverend Thomas Bacon. Rachel Bacon Harwood and Mary Bacon Passapae lived in Maryland.
Seven months after signing his will, Anthony Bacon died at Cyfarthfa on January 21, 1786. In an obituary the Bristol Gazette praised him: “Go to the mountains of Wales, and view his deeds—what roads, what industry, what civilisation, what sources of comfort and improvement he has opened in the once dreary and inaccessible district.”
After Bacon’s chosen executors declined to undertake the vast task, his estate was left in the administration of the Court of Chancery. William Bacon became receiver in Chancery for it; Richard Crawshay and William Stevens, a rich hosier in London, posted bond for him. The ironworks were leased until Bacon’s sons each came into their inheritances at the age of twenty-four. For a rent of £1,000 per year the Cyfarthfa works went to Richard Crawshay, William Stevens, and James Cockshutt in partnership. Cockshutt managed production. For £650 per year, Richard Hill, Mary Bushby’s brother-in-law, took a lease on the Plymouth furnace. Crawshay began to speak of Bacon’s sons as “our young Landlords.” Not long before the oldest turned twenty-four, he changed his name from Anthony Bushby to Anthony Bacon.
Richard Crawshay was an ambitious, peremptory man. His partnership at Cyfarthfa lasted only five years, after which he took sole control. He cultivated the heir. After the younger Anthony Bacon came into his inheritance, he turned the Cyfarthfa works over to Crawshay by lease or deed in return for an annual payment of £5,000. Bacon bought an estate overlooking the River Cynon and became a country gentleman. Crawshay and Stevens’s capital expanded operations in Merthyr Tydfil; Crawshay said that in his first six years he put almost £50,000 into new facilities at Cyfarthfa. In the ten years after 1786, production of pig iron in South Wales rose from 12,500 tons per year to 34,000 tons per year. Of the latter, about 7,200 tons came from the furnaces at Cyfarthfa. Crawshay boasted to visitors “that at present he made more iron than probably any person in the world.” Merthyr Tydfil had three furnaces when the elder Anthony Bacon died. Twenty-five years later, it had seventeen.
In 1791, William Bacon’s son, James, visited Dismal Plantation to get for his father “what information he can respecting the place.” John Driver seemed chiefly concerned with raising money to pay the company’s annual tax bill. The price of corn and rice had fallen so low that the plantation had not produced enough to meet an assessment of £101 currency. Driver said: “the Sheriff will be anxious to get his money.” He sent Bacon to York Town to learn more from David Jameson. William Bacon later divided his share of the Dismal Swamp Company: two-thirds to his son, James, and one-third to Gilbert Francklyn.
One of Virginia’s last living ties to its old royal government fell away with the death of Secretary Thomas Nelson late in 1787, at the age of seventy-two. Forty-five years had passed since his father had bought for him the office of deputy secretary. Since leaving York Town during the siege, he had lived in quiet retirement in King William County, not far from Hanover Court House. He was surrounded by his sons, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, as well as by good books in English and French. No longer making the careers of rising young men or overseeing land grants, he was “generally revered and esteemed,” a tall, “noble figure” with white hair. After his death his share in the Dismal Swamp Company was divided evenly among his three sons: William, Thomas, and John, all former officers in the Continental Army. William and Thomas lived in Hanover County, John in Mecklenburg County. The Dismal Swamp Company was twenty-four years old. Only three of the original partners still held a share or part of a share: George Washington, Thomas Walker, and Samuel Gist.
After the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia offered its new structure of government to the states for ratification, members of the Dismal Swamp Company differed in their opinions of it. Visitors to Mount Vernon heard George Washington say that he was “very anxious” to see all states ratify the Constitution. Alexander Donald wrote: “I never saw him so keen for any thing in my life, as he is for the adoption of the new Form of Government.” Conversations at Mount Vernon touched on demagogues winning state elections to pursue “their own schemes,” on the “impotence” of the Continental Congress, and on the danger of “Anarchy and civil war.” Washington concluded: “it is more than probable we shall exhibit the last melancholy proof, that Mankind are not competent to their own government without the means of coercion in the Sovereign.” By “sovereign” he meant not the people but the national government. Without a new, stronger government, he said, America faced “impending ruin.”
Secretary Nelson’s nephew, William Nelson, Jr., attorney in Williamsburg, did not support ratification. Nor did William’s brother, Thomas, former governor of Virginia. John Page at first agreed with William that the Constitution should be amended before ratification to guard more effectively against too much power in the hands of the federal government. Page soon changed sides and supported ratification, though voters in Gloucester County passed him over to send stauncher Federalists to the state convention in June. Neither Nelson brother sought election. Instead of going to Richmond, William Nelson, Jr., got married to Abby Byrd, who soon was pregnant. Thomas Nelson, Jr.’s, daughter, Elizabeth, and John Page’s son, Mann, were also married in June. This was the third wedding to join one of Nelson’s children to one of Page’s.
Voters who lived near the Dismal Swamp, as well as many others south of the James River, chose opponents of ratification as their delegates to the convention. After the new Constitution was adopted, these people still sent Antifederalists to the General Assembly and to the United States Congress. Outsiders often called the residents of Nansemond County stubborn and uncooperative. The flat terrain, tall trees, and scattered peach orchards for brandy-making struck visitors as “a long, dull, and insipid scene.” Travelers could easily get lost but only with difficulty get directions from local people, who received them “with an ill grace.” During the war, the Virginia authorities had thought Nansemond people were Tories, while the British had considered them rebels. Electing delegates to the ratifying convention, they did not expect impending ruin and anarchy in the absence of the new Constitution, or they did not care.
Writing from Richmond during debates over ratification, Archibald Stuart, a Federalist, reported: “The whole core of opponents to the paymt of British Debts are against us.” The alignment was not so stark, but the man most hostile to paying British merchants, Patrick Henry, was also the leading critic of the Constitution. The merchants calculated that Virginians’ debts to them contracted before the war had reached, with interest, a total of £2,305,408 sterling. A state law enacted in 1782 closed the courts to them. The treaty of peace overthrew that law, but Virginians, unlike debtors in other states, persisted in evasion. James Madison said that everyone knew “foreigners cannot get justice done them” in county courts. In 1787 the General Assembly repealed the law passed in 1776 prohibiting Britons’ recovery of debts. But the new law also suspended their right to collect, on the grounds that the British Army kept garrisons on American soil south of the Great Lakes. A federal government established by the Constitution would create a system of federal courts. In these, Britons could seek enforcement of their claims against Virginia’s recalcitrant debtors.
Debtors’ evasions and state laws “benign to dishonest men” prolonged Virginia’s reputation as a land of chicanery with too many “indolent, unindustrious, poor credit risks, big gamblers, tricksters.” In London in the months between the Philadelphia convention and final approval of the Constitution, Joshua Johnson decided to close his firm’s accounts in Virginia and send no more merchandise. He wrote: “I long to get rid of that State.” Virginia reduced its public debt by devaluing wartime currency at the rate of 1,000 to 1. The state also accepted wartime certificates or vouchers, issued in lieu of cash, for payment of taxes and purchase of land from the state. Since no one knew how many of these had been drawn during the war, no one knew the size of the public debt.
The Richmond convention ratified the Constitution on June 25, 1788, by a vote of 89 to 79. Six of the delegates in the majority came from west of the Allegheny Mountains. Concerned about the presence of British forts and troops in the west, these delegates wished to deprive the British government of its excuse for that incursion, Virginians’ refusal to pay their debts. The day after the convention voted on the Constitution, David Anderson wrote a letter to his brother, William, in London, giving him the news. The vessel bearing it made a swift passage, and William Anderson opened the letter on August 8. Samuel Gist could begin to prepare his cases against debtors for litigation in the federal courts soon to be established. In Virginia, William Nelson, Jr., foresaw that he and other lawyers could benefit from ratification: “The new constitution will open a wide field to us.”
When members of the Dismal Swamp Company met in Richmond, with Reuben Lindsay attending in place of Dr. Thomas Walker, Walker was entering his seventies. His shoulders were rounded, his hair was gray. He took no more long journeys. He retained his good humor, but he was often ill. His memory had begun to fail.
Dr. Walker’s youngest son, Francis, turned twenty-one in 1785. That summer he began to manage the affairs of the Loyal Company; he visited the grant in 1785 and 1786. Three years later the Walkers contracted with Francis Preston to act as subagent, collecting rents and dealing with tenants. Among the subjects Dr. Walker had difficulty remembering were the surveying fees the Loyal Company had left unpaid for twenty-five years.
Francis Walker had a warm heart and a quick mind. He taught law to Landon Cabell. The voters of Albemarle County elected Walker to the House of Delegates. Still, he lacked ambition, preferring to live at Castle Hill with his father and stepmother and more than eighty-five slaves. He knew he would inherit the house and the plantation. Dr. Walker and Francis sometimes rode across their rolling acres near the base of a chain of hills known as the Southwest Mountains. During one such ride with several guests, Dr. Walker suddenly galloped up to his son and lashed Francis with a horsewhip, giving him “several good cuts.” Francis pulled away and asked his father why he had attacked him. Dr. Walker said: “My son, that is one of the corner-trees of your estate, & I wanted to make you remember it.” Dr. Walker had devoted a large part of his life to land and its boundaries. If memory failed, those memories should fade last.
Francis Preston served the Walkers as subagent less than four years. He was subject to a difficulty of which many knew but few spoke: Francis Walker, with several of his brothers and sisters, was “liable to intoxication.” On two visits to Castle Hill, Preston found Walker too drunk to deal with Loyal Company business. According to gossips, Dr. Walker himself “had a strong propensity this way, which however, his prudence & fortitude mastered, ’till he was old.” Francis had a close attachment to his “good father” and dreaded the day death would “deprive his dependents of so inestimable a friend.” One of the son’s chief pleasures was to reminisce about the winter of 1779–80 and the adventures of Dr. Walker’s surveying party as it extended Virginia’s boundary westward. Recalling his father’s vigor and humor while snowbound, Francis relived “some moments of the greatest happiness I ever enjoyed.”
Shortly before delegates to the ratifying convention gathered in Richmond, Thomas Walker wrote his will. To his other sons and sons-in-law he left bequests of varying sizes in cash or livestock. Joseph Hornsby was to receive eight white steers. Dr. Walker and his second wife, Elizabeth Thornton Walker, had signed an agreement before their wedding, by which she retained control of her property and disavowed any claim on his. Castle Hill, Dr. Walker’s adjoining lands, and all his possessions, including his two quarter-shares in the Dismal Swamp Company, he bequeathed to Francis.
In the years after Dr. Walker signed his will, Francis managed Castle Hill and his father’s affairs, “closely engaged in Law suits and old accounts.” In June 1789, Virginians learned that Gawin Corbin Tucker, the son whom Robert Tucker had planned to leave richly endowed with property in and near Norfolk, “drank himself to Death” at the age of thirty-four. Robert Tucker’s insolvent estate still held his share in the Dismal Swamp Company. In June, Francis Walker saw the eldest of Elizabeth Farley Dunbar’s four daughters in Albemarle County. Though only seventeen, she was already a widow. Walker’s friend, John Banister, Jr., had died soon after he and Elizabeth Farley were married early in 1788. He left her “a very young gay widow.” Walker had heard that she was “very rich,” reported to receive £1,200 sterling per year from Antigua. Rumor apparently credited her with all the profits from the Mercers Creek plantation, though these were divided among the four sisters. He thought she was “sensible” and “handsome.” Edward Carter escorted her to the springs. The younger William Aitchison looked ready to court her; James Parker’s son wrote from Norfolk: “if he succeeds it will be the best Spec. he ever made.” The same thought came to Francis Walker: “Had I not been extremely engaged should have joined in the escort & speculated in such a commodity.”
Dr. Walker had helped his sons and sons-in-law with gifts of money, land, and other property. He apparently deducted these from the inheritance each was to receive, then used bequests in his will to reach his intended total. His will left his son, John, “seventy pounds twelve shillings and nine pence half penny to-gether with the sums heretofore charged him on my books.” John felt aggrieved by his father’s conduct. He wrote resentfully about “the pittance of a fortune I have received.” The will was one more instance of how this “miserable” inheritance had been “dribbled out to me in shillings & pence, or trifles of that value, thro’ the space of more than thirty years.”
Dr. Walker, at the time of writing his will, had forty-four living grandchildren. Two years before his death, two of those grandchildren, Mildred Hornsby and Nicholas Meriwether Lewis, were married in Williamsburg. The first cousins made, a friend said, “an exact match.” The bride enjoyed both minuets and reels. Joseph Hornsby treated his daughter and son-in-law and guests to two nights of dancing in the rooms in which Peyton Randolph and Speaker Robinson once had talked politics.
The couple’s uncle, John Walker, had bitter thoughts about his own marriage, as well as about his father’s bequest. Almost at the same time that his father wrote a will, his wife revealed to him that, twenty years earlier, Thomas Jefferson had tried to seduce her while John and Dr. Walker were at Fort Stanwix with men of the Six Nations and other tribes. His closest friend had betrayed him. Elizabeth Moore Walker had tried to dissuade her husband from making Jefferson executor of his will, but she did not explain her reason until Jefferson was on the other side of the Atlantic as American minister to France. She unfolded a lurid tale of his repeated attempts at seduction from 1768 until 1779, taking her story far beyond Jefferson’s admission that he had “offered love” to her in 1768. John Walker believed the worst and remained angry until his last days. If Dr. Walker ever learned of the quarrel between his son and his former ward, he left no sign.
Notwithstanding Dr. Walker’s dimming memory and uncertain health, he enjoyed himself at Castle Hill in his mid-seventies. A visitor might easily guess for whom the large leather easy chair was reserved. Walker was “very fond of telling anecdotes.” The books in his library were those of a busy man, largely practical or devotional. He had spent much of his life outdoors. In his last years he still enjoyed “all kinds of sports.” After snow fell at Castle Hill, Dr. Walker pressed everyone into a snowball fight—his children, grandchildren, and “all guests” in a general battle. Many years later, people said of his three sons, John, Thomas, and Francis: “None seems to have inherited the restless energy of the old Dr.”
Panic and a collapse of credit again struck the City of London in 1788, beginning with the bankruptcy of Britain’s largest firm of calico printers, Hargreaves, Anstie, Smith & Hall. Directors of the Bank of England spent their days sorting out bad bills of exchange. As usual, some people said that so many failures in so short a time had not occurred since the bursting of the South Sea Bubble. Firms trading to America looked especially vulnerable. On Friday, August 1, James Russell, longtime Chesapeake merchant, died at the age of eighty. Before the war he had been London’s fourth-largest importer of tobacco. He left nothing for his grandsons to inherit except uncollected debts owed by Americans.
James Parker’s son, Patrick, visited London at the height of the panic in June. He was trying to re-establish the family firm in Virginia and to recover some of his father’s holdings in and near Norfolk. James reluctantly extended credit to his son for the purchase of trade goods. Patrick worried about repaying his father as he stopped in the subscribers’ room at Lloyd’s, where he met Samuel Gist. Gist offered to help; he promised to accept a bill of exchange for more than £140 sterling, drawn by a merchant in Northampton County, Virginia, who owed money to Patrick. The merchant had shown a letter from Gist which had convinced Patrick to take the bill in payment. With Gist’s assurances Patrick Parker returned to Norfolk in August. In the following months, the bill of exchange came back protested three times. Parker delayed repaying his father, hired an attorney to sue the Northampton merchant, and admitted that he had been misled by “that Sneaking Lying Creature Sam Gists promise.”
In the summer of the panic, Gist moved to his new home in Gower Street. Builders worked to extend the row of adjoining, almost identical dwellings northward from Bedford Square. Such austere, strict, symmetrically rectangular structures moved Thomas Jefferson to write: “Their architecture is in the most wretched stile I ever saw.” New neighbors of Sarah Siddons’s and Samuel Gist’s were retired ship captains, physicians, a few members of Parliament, a builder, Joseph Kirkman, an important corn merchant, Claude Scott, and the Reverend William Morice, longtime secretary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. When the celebrated fortune teller Mrs. Williams came to London from Bristol and Bath, she offered her clairvoyance at a half-crown per session in her house in Gower Street. John Scott, the Crown’s solicitor general, moved into Number 42 not long after Gist took Number 37. The official residence of the lord chancellor stood just down the street in Bedford Square. Other former residents of the City besides Gist escaped smoke and grime by settling among the gardens of Gower Street. Gist’s colleague at Lloyd’s, Marmaduke Peacock, took Number 25. A newly married couple, Osgood Hanbury and Susannah Willet Barclay Hanbury, who united two banking families, became their neighbors. Charles Blagden, secretary of the Royal Society, lived nearby. Mrs. Siddons was not the only artist. The venerable organist and composer, John Worgan, lived at Number 65. In former times his playing had been mentioned in the same breath with that of Handel.
Behind his residence Gist kept a coach and horses in a coach house and stables. He employed a coachman and a full staff of servants. A visitor quickly saw that Gist lived “much in style,” among pictures and books, his meals served on silver. His ink stood in a silver inkwell; big candles on pillar candlesticks were put out with a silver snuffer. To check the time he reached to a gold chain with pendant seals and pulled out a gold watch made by Mudge & Dutton.
On Tower Hill, in America Square, the three partners of William Anderson & Company struggled to turn a profit. For months at the end of 1788 and early in 1789 unusually harsh cold interrupted commerce in London. “The streets are a stratum of ice. The river is so hard frozen, that fairs are held upon it.” Men who ordinarily worked on the river and along the quays were reduced to begging in the street. The Planter did not sail for the York River until March 12.
In June a wedding party came to America Square. John Shoolbred’s daughter was married to the Andersons’ neighbor, Jerome Bernard Weuves, a rising man in the Company of Merchants Trading to Africa. Shoolbred and his partner, Gilbert Ross, held two of the three London seats on the company’s committee. Weuves had gone to the Gold Coast the year before the Hope sailed and served there fourteen years, the last six as governor, in turn, of Annamaboe Fort and Cape Coast Castle. He moved back to London in 1784. In the months before his wedding he helped the Company of Merchants by testifying to a committee of the Privy Council in defense of the slave trade.
In June 1788, William Anderson held too much unsold tobacco. A year later his agents in Virginia offered advances of seven to ten guineas per hogshead, while a rival firm, Donald & Burton, told its agents not to go above £6. A short crop came to market in 1789. The price in London rose above £9 per hogshead, with some speculators willing to pay more than £14. Anderson sold a hogshead of Dr. Thomas Walker’s tobacco for £13 10s. As his fortunes in business turned better, William Anderson had to find new agents in Virginia because “unhappy family differences” led him to stop relying on some of his kinsmen.
Samuel Gist at last received £100 sterling from the Dismal Swamp Company in payment for tools and supplies sent long ago and lost in the British invasion. The company paid the remaining £54 5s. a few years later. Gist was eloquent on the subject of Virginia debtors. He told William Jones in the summer of 1789 “that he not only has not received anything from his old debts, but that he had shipped a good deal at the peace to men he considered as good as any on the continent, from whom he has received little or nothing since.” Jones understood all too well. His firm, Farell & Jones, had been especially unlucky in its dealings with men linked to the Dismal Swamp Company. Among Jones’s many large debtors were Dr. Walker, David Meade, John Syme, and the estate of William Byrd. Gist claimed to be owed £34,000. Jones claimed to be owed £80,000.
At home in Gower Street, Gist spent part of the summer of 1789 drawing up a memorial to the Royal Commission for Enquiring into the Losses, Services and Claims of the American Loyalists. Parliament had just extended the commission’s inquiry for another year after receiving “strong applications from various persons” who said they had been prevented from applying for compensation earlier. A list of them in the act of 1789 contained the name of Samuel Gist. In his memorial he said he had lost all his property in Virginia. He asked for £23,051 19s. 5d. He told the commissioners that his daughter, Mary, had eloped while under age, married William Anderson “against your memorialists Approbation,” and moved to Virginia. During the war, the state had vested all Gist’s property in Mary Anderson, “whereby your memorialist is deprived of the greatest part of the Labour of the early part of his Life.”
More than one-tenth of the sum Gist sought—£2,857 sterling—he set as the value of his three quarter-shares in the Dismal Swamp Company. He explained that since 1762 the company had been “expending Vast Sums of Money in Building draining & improveing.” The swamp, he wrote, “is full of Timber, & is among the Richest Land in the World.” He calculated the compensation due him by computing his portion of the company’s 40,000 acres at 2,857 acres and by setting on them a value of £1 sterling per acre.
In case the commissioners might think it odd that Gist, having lost such a large sum, waited until six years after the war to file a claim, he accounted for his delay. The “true cause” of it was “the extreme delicacy of his Situation & his Unwillingness to burthen his Country with any expence until his Friends in Virginia Assured him he had no Chance of relief in that Country.” By the words “extreme delicacy,” Gist apparently alluded to his relations with the Andersons. The commissioners must know that Mary and William Anderson lived in his former residence in America Square and that William Anderson had joined Gist’s other son-in-law and Gist’s former clerk in taking over his business as a tobacco and dry goods merchant. The Andersons remained American citizens. Gist’s property in Virginia was theirs by law. But was it so in practice, the commissioners might ask. With his memorial he submitted documents designed to show that William Anderson “will not part with the Estate” unless Gist settled upon Mary Anderson a fortune equal to its value. This was out of the question. Thus, he explained, his Virginia property was lost to him, “as much as tho’ he was Actually Dead & had no other Child.” Of course, he did not tell the commissioners that the profits of the labor of his slaves on his Virginia plantations, nominally owned by the Andersons, came each year in a remittance from Benjamin Toler. The commissioners were not gullible men. Consideration of Gist’s claim took many years.
The season of 1788–89 at Drury Lane Theatre brought another series of triumphs for Sarah Siddons: Lady Macbeth, Queen Katharine in Henry VIII, the title role in Jane Shore, her first London appearance in Romeo and Juliet, and her usual, ever popular roles in The Gamester, The Fair Penitent, Venice Preserv’d, and Isabella; or, the Fatal Marriage. A member of her audience for a later performance of Macbeth wrote: “In the sleepwalking scene the mere sight of her makes every drop of blood run cold.”
At the end of the season, she temporarily retired from the stage to regain her health. She said she was “convinced if I could keep clear of these dreadful Theatrical exertions which enflame my blood and exhaust my Strength that I should be perfectly well in a fortnight.” Though she liked her “nice house” in Gower Street, she and her husband decided to leave the neighborhood. They bought a house, Number 49, in Great Marlborough Street and moved in 1790. She soon returned to the stage; her admirers left Gower Street to follow her to her new address. Among them was a young Irish law student who said that “Mrs. Siddons had conceived a passion for Him. He fancied that she sent persons after Him to drug his victuals in order to inspire Him with love for Her.” He repeatedly visited Great Marlborough Street and wrote “innumerable Letters” to Mrs. Siddons until he was taken into custody and sent back to Ireland. After 1790 the street in front of Samuel Gist’s house was quieter than it had been during his first two years there.
A young British officer visiting Mount Vernon in 1788 admired the improvements George Washington had made: “He seems to be laying out his grownds with great tast in the English fashion.” Washington’s enthusiasm for details of agriculture showed plainly in his barns, livestock, and equipment; “he appears to be the compleatest Gentleman farmer I have ever met in America and perhaps I may Add England.” Since the end of the war, Washington had enjoyed five years back at Mount Vernon. Then the first electors unanimously chose him as president of the United States. He moved to Manhattan.
At Mount Vernon one of Washington’s most frequent guests was Henry Lee. A short, talkative man in his early thirties, Lee had won Washington’s favor as a daring officer in the Continental Army. During the last years of the war he commanded a legion—a small force combining infantry and cavalry—in the Carolinas. He left the army in 1782. He was married to Matilda Lee, granddaughter of one of his uncles and daughter of Philip Ludwell Lee. She had inherited her father’s plantation with its elegant brick mansion, Stratford Hall, overlooking the Potomac about 80 miles downriver from Mount Vernon. Henry Lee did not aspire to a retired life as a gentleman farmer. He sought public office, serving in the House of Delegates and the Continental Congress. He vehemently supported the Constitution as a delegate to the ratifying convention. He traveled often, and he took a growing interest in land speculation.
Lee admired an Arabian stallion Washington had bought from the estate of his late stepson, John Parke Custis. Sixteen hands high, with “a very beautiful shape,” Magnolio was “in high health, spirits, and flesh”—“as fine a horse as any born in this country.” Lee, a skilled horseman, coveted the stallion. Late in 1788 he offered Washington 5,000 acres of land in western Kentucky in exchange. After dinner on Tuesday, December 9, the two men closed the bargain.
Lee shared Washington’s faith in the Potomac Company and its future canal at Great Falls as sure means to wider commerce and great wealth. In 1788 he bought 500 acres on the south bank of the Potomac, where the canal was to run. He envisioned a town there: Matildaville. In his mind’s eye he already saw wharves, merchants’ offices, warehouses, residences. After acquiring Magnolio, Lee told Washington that he wished to buy land in the Dismal Swamp. On the same principle by which a Potomac canal raised the value of Great Falls property, a Dismal Swamp canal would make property near Suffolk and Lake Drummond worth even more than it already was. Lee mentioned the tracts purchased jointly by Washington, Fielding Lewis, and Dr. Thomas Walker in 1764 and 1766, which he would be glad to get.
As Washington was inaugurated in New York, the April 1789 issue of The Columbian Magazine in Philadelphia published part of the elder William Byrd’s proposal for draining the Dismal Swamp. This version included Byrd’s description of the swamp and his argument for the benefits of draining it. The contributor, who could have obtained the text only by visiting Westover and copying it or by getting someone else to do so, omitted the last section of the manuscript. In that part, Byrd described how easily the project might expand in ten years from twenty slaves to three hundred, while financing itself, generating profits, and increasing the price of shares tenfold.
In remarks upon this text the “correspondent” cared less about Byrd’s plan to drain the swamp than about Byrd’s foresight in suggesting a canal to connect the Pasquotank River of North Carolina with the Elizabeth River of Virginia. The contributor used Byrd to endorse the projected new Dismal Swamp canal. “The advantages … must be obviously great to the community in general.” One of America’s leading periodicals in the nation’s largest city in effect advertised that the Dismal Swamp and land along the Elizabeth River were about to become sites of a boom in commerce and real estate.
Busied with establishing a new government and disillusioned by the failure of his attempts since 1784 to revive the Dismal Swamp Company, George Washington no longer devoted time to promoting the Nansemond County prosperity he had predicted for the previous twenty-five years. The active partners were David Jameson, David Meade, Joseph Hornsby, and William Nelson, Jr. Jameson’s nephew, John, called on Washington in New York during his first year as president, and they conversed about the Dismal Swamp Company. Washington said that he “did not expect ever to meet the Company again.” He asked David Jameson to represent him. Late in the year, Washington appointed William Nelson, Jr., as United States attorney for the Virginia District. By giving the office to a man who had opposed ratification of the Constitution, Washington reassured Antifederalists that they would not be proscribed. Soon after moving back to Richmond, however, Nelson learned that the unsalaried office yielded little income in fees. He did not hold it long.
John Driver’s reports to David Jameson, written from Suffolk, complained about the partners’ neglect of the Dismal Swamp Company. Driver had difficulty finding a competent overseer for Dismal Plantation. In the spring of 1789 he dismissed one who would not “do right.” For months no white man lived there. Driver gave the title “foreman” to “one of the old fellows” who had not left with the British. Driver visited the plantation two or three times a week. The small group of black people followed their annual routine of producing rice and corn, cleaning and mending ditches to increase the size of their crops. Driver wrote to Jameson: “If you think the owners of the Swamp do not intend to put any more hands there I wou’d wish to have nothing more to do with it. The place is so much out of order & such a heavy Tax to pay & nothing made I am tired of the business.” Nansemond County encroachers entered the company’s land, cut down trees, and hauled them away. Before the end of the summer, Driver chose Demsey Smith, a man he barely knew, as an interim overseer and warned Jameson to find another manager: “I have a very great notion of going next Summer to the Western Country.” Four years of trips from Suffolk into the Dismal Swamp made Kentucky look inviting.
In the first days of 1790, Major John Simon Farley arrived in Norfolk from Antigua. He was forty-three. He had not heeded the urgent advice of his late uncle to resign from the British Army in order to protect his interest in the Land of Eden and in land along the northeastern margin of the Dismal Swamp. Nevertheless, he and his sister, Elizabeth Morson, remembered their father’s claim and asserted it. Francis Farley’s daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Farley Dunbar, and her four daughters ought not to keep for themselves all the riches of Norfolk County plantations and the Land of Eden. Major Farley believed that Francis Farley had refrained from giving his nephew and niece title to their share because he feared that all property of British subjects in America would be confiscated. The holdings stayed safely intact by remaining in the hands of American citizens, Farley’s four granddaughters. The war was over; confiscations had ceased. If Elizabeth Dunbar and her daughters refused to divide the land, Major Farley stood ready to go to court in Virginia and North Carolina. He obtained a letter of introduction to a good attorney, St. George Tucker, and left Norfolk for Williamsburg.
In New York, on Thursday, March 4, 1790, George and Martha Washington gave a dinner for Vice President John Adams and the members of the Senate. The senators had deep disagreements over Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s proposals for funding the public debts of the national and state governments. But Thursday afternoon’s occasion was “a dinner of dignity.” Senator Samuel Johnston of North Carolina had tried, twenty-five years earlier, to incommode the Dismal Swamp Company and force its partners to include the Campania Company in their huge anticipated profits. In the Washingtons’ New York residence he drank excellent champagne and took after-dinner coffee with Martha Washington, “a most amiable Woman.” At dinner the president looked grave. Between courses he played with his silverware, drumming on the table with a knife or fork. “The President seemed to bear in his Countenance a settled Aspect of Melancholy.” The next day George Washington wrote to a kinsman in Virginia, describing his terms for selling some land in Gloucester County. He said that he wanted to sell, not lease to renters, “having found, from experience, that estates at a distance plague more than they profit the Proprietors of them.”
The unaccountable failure of land in and near the Dismal Swamp to rise rapidly in value disappointed men who tried to emulate the foresight of the Dismal Swamp Company and to profit by the coming canal. Among these were Thomas Ruston and William Short. After coming into his fortune in 1785, Dr. Ruston returned to America to grow richer through land speculation. William Short, a friend and classmate of William Nelson, Jr.’s, went to France in October 1784 as secretary to the American legation. After Thomas Jefferson left Paris to become secretary of state, Short remained as chargé d’affaires. He, too, wished to grow rich. Ruston failed, while Short succeeded, but neither profited from Nansemond and Norfolk counties.
Before Ruston gave his power of attorney to Samuel Gist and sailed from London, he received Hugh Williamson’s reports on the Dismal Swamp and on two stretches of land along the Nansemond River. Williamson said that buying into the Dismal Swamp Company was “impracticable. Several Gentlemen have told me that they had attempted in vain.” But Ruston’s tracts of 600 acres and 300 acres were said to be worth £1,500 sterling, and 1,000 acres of the Dismal Swamp adjoining these tracts went for 75¢ per acre. Neither Williamson nor Ruston suggested that this disparity in price looked odd. Ruston reached Philadelphia in 1785 and visited Virginia late in 1787.
Preparing to sail for France at the age of twenty-five, William Short needed money. He had inherited property in North Carolina, which he sold to John Harvie, head of the Virginia Land Office. Harvie paid half the price in interest-bearing Virginia land certificates and half in land—a two-thirds interest in 15,000 acres in Kentucky and a deed to 1,000 acres of the Green Sea in the Dismal Swamp. Short later wrote of the deal: “I think I must have been in a kind of delirium.” In his mind’s eye he saw “the best 15000 acres of all the western country.” The Green Sea tract in Norfolk County, 1,000 acres of reeds adjoining Patrick Henry’s holdings, Short pictured as “worth their cover in gold.” He imagined the new canal cutting through his property. Harvie knew but did not say until years later that Green Sea lands were “Immense ponds of Water which probably will not be Drained in a Century.” They had “little Worth.” Almost thirty years after Short acquired the tract, its annual tax bill was $2.
Coming into money changed Dr. Thomas Ruston. He “lost all the habits of innocence, friendship, and benevolence of his early life.” Instead of enjoying his freedom, he became greedy. He speculated wildly. By 1790 he had run through his fortune and was “a Bankrupt out of jail.” His land adjoining the Dismal Swamp was occupied by tenants, who paid annual rents ranging from £1 10s. to £6 Virginia currency. The total payments for 1790 were less than £19. John Driver collected these, not charging Ruston a commission because the sums were “trifling.” Even so, Ruston badgered both his attorney, William Nivison, and Driver with accusations and demands. He wished to sell the land, but he had difficulty understanding why tracts with an assessed value of slightly less than £1 per acre did not find buyers at a price of £6 per acre. In desperate straits, Ruston sought rescue through matrimony, courting two of Philadelphia’s richest widows. They treated him with “every possible indignity.… He was the object of the contempt and pity of the whole city.”
Cyrus Griffin was the new federal judge for the Virginia District. For sittings of the United States Circuit Court he was joined by one or two justices of the Supreme Court. They first sat alternately in Williamsburg and Charlottesville, but in 1791 they settled in Richmond. Griffin opened his court in the capitol in Richmond on Tuesday, December 15, 1789. This new venue offered an opportunity for John Wickham, a twenty-seven-year-old attorney, to move from Williamsburg to Richmond. When people spoke of him, the word “clever” came to mind. His uncle was Edmund Fanning, loyalist politician and soldier, who in 1771 had gone to New York with Governor William Tryon and endured the drunken wrath of Lord Dunmore. Wickham had held a commission in a loyalist regiment at the end of the war, and had been taken prisoner near Roanoke, Virginia, while carrying British dispatches from New York to Charleston. His “extreme youth” and “the interest of influential citizens” helped him escape punishment. In 1783 he feared that “the Disposition for Persecution” would prevent him from living in America, but in December 1785 he arrived in Williamsburg to study law with St. George Tucker and George Wythe. He remained there through 1789, practicing law, living next door to Tucker, building a library of law books.
John Marshall was eight years older than Wickham; he had practiced law in Richmond for six years when Wickham was admitted to the Virginia bar. To a person who needed an attorney in Williamsburg in 1789 he recommended Wickham as “a young man of great cleaverness.” Marshall’s lank, lounging, relaxed appearance did not look formidable at first sight. Yet he was a leader of the Richmond bar by the time the federal court opened and Wickham moved to Richmond.
Richmond, William Byrd’s city at the falls of the James, was growing. In 1790 it held more than 3,700 residents—about 2,000 whites and 1,700 blacks. It looked raw. Dirt streets ran uphill from the north bank of the river. Wind raised clouds of dust and rain made thick mud. Wharves and buildings near the river were wooden structures, newly rebuilt after a recent fire. People in trade lived near the river; attorneys, state officials, and richer people lived up the hill. There a new capitol building was slowly rising, which would, Thomas Jefferson hoped, teach Americans classical taste in architecture. A British merchant visiting Richmond said of the structure: “I wish instead of laying out their money so ridiculously that they would first pay the British debts.” The old capitol, near the river, looked like a barn. Delegates and senators attended their noisy sessions dressed in the same clothes they wore in their fields. To a resident of London, Richmond was “one of the dirtiest holes of a place I ever was in.”
To the extent that a young attorney could afford to specialize, John Wickham devoted his practice to debts. He represented British creditors suing Virginians in federal court. His colleagues at the bar—John Marshall, Bushrod Washington, William Nelson, Jr., and others—also took such cases. Marshall represented debtors; Wickham found his best clients among creditors. After Wickham consented to pursue debts owed to the House of Norton, Charles Grymes, a collection agent, congratulated John Hatley Norton on his new attorney, saying: “he appears to be exceedingly cleaver.” Unlike Marshall, Wickham stayed out of politics. Nevertheless, his early life as a loyalist earned him a reputation as a Tory, which served him well in attracting British clients. He had neither Marshall’s ease and cogency nor Patrick Henry’s dramatic voice and gestures, but he was witty, urbane, genteel, with beautiful elocution, able to “gild and decorate the darkest subjects.” He thought fast on his feet, adjusting smoothly to surprises in court. William Nelson, Jr., called him “the most acute and quick man at the bar.” Though Wickham looked younger than his years and seemed lighthearted, he knew how to make his meaning clear through the mask of his politesse. He wrote to a client’s debtor: “I shall feel much pleasure if I find it unnecessary to have recourse to coercive measures.”
Wickham successfully sued the estate of Robert Munford for more than £2,000 sterling. He represented many British firms, among them William Jones of Farell & Jones. While William Anderson & Company retained John Marshall, Samuel Gist chose Wickham. For receiving payment from debtors and transferring the money to creditors, he charged a commission of 5 percent. For collecting through litigation, he charged 10 percent. His practice in 1791 was “much more profitable … than it had ever been before.” People spoke of him as “the famous lawyer.” On Christmas Eve he and his cousin, Mary Smith Fanning, were married. In the following years his practice continued “to grow more and more profitable.” He and John Marshall built large brick houses on the hill.
In June 1790, William Jones, acting through his Virginia attorney Jerman Baker, later joined by John Wickham and others, brought suit against Dr. Thomas Walker in the United States Circuit Court for the Virginia District. This was one of thirty cases Jones began in the court’s first three terms. The suit alleged that Dr. Walker owed Farell & Jones £2,903 15s. 8d. sterling. In December, Francis Walker and John Walker appeared in court for their father. Arguments did not take place until the last week of November 1791. The federal courts’ decision on Dr. Walker would govern pending and future suits for debts to British merchants contracted before the war. On the bench were Judge Cyrus Griffin and two justices of the Supreme Court, Thomas Johnson and John Blair. Each side was represented by four attorneys. For the plaintiff: John Wickham, Jerman Baker, Andrew Ronald, and Burwell Starke. For the defendant: Patrick Henry, John Marshall, Alexander Campbell, and James Innes. Arguments lasted more than a week. Dr. Walker’s attorneys resorted to the usual pleas: that the dissolution of the colonial government ended the obligation; that British property was forfeit to the state; that Virginia law prohibited recovery; that, in accordance with wartime state law, he had paid his debt to the Virginia Loan Office rather than to his creditor; that the British still owed Virginians compensation for slaves who had left with the British Army; that the British violated the treaty of peace by keeping troops south of the Great Lakes. Patrick Henry, after uncharacteristically vigorous research, went further, giving a long, erudite, impassioned argument designed to raise the matter of Dr. Walker’s debt to a question of the nature of man and of nations. Although the Court gave no decision, the attorneys impressed even the skeptical. William Nelson, Jr., wrote: “I did not think so much could have been said against their payment.” While others praised Henry’s eloquence and scholarship, Nelson noticed the attorneys of the future: “Campbell & Wickham are young men of great talents.” Most listeners, even those who owed nothing to Britons, “thought there could not be a recovery.”
The court delayed its ruling. Patrick Henry returned to Richmond with his little brown wig in May 1792, ready “to harangue ’em on the impropriety of paying.” Justice James Wilson of the Supreme Court and Judge Griffin sat for only a week, ignoring more than one hundred debt cases. A creditor’s attorney heard Wilson say to Henry in a hall of the capitol: “Mr. Henry it will not be necessary for you to attend longer, as we decline going into the general question.”
In the spring of 1793, Judge Griffin, Chief Justice John Jay, and Justice James Iredell heard arguments in another suit for a debt owed to Farell & Jones. William Jones had died, waiting for his money. John Tyndale Warre, or Ware, pursued the firm’s debtors. In the case of Ware v. Hylton, the court struck down all but one of the debtors’ arguments. Griffin and Iredell outvoted Jay in accepting the plea of wartime payment into the state Loan Office. Since few debtors had made such payments, creditors could win many cases. In 1793 verdicts were given in sixty-eight cases of British debts; plaintiffs won fifty-two. Three years later the Supreme Court reversed Griffin and Iredell on the Loan Office question, disallowing Virginians’ last defense. By then Dr. Walker had died.
Many debts went uncollected for lack of proof. Nor did winning verdicts necessarily mean receiving money. But John Wickham did well for Samuel Gist, as did Gist’s agent for collections, Thomas Shore. Wickham and Shore recovered and remitted “large sums.” These did not appear in the ledgers Gist submitted in pursuit of compensation from the Crown for his losses in America as a loyal subject of the king.
The race for the hand of the first of Francis Farley’s four Virginia granddaughters, the young widow Elizabeth Farley Banister, ended in victory for Thomas Lee Shippen. Though a Pennsylvanian, he was also a Lee. His mother, Alice Lee Shippen, was a sister of the well-known Lee brothers—William, Arthur, Richard Henry, and Francis Lightfoot—and the aunt of Henry Lee’s wife, Matilda. Thomas Shippen toured Virginia after the war, visiting Williamsburg, Rosewell, Westover, and Richmond.
Shippen’s father sent him to London in the summer of 1786 to study law at the Inner Temple, but he showed more interest in women. On Tuesday, October 3, he went to Drury Lane Theatre for a performance of Venice Preserv’d. Lord North, his wife, and their two daughters sat in one of the boxes. Seeing Sarah Siddons in a gray satin gown, a woman in the audience thought: “Belvidera takes the stage in the part of wife and daughter, and acts with a truth which charms and ravishes.” After Belvidera went mad, Shippen could hardly contain himself. He wrote of Mrs. Siddons: “I have indeed beheld, I have heard, I have felt, through my whole system felt her.… In the mad scene she was particularly great, and in the cry of murder, piercing to the most phlegmatic breast.” Returning to Philadelphia, Shippen nominally practiced law, but he welcomed an opportunity to visit Virginia in the autumn of 1790.
Shippen’s uncles entertained him on the Northern Neck, between the Potomac and the Rappahannock. With them he visited Stratford Hall, where they and Shippen’s mother had lived as children. Matilda Lee had died the previous month, and Henry Lee was not at home. At the center of the mansion Shippen sat in the elegant room that connected its two wings. He looked at portraits of his late uncle, Philip Ludwell Lee, of his grandfather and grandmother, Thomas and Hannah Ludwell Lee, of his great-grandfather and great-grandmother, Richard and Laetitia Corbin Lee, and of the first Richard, one of Virginia’s largest landholders at his death in 1664, and of his wife. Shippen wrote to his father: “I dwelt with rapture on the pictures of Stratford and felt so strong an inclination to kneel to that of my grandfather.” In his travels along the James River, among Carters and Byrds, he met Elizabeth Banister, the Antigua and Dismal Swamp Company heiress. She had held out against her suitors for more than a year. She accepted Thomas Lee Shippen. He need no longer pretend to practice law. He wrote to his father: “We shall be comfortably independent I think at least.”
Shippen returned to Virginia early in 1791 for the wedding, which took place at Nesting on the evening of Thursday, March 10. Bishop James Madison, president of the College of William and Mary, came from Williamsburg to perform the ceremony. The bridegroom called himself “the happiest of men,” married to “the loveliest and best of women.” Within six weeks Elizabeth Shippen was pregnant. Mary Willing Byrd felt sorry to see the young couple leave for Philadelphia, but she knew that Thomas would be happier there “than he possibly can be in this unpolished Country.”
Thomas Lee Shippen took an interest in the Dismal Swamp, the Land of Eden, Major John Simon Farley’s lawsuits, and the Mercers Creek plantation in Antigua. During the 1790s the labor of the Mercers Creek slaves on cane fields, sugar boilers, and rum distilleries yielded an average annual payment of more than £430 sterling to each of Francis Farley’s four granddaughters. Elizabeth and Thomas Shippen bought a country estate about 17 miles northeast of Philadelphia on a hill overlooking the road to Trenton and the toll bridge across Neshaminy Creek. She named the place “Farley.” Their first child, a boy named for Thomas Shippen’s father, was born in January 1792. Planning for his son’s future, Thomas Shippen paid $750 for three shares in the Dismal Swamp Canal Company.
The legislatures of Virginia and North Carolina passed laws in 1790 authorizing the Dismal Swamp canal and creating a company to dig it. Shares cost $250 each. Shareholders’ prospect for future profits lay in the company’s right to charge tolls on vessels, people, livestock, and commodities transported through the canal.
Some North Carolinians protested in vain, warning that a canal would make Norfolk “the Emporium of commerce, of the Southern States” at the expense of North Carolina. “The contract carries with it the face of a Jobb” in “the evident advantage, which the Canal will bring into the hands of a few Land Speculators, who hold property contiguous to it.” Patrick Henry hoped this was so obvious that he could get rid of his Green Sea tract and his acres near the Dismal Swamp Company’s property. As soon as North Carolina’s law passed, he advertised his willingness to exchange his holdings for acreage in the piedmont. He said: “The proposed canal which is to connect the navigation of the Chesapeake with that of Albemarle Sound, it is supposed must necessarily pass through these lands.” He had been governor when the canal’s course was chosen; he had reason to know that it lay east of the Dismal Swamp Company’s land and west of the Green Sea.
George Washington and John Lewis sold the roadside tract south of the North Carolina line. Washington thought that in May 1791 “the moment was not favorable” for getting the best price; yet he consented, he told Lewis, “as the Affairs of your fathers Estate pressed, and my own want of money was great.” He was drawing his salary as president in advance. He and his brother-in-law had paid about £1 per acre in Virginia’s colonial currency for the land. John Lewis sold it for £1 per acre in Virginia state currency to John Cowper, a manager of the Dismal Swamp Canal Company.
Subscription books for the new canal company’s stock were open in the spring and summer of 1791. By the first week of September, men in Norfolk and Portsmouth had bought about 140 shares. Two weeks later the managers compiled a list of subscribers. It contained 142 names, representing an investment of $47,000 in 188 shares. More soon joined, and the General Assembly invested $12,500 of public money in fifty shares. Francis Walker, Henry Lee, and delegates from Nansemond County voted for the purchase. Thomas Newton, Jr., bought four shares; Dr. Thomas Ruston’s attorney, William Nivison, bought two; St. George Tucker bought one. William Aitchison and Patrick Parker, sons of the unlucky loyalists, bought shares. Few North Carolinians invested.
The list had a 143rd name on it, that of David Jameson, acting for the Dismal Swamp Company. The company ought to take an interest in the canal, but getting the partners to do anything was difficult. William Nelson, Jr., about to become a judge of the General Court, asked for a meeting in August. David Jameson lay ill in York Town. Joseph Hornsby and his daughters were visiting Dr. Walker at Castle Hill. Hornsby’s wife, Mildred, had died in childbirth in Williamsburg on Friday, June 11, 1790, “very much lamented by myself,” he wrote in the family Bible, “& all our dear children.” The summer trip to Castle Hill was his second that year. Dr. Walker was in good spirits but fading. Hornsby gave him several opportunities to see his grandchildren. Nor did Thomas Newton, Jr., come from Norfolk to represent Robert Tucker’s share. He said he was “prevented by business here that I cannot leave.” Robert Andrews, after waiting so long for the company to pay him for supervising its survey, had foreseen that Nelson would not manage to convene a meeting: “I knew he was not prone to activity in business.”
Dismal Plantation produced little for sale in 1791. The overseer said that no shingles could be made until late in the year. Slaves had not opened ditches or built new fences. The plantation yielded a little more than £51 in 1790. The total for 1791 was £16 2s. currency. In the northeastern sector of the company’s holdings, “strangers from the North[war]d” worked the swamp, and other people made “many unwarantable incroachments.” Without a meeting, the managing partners—Jameson, Hornsby, and David Meade—subscribed on the company’s behalf for twenty shares in the Dismal Swamp Canal Company, at a cost of $5,000. Jameson’s letter to Francis Walker about the assessment on Dr. Walker’s two quarter-shares sounded peremptory: “I … shall be much obliged to you to have something done speedily.” Three years later, the partners had paid about half of their subscription to the canal company’s stock.
In the six months after the canal company drew up its first list of subscribers, twenty-five men bought another 112 shares. Thomas Lee Shippen subscribed for three; his wife’s stepfather, John Dunbar, for two. The estate of Secretary Thomas Nelson bought a share. So did Patrick Henry. Alexander Macaulay, merchant of York Town, had his eye on the Dismal Swamp Company, and he subscribed $2,500 for ten shares in the canal company. Except for the state’s fifty shares, the Dismal Swamp Company was the largest shareholder in the Dismal Swamp Canal Company.
The canal company organized for work in 1792 and 1793, led by Robert Andrews. It had a capital of about $80,000, soon increased to $100,000. Writing in 1793, the Reverend John Jones Spooner, rector of a parish near David Meade’s plantation, told readers of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Collections that the new canal was “in considerable forwardness.” Yet digging had just begun. One end of the ditch began in North Carolina, seven miles south of the dividing line, at South Mills, where Joyce’s Creek flowed into the Pasquotank River. The other end began near the head of navigation on Deep Creek, a tributary of the Elizabeth River, about 7 miles south of Portsmouth and more than 11 miles by water from Norfolk. Moving up the Elizabeth River and into Deep Creek, a vessel passed between thick growths of timber, broken in some spots by a patch of two or three acres of cleared land on which stood a house, “small and mean in appearance.”
Laboring on the canal trench, hired slaves used saws, axes, and picks more often than shovels. Pine, cedar, and hardwood trees had to be felled; canes, briers, and other undergrowth cut away. For at least ten feet below the peat surface, men sliced through peat, roots, fibers, and white sand. As they deepened the trench, they always stood in water. About a yard below the surface in many places, streams of brandy-colored water flowed ceaselessly down the walls of the canal from the surrounding swamp. The finished canal was supposed to accommodate vessels with a 15-foot beam and a 3-foot draft; it must be at least 8 feet deep.
John Sparling and William Bolden, merchants of Liverpool, were surprised to learn that John Lawrence, their man in Suffolk, Virginia, had subscribed for only one share in the Dismal Swamp Canal Company. They ordered him to buy at least twenty more “if it can be done at Par, or without much advance from the original subscription.” They did not see why the canal company expected to take three or four years to cut a short canal through “a level soft Country,” but they predicted that the project would cost more than twice the allotted $100,000. Even so, they said, once it was completed, North Carolina’s trade would make the canal “a beneficial thing to the Proprietors.”
David Jameson, David Meade, and Joseph Hornsby summoned their partners to meet at Suffolk on May 13, 1793, so that members of the Dismal Swamp Company could visit Dismal Plantation and the swamp to “form a just idea of its value, as well as the mode of draining and improving it.” That planned meeting apparently did not occur, but a quorum of members gathered in York Town on Wednesday, May 22. After a recent attack of violent spasms, David Jameson lay motionless, near death. His quarter-share and Samuel Gist’s three quarter-shares were represented by his nephew, David Jameson, Jr. In all, seventy-two quarter-shares were voted by their owners or by proxy. During the session, the executors of Fielding Lewis’s estate conveyed his share to Alexander Macaulay and John Brown, clerk of the General Court in Richmond, for £1,000. In return for this show of confidence in the company’s future, their partners made them managers, with William Nelson, Jr., Joseph Hornsby, and David Meade. The meeting’s only resolution, except to meet again, was to assess each full share £24 to pay an installment on the price of the twenty shares in the canal company. The younger Jameson soon learned that collecting would not be easy. On Thursday he wrote to Thomas Newton, Jr., to get £24 from Robert Tucker’s estate. The next day Newton replied: “I cannot pay it without the risque of loosing it altogether. This share must be sold. There are so many concerned in it that no division can take place.”
The canal advanced slowly. A day of hard work moved the ditch forward less than ten yards. Those digging from the north and those digging from the south each had to cover 11 miles. No one knew or tried to determine how many locks the canal would need. No one knew whether the Joyce’s Creek end lay higher or lower than the Deep Creek end. The company’s managers had no way to estimate future costs. By the end of 1793 the company had made four assessments on its shareholders. On November 16 it called on the Dismal Swamp Company for another $500. Sparling and Bolden had no cause for worry that the price of shares would rise above par. Instead, it fell. After six years of digging in the swamp by the company’s hired slaves, a share originally purchased for $250 sold for $100.
John Page and his daughter, Alice, who was eighteen, visited York Town on Monday and Tuesday, October 8 and 9, 1792. Rather than return to Rosewell for the night, they stayed in town. John Page had much on his mind. He had been happily remarried for more than two years. While serving in the House of Representatives during the first session of Congress he met Margaret Lowther in New York. Fifteen years younger than he, she was a poet with a “happy Temper.” Within a month of their wedding she was pregnant.
Page’s re-election to Congress in 1790 had not come easily. Francis Corbin opposed him, treating the voters to “strong grogg & roasted piggs” while telling them that in March, after Quakers petitioned Congress in opposition to slavery and the slave trade, Page had viewed the petition favorably. Corbin accused Page of being “principled against Slavery.” Page denied the charge. He privately said that, if defeated, he would “enjoy the Luxury of Retirement, made sweet by the sweetest Partner of domestic Happiness.” Many people thought he would lose the election, but he won. He won again in 1792.
Page found service in Congress wearing. He had no time for rest or exercise. He worried about the new government. Calling himself “a Democratical Member,” he saw the Washington administration “moving headlong into Monarchy.” George Washington had been “taken in by the Aristocrats”; Page wished that he had not accepted the presidency. Perhaps only the French Revolution could keep liberty and republicanism alive.
By October 1792, John Page’s money troubles had worsened. A suit was pending against the estate of his late brother-in-law, Lewis Burwell, for which he was executor. The British merchant Wakelin Welch threatened to foreclose a mortgage Burwell had given in 1768. Men to whom Page owed money, John Hatley Norton and John Jameson of Culpeper County, were pressing him. He called them “unreasonable impatient creditors.” He again tried to sell land, without success. Early in 1792 he almost persuaded Thomas Lee Shippen and William Bingham that his two quarter-shares in the Dismal Swamp Company and his 500 acres of Green Sea land were cheap at a price “about £300 more than would pay every Debt I owe.” But the sale did not go through. In May he asked to borrow money in Philadelphia at 20 percent interest to pay Jameson. Page knew in October that, upon his return to Philadelphia to attend Congress, he must again ask his oldest friend, Thomas Jefferson, to sign as his security for a short-term loan. He felt “unhappy and ashamed.”
The summer of 1792 brought heat and drought. Crops fell short. The firm of Donald & Burton refused to accept Page’s bill of exchange, and he commented: “justly enough I confess.” Robert Andrews pressed Page to confer with David Jameson about the condition of Dismal Plantation and the company’s affairs, but Page had too many worries to devote much attention to the company he was trying to leave.
In York Town, on the morning of Tuesday, October 9, as Page was dressing, a letter was handed to him. It came from young Dr. Augustine Smith, a frequent guest at Rosewell. Smith lived in York Town, but he wrote a letter, fearing that if he spoke in person he would be “confused.” Page read: “I have long been tenderly attached to your amiable Daughter, & flatter myself that your sanction wou’d induce her to approve of my attentions.” The letter acknowledged that Smith had too little income as a new physician to support a family. He promised: “Industry, care & attention may considerably remedy this inconvenience—and every thing shall be willingly sacraficed to the happiness of your accomplished Daughter.”
This request seemed odd, since John Page, four weeks earlier, had ordered wedding apparel for Alice and her bridesmaids. Of course Alice was going to be married to Augustine. He had been courting her for more than two years. Yet only after wedding arrangements had begun did he work up the courage to seek her father’s consent.
Augustine Smith loved literature and wrote verse. He had all the marks of one who took The Sorrows of Young Werther to heart. From an early age he depended upon Thomas Nelson, Jr., who sent him to Edinburgh to study medicine. Smith returned to York Town in time to care for Nelson during his final illness in December 1788. Smith fell in love with Alice Page at first sight when she was almost sixteen. In the summer of 1790 he invoked the god of love in secret verse:
When first Alicia’s form was seen,
Her genteel air and graceful mien,
Her lovely winning Face;
I saw th’almighty God of love
Around the Maid with rapture move
* * *
O make Alicia mine!
Two tender Doves, a milk-white pair,
With silken downe, I’ll then prepare
An off’ring at thy shrine.
He wrote to a friend: “I have lately felt all the perturbations of a lover whom prudence wou’d persuade to be silent on the theme that engrosses his whole soul.”
After that first meeting, Smith visited Rosewell off and on for a year, seemingly just one among many guests. Yet he knew that his behavior gave him away. He took heart and declared his love. In July 1791 he wrote to Alice: “Connections commencing in fraud and dissimulation I concieve, must end in hatred and contempt.—I love you Miss Page!—I have loved you from my first acquaintance with you.—And had niggard Fortune enabled me to offer you a competency of wealth, my faithful Heart had long ago been opened to you.… I blush at my presumption in offering you a hand almost shrivelled by the hard gripe of indigence.”
Augustine made more visits to Rosewell. Alice, remaining poised and modest, made him welcome. On Monday, August 29, she invited her suitor to stay until evening, but she agitated him by speaking not of love but of her “Gratitude, Esteem, and Friendship.” He rushed away, crossed the York River to his home, and sat up until midnight writing a letter to her: “I thought I had reduced my mind to some thing like reason—but feel every emotion of my soul verging toward insanity.… I feel that my amiable Alice is alone capable of making me happy, & interest, mere self interest so blinds me as to make me believe, in spite of reason & truth, that I cou’d make her happy—I feel myself, at this instant, degraded even below your compassion; yet nothing short of your love, your unreserved, warm ingenuous affection can possibly content me—Great God! I am mad.”
She carefully saved his letters. Augustine was back at Rosewell for her birthday, writing impromptu verse after the sun broke through the clouds, shining on the huge mansion, its gardens, and the river.
Go Nymphs! and sound the tuneful shell,
Let all be jocund, pleas’d & gay—
Go, to each mortal loudly tell
That this is Alice’ natal day.
Looking at Augustine Smith’s letter in York Town, John Page knew all this. In his day he had written similar verse. The only mystery was Smith’s delay in asking him for his daughter’s hand. The young man worried that he might have “committed an impropriety in not having spoke to him.”
After returning to Rosewell, John Page replied to Smith. He explained that he could not give money to the young couple: “my own Circumstances are in such an unhappy State at present, & my future Prospect so gloomy, that I cannot even hope to see the Day when I may be able to give my Daughter any thing which could in even a moderate Degree contribute to her Support.” With a hint of a joke about Smith’s suggestion that Page might at this late date induce his daughter to accept a proposal, Page added: “She is capable of judging for herself, & if your Attachments are mutual & fixed, neither of you will be more unhappy than I shall be should prudential Motives induce you to make a painfull Sacrifice.”
The wedding took place a few months later. John Page took pride in Rosewell, calling it “the most beautiful Seat in Virga. with the most elegant House in America thereon.” Fifty-five years past, William Nelson had crossed the river from York Town to be married to Elizabeth Burwell. Now John Page was fifty years old, giving his daughter in marriage. Though he was seeking money desperately, he stinted her in nothing for the wedding. The bridal party made a display of white silk, pink silk, embroidered muslin, white and pink ribbons, white kid gloves, satin slippers, and white ostrich plumes. John Page was at the head of Gloucester County gentry, and in entertaining they vied with one another in offering lavish hospitality—turtle feasts, fish feasts, a party of forty dining under an arbor erected a few yards from the beach, bushels of ice from an icehouse in summer to chill cider and punch and wine, a fiddler with dancing on the green. Augustine Smith and Alice Page Smith settled in York Town. His practice improved. They were attended by household slaves; they acquired mahogany and walnut furniture and many volumes of Latin and English literature. In twelve years they had six children.
John Page at last sold one of his quarter-shares in the Dismal Swamp Company to his son-in-law, William Nelson of York Town, son of Augustine Smith’s benefactor, Thomas Nelson, Jr., and nephew of William Nelson, Jr. The price he received in May 1793, £250 in Virginia currency, was much less than he had expected to get from Thomas Lee Shippen and William Bingham. A year later he sold the other quarter-share for the same price to Philip Tabb, a neighbor in Gloucester County. In the time between these transactions he advertised other land. His old enemy, vertigo, returned. In the autumn of 1793 he suffered an “extreme low state of health.” To raise money he turned to a planter’s last recourse: putting slaves on the auction block. Sixty-eight slaves over the age of twelve worked at Rosewell in 1791. By 1795, thirty-six remained to grow and cure tobacco, to tend horses, hogs, one hundred cattle, and twenty-nine sheep, and to work in and around the brick outbuildings and the ornate mansion standing at the end of a long double avenue of cedar trees—the house John Page’s grandfather had built for King Carter’s daughter.
Writing to his father, who received his mail at Lloyd’s, Patrick Parker sent a warning to underwriters. They ought to have an agent at Norfolk, as they did on the Rappahannock River. Norfolk’s trade was reviving rapidly. Sometimes a captain of a vessel in distress played “Slippery Tricks” to enable owners to recover insurance on a total loss when a loss need not have been or had not been total. An agent investigated and made sure of the best salvage, with a fair sale of damaged goods. Without such protection, “some of the underwriters at Loyds will Probably be Sweated.”
William Anderson & Company took pride in their new 205-ton ship Powhatan, which, they said, “stands A1 at Lloyd’s.” At Norfolk in March 1792, Captain Mills Riddick welcomed consignments of tobacco to Anderson or shipments of hogsheads to any house upon payment of freight charges. Anchored in the roadstead or moored at the log wharves were many sloops, schooners, and ships. The traffic increased so rapidly that Naval Office clerks issuing entries and clearances hardly had time to eat. Impatient captains often insulted them for their delays. The searcher of the Port of Norfolk, responsible for preventing smuggling, knew that some vessels entered the bay and dropped anchor off Sewell’s Point to discharge their cargoes, rather than come up the Elizabeth River to Norfolk. He had no way to stop them. Because the port sent foodstuffs to the West Indies, Norfolk attracted wheat and flour speculators. Shipyards and a ropewalk revived and expanded. A new vessel of the Powhatan’s burden sold off the blocking for about $8,000 in 1792, and the price was rising.
In the borough of Norfolk new houses built with pine boards and roofed with cedar shingles spread among the ruins of free-standing chimneys and crumbling brick walls left by the fire of 1776. Flimsy new buildings lined crooked, narrow, dirt streets. Owners of land near the river leased it at high rent but would not sell; renters did not bother to erect substantial buildings. Carpenters and bricklayers found steady work at high wages. New clapboard warehouses among the wharves—some stood three stories high—were bigger than most residences and stores but just as ugly. Construction followed no design, creating a maze of lanes and alleys. Raw sewage ran in open ditches bridged by narrow planks. Near the river a stench hung over the city, especially at low tide. Norfolk had more than 3,000 people in 1792, whites outnumbering blacks by a few hundred. A newly established merchant wrote: “There is Certainly a great field for Speculation at this Market.” Thomas Newton, Jr., told George Washington: “this place is growing fast & of consequence in trade & whenever the canal is finished it will have great advantages.”
Beginning late in the summer of 1791, Virginians received reports of violence in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. There 40,000 whites and 28,000 free people of color, mostly mulattoes, lived among 500,000 slaves. Divisions among whites and the free people of color arising out of political and constitutional changes made by the French Revolution expanded into revolt by slaves. In the North Province whites fortified themselves in the city of Cap Français on the coast. Beyond the city’s entrenchments bands of insurgents controlled the countryside.
In the spring of 1792, as Jacobins in Paris proclaimed equality for free persons of color in Saint-Domingue, Virginians reported rumors of plans for slave insurrections in their own state. The new governor, Henry Lee, received accounts of a conspiracy for a general uprising in Northampton County on the Eastern Shore. Supposedly, nine hundred slaves acting in concert with slaves in Norfolk and Portsmouth intended to attack Norfolk, blow up the gunpowder magazine, set fire to the city, and “massacre the inhabitants.” Lee assumed that they were following “the example of the West Indies.” Upon closer scrutiny, the rumored conspiracy vanished. Three slaves were expelled from the county; several others were flogged. In Norfolk, Thomas Newton, Jr., ordered Methodist and Baptist preachers to stop holding “nocturnal meetings.” In July three slaves—Jack, Daniel, and Matthew—were tried and hanged for attacking a slave patrol in Northampton County.
In London, both houses of Parliament held debates in April on abolishing the British slave trade. To supplement evidence given in hearings, opponents of slavery gathered and published testimony about the cruelties of the African trade given by men formerly employed in it. Francis Jerdone, in Louisa County, received a letter late that summer from his brother-in-law in England: “Liberty Notions are spreading all over Europe & I hear amongst the Negroes of North America.… Many ignorant People here have left off the Use of Sugar on the foolish Supposition that every Pound that is consumed costs the Negro that makes it an ounce of Blood.” The men governing Virginia took steps to prevent liberty notions from becoming actions like those in Saint-Domingue. The General Assembly passed new laws regulating free black people, restricting the movements of slaves, and making conspiracy to rebel punishable by death.
In the first week of July 1793 more than one hundred French vessels—men-of-war and merchant craft—sailed into Chesapeake Bay bearing thousands of refugees from Cap Français. These people told of their fight, aided by French soldiers and seamen, against French Jacobin officials with allies among the free people of color. The Jacobins offered freedom and the rights of French citizenship to insurgent slaves who would help them. More than 3,000 attacked the city. Most of Cap Français went up in flames; many whites were killed. The refugees fled to the shoreline, escaping in vessels which sailed for the Chesapeake on June 23. As the French disembarked in Norfolk, seeking shelter and searching for relatives separated from them in flight, Thomas Newton, Jr., reported to Governor Lee that they had brought “too many negroes.”
France had been at war with Britain and the Continental powers since February. In April, President Washington had proclaimed the neutrality of the United States, but the French Revolution had many sympathizers in Norfolk. Most refugees were royalists, hoping for restoration of the monarchy in France. Nevertheless, Virginians and people in other states collected funds for their benefit. The convoy from Cap Français did not stay long in Hampton Roads. Many exiles remained in Norfolk; others moved to cities farther north. Those who had brought slaves were allowed to keep them, despite Virginia’s law prohibiting such importation.
During the summer Governor Lee received reports of plots and “insolence” among slaves. These stories routinely connected the conduct of blacks with the revolt in Saint-Domingue. John Randolph said that he had heard one black man say to another: “you see how the blacks has killed the whites in the French Island and took it a little while ago.” Lee was told that in Portsmouth slaves from Saint-Domingue were attacking one another at night, household slaves against those who supported the insurgents. Rumors of plots for an uprising came from Petersburg, Hampton, Richmond, and Norfolk. If Lee believed all the letters reaching him, he would have concluded that hundreds of black conspirators were armed, while the militia had no muskets or ammunition. After the House of Delegates convened in October, Governor Lee reported that he had distributed arms among tidewater towns and cities upon learning of “a design in our domestics to imitate the example exhibited in saint Domingo.” He suggested that these weapons be issued to the militiamen and that training be improved. Yet the annual grand review of the Norfolk militia on Thursday, May 1, 1794, presented the customary scene. Most companies wore street clothes rather than uniforms; they were poorly armed and untrained. The men in green uniforms, with plumed and ribboned caps, “look like toy soldiers.” Spectators celebrated May Day by wearing a tuft of deer’s tail in their hats. After the review, everyone ate barbecue. “The combination of May 1 with the reunion of brothers-in-arms results in boisterous joy, with the usual finish: not every citizen-soldier is able to conquer the charms of the bottle.”
Thomas Newton, Jr., did not stop fretting. He wished that all “French negroes” could be “sent off, as I apprehend they may be troublesome some time or other.” A traveler passing northward through Virginia reported that, farther south, free blacks and mulattoes from the French West Indies were inspiring Carolina slaves “with the notion of freedom, and the possible success of an insurrection.” Upon hearing this, a writer in the Virginia Herald and Fredericksburg Advertiser warned slaveholders to prevent slaves from “having barbacues, harranguing each other publicly, exercising, appointing their officers, and in every respect getting qualified for something more important.”
The demands of the governorship and the Saint-Domingue scare did not distract Henry Lee from his interest in buying and selling land. In Philadelphia he had met Théophile Cazenove, recently arrived in America as agent for the Dutch bankers Pieter Stadnitski & Son and other Amsterdam firms ready to invest in American public securities and land. Cazenove made clear that he “had a large monied capital at his disposal.” Lee offered to introduce him to good opportunities for investment. One of these was a share in the Dismal Swamp Company. In February 1793, two weeks before starting his second term as president, George Washington wrote a memorandum for Lee’s use, describing the company and setting a price on his share.
Washington said that the Dismal Swamp “in fertility of Soil, cannot be exceeded.” He assured Cazenove: “it may be easily drained.” Then it would be “equal to the richest rice land of So. Carolina,” which, ready for cultivation, sold for £30 to £50 sterling per acre. Its location near the Nansemond and Elizabeth rivers gave the company’s tract “advantages over almost any other of equal quantity in the United States.” The new canal “adds infinitely to its worth.” Washington offered to sell his four quarter-shares for £5,000 Virginia currency, five times the amount Fielding Lewis’s estate received for his.
Bold in other transactions, Cazenove seemed “timid” in this one. While waiting, Lee turned to Washington’s friend Bryan Fairfax, urging him to relocate some of his tenants living near the falls of the Potomac to clear the way for development of Matildaville. Lee looked forward to the day when commissioners started to sell lots in his “manufacturing town.”
Americans learned in mid-March of the declarations of war in Europe. For the past year, Lee had thought of leaving the governorship to go to France and become a major general in the Revolutionary army. He said that a return to soldiering would be “the best resort to my mind in its affliction”—his bereavement by the death of Matilda Lee in 1790. While weighing this notion he took time to assure Armistead Burwell: “I will try to place you in comfortable business on the potomac for I have a regard for you & a confidence in you.”
Lee’s thoughts also turned to remarriage. His eye fell upon the Dismal Swamp Company heiress Maria Farley, second of Elizabeth Farley Dunbar’s four daughters. So ran the story her family told long afterward. He was thirty-seven years old; she was twenty. She was about to receive a large increase in her income: the price of sugar shot up in 1792. The next year the Mercers Creek plantation in Antigua made a gross income of £10,341 8s. 4½d. sterling. Lee was a small man, and he talked too much, as if he were always addressing a public meeting. Still, he was a war hero, governor of Virginia, and a friend of the president of the United States. Maria Farley rejected him. Soon afterward, on May 1, 1793, she and William Champe Carter were married.
Reports of Revolutionary terror in France, added to letters of advice from George Washington and William Lee, led Governor Lee to give up his notion of fighting in Europe. A few days after the wedding of Maria Farley and Champe Carter, Lee wrote: “I mean now to become a farmer & get a wife as soon as possible.” He apparently had noticed that Champe Carter’s cousin, Ann Hill Carter, daughter of Charles Carter of Shirley and Anne Butler Moore Carter, was more impressed by him than Maria Farley had been. She, too, was twenty years old, and she quickly accepted his proposal of marriage. To gain her parents’ approval, Lee had to declare upon his honor that he would not go to France. Then Charles Carter wrote to him: “we certainly know that you have obtained her consent.… Mrs Carter and I, are perfectly persuaded that our dear Girl will make you a dutiful and loving Wife.” The wedding took place at Shirley on Tuesday, June 18.
Théophile Cazenove purchased vast tracts for Dutch investors, but he did not buy George Washington’s share in the Dismal Swamp Company. Washington wrote: “Mr. Casenave expected, probably on good ground, that a purchase from others might be made on lower terms than I had affixed to mine.” Washington turned in the spring of 1794 to Robert Morris, who was launching land speculations surpassing the grandest designs of companies in colonial days. To Morris, Washington described the Dismal Swamp Company with more restraint, saying that the canal would add “immensely,” rather than “infinitely,” to the value of the company’s land. He wrote about the tract’s suitability, once drained, for rice, tobacco, corn, and oats. He concluded: “The value of so much land, of this quality within a few miles of Norfolk, Suffolk and Portsmouth; and along side of Nansemond River (at a very small distance therefrom), cultivated in these articles or laid to grass for mowing or grazing is almost incalculable.” His price remained £5,000.
As Washington dealt with Morris, Governor Lee, no longer serving as a go-between for Cazenove, decided to buy part or all of Washington’s four quarter-shares for himself. He wrote to one of the investors in Matildaville—presumably, Morris—“can you venture on the dismal swamp, you will join me and me only in that purchase I hope.” Lee also bought Belvidere, the house overlooking the falls of the James River, where the younger William Byrd had begun his unhappy first marriage.
Lee’s third one-year term as governor ended in an embarrassing manner. In the autumn of 1794 he commanded a federal force mobilized by President Washington to demonstrate the government’s power to suppress defiance of excise taxes in Pennsylvania. This show of strength was unpopular in Virginia. In Lee’s absence the General Assembly invoked a state law forbidding officials to accept federal office and declared the governorship vacant before the end of his term. Back in Virginia and out of office, Lee’s mind dwelt more and more upon land transactions promising wealth. He wrote to Patrick Henry: “there are individuals of character & gold daily arriving in Philada. & N York from G Britain & other European nations whose sole object is the purchase of lands.” He wished to oblige them: “A million or two of acres may be contracted for … as easy as so many thousands … a small profit on that quantity will form a handsome aggregate sum.”
Late in 1790 or early in 1791, William and Mary Anderson moved out of Samuel Gist’s City residence in America Square. Their new home and the offices of William Anderson & Company were in Crosby Square northeast of Tower Hill, a short walk along Threadneedle Street from the Royal Exchange. They lived in the shadow of the great Gothic mansion Crosby Hall, once the residence of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, before he became King Richard III, and later the property of Sir Thomas More. Still elegant in decay, it served merchants as a warehouse. The Andersons were in Number 10, Crosby Square, by March 1. Gist kept America Square as his business address. William Anderson pursued the old-fashioned consignment trade in tobacco and dry goods. In Virginia he had representatives at Gloucester, Fredericksburg, Petersburg, and Richmond. In January 1793 he added Richard S. Taylor in King William County.
The onset of war early in 1793 brought panic and bankruptcies to some underwriters at Lloyd’s and to other merchants and financiers in the City. As more and more men frequented Lloyd’s rooms, trying to make easy money by subscribing policies, underwriting had grown more competitive late in 1792. “The premiums are run down so low & so many Averages occur that few People now get any thing by it, & unless a man has much Influence in the Coffee house & Policies of his own to shew in Return, he will have nothing shewn him but indifferent Risks, & such as others are glad to be free of.” War suddenly brought danger to many insured vessels. Long delays in the arrival of many ships meant late remittances and deferred obligations, raising doubts about firms’ ability to collect money. A crisis of confidence in the credit even of large banks and mercantile houses spread with stoppages of payment and bankruptcies: “the bubble is now burst, & thousands will be involv’d in ruin by it.” Failures of big companies “must occasion lesser ones, and so on, and it is impossible to foresee where the evil will be arrested.” Twice as many bankruptcies occurred in 1793 as in 1792. Importation stagnated. Construction companies underwent one of their worst years of ruined firms. The early months of 1793 became a benchmark at Lloyd’s: the year of “the great failure among the Underwriters.”
As in the period before the panic of 1772, many merchants and banks had expanded credit by covering bills of exchange with other bills of exchange. Merchants who had speculated in large shipments overseas were exposed when trade fell off and remittances declined. The government met this crisis by increasing the money in circulation and by extending credit to merchants. Issuance of £2,200,000 in Exchequer bills lent at 5 percent interest helped end the crisis in credit by summer.
William Anderson & Company did not survive the year in its original form. Anderson’s brother-in-law, William Fowke, dropped out. The original three-way partnership became known as the Old Concern. The new William Anderson & Company retained two original partners—Anderson and Aiskew Birkett—and added two new partners: Henry Smith Shore and Thomas Reeves. Reeves was a British merchant in Virginia; Shore was a Virginian in London. In the New Concern, Anderson held a one-half interest, Birkett one-quarter, and Shore and Reeves one-eighth each. Leaving Shore in the house in Crosby Square, the Andersons moved across the Thames upriver from Westminster Bridge to lease Belmont House in Vauxhall.
That summer William Anderson wrote his will. In it he made his wife and Samuel Gist trustees for his nephew, Francis, until the age of twenty-two. He called Gist his friend, but he showed displeasure at Gist’s refusal to pay for land in Virginia he had bought at Gist’s instructions. The will ordered his executors to convey title only after Gist paid to the estate the purchase price, twenty years’ interest, and the cost of improvements, taxes, and titles. Anderson bequeathed to his wife “all my right title, and interest in and to the whole, and every part of the real and personal estates formerly the property of Samuel Gist Esqr. which was vested in my wife by an act of the General Assembly of Virginia.” He bequeathed his slaves to his mother, ordering that they be treated “humanely and kindly.” Upon her death, they were to be emancipated, “any law usage or custom to the contrary notwithstanding.” The proceeds of sales of his property in Virginia were to be divided among his Anderson relatives. He appointed his wife, Gist, Shore, Birkett, and two other men to execute his will. Two months later, the “New Concern” William Anderson & Company dispatched the Powhatan from London, bound for Virginia in search of consignments and freight. Anderson shipped tobacco to Le Havre. The French had not stopped smoking when they became republicans and went to war. Anderson was willing “to run the Risk of that market, Remittance &ca.”
War promised benefits to “the monied men,” those like Samuel Gist with large reserves of cash and stocks. War offered “the hope of finding some opportunity to take advantage of either public or private distress & speculate with a certainty of immense gains.” They were “laying by,” holding their money, waiting for governments to borrow and for scarcities to raise prices. This was not a good time for Henry Lee or Robert Morris or others to offer American forests and swamps. After the panic abated in the summer of 1793, a letter from London warned an American speculator: “they say here that Money is worth too much to be laid out in Lands.”
The gloom at Lloyd’s soon lifted. War brought high premiums for marine insurance; overseas trade rose to levels like those of the boom year 1792. George Rose, secretary to the Treasury, said that in 1794 property worth £80,000,000 was insured at Lloyd’s. The cautious chartered companies, London Assurance and Royal Exchange Assurance, took in more than twice as much in premiums as they paid out in losses. A similar pattern at Lloyd’s would have yielded to its underwriters that year a total profit of perhaps £10,000,000 to £15,000,000. After a few such years, one could say: “Lloyd’s coffee-house is now an empire within itself.”
Surrounded by opportunities for moneyed men and veteran underwriters, Samuel Gist kept his Virginia debtors in mind. He wrote to Joseph Jones of Petersburg, renewing a demand that Jones pay through Thomas Shore an old debt of more than £500, with interest. Gist warned: “On failure he will be under the disagreeable necessity of bringing Suit against you immediately to recover the same.” Gist sued and won. Jones begged Shore for a little more time: “I will pay it to you when you say that you must have it—therefore I hope you will not put the execution in the hands of the Marshall.”
In Philadelphia, Robert Morris learned that his far-flung investments had suffered losses in the panic of 1793, perhaps $500,000. His friend Gouverneur Morris, of the New York Morrises, had been in London early in 1792 before President Washington appointed him minister to France. He often went to the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket to see Sarah Siddons and the Drury Lane company perform. She appeared as Mrs. Beverley in The Gamester on Saturday, February 4. “The Piece is very bad,” Morris said, “but her expressive Countenance draws Tears and even Groans from many of the Audience.” Watching the French Revolution unfold and war approach, Gouverneur Morris warned Robert Morris late in the year that war would deter Europeans from putting their money into American investments. But dangers and losses stimulated Robert Morris’s imagination, pushing him toward grander, riskier designs to recoup his fortunes with a single master stroke.
Late in August 1793 a twenty-seven-year-old man from Massachusetts, James Greenleaf, a merchant in New York and Amsterdam, approached Robert Morris with a plan to profit from the projected new capital city on the banks of the Potomac—Washington, in the District of Columbia. Greenleaf was a persuasive man, the kind of person a loyalist had in mind in 1786 as he told a London dinner party “that the Americans were trying to sell the lands beyond the Alleghany Mountains to the English and Dutch; that they had agents here, who had already received large sums and that they were finding dupes every day.” Within three months of his arrival in Holland, Greenleaf had won the hand of Baroness Antonia Cornelia Elbertine Scholten van Aschat et Oud-Haarlem. He soon began to complain about his wife. A few years after Greenleaf’s departure for the United States, she saw that he had deserted her and their child, and began proceedings for divorce. Greenleaf had obtained loans from the Dutch firm of Daniel Crommelin & Sons. He said he could approach a firm in Rotterdam: Rocquette, Elsevier & Beelde-maker. He invited Morris to join him in buying thousands of lots in the new Federal City, using money to be borrowed from the Dutch with the lots as collateral. Upon reselling these at a much higher price, they would repay the Dutch and keep the profit. Morris later said that Greenleaf “tempted” him into this undertaking. Just after talking with Greenleaf, Morris wrote to his partner John Nicholson: “Washington building lots will continue rising in price for one hundred years to come!”
The City of Washington in 1800, George I. Parkyns. Courtesy of the Henry E. Huntington Library
The Great Falls of the Potomac, George Beck. Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. A painting owned by George Washington, depicting the obstacles to commercial use of the Potomac River.
Virginians worked hard to bring the capital city to the Potomac, speaking darkly of disunion if the nation’s most populous state were neglected and if western settlers were left remote from the seat of government. They had offered land for the District of Columbia. Henry Lee wished to place the capital upriver from the canal and Matildaville. He and other advocates of the Potomac assumed that the capital would become a center of commerce and that the river would become the most important channel of trade with the west. Much as Virginia politicians disliked Alexander Hamilton’s legislation for the federal government’s assumption of states’ public debt, they enabled it to pass in order to get the District of Columbia on the banks of the Potomac. They achieved their purpose “with uncommon difficulty.”
No one did more than George Washington to bring the city named for him to a site near his home. He appointed commissioners to oversee design, construction, and sales. He took a keen interest in all aspects of the creation of the Federal City. Surveying and marking the district’s boundaries began in February 1791. It contained a town, Georgetown, and other houses and structures, but it consisted largely of gentle hills covered with woods. President Washington visited Georgetown on Tuesday, March 28. Andrew Ellicott, the surveyor, showed him a newly completed plat. Two weeks later, Samuel Davidson, a merchant in Georgetown, wrote to Thomas Shore that “the Grand Federal City” had begun: “several Speculations have of late taken place on the occasion; nor have I been able to withstand the temptation, having recently made a purchase therein, to amount Six thousand pounds.” Later in the year, one investor said that he looked forward to “the pleasure of viewing, in the course of a few years, the rise of the first city in the world.”
In August, Pierre Charles L’Enfant submitted to the president a design for the city—a bold scheme of broad radial avenues superimposed on a grid of streets. The capitol and the presidential mansion, on eminences a mile apart, stood out as foci of the city. To pay for construction of these and other public buildings, the commissioners were to sell lots at auction. The first sale on Monday, October 17, disposed of 35 lots, each containing 5,265 square feet. A year later a second sale aroused little interest. James Greenleaf arrived on the day of the third sale, Tuesday, September 17, 1793. President Washington bought four lots, but he had few imitators. The next day the president went to Capitol Hill to lay the cornerstone of the capitol. He had to admit that matters were “in a stagnant state.”
James Greenleaf brought a letter of introduction from President Washington to the commissioners of the District of Columbia. It invited them to consider Greenleaf’s proposals, which “promise to promote the growth of the City” on an “extensive Scale.” Washington concluded: “I have reason to believe that if you can find it consistent with your duty to the public to attach Mr. Greenleaf to the federal City, he will be a valuable acquisition.” Less than a week after his arrival, Greenleaf and the commissioners agreed that he would buy 3,000 lots at $66.50 per lot. He promised to pay in seven annual installments and to build ten two-story brick houses per year for ten years. He also agreed to lend the commissioners $2,600 per month for construction of the public buildings.
In November, Robert Morris and John Nicholson each took a 50 percent share of Greenleaf’s purchase. On Christmas Eve, Morris and Nicholson joined him in a second purchase of 3,000 more lots. They combined this contract with Greenleaf’s earlier one and averaged the different prices per lot in the two. Thus, the consortium promised to pay about $480,000 for 6,000 lots.
Within eighteen months, Morris disposed of about 1,000 lots. Among the new owners was Henry Lee. He offered $300 per lot for 150 lots—slightly more than 5½¢ per square foot. Morris called this offer “too low” and urged Lee to buy at once, before the partners raised the price above 10¢ per square foot. He said that in 1800, only a few years away, “Lots and Houses in the City of Washington will command prices that will astonish those who might now buy at low rates and neglect to do it.” He foresaw a price of $1,500 to $3,000 per lot. Having paid ⅔¢ per square foot, Morris sold the best sites for 25¢ per square foot. Lee bought “well situated” lots.
Visitors to the inchoate Federal City were struck by the sight of Pennsylvania Avenue and other avenues—a broad, straight stretch of cleared land, where trees had been felled and removed, leaving walls of forest on either side. Three years after construction of the capitol began, about half the city remained woods. The residents were chiefly workers cutting streets and avenues or erecting buildings. Even so, an English traveler was told in the summer of 1794 that “The value of each lot is from forty pounds to two hundred pounds sterling.” In the mind’s eye the Federal City looked impressive, but “were it not for the President’s House and the Capitol, you would be ignorant that you were near the spot intended for the metropolis of the United States.”
James Greenleaf lingered in Philadelphia and New York through the summer of 1794, rather than sail for Holland, where the large loans he had promised to Morris were attracting few subscribers. He wrote to his agent in Amsterdam: “in case you should not have succeded in the first instance you must immediately bring forward a plan for raising from 600,000 to 1,000,000 Drs. & in the execution of which I hereby give you in our joint behalf a Carte blanche.” Greenleaf had not lost his gift for talking people out of their money. Though William Duer, a broken speculator, was in debtor’s prison, Greenleaf convinced him to divert as much as $80,000 into new speculations, promising him one-fourth of the future profits. In August, Thomas Law arrived in New York from India by way of London. After twenty years with the East India Company, he took his fortune to America, eager to add to it by “commercial Speculation.” Using only a map and powers of persuasion, Greenleaf got Law to spend almost half his money on 445 lots in the District of Columbia. Greenleaf and his associates had contracted to pay $80 per lot. He charged Law almost $300. Upon learning of this transaction, President Washington chided the commissioners, not because Greenleaf had duped Law but because Greenleaf stood to make “immense profit” from the city’s certain growth, while the commissioners raised too little money by their sales. One of them, Daniel Carroll, assured Washington that Law’s money would make Greenleaf and Morris more punctual in their payments and that property values would rise as a result of the 166 houses Law had agreed to build—a provision of the contract which Greenleaf had not mentioned and Law had not noticed.
Far from making large profits in the Federal City, Greenleaf’s speculation was failing. He and Morris found too few Thomas Laws and Henry Lees. The Dutch loans raised only $190,000. Greenleaf diverted this money to cover his personal expenses and notes. The partnership dissolved in July 1795; Morris and Nicholson bought out Greenleaf at a price of $160 per lot. Since they had too little money to meet their obligations to the commissioners, Greenleaf was even less likely to get paid.
Thomas Law settled in Georgetown, where his neighbors and guests enjoyed his company. He was “a man of very superior understanding.” On Tuesday, February 9, 1796, President Washington and his wife were surprised to receive a letter from Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Parke Custis, announcing that she and Thomas Law soon would be married. She was nineteen; he was forty. Her stepfather, David Stuart, one of the commissioners of the District of Columbia, wrote to George Washington: “Betsey as I suppose she informed you, made entirely her own bargain in a Husband.”
During the year after his wedding, Law struggled with the consequences of his investment in the Federal City. He protested that the terms of his purchase were extortionate and suggested that Robert Morris build the brick houses Law’s contract required. Morris replied: “I cannot get the means fast enough to build what I am bound to build for myself.” Since city lots were a glut on the market, Law had to compete for buyers. Rival speculators promoted different neighborhoods: Georgetown, Capitol Hill, the riverfront, and the East Branch—that is, the Anacostia River. Law’s holdings lay between the Capitol and the Anacostia River. A visitor said of him: “he has wilfully plunged himself into an abyss of cares, and all the contentions of this distracted city.… every day his obstinacy on this subject increases, continually leading him to new expences in this vexatious speculation.”
Charles William Janson arrived in America from England in the summer of 1793. Thirteen years later, he realized that he had been duped at every turn. Early in 1795, “about the time he was planning his return to Europe, specious and tempting offers induced him to risk a considerable sum in a land-speculation, (a fatal snare for every emigrant).” Over the next ten years he saw much of the United States. In the streets of Norfolk he waded knee-deep in mud. He accompanied a deer hunter into the Dismal Swamp, which he later called a “vast tract of useless land.” He visited Washington, D.C., and said of it: “Speculation, the life of the American, embraced the design of the new city.… How very beautiful a city Washington appeared when laid out—on paper!” Upon returning to England he published a book to warn others against Americans by the example of his sufferings: “Placing confidence in the reports of interested men, he was led to believe, that the dismal swamps, barren desarts, and pine woods of the new world, flowed with milk and honey.”
George Washington had lost interest in land as a source of profit for himself. In the spring of 1794 he set out to sell his holdings and put the purchase money into safe securities. He wished to “draw the interest regularly as it comes due” so that “the remainder of my days may, thereby, be more tranquil and freer from cares.” He told his former secretary Tobias Lear that the strongest motive for taking this step was his wish to free his slaves. He owned them, he said, “very repugnantly to my own feelings.” He blamed his keeping them on “imperious necessity,” which could be reduced or removed by selling land he had bought as an investment and by leasing his Mount Vernon farms to tenants. On the subject of slaveholding he wrote in the fall: “I do not like to even think, much less talk of it. Were it not then, that I am principled agt. selling negros, as you would do cattle in the market, I would not, in twelve months from this date, be possessed of one, as a slave. I shall be happily mistaken, if they are not found to be a very troublesome species of property ’ere many years pass over our heads.”
In Philadelphia early in 1795, George and Martha Washington appeared to be in “perfectly good health & spirits.” True, the president’s temper had not been improved by receiving a letter concerning the Dismal Swamp Company. John Jameson reminded him of an unpaid assessment of £24 to meet an installment due on the company’s purchase of shares in the Dismal Swamp Canal Company. Jameson had just returned to York Town after a visit to Dismal Plantation. He explained that repeated theft of timber from the company’s land had given the managers an idea. The company ought to give up its effort to drain the swamp and instead hire slaves and “get the Timber ourselves” after clearly marking the boundary of its tract. “If the proprietors would advance one hundred pounds for each Share I am confidant it would render the Estate profitable and also pay the remainder of the Shares in the Canal Company.”
Washington replied that the last report he had received from Jameson’s late uncle showed the company with a balance on hand. “Having never received an iota from the company for more than twenty years nor never having heard of any appropriation of the sum acknowledged to be in hand, I was in hopes of receiving, instead of being called upon to advance.” Nevertheless, Washington approved of turning to timber, and he paid his portion for shares in the canal company. He asked Jameson to send an account of their company’s affairs and an estimate of the going price of four quarter-shares. He gave Jameson power of attorney to represent him, but he intended to sell.
Henry Lee enlisted Patrick Henry in his land schemes. Patrick Henry had not yet disposed of his worthless Green Sea tract. Lee offered to help, suggesting that the convening of the United States Circuit Court in Richmond on Friday, May 22, 1795, would be a good time to act. James Wilson of Pennsylvania, a justice of the United States Supreme Court, sat on the Circuit Court. He also speculated extensively in land.
Justice Wilson was a scholar and a teacher of law who had played a leading role in writing the United States Constitution. He devoted his great powers of reasoning to constitutional thought and jurisprudence. In land transactions he was a visionary. In June 1795 his imagination turned to swamps. He received a note from Henry Lee, offering him land—apparently, Patrick Henry’s tract—at a bargain price. Wilson wrote to Hugh Williamson, a well-known expert on swamps, seeking information. Williamson described the Dismal Swamp, adding that even where the soil was poor the timber was valuable. He said of North Carolina: “I am induced to believe that a great Part of our swamp land will presently become the most valuable Property in our State, because late Experience has shewn that it may be drained with more Ease than had been expected and because the Course of Nature in that Country is obviously making the Swamps dry.” Justice Wilson, already overextended in his investments, borrowed money, $8,000 of it from Henry Lee, and bought land, including Patrick Henry’s in the Green Sea. While in Richmond, Lee sold the Belvidere estate to Bushrod Washington, whose law practice brought him before the Circuit Court.
George Washington did not receive from John Jameson an estimate of the value of his four quarter-shares in the Dismal Swamp Company. While at Mount Vernon in September he wrote to Thomas Newton, Jr., and to John Page, asking them to estimate the “highest price.” Both told him that he could not get more than £1,000 Virginia currency. Newton enclosed a letter from Isaac Sexton, predicting success for the company’s lumber operations. He wrote: “the land in a few years will be very valuable far exceedg the present prices or £1000 per Share.” The company, if it applied “activity,” would return profits of at least 25 percent per year.
Isaac Sexton was a partner with John Cowper in the lumber business in Nansemond County. He knew the value of the Dismal Swamp Company’s timber because he was stealing it. He had proposed to bargain for white cedar. When told that the managers “wished the Land to remain undisturbed,” he cut down trees anyway. John Driver reported: “with the number of hands employed by Mr. Cowper & himself they get a very considerable quantity.” The Dismal Swamp Company in 1795 had nine slaves—eight men and one boy—hired to fell trees and cut shingles.
Sexton developed his methods in the 1780s, using them in Norfolk County’s part of the swamp, along the North Carolina line. Professing to be resurveying Byrd’s dividing line in order to enter claims, he admitted knowing that the land already had been patented. He said the earlier titles were not good. So pleased with his own cleverness that he could not conceal it, he added “that the soil was not his object, but that the timber was his object, and that he was determined to establish his survey if he could and that if they did sue him, it might so happen that he could get the Timber off first, and then he did not care what became of the Swamp.” While Sexton gave advice to George Washington, John Cowper surveyed new claims along the western line of the company’s tract. It was easy to see that he intended to use Sexton’s method of encroachment for timber. Agents and partners of the Dismal Swamp Company denounced “that bad man, Sexton.”
Predictions of a bright future for the Dismal Swamp Company did not alter George Washington’s intent to sell. He looked back on what he called “the injury they had received by the effects of the war, and the still greater, which their inattention to their own concerns had done them.” His “many attempts” to stimulate his partners had failed; he “gave up all further hopes of any thing effectual being done for their interests.” With Jameson calling for more money, Washington’s share in the company was, he said, “rather expensive than productive.”
To Henry Lee, Washington set the price of his four quarter-shares at a total of $20,000, or £4,000 Virginia currency. Lee took it. This was four times market price but £1,000 less than Washington had been asking. Lee hoped to make his first payment, about $7,000, not in cash but in Justice James Wilson’s bonds, payable in one and two years. Having lent money to Wilson to buy Patrick Henry’s thousands of acres of reeds in the Dismal Swamp, Lee expected to use Wilson’s debt to him to pay Washington. Lee assured Washington that he had inquired into the justice’s affairs. There was “not a doubt” that Wilson could meet his obligations. Washington retained title to his four quarter-shares, pending Lee’s payments, but he told his former partners that Lee would henceforth “receive the profits” and “pay all unsatisfied demands upon me.”
Not until he neared his eightieth birthday in the 1790s did Dr. Thomas Walker grow infirm. He and his wife, who was approaching seventy, kept a permanent guest at Castle Hill: Weston Alcock, a former officer in the British Army who had come to Charlottesville as a prisoner of war and remained in peacetime with no means of support except the Walkers. Alcock signed Dr. Walker’s will as a witness in 1788. He became “a dependant” and took care of Thomas and Elizabeth Walker.
Francis Walker turned twenty-nine in 1793. He had just won election to the United States House of Representatives. James Madison talked with him in April to make sure that he was “right” on political questions, that he would join the gathering opposition to any increase of the federal government’s power. Unless forestalled, they believed, the Washington administration would make the United States more and more like Britain, almost a British dependency. Three weeks before Congress convened in Philadelphia, Francis Preston called at Castle Hill on Friday, November 8, to resign as agent of the Loyal Company. He found Francis Walker drunk. The “extensive circle of acquaintances who respected and friends who loved him so dearly” could not find a reason for Walker’s drinking, unless it was “an hereditary fever in the blood or itch upon the palate.”
A year later, on Monday, November 9, 1794, Dr. Thomas Walker died. His body was buried at Castle Hill. The following month Weston Alcock and another witness proved the will in Charlottesville. Francis Walker came into his inheritance.
He was challenged for re-election to Congress by Samuel Jordan Cabell, veteran of Saratoga, Valley Forge, and the siege of Charleston. Cabell, a kinsman wrote, “was a magnificent man before the people, the greatest man on a court green, in a crowd, or on the electioneering arena that I ever met with, except, perhaps, John Randolph of Roanoke.” On public questions important to Madison and Thomas Jefferson, few men were so “right” as Cabell. He denounced “the speculating monied interest growing out of banking and funding systems, &c. which I consider the two great political curses of my country.” He praised “our dear and magnanimous allies the French,” and he predicted a revolution in Britain to overthrow “the maddening spirit of her Ministry for coercive measures to stifle the principles of liberty.”
Francis Walker “lacked ambition,” as did “most of Dr. Walker’s descendants,” one of them wrote. Six weeks before the election, Thomas Jefferson foresaw that Walker would lose. Cabell was “indefatigable attending courts &c. and wherever he is, there is a general drunkenness observed.” A shrewd candidate kept the voters drunk, not himself. Jefferson disapproved of Cabell. He wrote of Walker’s impending defeat: “The low practices of his competitor though seen with indignation by every thinking man, are but too successful with the unthinking who merchandize their votes for grog.” Walker’s career in Congress ended after one term.
Ten weeks after the election, Francis Walker’s niece, Mildred Gilmer, was married. She was the oldest daughter of the first cousins, George Gilmer and Lucy Walker Gilmer, who had eloped in 1767 and who now had eight children. Mildred’s new husband was William Wirt, an ambitious twenty-two-year-old attorney, newly arrived in Virginia from Maryland to make his fortune.
Dr. Walker was the third but not the last husband of his second wife. Elizabeth Thornton Walker had her own property in her third widowhood. In July 1795 she wrote a will, bequeathing all her estate to Weston Alcock in gratitude for “great attention and care.” At her suggestion, the Walkers believed, she and Alcock were married early in 1796. She died in August.
Elizabeth and Thomas Lee Shippen visited Virginia late in the summer of 1792, giving Elizabeth Farley Dunbar a chance to see her first grandchild. Champe and Maria Carter arrived at Nesting for a reunion of the four sisters. Mary Willing Byrd came up from Westover. Though John Dunbar was sick, all were happy to hear from Antigua that the Mercers Creek plantation promised a bumper crop of sugar cane. The Shippens expected their share of the profits in 1793 to be £1,000 sterling. John Dunbar recovered his health by October, but in that month fire broke out at Nesting, destroying the house, furniture, and offices.
The Shippens, the Carters, and John Dunbar, as guardian of the two younger sisters, were defendants in Major John Simon Farley’s suit in Chancellor George Wythe’s High Court of Chancery. Farley and his sister, Elizabeth Morson, as heirs of their father Simon Farley, demanded one-half of the Land of Eden and one-third of the holdings in Norfolk County, Virginia. They asserted that the defendants, Francis Farley’s heirs, held Simon Farley’s share in trust for them, as Francis had done, and they now claimed their legacy.
The Shippens, the Carters, and John Dunbar replied through their attorney, John Wickham, that Francis Farley had owned all the land as his brother’s surviving heir, that he had bequeathed it to his granddaughters, and that the law prohibited aliens from owning land in Virginia. The case had not yet been argued before Wythe. Thomas Lee Shippen and Champe Carter disliked the delay and suspense, eager as they were to divide and sell the Land of Eden. Their attorneys, however, said they could not do so while the suit was pending. Shippen had to content himself with bright prospects for sugar.
After the fire at Nesting, John Dunbar settled in Williamsburg. Shippen accompanied him from Berkeley plantation to choose a home. In the former capital uninhabited houses were falling to ruin, covered with moss and mildew, among the neat dwellings of its remaining residents. About 1,300 people, half of them blacks, lived in the city—fewer than at the end of the war ten years earlier. Politicians and merchants no longer gathered from all parts of Virginia. Grass grew in some streets. The brick college building looked ill kept. The governor’s palace had caught fire and burned down on Christmas Eve, 1781. Some ruins still stood on the site; people had stripped the grounds of timber. The capitol was slowly crumbling, especially the part where the House of Burgesses once sat. The old chamber in which the Council sat as the colony’s General Court was used as a courtroom; another part had become a grammar school. The wooden pillars of the portico were twisted awry. Among them stood the marble statue of Lord Botetourt, much defaced, its nose broken off, a hand missing. During the Terror in France, college students decapitated it. The Dunbars moved to what William Nelson, Jr., called “the peaceful city of Wmsburg.” It was so peaceful that to visitors it seemed near death.
Upon getting married, each of the Farley sisters convinced her husband that her stepfather, John Dunbar, had been looting her legacy for his own benefit while acting as her guardian. At the time he came to Virginia and so quickly got married to their mother, it was a matter “of public Notoriety” that he had “no Property.” Their mother received an annuity of £300 sterling from Francis Farley’s estate. Yet John Dunbar lived “in all the Comforts and Luxuries of Affluence—he purchased Farms, Houses, Slaves—he remitted large sums of money to Great Britain.” Thousands of pounds sterling came from Henry Benskin Lightfoot, their representative in Antigua. At Mercers Creek two hundred slaves worked 165 acres; a good year yielded 140 hogsheads of sugar and 80 hogsheads of rum. Rents from the Land of Eden were $1,500 to $2,000 per year, and the plantation agent at Saura Town paid more than £1,200 Virginia currency to Dunbar’s order in a five-year period. Yet the old debts of James Parke Farley’s, which Francis Farley’s will ordered to be paid, remained outstanding on the books of Dinwiddie, Crawford & Company. No wonder John Dunbar could walk away from the ruins of Nesting and take a house in Williamsburg.
Chancellor Wythe heard arguments in the case of John Simon Farley and Elizabeth Morson against the Shippens, the Carters, and Dunbar on Tuesday, March 18, 1794. His decision awarded the plaintiffs everything they sought. The evidence was clear: Francis Farley always had acted as trustee for his brother’s children; their right to the land had accrued to them before Virginia law prohibited aliens from owning land—indeed, before they were “aliens.” Wythe ordered the defendants, “at their costs,” to convey half of the Land of Eden and one-third of the Farley property in Norfolk County to the plaintiffs and to pay the plaintiffs the appropriate share of rents and profits received since the suit had begun. Just as the four sisters were coming into their legacy, they lost half of the Land of Eden. John Dunbar was in failing health at this time, and died in October 1794.
A few weeks later, Elizabeth Dunbar’s third daughter was married. Rebecca Parke Farley—known as Parke—took as her bridegroom Richard Corbin, namesake and twenty-three-year-old grandson of the last deputy receiver general of the king’s revenue in Virginia. Corbin’s father had died in April, and he avoided his mother, who lamented her widowhood at every opportunity, talking and writing about herself at length. She was the daughter of Benjamin Waller, Speaker Robinson’s right-hand man. She was distressed by the prospect of a life as “a Hermitess with a bare Subsistence,” scrimping in the largest house in King and Queen County. She wrote to her son just before his wedding: “How then my Beloved Richard can you invite or wish such an object as I now am to your gay City—Such a Visitor could only Damp your good Spirits and throw a Gloomy Sadness over your bright and fair Prospects.” Elizabeth Dunbar strove to cheer Richard’s brothers and sisters during their visit to Williamsburg for the festivities. She wrote a “polite Letter” to his mother after the wedding on Saturday, November 15.
Richard and Rebecca Parke Corbin lived in the mansion at Laneville plantation, 2,400 acres in King and Queen County. The two-story brick house, with its single-story wings, presented a front almost 200 feet long on a hill overlooking the Mattaponi River and a terraced front lawn descending to the water. About seventy slaves worked on the plantation.
Within three months of his wedding, Richard Corbin had learned to suspect that his wife had not received and was not receiving the full amount of her one-fourth of the profits of the Mercers Creek estate. John Dunbar was dead, but Thomas Lee Shippen and Elizabeth Shippen had corresponded with Henry B. Lightfoot for years, receiving payments and sugar from him, perhaps more than they were entitled to. The Corbins wrote to Thomas Lee Shippen, asking how much money they could expect.
Shippen suffered from consumption—tuberculosis. He dosed himself with opiates and spent much time brooding. His wife unfailingly helped him and tried to cheer him, but he saw around him false friends and real enemies. A few days after receiving the Corbins’ letter, he wrote his will. By law, his wife’s property was now his. He bequeathed to her for her lifetime the proceeds of the Mercers Creek plantation and the Land of Eden. He left the quarter-share in the Dismal Swamp Company and the interest in Norfolk County land to their sons. To his wife and each son he bequeathed one share in the Dismal Swamp Canal Company. His younger son was to inherit his lot in the District of Columbia.
Richard Corbin refused to quarrel with Shippen. They shared a wish to sell the Land of Eden and the Antigua estate. Finding that his wife was a partner in the Dismal Swamp Company, Corbin wrote: “what has been done with this Land I know not, nor do I know who are in actual possession at present.” The four sisters appealed Chancellor Wythe’s decision to the Court of Appeals. Even if they lost the case they would each own one-eighth of the Land of Eden. Corbin and Shippen planned to divide half the tract among the sisters so that they could get some money by sale at once.
John Dunbar had not lived a life of affluence alone. Accusing him implied censure of his wife. Elizabeth Dunbar was pained by the preoccupation of her daughters and their husbands with lost Farley riches. She believed Francis Farley’s estate, in other words, her daughters, owed her, rather than the reverse. She wrote to Elizabeth and Thomas Shippen: “be that as it may, my sons and Daughters must and shall love me, and whether creditor or debtor, We will be forever friends.” In the summer of 1795 the Shippens moved to their retreat in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, called Farley. Their “finely situated” large house on a hill above Neshaminy Creek impressed visitors with its elegance and neatness. Elizabeth managed it while Thomas, an invalid, spent much of his time reading and devising ways to extract cash from the Farley bequest. At the end of the summer Richard and Rebecca Parke Corbin received their first remittance from Henry B. Lightfoot: a bill of exchange for £100 sterling.
The Farley heirs in Virginia compromised with John Simon Farley and Elizabeth Morson, ending their appeal in the courts early in 1796. The sisters and their husbands gave up the land Chancellor Wythe had awarded to Francis Farley’s nephew and niece. John Simon Farley and Elizabeth Morson gave up their claim to arrearages of rents and profits. Unlike the Corbins and the Shippens, Champe and Maria Carter had not devoted themselves to pursuing John Dunbar, Henry B. Lightfoot, a larger share of the Land of Eden, and the riches of the Dismal Swamp. They got rid of their right to a portion of the Land of Eden at once, without waiting for North Carolina courts to order surveys and a division. Champe Carter sold it in June for $2 per acre.
William Nelson, Jr., became a judge of Virginia’s General Court at the same time that Henry Lee was elected governor. The new position suited him. In his law practice, he said, “neither my profits nor my reputation equal’d my wish, tho’ they at least equal’d my abilities.” The judges sat for three weeks in Richmond twice a year, then rode circuit, taking about half of Nelson’s time. This schedule left him “more time to read, & to enjoy domestick tranquillity.” When not on the bench he lived at Westover, where Abby Byrd Nelson stayed with her mother and sisters. Each year she had another pregnancy and a new baby—all girls.
Nelson’s friend John Page brooded about the movement of Federalists in Congress toward Britain and toward British political repressiveness. His health remained fragile, and none of his efforts freed him from debt. He refused in October 1793 to give John Hatley Norton’s representative a deed of trust for slaves worth the amount of his debt, but in December he relented and signed. Noah and Betty and their children, Bob and Bridget and their children, and Will and Hannah would leave Rosewell if Page could not raise almost £260. Fifteen months later, his predicament had grown worse, and he feared that he would have to sell Rosewell. At best, he might keep the mansion and 500 acres around it. He resigned his post as commander of the Gloucester County militia, traditionally held by the county’s leading citizen.
Serious illness struck Abby Byrd Nelson in November 1795. A violent cold gave way to a debilitating disease, depriving her of the use of her lower legs. She could cross a room only with a person on each arm, holding her up. While her husband, her mother, and her sisters at Westover watched over her anxiously, at Rosewell, John Page sold some of the deeded slaves to Norton’s representative to pay part of his debt. Page did not attend the opening of Congress in Philadelphia because he had promised a creditor that he would not leave the state until he paid in full. By early December, Abby Nelson knew that she lay on her deathbed. She said that she wished her daughters reared in the Christian faith. She told her sisters which daughter should receive each of her most prized rings, her watch, and other mementoes when the girls became young women. Not long afterward, she died. William Nelson, Jr., went into mourning for his second wife. Sarah Meade crossed from Maycox to spend time with Mary Willing Byrd. A “feeling letter” to Mary Willing Byrd arrived from her stepdaughter, Elizabeth Dunbar. Sarah Meade carried a message in reply from Westover to Williamsburg. Nelson asked St. George Tucker to convey his thanks and love to Elizabeth Dunbar. Nelson’s daughter by his first marriage was now a ward of George Wythe’s. At Westover, Mary Willing Byrd, “honored grandmama,” looked at an infant and girls aged two, three, four, and five.
The crisis kept Nelson away from the December session of the United States Circuit Court in Richmond, where he formerly had practiced and sometimes still listened to arguments as a spectator. He was absent when the court announced verdicts in Samuel Gist’s four suits for debt against his onetime agent, John Tabb. In years long past, Tabb had loaded Gist’s vessels with tobacco and had waited for the Hope to arrive from the Gold Coast with slaves for him to sell. Gist won all four cases. Since the start of the suits, Tabb had been in “a state of mental derangement.”
John Page reached Philadelphia later in December. The day after New Year’s he tried to sell his gold watch for $60. The treaty with Britain approved by Washington’s administration and by Federalists so distressed him that he contemplated not seeking another term in Congress. He was not reelected. He later wrote: “John Adams and A. Hamilton shut me out.” Page saw both his country’s fortunes and his own in decline. His financial straits had forced him to sell for too little the interest in the Dismal Swamp Company given him by his father. “No doubt,” he wrote, “the Value of Shares must have en-creased” in the eighteen months after he left the company. He would not benefit, but the company’s bright prospects must be obvious to “all who know anything respecting the Dismal Swamp & the intended Canal.” William Nelson, Jr., one of the managers, believed that he and his partners at last had found the way to succeed: lumber.
Visiting Westover to console Mary Willing Byrd, Sarah Meade knew that she and her friend must soon part. David Meade took stock of his finances in the fall of 1794, “by which enquiry I discover,” he wrote to John Driver, “that I cannot provide even a decent subsistence for my large family beyond the Spring of 95, unless money is raised by a very disadvantageous Sale of more property, & that what Estate yet remains to me is so reduced in quantum that no kind of application of it within my power can be nearly adequate to that purpose.” He preferred to sell all his property in Virginia, then move to Kentucky, where he could live comfortably at less expense. Much of 1795 he devoted to arranging his affairs, preparing to go west in the spring of 1796. He said: “there has not been a time for some years past that I have been free from care.” Kentucky promised fewer cares, perhaps freedom.
Meade had sustained his interest in the Dismal Swamp Company as one of its managers. He voted all four quarter-shares once the property of his wife’s father, William Waters. Two now belonged to his brother, Richard Kidder Meade. After service as one of Washington’s aides during the war, Richard settled on 1,000 acres in Frederick County. David Meade had not made the Dismal Swamp Company profitable for himself and his brother. In June 1795, John Driver gave him an advance of £30 from the company’s small reserve of funds. The slaves working in Meade’s intricate pleasure gardens at Maycox ate rice grown by slaves working on Dismal Plantation.
Hoping to close the forty-year-old debts contracted by his father and John Driver’s father, which with interest had mounted to £4,500 sterling, Meade negotiated with Benjamin Waller in Williamsburg, agent and attorney for Wakelin Welch & Company. Each man brought in another lawyer: Joseph Prentis and Littleton Waller Tazewell. Meade offered to clear the debt by conveying land at a valuation of £10 per acre and by covering the balance with his bond and Richard Kidder Meade’s. He thought Waller had accepted this arrangement. Yet, after several meetings and much discussion, Waller and Tazewell’s version of the terms differed from Meade and Prentis’s version. Each side accused the other of bad faith. Meade paid nothing.
Richard Kidder Meade kept his two quarter-shares in the Dismal Swamp Company and remained in Virginia. He felt constant anxiety that his wife would learn why her brother was confined in the Lunatic Hospital in Williamsburg. Mary Grymes Meade and Benjamin Grymes were children of Elizabeth Fitzhugh Grymes and Benjamin Grymes, a partner of Anthony Bacon’s in Fredericksburg from 1756 until 1758. The younger Benjamin had shown “a derangement of his brain” since childhood, worsening in adulthood with “the inflammation brought on by the use of ardent spirits.” Richard had “long since” told Mary that her brother was in the Lunatic Hospital but dreaded that she would find out about “the murder, & trial” which had put Grymes there. He said he shuddered at the thought that Grymes might be released. “My earnest Prayer,” he wrote, “is, that it would please Heaven to put an end to his miserable existence.”
To dispose of his quarter-shares in the Dismal Swamp Company, David Meade turned to George Keith Taylor, agent for Justice James Wilson. Wilson desired more of the Dismal Swamp than the Green Sea land he had bought from Patrick Henry. He contracted with Taylor to buy on his behalf. Taylor asked repeatedly: “are you certain that your funds will enable you to go through with this contract?” Wilson led him to believe that “immense” resources backed his purchases, an assurance passed on to sellers. Meade sold Wilson two quarter-shares and 1,450 other acres in and near the Dismal Swamp for £1,200 Virginia currency. Meade received no cash. He gave Wilson a deed, and Wilson gave him a mortgage on the land and on the shares as security for future payment. Even before the deed and the mortgage were exchanged, Taylor began to have doubts. The first bill of exchange he drew on Justice Wilson for $1,000 was returned protested.
In May 1796 the Meades, their children, their slaves, and George Royster headed for Kentucky. David and Sarah Meade were two years short of the thirtieth anniversary of their wedding. He predicted a bright future for the region: “in less than twenty years there will not be a tree left on the banks of the Ohio but such as are left for ornament—in half a century the population will equal any part of the world except (perhaps) China.”
David Meade’s prediction had no advocate more ardent than Robert Morris. With his partners John Nicholson and James Greenleaf, Morris devised a land scheme embracing 6,000,000 acres in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. If successful, it would repay Morris’s creditors and recoup his fortunes. The financing was tricky, but the idea was simple: make contracts for huge swaths of unoccupied land, then sell in bulk, at a large profit, to European investors who believed with Adam Smith that in America “purchase and improvement of uncultivated land is there the most profitable employment of the smallest as well as of the greatest capitals.” The population of the United States doubled every twenty years; people moved westward over snow and ice; they sought small farms; each new farm raised the value of property near it. Who could decline an opportunity to make so sure a profit from America’s growth?
Between 1793 and 1795, Morris and his partners bought land. They committed themselves to pay almost $1,250,000 for 6,000,000 acres. More than 2,300,000 lay in Georgia, which then extended to the Mississippi River. Almost 1,000,000 lay in western Virginia, and more than 400,000 were in Kentucky.
Morris’s purchases attracted the attention of Thomas Blount, a new member of Congress from North Carolina. After talking with Dr. John Hall, a veteran land speculator and “a genteel, respectable & polite man & my friend,” Blount saw how North Carolinians could benefit. From the state Dr. Hall would obtain grants in unclaimed regions, then sell them to Morris. Blount explained Hall’s plan to his brother, John Gray Blount: “it is calculated to afford to the State, at present the advantage of Selling her worst Lands, which in reality have no value at all, for ready Money at the price of her best.” Hall offered John Gray Blount one-eighth of his profits in return for help in North Carolina. Another speculator, David Allison, followed the same course in cooperation with Blount. Almost all the 700,000 acres Morris and Nicholson bought in North Carolina came from these two men.
Hall sold the partners 200,000 acres of swamp in Beaufort and Hyde counties, west of the Outer Banks and south of Albemarle Sound and the Dismal Swamp. As soon as Morris was ready to sign in June 1794, Hall wrote to Blount: “I wish you would engross all the Swamp in North Carolina—a little Marsh would answer.” He added a warning: “every thing had better be kept a Secret.”
Morris’s purchase would not become final until October, allowing him time to learn about the swamp. Blount assured the partners that the land was of “good quality.” When drained, it “will become the garden spot of North Carolina.” Morris’s agent, William Swansey, went to North Carolina to check this description. Dr. Hall wrote ahead to Blount: “you had better prepare the Gentlemans mind Who is employed to inspect the Land.” Blount smoothed Swansey’s visit to the forks of the Tar River and the swamp. Morris afterward was told “that fully one half of it was worth Ten Guineas P Acre & could be reclaimed for one Dollar P Acre.”
Morris and Nicholson contracted to pay $40,064 for 200,320 acres. The flaw in Hall’s plan to dupe the partners lay in the form of payment he accepted. Neither Hall nor John Gray Blount received “ready Money”; instead, Hall was to be paid in installments spread over twenty-two months. For half of the sum, Morris drew a bill of exchange on Nicholson, which Nicholson accepted and promised to pay. For the other half, Nicholson drew a bill on Morris, which Morris accepted. Thus Dr. Hall and David Allison joined the many holders of an “amazing quantity” of paper issued by Morris and Nicholson.
Morris hoped that war in Europe would soon end and that capital would flow to America. One of the London firms he had in mind as investors was Bourdieu, Chollet & Bourdieu. James Bourdieu and David Chollet had been among the founders of New Lloyd’s. Bourdieu was the “positive and peremptory” partner; Chollet was the “vastly civil” partner. Unlike Samuel Gist, Bourdieu had stood by the Americans during the Revolutionary War. The British government had intercepted his mail. But unpaid debts soured the partners’ opinion of the United States. Independence had created a country that attracted the kind of people they knew all too well, such as a bankrupt French hatter seeking to make a fortune in trade: “he seems full of projects, and having nothing to lose, runs no risk in the event. He faild at Paris, and went to America as to the Land of Canaan.” Even the obliging Mr. Chollet had to tell a visiting American not to bother trying to get a loan in the City because “the Name of America terrifies the mercantile Part of the Community.” Bourdieu and Chollet looked at Morris’s activities with the same skepticism that all American schemes provoked in them. The partners wrote about merchants in the United States: “While they were subject to our laws their salutary force impressed a character of honesty, which the said merchants have abandoned in their revolution to return to their natural habits of ruse to attack the welfare of others.… Unless we had surplus money which could await the progress and advantages of a natural population growth, it would not be in these distant wilds that we would place it.” The partners foresaw that in wartime European investors would lend their money to belligerent governments, not hand it to Robert Morris to enable him to redeem his notes and bills.
By January 1795, Morris had trouble raising money. He borrowed “at a dreadful interest,” looking more and more like “a desperate gambler.” That month he sent an agent to Kentucky: Charles Willing Byrd, twenty-four-year-old son of Mary Willing Byrd and nephew of Morris’s longtime mercantile partner, Thomas Willing. A few years earlier, a visitor at Westover had found him “a very pretty youth Lounging at home.” Morris instructed him to secure title to the large tracts the partners had agreed to buy for 25¢ per acre. Morris had to learn the same lesson that experience taught others: “a purchaser in Kentucky buys a lawsuit with every plot of unoccupied land he pays for there.” He ordered Byrd to scrutinize closely any claims to title competing with his.
Five years before Byrd went west, Kentucky held about 74,000 people; five years after he arrived in Lexington, the new state had 221,000. A traveler saw people walking “hundreds of Miles, they know not for what Nor whither, except its to Kentucky,” a place they deemed “the Promised land … the Land of Milk and Honey.” Once in the state, many turned to the practice of its “two principal Evils”; they began “to Quarrel about religion” and “go to Law about Land.”
Kentuckians called Morris’s purchases “the speculating lands.” At a price of 25¢ per acre, he could hardly expect to get good soil. Since a “Barren mountain would command as much as a fertile valley,” sellers furnished chiefly the former. Only later did one of Morris’s partners learn that “almost every large tract then sold, was generally of land then intrinsically worth nothing, & will be worth very little to the Resurrection.” Sellers cheerfully gave a general warranty that they were conveying a secure title “when they knew the title was either not good, or at least doubtful.” These were the men whom good-looking young Charles Willing Byrd went from Westover to Lexington to outwit.
On Friday, February 20, 1795, Robert Morris, John Nicholson, and James Greenleaf created the North American Land Company. They announced that investors could join them in “extreamly profitable” resale of property they had amassed. Their 6,000,000 acres were held by the company’s trustees. Capitalized at 50¢ per acre, 30,000 shares would sell for $100 each. Dividends were to come from profits on sales of land. The founders guaranteed 6 percent per year. Their security for paying dividends was the 9,000 shares they held. They assured potential investors that the company’s title to its land was secure. Its agents would fan out to survey farms, lay out towns, erect mills, make roads, and establish stores to sell tools and stock. The first settlers would “readily agree” to pay $2 per acre. As farms multiplied and land values rose, shareholders’ dividends would exceed 6 percent, and the value of shares would grow to “four or five, or more likely ten times” the original purchase price. All this, Morris said, “without either Risque or trouble.”
The North American Land Company at once attracted critics and satirists. In Paris, newspapers published warnings from France’s minister to the United States, Jean Antoine Joseph Fauchet, naming Morris as the archvillain of fraudulent land sales. In Baltimore a satirist signing himself “TIM. BROADBACK”—a play on the name of Morris’s associate Daniel Brodhead, surveyor general of Pennsylvania—proposed a mock scheme to rival that of the North American Land Company. He would get claims to 20,000,000 acres at twopence per acre, then capitalize his land company at two shillings per acre. Although he would have a nominal capital of $5,333,333.33, he calculated that $50,000 cash would be enough to make a start sufficient to attract subscribers, who would buy shares to keep him afloat because they already held so many of his notes. “Thus, with a little address we may make a South Sea SCHEME of it.”
Morris scattered copies of his company’s prospectus and blocks of 1,000 shares among merchants on the other side of the Atlantic, calling his plan “the best that ever was devised in America.” He told London merchants: “the uncultivated Lands in the U States now afford the safest and most profitable speculation of any thing in this world.” People in Britain who picked up a pamphlet entitled London Considered as the Metropolis of Europe for the Operations of Commerce and Finance gradually realized as they read that its chief purpose was to encourage investment in American land. The author conceded that speculations might “miscarry” but added: “European speculators, properly guided by men of judgment and integrity, can wish for no more rapid means of enlarging their property.” As an example of the rapid rise in value, the author told a story of Francis Farley’s purchase of the Land of Eden from William Byrd. Farley had paid 1,000 guineas, then eleven years later had refused an offer of 28,000 guineas for the tract. Through his investment, “his capital had been placed at the compound interest of 25 per cent.… Many fortunes, which could be considered as immense in Europe, have been acquired there through similar speculations.”
Four months after the North American Land Company was established, bills of exchange James Greenleaf had drawn on Dutch financiers began to come back protested. Greenleaf could not keep his commitments to Morris and Nicholson for District of Columbia lots or the North American Land Company. Morris’s notes and bills drawn in 1793 and 1794 were, he said, “daily falling due.” His only recourse was quick resale of land.
To this end Morris sent his son-in-law, James Marshall, younger brother of John Marshall, to London. Morris had interested the Marshall brothers in purchasing 160,000 acres, the residue of the Fairfax proprietary, from the Fairfax heir in England. Those negotiations had included Henry Lee. Morris turned to Lee again as James Marshall prepared to leave for London in October 1795. Lee was just about to buy George Washington’s share in the Dismal Swamp Company. If he could afford $20,000 for that venture, he could afford to help Morris. Although Morris and Nicholson already owed Lee $21,500 for land in and around Matildaville, Morris asked Lee to lend him $40,000 in cash. Morris would draw bills of exchange for that amount on William Temple Franklin, his agent in England for the sale of New York land. Marshall would take them to London, where they “would be duely paid.” For the safety of this loan Lee could rely “on the promises of Judge Wilson.” Lee produced the cash. Morris drew up bills, payable to Lee, and entrusted them to James Marshall.
Morris wrote letters of introduction for Marshall to Bourdieu, Chollet & Bourdieu, as well as to other merchants in London, Amsterdam, and Leipzig. To William Temple Franklin, he wrote: “The Lands are daily increasing in Value, there is no possibility of Loss, on the Contrary immense profits are certain.” Morris drew up instructions for selling North American Land Company shares and tracts. Marshall was to investigate the Amsterdam and Rotterdam loans that Greenleaf had promised for lots in the Federal City. Morris gave Marshall a packet of papers: copies of deeds, testimonials about Georgia land, a copy of William Swansey’s report on North Carolina swampland, and “a description of Kentucke Lands.” Armed with these, Marshall sailed for London. The men he went to meet did not need the warning a young Englishman sent from Virginia to his friend in Lancashire: “Let every man beware of those who go to England to sell land.”