George Washington Papers

From George Washington to a Participant in the Potomac River Enterprise, 1762

To a Participant in the Potomac River Enterprise



At your request I hav⟨e mutilated⟩ / my Papers, & found the remarks/ ⟨mutilated⟩ for the Remarks I made upon the Navigation of Potomack in the year 17541 & found the copy ⟨mutilated⟩ a Letter which I wrote to a gentn of our Assembly / in Aug.2 1754/ at that time. the followg is an extract thereof.3


Your desire & my /own/ curiosity together /engaged/ excited me the last time when last4 I was in Frederick to explore the Navigation of Potomack /downwards/ and the followg observations I made in My passage down it.

From the Mouth of Patersons Creek to the Shannondoah Falls /are no/ you encounter no other obstacles but shallow Water (in places, & this only at certain Seasons) /to encounter/. but from hence there is Rocky, Swift & consequently uneven Water for near Six Miles in which distance there are 4 falls. the first /of which is tolerable clear of Rocks/ is shallow & pretty clear of Rocks /but very capable of relief/ wch may be avoided by opening a Channel on the Maryland side—Abt 2 Miles from this & half a one below the Mouth of Shanh lyes what is commonly called the Spout wch indeed is the principal /difficulty commonly called the Spout/ and /indeed/ I might almost add the only difficulty of the whole. The Water here is confined to narrow bounds5 & having a pretty considerable fall at the same time6 shoots thro. with great rapidity—the risk of passing this sluce is somewhat Increased by the7 Rockyness of the bottom which occasioning8 dry uneven surface. Subjects9 small Vessels to the danger of filling—I passed it in a Canoe & was near sinkg here may likewise be had a passage on the Maryland Shore thro. wch Vessells with ease may be hauled up. after removing some Rocks at a moderate expence—One of the other two Falls is swift & ugly not much unlike the last. but when the River is swelled beyond its usual bounds might10 (or I believe in any other than this dry Season) a passage is to be had /round a small/ between a small Island & the North Main /on the North Side/ which passage may be greatly Improvd. /Abt/ Eight miles lower /down/ is another fall, but very easy & passable and at the end of two Miles /further/ more is a cluster of small Islands with numberless Rocks & rapid Water, which renders the Passage somewhat in its prest state11 precarious—From hence to the Seneca Falls /ismutilated⟩/ a fine water scar[c]e any perceptable Fall. The Seneca fall is ⟨mutilated⟩ed12 in two places & Canoes may now proceed within 2 miles of the g⟨mutilated⟩ther13 it is not practacable till great alterations are made.

These Sir are the Observns ⟨mutilated⟩ year 1754 when I hoped (upon /examination/) seeing the Practicability of the thing that the expediency ⟨mutilated⟩ this Com⟨ns⟩ woud have been attended to /in the practicable light I beheld/14 & that ⟨mutilated⟩ our future operations, wd have been conducted /thro. this Chanl I/ ⟨mutilated⟩ /cant charge my Mem[or]y/ in this most ⟨rational⟩ or pointed manner but Genl Bradks ⟨mutilated⟩ late coming in Spring 1755 & hurry of business /when he did come/ ⟨illegible⟩ immediately upon his arrival allowed no time for ⟨mutilated⟩ attempts of this sort. & afterwards our affairs as everybody knows took /a very different/ quite another turn. & was ⟨conducted⟩ from a very difft Quarter cannot charge my Memory with any ⟨mutilated⟩ further knowledge ⟨b⟩ut you are welcome to make what use you ⟨mutilated⟩ please of the Informn.

ADf, DLC:GW. GW drafted this undated letter without an address, on the reverse of a letter cover addressed to himself. The bottom third of the letter cover seems to have already been torn by the opening of a seal. This makes it impossible to tell when words are in fact missing in the last part of the letter. Some of the lines read as though nothing is missing and that GW simply wrote on both sides of the tear. In some cases, however, words or letters have obviously disappeared. The manuscript is further complicated by GW’s rewording and corrections. In most cases, when he underlined a word or words he seems to have meant to leave it out. These underlined words are printed in italics and within slashes. At times GW also wrote one word or set of words above others without indicating which if any were to be left out; at other times, he drew lines that went only partly under or partly through words. These cases are pointed out in notes.

In the Maryland Gazette (Annapolis), 11 Feb. 1762, a notice dated 4 Feb. 1762 announced: “The Opening of the River Patowmack, and making it passable for Small-Craft, from Fort Cumberland at Wills’s-Creek, to the Great-Falls, will be of the greatest Advantage to Virginia and Maryland, by facilitating Commerce with the Back Inhabitants, who will not then have more than 20 Miles Land-Carriage to a Harbour, where Ships of great Burthen load annually; whereas at present many have 150; and what will perhaps be considered of still greater Importance, is, the easy Communication it will afford the Inhabitants of these Colonies with the Waters of the Ohio.

“The whole Land-Carriage from Alexandria, or George-Town, to Pittsburgh, will then be short of 90 Miles; whereas the Pennsylvanians (who at present monopolize the very lucrative Skin and Fur Trades) from their nearest Sea Port have at least 300; a Circumstance which must necessarily force that gainful Trade into this Channel, should this very useful Work be effected; and that it may, is the unanimous Opinion of the best Judges, and at a moderate Expence, compared with the extra-ordinary Conveniencies, and Advantages, which must result from it.

“That an Affair of such general Utility may be carried into Execution, it is proposed to sollicit the Public for their Contributions, by the Way of Subscription.”

Col. George Mercer and Col. Thomas Prather were to be treasurers of the enterprise, and twenty-two men “who live convenient” to the Potomac were to be its managers: from Virginia, George Mercer, Jacob Hite, William Ramsay, John Carlyle, John Hite, Joseph Watson, James Keith, James Hamilton, John Hough, John Patterson, and Abraham Hite; from Maryland, the Rev. Thomas Bacon, Dr. David Ross, Christopher Lowndes, Thomas Cresap, Benjamin Chambers, Jonathan Hager, Thomas Prather, John Cary, Casper Shaaff, Robert Peter, and Evan Shelby. They were to make and take in subscriptions before their first meeting scheduled for the last Monday in May in Frederick Town, Maryland. The notice went on to say this: “some Skilful Gentlemen have agreed to view the Great-Falls in the Spring.” On 10 June 1762 it was announced that the meeting had been deferred until 26 July (ibid.). The project was probably dropped when it became clear that the transmontane west was to be closed to further settlement as was confirmed in the royal Proclamation of 1763. In 1769–70 as soon as some of the restrictions on acquiring lands in the west were lifted, men of affairs living on both sides of the Potomac in the vicinity of Alexandria again took up the project of making the upper Potomac navigable and pushed it vigorously until the break with Britain forced its deferral until after the war. GW in Virginia and Thomas Johnson in Maryland assumed the lead in the Potomac River enterprise of the early 1770s; neither is named a manager of the enterprise in 1762, however, and no evidence has been found that GW had any connection with it beyond writing this letter. The close of his letter in which he assures his correspondent that “you are welcome to make what use you ⟨mutilated⟩ please of the Inform[atio]n” could not have been written in 1770 when he was in the thick of things, and so it seems certain that GW wrote the letter in 1762, not long before 4 Feb. and probably not after 26 July.

Thomas Johnson has usually been identified as the person to whom GW was writing, and he may have been, though it seems more likely that it was one of the managers of the enterprise who had some experience with the Potomac. Thomas Johnson at this time was living in Anne Arundel County and had not acquired land until March 1761 in Frederick County in western Maryland, where he later settled and became a leader in developing the navigation of the Potomac.

1See “Notes on the Navigation of the Potomac River above the Great Falls,” July–August 1754, in Papers, Colonial Series description begins W. W. Abbot et al., eds. The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series. 10 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1983–95. description ends , 1:179–80.

2GW wrote “July” and then wrote “August” over it.

4“When last” is written above “last time” with no line under or through either.

5The word “has,” written here, has been marked through.

6After “time” GW has scratched through an illegible word.

7A word after “the” has been scratched through.

8GW added later the “ing” to “occasion” and the words “very rippling” have a line marked through them.

9A word before “Subjects” has been obliterated.

10“Might” is written above “bounds,” with no mark through it.

11“In its prest state” is written above “somewhat,” and neither is marked out.

12In the letter to Carter, he wrote “easily pass’d.”

13In the letter to Carter the missing words are “Gt Falls but further.”

14This phrase is partly underlined, partly marked through.

Index Entries