Dismal Swamp Land Company Articles of Agreement
[Williamsburg, 3 November 1763]
Articles of Agreement made and concluded the third day of November One thousand Seven hundred and Sixty three between the several Gentlemen Subscribers here to who have agreed to Associate as a Company for the purpose of taking up and draining a large Body of Land called the Dismal Swamp under the Restriction’s and regulations following,1 that is to say,
That certain Agents or Trustees be chosen by the Company, who shall deligently and carefully view the said Land and determine in what manner the same shall be drained and improved,2 and what Sum of money shall from time to time be paid for each share by the proprietor thereof; which money shall be received and laid out in such draining and Improvement by such Agents, who are to render Accounts thereof to a meeting of the majority of the Company when required, and to be subject to their controul, but so as not to set aside any prior contract relating to such draining or Improvement that shall have been made by the Agents with any other Person or Persons—
That upon request every Proprietor of a Share shall pay the Sum of money so proportioned for such share or shall forfeit his title to the Land, and such share shall devolve to the Company upon their paying to such refusing Proprietor what money he shall have advanced in respect of such share, or permit him to sell the share,
That no advantage of Survivorship shall be taken upon the death of a Partner but the heir or devisee of any one of the Company dying, shall hold his share in like manner and subject to the same contribution and forfeiture as in herein provided for the other Members of the Company[—]
That no Member shall have a right to require Partition of the lands to be made, so as to hold his part in severalty unless the same be agreed to by a Majority of the Company at a General Meeting; but any Member may at any time sell his undevided share or shares, provided he shall previously give notice of his Intentions to sell, to a Majority of the Company at a General Meeting, and give the Company the choice of purchasing the same, if they will give as much as another. And if any Member shall sell his whole share to another Person not of the Company, such purchaser shall have a right to vote in a general meeting of the Company, but if part of a share only be sold the former Member and not the purchaser shall be entitled to such Vote; and if a member shall sell his whole share to many Persons, one of the purchasers only to be chosen by the Compa. shall have a right to such Vote; and no Member shall have more than one Vote at such Meetings notwithstanding he may have more shares than one3—
That when a Majority of the Company at a Genl Meeting shall judge a Division of the said Lands proper, the same shall be laid off into Lotts according to the Number of Shares and those Lotts fairly drawn for by the Members—
That the Trustees or Agents to be chosen by the Company shall, if required, give Bond and security for the faithful discharge of the Trust reposed in them.
ADS, PPRF. The manuscript, including the signatures, is in GW’s hand. GW presumably made his copy of the Articles of Agreement and of the minutes of the company’s meeting of 3 Nov. at the time. There is also in ViHi a copy of the Articles made in 1849 from a copy made in 1768 and printed in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 37 (1929), 64–65. The significant difference between GW’s copy of 1763 and the copy of 1768 (recopied in 1849) are: (1) The names of the late speaker of the House of Burgesses John Robinson, of the British company Anthony Bacon & Co. “by Fielding Lewis their Atty,” and of Francis Farley were added to the list of members (see note 3); (2) the later copy is followed by these notations: “At a General Court held at the Capitol the 6th day of May 1768.
“These articles of agreement were acknowledged by Wm. Nelson and Thos. Nelson esq’rs. George Washington, Fielding Lewis and Francis Farley Gent. parties thereto and ordered to be recorded. Teste Ben Waller Cl. Cur.
“A Copy Teste N.P. Howard Clk. General Court. Richmond, 19th October 1849.”
The other differences—changes in punctuation, capitalization, and paragraphing, and even the two changes in wording (“subscribed” for GW’s “subscribers” and “directions” for GW’s “Restrictions”)—all may be due to the vagaries of GW or Waller as a copyist.
GW was a key figure in the founding and early operation of the Dismal Swamp Land Company. Even before the Virginia council approved the petition for the land in the Dismal Swamp on 1 Nov. 1763 and before the company two days later held its first meeting to adopt the Articles of Agreement, GW had gone twice, first in May and then again in October, to the Dismal Swamp to form some judgment of its potential for agricultural development. At the meeting on 3 Nov. GW volunteered to participate in the surveying of land in the Dismal Swamp and apportioning it among the members of the company, and he along with Dr. Thomas Walker and Fielding Lewis were made the “Managers” of the Dismal Swamp Land Company. See Dismal Swamp Land Company: Minutes of Meeting, 3 Nov. 1763, and notes. There is, in fact, evidence that it was GW, Lewis, and Walker who in the first place took the initiative and organized the efforts for securing the grant of lands in the Dismal Swamp (see the discussion of the petition to the Virginia council in note 1). During each of the next five years, 1764 through 1768, in which, except perhaps for 1765, he visited the Dismal Swamp at least once, GW seems to have assumed primary responsibility not only for having 40,000 acres in the swamp surveyed and apportioned among the members but also for overseeing the extensive projects of the company to drain portions of the swampland. After 1768 the company itself seems to have been less active, certainly GW’s involvement was far less, and for nine years during the war GW had no dealings at all with the Dismal Swamp Land Company. For the revival of the Dismal Swamp Land Company after the war, see Thomas Walker to GW, 24 Jan. 1784, and notes. GW held his share in the Dismal Swamp Land Company lands until 1795, when he sold his 4,000 acres or so to Henry Lee, Jr. (see GW to Thomas Walker, 10 April 1784).
1. The Virginia council recorded in its journals for 25 May 1763: “A Petition of William Nelson Esqr. in behalf of himself and many others, setting forth that a considerable Quantity of Land lying in the Counties of Norfolk and Nansemond and bounded by the North Carolina Line, known by the name of the Great Dismal has lain entirely waste and unpatented hitherto, and praying that they may have leave to survey and obtain Patents for the said Land, upon the Terms of being allow’d seven years to return their surveys with Rights to the Secretary’s Office, was this Day read, and the consideration thereof postpon’d” (Exec. Journals of Virginia Council description begins H. R. McIlwaine et al., eds. Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia. 6 vols. Richmond, 1925–66. description ends , 6:257–58).
An undated petition which was read by the Virginia council on 1 Nov. 1763 stated: “The Petition of William Nelson Esqr. & others humbly shews that they being desirous of taking up and Improving a large Tract of waste Land lying in the Counties of Norfolk and Nansemond bounded to the Southward on Carolina and commonly known by the name of the Dismal Swamp did present a Petition to the Honble Governor and Council which was read the Twenty fifth of May  last and the consideration thereof postponed And Whereas by some mean, the said Petition has been mislaid and cannot be found by which your Petitioners are deprived of the advantage of having the same reconsidered. They therefore Pray that leave may be granted them to Survey and obtain Patents for the said Lands on the terms which they then petitioned for as will appear by the Council journals—or on such other Conditions as your Honours shall think reasonable—and your Petitioners as in duty bound shall &ca” (PPRF, in GW’s hand). The list of the signers of the petition has first in GW’s hand the names of William and Thomas Nelson, Robert Burwell, John Robinson, Robert Tucker, Samuel Gist, Thomas Walker, Fielding Lewis, John Syme, and George Washington. Of these only John Robinson was not at the meeting of 3 Nov., and was not a signer of the Articles of Agreement. See note 3. Then in an unknown hand come seventy-nine names in alphabetical order, including six Washingtons, three of them GW’s brothers and three his cousins. The list ends with the names of sixty-two other men in no apparent order.
It would appear that GW, Fielding Lewis, and Thomas Walker collected these names. In NjMoHP, and undated document in GW’s hand is a work sheet revealing something of how the names affixed to the petition were obtained. GW first lists the names of 43 men, the first 30 in alphabetical order and the last 13 in the same order as in the petition. Only one name, John Crook, is not also on the petition. The men listed include GW’s white servants, his tenants, and his friends and neighbors in and about Alexandria. At the end of this list GW wrote “1 Spe[ake]r[,] 1 S[amuel] G[ist,] 1 GW,” and gave the total 46. He followed that with this table:
This makes it appear that there were to be fifteen additional names on the petition for each of the eleven men who were seeking the land and would hold the stock in the Dismal Swamp Land Company. Clearly GW secured the additional names for himself and two others, Lewis for himself and three others, and Walker for himself and one other. Syme and Waters got names only for themselves.
On 1 Nov. 1763 the council took the following action on the new petition: “Upon considering the Petition of William Nelson Esqr. in behalf of himself and many others for a considerable quantity of Land Lying in the County of Norfolk and Nansemond known by the name of the Great Dismal, which was presented at a Council held the 25th of May last, it was ordered that each of the Petitioners have leave to take out a Patent for One thousand Acres of the said Land, upon condition of giving legal notice to the Proprietors of the contiguous Highlands, and that they do not interfere with any entries antecedent to this day, and Seven years are allowed to them to return their Surveys free of Rights to the Secretarys Office” (PPRF). The original was signed by the clerk of the council, Nathaniel Walthoe, and noted by Deputy Auditor John Blair as entered at the auditor’s office on 2 Nov. 1763.
It was following these official actions that GW and the other men met in Williamsburg on 3 Nov. and adopted the Articles of Agreement forming the Dismal Swamp Land Company.
3. A document headed “Original Proprietors of the D.S. Land Co.” (NcD: Dismal Swamp Land Company Papers), which appears to be dated November 1785, lists twelve shareholders including John Robinson and Anthony Bacon & Co. in addition to the ten who signed the Articles of Agreement. In the same manuscript collection there is a notation that on 27 April 1764 “Colo. Syme resigned to Colo. [Francis] Farley” and that William Waters transferred one-half of his share to his son-in-law David Meade (b. 1744), who was from Nansemond County. It also shows that John Robinson’s share was surrendered to the company in 1771, which accounts for there being only eleven instead of twelve shares outstanding when Thomas Walker listed the shareholders in 1784 (see Enclosure, Walker to GW, 24 Jan. 1784).
4. William Nelson (1711–1772) of York County was second in seniority to John Blair on the Virginia council, and his brother Thomas Nelson (1715–1787) was a member of the council and deputy secretary of the colony. The Nelson brothers were merchants in Yorktown and had extensive holdings in land and slaves in Hanover, Prince William, and James City counties as well as in York County. Robert Burwell (1720–1777), who became a member of the Virginia council in 1764, was a planter in Isle of Wight County south of the James River and also had land in Surry County and in Prince William, Loudoun, and Frederick counties to the north and west. John Syme (1728–1805) was a planter in Hanover County with extensive landholdings; he married the daughter of Dr. Thomas Walker’s wife, Mildred Thornton Meriwether, two of whose nieces married GW’s brothers. Samuel Gist (d. 1815) was a London merchant who owned property in Hanover County where he was living at this time. Robert Tucker (d. 1779) was a Norfolk merchant, the son and father of Norfolk merchants of the same name. William Waters (d. 1769) was married to the daughter of the Williamsburg merchant William Prentis (d. 1765). He was for a time a partner in trade with the president of the Virginia council, John Blair, and he had large landholdings in York, Northampton, and Halifax counties. Not named here (see note 3) were Anthony Bacon (c.1717–1786), once a Maryland storekeeper and now a London merchant engaged in the Chesapeake trade, and John Robinson, speaker of the House of Burgesses and treasurer of the colony, who died in 1766 possessed of among other things about four hundred slaves and about 4,000 acres of land in King and Queen County, 3,200 in Caroline, 6,500 in Spotsylvania, 4,250 in Hanover, 1,200 in King William, 400 in James City, and one share in the Dismal Swamp Land Company.