George Washington Papers

To George Washington from John Semple, 8 January 1770

From John Semple

Occoquan 8th Jany 1770.


I am Sorry it is not convenient for you to take Iron for Mr Kennedays Pork Should my people have got It which is uncertain[.] when I came from the Furnace I left directions with them to procure it If possible & which Mr Kenneday had promised me to be at the Furnace about that Week[.] Should they have got It[,] would a Credite with Doctr Ross Suit you[?]1

I am greatly pleased to find you are so likely to Carry the point of Improveing Potowmack River2 But the plan adopted on the footing of the Adventurers being to be repaid with Interest from a Toll Will be lyable to a Great difficulty which I am Affraid will prevent Its being accomplished. Money is not so plenty that Persons possessed of It are under any dificulty to let it out at Interest on the Terms of withdrawing and Commanding It when they please Which would not be the case if Sunk in a plan of this kind Attended with the Greatest uncertainty when It might be Recoverable Which would prevent any Persons Sinking in It a Sum more than as a Gift of Charity He had given away and did not Exspect to receive again which Scanty Methods I am Affraid May not be Sufficient to accomplish the End. On the footing of the Toll being made the property of the Adventurers As is the mode of all Such Publick undertakeings in Britain And always allowed by Parliament In the makeing of either Turnpeike Roads in Land or Portable Cannells by Water Upon Such a footing people would Subscribe freely and Sink considerable Sums in It On the Supposition of Settling It By way of Estate and Reaping in time considerable advantage from It Altho’ at a distant Prospect On this footing The Adventurers would have the Greatest encouragement that could be given them which would Induse them to continue It on to Tyde Water with Locks at the foot of what is called the Meadows below the Great falls It is a thing not Improbable or Impossible Nor exstreemly difficult or Exspensive nearly equal to the Utility of It to the Community And from thence I presume It may be continued past the Little falls to Tyde Water.3

In the forming of the Law there is a point that ought to be Gaurded against That perhaps might not be Attended to. Two of Our Staple Commodities And which is Still more likely to be so for Exportation which is the Surest means of Inriching a Country And Counter Ballanceing the Excessive Imports our Necessity and Prodigality require Are Flower and Iron And which likewise in a Great measure is the Support of the Farmer Therefore all encouragement ought to be given By the Legislature for the Manufactoring of them And no place prevented from being Improved for these purposes that possibly can be made Serviceable towards that End. The places where Locks are required for the Navigation of Rivers Are Generally Such where the Waters Run Strongley the height of the full4 And which places are most Generally Commodious and proper for Works of that Nature5 And on Rivers capable of being Navigated most Advantagious By the Great and Constant Supply of Water. Which places being capable of being Improved so as to Serve both purposes vizt The Navigation of the River And manufactoring these Commoditys and so as the One may be made Subservient to the other And of no detriment to the Navigation The Proprietor ought not to be deprived of so valuable a part of property And so advantatgious to the Community Manyfest Instances and Proofs of which I have in the Lands I possess Which I propose to improve and for which purpose I have Secured adjoining to them Great Quantitys of Wood Land Ground which If I was deprived of useing by these Improvements would be a Great Burden to me But with Such Improvements of great value to me and the Community The Lands otherways than for Wood are of no Real value Mountainous and Stony and unfit for Agriculture Which Hint in your Makeing of the Law I hope will and Pray may be attended to As otherwise great unjustice may be done to Inviduals Nay to the Community in preventing the Improvement of very valuable places in a manner not prejudicial to the Navigation of the River Nay Which Improvements adjoined to Locks would be a Real Advantage to them By the constant Attention of those who possessed them to keep the Damns and Locks required to make the River Navigable in Repair These things in the Law would be necessary to be Gaurded against In case the Legislature thought proper to Incorporate the Adventurers into one Body or Company with a Power to Cut through and make use of any mans Lands Which might be the most prudent Method under proper Managers. I am Sir yr most Obt hble Sert

John Semple

ALS, MnHi. This letter is one of a packet of nine documents which came to light in 1922 in the Minnesota Historical Society. Congressman Andrew Stewart of Pennsylvania used the documents in preparing House Report no. 228 of 1826 on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. He reported having borrowed the papers from George Mason’s son John to whom, it was said, GW gave shortly before his death a large bundle of documents relating to the Potowmack Company. See Croce L. Nute, “Washington and the Potomac: Manuscripts of the Minnesota Historical Society, 1769–1796, I” (American Historical Review description begins Clarence E. Carter, “Documents Relating to the Mississippi Land Company, 1763–1769.” American Historical Review 16 (1910–11): 311–19. description ends 28 [1923], 497–519, 705–22). Semple’s letter is endorsed, in an unknown but probably eighteenth-century hand, “From Mr John Semple 8th Jany 1773,” but Semple clearly dates the letter 1770, not 1773, and its contents confirm that it was not written as late as 1773. See John Semple’s Proposal for Potomac Navigation, 1769.

John Semple (d. 1773), a Scot, in 1757 went into business in Port Tobacco, Md., with his brother-in-law John Lawson. In 1763 he took over John Ballendine’s iron furnace and gristmills on Occoquan Creek in Prince William County, Va., and moved there. Semple was also operating by 1763 just above Harpers Ferry on the Virginia banks of the Potomac an iron furnace which he named Keep Triste. In May 1765 he bought from Thomas Colvill for £2,500 sterling a tract of 6,300 acres, called Merryland, across the river in Frederick County, Maryland. Like his fellow entrepreneur John Ballendine, Semple greatly overextended himself, and by 1770 he was in deep financial trouble. At his death in 1773 he left his creditors to fight over what remained of his holdings. GW in 1770 was actively involved with Semple in two other matters not directly related to the improvement of navigation on the Potomac. As one of the executors of the estate of Thomas Colvill (see GW to John West, Jr., December 1767, and notes), GW was concerned about Semple’s inability to make the promised payment for the Merryland estate he had bought from Colvill. In 1771 Semple assigned his rights to the land to three merchants, two in Dumfries and one in Georgetown, Md. (see Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 3:78). GW also was one of the four men who spent five days in Colchester in August 1770 trying in vain to mediate a dispute, probably over the iron deposits on the Merryland tract, between Semple and Dr. David Ross, one of the owners of the Antietam, or Frederick, ironworks near the mouth of Antietam Creek in Frederick County, Md. (ibid., 2:264). Semple himself was at Mount Vernon twice in January 1770 and three other times before the end of the year.

1“Mr Kenneday” may be David Kennedy who since 1766 had rented land from GW on Bullskin Run, in Frederick County. Kennedy’s place was not far from Semple’s furnace, Keep Triste, to which Semple is here referring. GW had frequent dealings with Dr. David Ross, a merchant in Bladensburg, Maryland.

2He is perhaps referring to the bill regarding the navigation of the Potomac drawn up by GW and others, which the House of Burgesses had passed a few weeks before. See John Semple’s Proposal for Potomac Navigation, 1769, n.3.

3If the Potomac River bill drawn up in December 1769 by Richard Henry Lee and GW did include, as Semple seems to indicate, a provision for financing improvements of navigation solely with private funds lent at interest, GW changed his mind about this, for in July 1770 he was taking Semple’s position and arguing the infeasibility of relying entirely on private investments of this sort. Rather, he favored what the Virginia legislature was to adopt in 1772 and what both the Virginia and the Maryland legislatures adopted in 1784, the vesting of subscribers “with a kind of property in the Navigation” of the river, whereby investors collected the tolls and retained control of the proceeds (GW to Thomas Johnson, 20 July 1770; see also 8 Hening description begins William Waller Hening, ed. The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619. 13 vols. 1819–23. Reprint. Charlottesville, Va., 1969. description ends 570–79 and 11 Hening description begins William Waller Hening, ed. The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619. 13 vols. 1819–23. Reprint. Charlottesville, Va., 1969. description ends 510–25, and GW to Benjamin Harrison, 10 Oct. 1784, source note).

4The word may be “fall.”

5That is, ironworks and flour mills.

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