George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Johnson, 18 June 1770

From Thomas Johnson

Annap[oli]s 18 June 1770


I take the Liberty by the Revd Mr Boucher who as well as others have assured me of your Friendship to the Inland Navigation on Potowmack to inclose you a Subscription Paper which is intended to be put about at our Frederick Court next Week1—I have with some though too few others lately taken a View of the River from a little below Fort Frederick to Paynes Falls—in our Voyage down we met with Nothing of any Consequence till we came to Catons Gutt what is called Houses Falls another Rift—between that and Andietum and what is called Shepherds Falls a little below Shepherds Town being the only Obstructions and which might be easily removed at very small Expence. from Catons Gutt to Paynes Falls about 5 Miles Distance will we think be in prudence our present Object and 2500£ Pensylva. Currency it is thought by an Englishman in whom I have very great Confidence and a German who has been long employed in blowing Rocks will reduce Shannandore to allow a tolerable passage and make a towing Path—If we once get through the Shannandore I need not remark that all the Force above may be easily drawn to a point at Seneca or any other Obstruction below which will admit of Improvement at a tolerable Expence. We choose to blow a passage rather than attempt Naviga. through Locks because the Falls no where appear too steep for Vessells to come down if they had but Room enough and this plan is the more eligable as it avoids a very strong Objection to Locks from the Freshes, &ca ⟨&ca⟩ our Boat came through and we are satisfied loaded Battoes might with safety was there Room enough and a Channel deepned[.] I had the pleasure too to be fully satisfied there’s no weight in a plausible Objection made some Time since that deepning the Water where there are at present Ledges of Rocks would draw off the Water and occasion Shallows above for suppose about 20 or 30 Feet in width is deepned 2 Feet for Instance what Effect can it have on a Body of Water constantly supplied of 200 or 250 Yards width besides an actual sounding and I was attentive to the Circumstance[.] I find the Water deep above those Ledges no where as I recollect less than 5 Feet generally more and sometimes double that depth. but suppose the warfs Timber or Stone might easily be placed in other Breaks of the Ledge of Rocks so as to keep the water to it’s natural height by counteracting the new Draft by in a new Obstruction.2 Should this Mode of effecting the Navigation be generally approved I am not unapprized that the Scheme of raising Money by Subscription is liable to Objection and I think with many that this River justly claims the Attention of the Legislatures of both Provinces[.] I sincerely wish they could be both brought into one generous and grand Scheme and am sure that the vast Addition to Trade would soon repay almost any Expence but I fancy you and I are too well acquainted with the Difficulties of carrying points of Consequence through the three Branches of one Legisl[ature] to entertain Expectations that both Legislatures will soon concur circumstantially in the same Scheme for clearing Potowmack3—If any Thing should be given in Maryland in a public way a Subscription will certainly be an essential Condition and from what I have understood in Virginia the plan of a Corporation Subscription of Shares & Tolls would be the most agreeable there. A great many of the interested in Maryland are willing to put their Hands into their own pockets at once and I believe the Germans of whom we have Numbers in good Circumstances are much disposed to it so that if the people of your Side can be brought to do their just part, I do not mean an Arithmetical exactness, I flatter myself the Thing is well within our power and that a considerable part may still be done this Year. To convince people of the immediate Advantages to themselves I make this Estimate.

Land Carriage 80 Miles at 1/ Pensylva. Curry per Mile per Ton or 38 Bushels of wheat is 4.   
From Paynes Falls to Shannandore Semple now gives for Water Carre per Ton . 8.  
from the Mo. of Connegocheage to Paynes about the same Distance suppose the like . 8.  
Land Carriage from Seneca to the little Falls 12 or 14 Miles say 14 .14.  
saved by Water Carriage except the small Expence of Carriage from the little Falls to Geo. Town or Bellhaven on each Ton 2.10.

But what has weight with some though not enough are the ⟨immense⟩ future Advantages which you much better that I ⟨illegible⟩ favor and see of in making Poto. the Channel of Conveyance and Connection between the new Country westward and Britain.

If you sr should approve the Scheme of a Subscription and think any Thing can be done that Way in Virginia it will give us new Spirits on this Side—if not I shall be greatly obliged by your communicating your Thoughts on the Subject.

When I had the pleasure of seeing you at the Springs last Summer I mentioned that my Brother had obtained the Secret of curing Fits by simples he had several people under his Care who have been happily relieved the Cure was much slower than he reported and indeed he ⟨even⟩ began to think that he had been deceived but he is now fully satisfied of the salutary Effects of ⟨the⟩ Medicine which has been considerably improved lately, from his own actual Experiment on several Subjects and if, which I shall indeed be sorry to hear, the young Lady has as yet met with no Relief I shall procure and send you some with proper Directions—Mrs Washington may be assured that no ill Consequence will follow from it.4 I am sr With great Regard Your most obedt humble Servt

Ths Johnson, Junr

ALS, MnHi.

With this letter, Thomas Johnson (1732–1819), a Maryland lawyer who became the state’s first governor, began a correspondence with GW that lasted until GW’s death. It was rooted in their mutual interest in opening the upper Potomac to navigation and their persistent efforts to achieve this. GW himself indicates that it was largely through his own efforts that the Virginia legislature in 1772 enacted a bill “for opening and extending the navigation of the river Potowmack from Fort Cumberland to tide water” (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; see John Semple to GW, 8 Jan. 1770, n.3), but Johnson was unable to overcome the opposition of the Baltimore merchants to secure the passage of a similar bill in the Maryland legislature in 1772. The return of the entrepreneur John Ballendine from England in 1774, “with a number of engineers and artificers,” to begin work on the Potomac (Maryland Gazette [Annapolis], 8 Sept. 1774) gave renewed impetus to the enterprise. Both GW and Johnson became trustees of a company for opening the Potomac, and they took leading roles in preparing for their respective assemblies bills for giving public support to the project (see the correspondence between the two men in 1774 and 1775). The outbreak of war put an end to their efforts, but after the war, in late 1784 and early 1785, GW personally oversaw the simultaneous passage of identical Potomac River bills in the Virginia and Maryland legislatures.

1Johnson’s “Subscription Paper” has not been found, but see GW to Johnson, 20 July, and Jonathan Boucher to GW, 18 August. On 11 April 1768 Johnson and Lancelot Jacques received a patent for 15,000 acres in Frederick County where they erected their Green Spring furnace for making pig iron, and soon thereafter Johnson obtained a patent for another 7,000 acres of mineral land on the Catoctin Creek, all of which gave him a stake in the navigation of the Potomac.

2Compare Johnson’s description of the barriers to navigation in the Potomac to that of John Semple’s of 8 Jan. 1770. The word “by” may have been marked out.

3The lower house of the Maryland assembly on 4 Dec. 1769 ordered a bill to be brought in based upon John Semple’s proposal “relative to the Navigation on the River Patowmack,” and it made Johnson chairman of a committee to prepare the bill (Md. Archives description begins Archives of Maryland. 72 vols. Baltimore, 1883–1972. description ends , 62:63–64). Johnson’s bill passed the lower house on 20 Dec., but it was not passed by the upper house (ibid., 81, 89, 91, 29, 31).

4“Simple” was a term used to denote a medicine or herb. See GW’s response to this suggestion, 20 July. Thomas Johnson’s brother John was born in 1745 and for a time practiced medicine in Frederick, Maryland.

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