George Washington Papers

To George Washington from James Henry, 2 June 1784

From James Henry

King and Queen [County, Va.], June 2d 1784.


I am under the necessity of giving you some trouble about an affair, which you could have no reason to suppose ever to hear of again. ’tis this.

When you executed a Deed to the late Mr J.P. Custis for the King and Queen Lands, where I now live, notwithstanding the Number of Gentlemen who were called upon to attest that Transaction, yet not more than one of them could be procured to prove the deed, ’till the limited time was past. in the meantime Mr Custis sold this Land to me and gave me a Deed with warranty, acknowledged and recorded in the Genl Court.

Thus it has happened, and the legal title to this Estate yet continues in you; and I was determined never to trouble you about it, while engaged in the important Business from which you are now so gloriously set free.

Mr B. Dandrige has been so kind as to take charge of the papers herewith sent, which will show you how the whole has been conducted, and will take care of the Deed of Confirmation which you may think proper to give me—I have indeed sent a blank deed for your conveniency, which I suppose may be unexceptionable: if however any other form would please you better, I’m contented, as nothing more is desired than a title to the Land, which has been paid for according to bargain, and which both Mr Custis and my self expected was sure to me when he acknowledged his Deed to me in the year 1779.1 Had it been your hard fate to have been called away during the Contest, my determination was to risque my Chance with your Heir, rather than call off your attention but for a moment to such kind of unimportant Business; and tho your well earned Laurels will bloom long, very long, yet as life, however glorious, is short, in this I but imitate your example, in not putting off till to morrow what ought to be done to day.

I cannot, my Dear Sir, perswade my self to close this letter without adding my plaudit to the universal Voice. Were you at the head of a victorious Army, men of my turn would be silent; but to retire without Reward, perquisite or plunder has stamp’d a Seal of immortality on Genl Washington’s Character; and to withold the small tribute of applause from living merit when there is not a possibility of changing our Sentiments, would be niggardly indeed. for posterity will surely do ample Justice.

May you live long, very long to enjoy that honest fame, which Virtue and honour may with the greatest propriety exult in without feeling a pang of remorse in secret. But whither am I running? You have had enough of this Stuff, but I will confidently affirm, the most fervent Wishes for your Glory and felicity, have not been made by any one living with greater sincerity than by Dr Sir, Your most obedt servt

Jas Henry


James Henry (1731–1804) returned to practice law in Accomac, Va., after receiving his education in Edinburgh, Scotland. He served in both the House of Burgesses and the house of delegates from Accomac County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. He was serving as a delegate from King and Queen County in 1782 when he was made a judge of the Virginia admiralty court. He was elected to Congress first in December 1779 and again in June 1780. In 1788 he became a judge of the Virginia General Court.

1In 1774 GW bought from William Black two plantations for his ward, John Parke Custis. The one called Romancoke was a tract of 1,625 acres on Pamunkey Creek in King William County, Virginia. The other one nearby consisting of 1,981 acres in King and Queen County was the site of the house, Pleasant Hill, where Speaker John Robinson had lived until his death in 1766. For GW’s purchase of the two estates for Custis, see GW to Robert Cary & Co., 10 Nov. 1773. GW conveyed both pieces of property to Custis in 1778, as he recalled in 1789: “I am much mistaken if I did not in the year 1778 convey both the King William and the King & Queen Lands to Mr Custis by Deeds executed at Camp before Colos. Harrison, Mead & many others as Witnesses to prove it in the General Court; and this in the presence of Mr Custis” (GW to David Stuart, 26 July 1789). GW bought Pleasant Hill with the notion that it would serve as a proper residence for John Parke Custis and his bride, but even before GW formally transferred the deed to him in 1778, Custis had put the estate up for sale. In October 1777 John Parke Custis placed this advertisement in the two Virginia gazettes: “To be Sold for ready Money, That beautiful seat on Mattapony river, where the late Speaker Robinson lived. There are 1381 acres of high land and 600 acres of marsh, equal to any in the country, and may be reclaimed at a very moderate expense. Besides the marsh, there are twenty acres of swamp, which may easily be converted into a valuable meadow. On the above tract there is a mill, which is rather out of repair at present, but may be made, without much expense, as valuable as mills generally are. The plantation is under good fences, and in proper order for cropping, with a young orchard of choice fruit. The dwelling-house is of brick, as convenient and well built as any in the state, two stories high, with four large rooms and a passage on each floor, and good cellars under the whole, with a very convenient brick kitchen, servants hall, and wash-house. The stables, coach-house, granary, &c. are large, and in good repair, and there is a garden walled in with brick. No situation can exceed this in beauty, and few in convenience. Any person inclinable to purchase may be shewn the land and houses by applying to Mr. Street, who lives on the spot; and the terms of sale may be known by applying to Burwell Bassett, Esq; in New Kent, Mr James Hill near Williamsburg, or to the subscriber at Mount Vernon, near Alexandria” (Virginia Gazette [Purdie; Williamsburg], 17 Oct. 1777). James Henry bought the place and obtained a deed for 1,381 acres from John Parke Custis and his wife Eleanor Calvert Custis in 1779 (Vi, no. 24715, Va. Misc.). GW did not respond to Henry’s letter for over six years, not until 20 Nov. 1790 when he confirmed that Custis held title to the property at the time Henry bought it. In 1778 GW also sold his dower property in York and King William counties and in Williamsburg to John Parke Custis (deed of release, ViMtvL [photocopy], and bond to GW, ViHi, both 12 Oct. 1778).

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