George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Robert Johnston, 27 May 1785

From Robert Johnston

Edinburgh 27th May 1785


The High Character you have so Justly aquired for the Love of your Country, and the desire that your Fellow Citizens may do Justice to mankind, has prompted me to Write you on a subject that very much concerns me, and a very numerous Family. Mr Charles Turnbull of Virginia died in 1782 (who probably you would know)[.] so long ago as 1756 he sent his sister my Mother in Law a will leaving her a fourth part of his whole Estate real or personal his Nephew Mr Robert Turnbull who lived with him for some time has taken possession of his whole Estate without giving his Relations in Scotland any account whatever.1 I have annext a copy of the Will wherein he says “If I die either without making a Will or with a Will this Letter entitles you to a Fourth of my Estate real or personal.”2 Now Mr Robert Turnbull says his Uncle conveyd almost his whole Estate to him and his heirs Three Years before his Death.3 I wrote to him for Copies of these papers so long ago as November 1783 a Copy of which Letter I have annext4 and to which he has never made me a reply. I was recommended to Mr Benjamin Waller of Williamsburg to whom I sent a Power of Attorney and a Notorial Copy of the Will. he wrote that from old age he had declined business and recommended a Mr Tazwell my last Letter desiring him to make the necessary enquiries is dated Novr 1783 since which I have never heard a word on the subject out of Compassion for a Large family may I beg of you to Cause the necessary enquiries to be made so as we may get what we may be found entitled to from a relation who had every inclination to serve his Sister whom he dearly Loved, and advise me what I ought to do.5 I believe a Relation of yours married a Mr Walker, a Scots Clergyman who died in Holland some years ago his son who married a near Relation of mine is now in Holland on a visit to his Step Mother.6 with the Greatest Esteem I am Sir Your most hble Sert

Robt Johnston


1Before the Revolution Charles Turnbull became a prosperous and respected merchant in Petersburg, Virginia. In 1768 he was made one of the managers of the famous William Byrd lottery. In 1782, the year of Charles Turnbull’s death, his nephew Robert Turnbull reported owning eighty-one slaves in Dinwiddie County.

2It probably was not a copy of a formal will to which Johnston was referring, but rather to the enclosed copy of a letter from Charles Turnbull to his sister, dated at Appomattox River, 7 Feb. 1756, which states: “This Letter of this date the 7th Feby 1756 entitles you to one fourth part of my Estate real or personal to be for your use, and to be divided amongst your Children, and their heirs for ever As my Brother Thomas & the Revd Mr Robert Wallace my Brother in Law Judge proper” (DLC:GW).

3In the copy of a letter from Robert Turnbull to Johnston of 29 July 1783 (misdated 1785), Turnbull told Johnston that his uncle wrote the letter of 7 Feb. 1756 to his sister (see note 2) before he was married “or indeed had any intention of Settling in this Country by his marrying here [in 1759]. . . . it is natural to Suppose that his intentions respecting his Estate would alter and that they did so will appear by the Conveyance of almost the whole of his Estate to me . . . about three years before his Death” (DLC:GW). Turnbull went on to say that he would provide Johnston with a copy of his uncle’s deed conveying his property to him and reported that Charles Turnbull made no will and left no children.

4In his letter of response, 25 Nov. 1783 (the enclosed copy also misdated 1785), Johnston wrote Robert Turnbull that Charles Turnbull sent in 1768 to his brother Robert Turnbull in Scotland a deed binding himself to pay for the board and keep of their sister and her daughter. Johnston demands a copy of the deed by which Charles Turnbull conveyed his property to his nephew Robert, declaring it unlikely that Charles Turnbull would have done such a thing and thereby leave himself dependent on the charity of his nephew. Johnston concludes with an assertion that Charles Turnbull’s sister and her children were in any case entitled to one-fourth part of Turnbull’s estate (DLC:GW; see Robert Turnbull [the elder] to GW, this date). No response to either Johnston’s or Turnbull’s letter has been found.

5Henry Tazewell (1753–1799) was a lawyer and the son-in-law of the Williamsburg lawyer Benjamin Waller. Tazewell had moved from Brunswick County to Williamsburg and in 1785 became a judge of the state’s General Court. He served in the United States Senate from December 1794 until his death.

6Neither the Rev. Mr. Walker nor his wife has been identified.

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