George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Brice McGeehon, 18 October 1788

From Brice McGeehon

Washington County [Pa.]

May it please your ExcellencyOctober the 18th 1788

I am one of those unfortunate people who first settled and Improved your land on Millers run, in this County: and the only surviving settler that yet lives upon your tract, I have a small family, and finds myself unable at present, either to pay rent, or purchase. I find my strength much exausted, and my health impared, by the fatigue and hard labour I underwent in makeing my first improvements here. and now I can see no alternative, but either Cast myself upon your Excellencys Clemincy and patronage, or expose myself and small family to all those evils which are the Sure and Constant attendants on indigence and want.

I have ventured to Choose the former, drawing the same Conclusion of your Excellency, which the servants of the Assyrian monarch did of the Kings of Israel, that you are Mercifull: and therefore request that your Excellency may make me a donation of the Spott I have improven together with what number of acres you may deem expedient.

No doubt upon hearing this application, this Queerie will naturely suggest itself in your Excellencys mind; is this person one of those people who withstood me in a lawsuit for that land? I frankly acknowledge I am. When I first settled this spott, I was newly married, and began the world (as the saying is) and my improvement together under the Idea that the land was unappropriated. Under the same Idea, I carried on my improvements, Confiding, that the laws of my Country would protect and secure me in the possession of that which I had acquired by occupancy, I therefore risqued the lawsuit with your Excellency, and the event has proved that I was mistaken; and I now look up to you Excellencys goodness, for that, which was legaly taken from me, and vested in you, by the Laws of my Country.

The spot I occupy is situate on the south west corner of the tract, and I am of opinion, that should your Excellency Indulge me with a small quantity together with my improvement, the real quantity Called for by your patent will not be much, if any thing, affected thereby.

To Conclude Sir—If that goodness which has ever marked the Character and Conduct of your Excellency, Considers my situation, as a medium, thro’ which it can extend itself in giving relief to a distress’d parent and family, you will Comply with my request, and I shall ever pray, that an Indulgent Providence, may not let you feel that large Patrimony he has been pleased to Confer upon you any thing diminished by such an act of generousity.

I hope your Excellency will please to vouchsafe me an answer by the bearer. I am your Excellencys most obedt Humble Servant

Brice Mcgeehon


Brice McGeehon’s letter was an unwelcome reminder to GW of the continuing complications surrounding his land investments in what is now Washington County, Pennsylvania. In response to GW’s instructions to “look ⟨me⟩ out a Tract of about 1500, 2000, or more Acres” of rich and level land in Pennsylvania, William Crawford, GW’s western land agent, reported in September 1767 that he had “pitchd upon a fine peace of Land on a Creek called Shirtees Creek near the head about 25 Miles from Fort pitt, it Emtys into the Ohio about 5 miles below the fort on the south side, the Land Consist of Choic Bottems from a Quarter to half a mile wide, The up Land is as Lavel (as Comon for that Country to be)” (GW to Crawford, 17 Sept. 1767, Crawford to GW, 29 Sept. 1767). By 1771 Crawford had surveyed a 2,813–acre tract on Millers Run, a branch of Chartiers Creek. The land lay within an area that was still in dispute between Virginia and Pennsylvania, and in July 1774 GW obtained patents on the Millers Run land from Virginia (Va. Colonial Patents Book, Book 42, 516–18, Vi Microfilm). As early as 1771 Crawford was having difficulty with squatters, and he erected four cabins on the land in 1772 in order to reinforce GW’s claims. There were ten or twelve persons in residence on the Millers Run tract in December 1773 (Crawford to GW, 29 Dec. 1773). By 1780 Virginia had surrendered claims to the area, but grants made before the concession were recognized as valid by Pennsylvania, a fact that did not, however, stop the settlers on GW’s Millers Run land from challenging the validity of his title. On his trip west in September 1784 GW inspected the holding occupied by McGeehon and the other squatters. McGeehon’s land he found to consist of “3 Acres of Meadow. 20 Do. arable—under good fencing. A small new Barn good” (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 4:27). During his stay in Pennsylvania GW met a delegation of the settlers and offered to sell them the land they occupied. The members of the delegation, among them McGeehon, “severally answered, that they meant to stand suit, & abide the Issue of the Law” (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 4:28–29; Crumrine, History of Washington County, description begins Boyd Crumrine. History of Washington County, Pennsylvania, with Biographical Sketches of Many of Its Pioneers and Prominent Men. Philadelphia, 1882. description ends 858–59). For GW’s description of the contentions of the squatters and his defense of his own position regarding them, see his letters to John Harvie of the Virginia Land Office, 19 Mar. 1785, and to Thomas Smith, 14 July 1785. In 1785 GW brought ejectment proceedings against the squatters. The suit, Washington v. James Scott, et al, held from 24 to 26 Oct. 1785, caused considerable furor in western Pennsylvania. Thomas Smith of Philadelphia, a noted attorney in land cases, represented GW, and Hugh Henry Brackenridge acted for the defendants. The case was heard before Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Thomas McKean, who was riding circuit in the western part of the state. In spite of charges by Brackenridge that GW’s land purchases were illegal and that improvements by the settlers entitled them to legal possession of the land, McKean decided in GW’s favor. The decision left a lasting antagonism in western counties toward the court. Despite his triumph GW showed some reluctance to evict the settlers. “Altho’ those people have little right to look to me for favor or indulgences, & were told, if they run me to the expence of a Law suit, that they were not to expect any; yet as they are now in my power, it is not my wish or intention to distress them more than the recovery of my property obliges me. They may therefore continue on their respective places either as Tenants at an equitable rent which shall be deemed reasonable between man & man, or as purchasers, if the terms can be agreed on between us; but they, nor no others will ever get it for 20/. per acre: this is five shillings less per acre, than these people would have given whilst the matter was in dispute, could we have agreed on the security & times of payment” (GW to George McCarmick, 27 Nov. 1786).

No reply to the letter from McGeehon has been found, and McGeehon wrote GW on 12 Aug. 1789, again requesting that GW make him a gift of the land on which he lived. He evidently left Washington County soon after. His name does not appear in the 1790 census as a resident of Washington County, and by the time of the 1800 census he was living in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. By 1787 GW was attempting to dispose of his lands in the area, preferably as a tract, and in 1795 sold all of his holdings on Millers Run to Matthew Ritchie of Washington County (GW to James Ross, 29 Aug. 1795, to Presley Nevill, 16 April 1796, to Alexander Addison, 8 July 1796).

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