George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Montgomerie, 24 October 1788

From Thomas Montgomerie

Dumfries [Va.] 24th October 1788

Dear Sir

I duely received your letter of the 22d Instant1—I can have no objection to a review of the settlement made with the Executors of Colo. Colvill—I could have wished that you had named a day to meet at Alexandria on this business, I would have made any day convenent that should have been agreeable to you—you desire a short day—I therefore beg leave to name Monday the 3d of Novemr next—It is necessary however to carry Mr Wilson along, and in case there should be any very urgent business to prevent his attending at that time, I have wrote him by this post to advise your Excellency so, and to crave a few days longer, to which I will readily accede, should it be agreeable and convenient to you, in respect to which I shall be informed by Mr Wilson.2

I intended, in every event, to have wrote your Excellency by this post, in regard to the payment of the Bond given by Mr Adam Stewart Cumberland Wilson and myself to Colvill’s Excrs, but as I shall so soon have the pleasure of a personal interview, I shall delay taking up the subject till that period, and the final adjustment of the Accounts—I have the honor to be with great regard and respect Dear Sir Your most Obt Hume Servt

Thos Montgomerie


Thomas Montgomerie (1746–1792), a leading merchant of Dumfries, Va., was involved with GW in the complicated business and personal affairs of Margaret Green Savage in the late 1760s and early 1770s, and GW frequently stayed with him when he visited Dumfries. This letter concerns GW’s role as one of the executors of Col. Thomas Colvill of Cecil County, Md., who had settled on the south side of Great Hunting Creek near Mount Vernon on land he had inherited from his brother John (d. 1756). Shortly before his death in 1766, Thomas Colvill persuaded GW to become one of his executors. GW agreed, with the understanding that his role would be a nominal one. In reality he was to be involved periodically until at least 1797 in attempting to settle the confused claims of John Colvill’s English heirs and the claims against the estate arising from Colvill’s own role as his brother’s executor. John Colvill’s will, probated in 1756, is in Fairfax County Will Book, B–1, 97–101, Vi Microfilm. For Thomas Colvill’s will, probated in 1767, see ibid., 424–32.

Before bequests to individuals could be paid out, John Colvill’s extensive debts had to be settled by his executor. In this capacity Thomas Colvill had, in 1765, sold his deceased brother’s 6,300–acre tract called Merryland in Frederick County, Md., to John Semple, a Prince William County, Va., merchant, for £2,500. On 17 Oct. 1771 GW, Semple, and Thomas Colvill’s other executors, Frances Colvill and John West, Jr., presented a petition to the Maryland legislature stating that Thomas Colvill had died before he was able to deed the property to Semple and before Semple could make payment for the land. The original owner of the Merryland tract, John Colvill, died owing considerable money including more than £800 to his brother Thomas. Since at the time of his own death Thomas Colvill also owed “several Sums of Money, and bequeathed sundry Legacies, which cannot be paid unless the Executors can receive the Debt due from John Colvill’s Estate,” the petition requested that the legislature enable the executors of Thomas Colvill’s estate to sell the lands to Semple upon payment of the sums agreed upon or, “in Case the Money should not be paid within a short Space of Time,” to sell the lands to the highest bidder. “An Act to enable the Executors of Thomas Colvill to convey the Land therein mentioned,” granting GW and his fellow executors the authority they requested, was passed at the same session of the legislature (Votes and Proceedings of the Lower House of Assembly of the Province of Maryland. October Session, 1771 [n.p., n.d.], 18, 88, Microfilm Collection of Early State Records description begins Microfilm Collection of Early State Records prepared by the Library of Congress in association with the University of North Carolina, 1949. description ends ). Semple found that his own financial obligations made it impossible for him to pay off the purchase bond for the Merryland tract, and he assigned his rights in the purchase to Montgomerie, Cumberland Wilson of Dumfries, and Adam Stewart, a merchant of Georgetown, Maryland. In January 1772 the executors conveyed deeds to the three merchants in return for £816.13.7 in bills of exchange on Glasgow firms, which GW later converted to Virginia currency (Ledger B description begins Manuscript Ledger Book 2, 1772-93, in George Washington Papers, Library of Congress. description ends , 4, 21; Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 3:84, 88). Although the three merchants offered portions of the tract for sale in mid–1772 and sections of it were sold over the years, their final settlement with the Colvill estate was not made until May 1793.

Even more troublesome to GW than the land settlement were the problems arising from the provisions of John Colvill’s will leaving cash, land, and personal property to various individuals. The principal beneficiary was Charles, earl of Tankerville (d. 1767), “Son of my Fathers Brothers Daughter,” and Tankerville’s heirs in England, but he also left substantial sums to “Mary Foster who came into the Country in my ship . . . and continued to live with me several years”; to Colvill’s “Daughter Catherine by the said Mary and now the wife of John West junr”; to his son-in-law, John West, Jr.; to his brother-in-law George Colvill of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and his heirs; and to the charity school of Newcastle (Fairfax County Will Book, B–1, 97-101). In addition Thomas Colvill’s will had named a number of persons, besides his wife Frances, as beneficiaries. Even before Thomas Colvill’s death Tankerville’s agents had challenged his sale of the Merryland property, and over the years a substantial number of the beneficiaries of both John and Thomas Colvill approached GW for their legacies. He was indeed to earn the £100 each that Thomas Colvill left to GW and to John West, Jr., “towards their encouragement,” since “in all Probability my Executors will have considerable Trouble in settling and adjusting my affairs” (Fairfax County Will Book, B–1,430).

GW’s own feelings concerning his postwar involvement in the affair are best described in a letter of 24 Jan. 1788 to John Rumney, who had written GW on behalf of the English heirs: “In answer to your letter of the 22d I can only, in addition to what I have formerly written to you on the subject of the claims on the surplus (if any) of the estate of the deceased Colo. Thomas Colvill, say, that I, who in fact had very little to do in the administration of that Estate previous to the dispute with Great Britain, and nothing during the continuation of it for the nine or ten years that I was absent, have done every thing in my power, since my return home, to bring the accts to a close in some manner or another. To this end I have colled upon the Son and Heir of Mr John West (deceased) who was the principal acting Executor of Colo. Colvill—upon the Revd Mr West & Colo. George West his Brothers, the former of whom is, and the latter was (before his death) the Executors of John West, and upon Major Little, the Agent of Lord Tankerville, for all the papers and information that can throw lights on these accts and such as I have been able to obtain—imperfect indeed they are! are placed in the hands of a Gentleman of the Law, well acquainted with this kind of business to make a proper digest and arrangement of them, which, when accomplished, will be exhibited to the Court. and then . . . whatever is right and proper for me to do under the will, agreeable to Law, I shall do with out delay, or hesitation.

“It must seem strange to persons not acquainted with the Circumstances, that a matter of this sort should lye in an unfinished state so long. The truth of the case is—that Colo. Thomas Colvell’s affairs were so blended with his brother John Colvell (to whom he was sole Executor and a Legatee)—and these again so entangled with debts, to the Tankerville family—also with an important sale of land made by Thomas Colvell, as Executor of John Colvell, to John Semple which involved disputes, references &c. and moreover with Law-suits in other cases—all of which together, with more exertion than I believe fell to the lott of Mr West, could not have brought matters to a close before hostilities commenced; and the Courts of Justice were shut; after this, the death of Mr West, and my absence (Mrs Colvell the Executrix of the will being also dead) put an entire stop to this business; and since, the disordered state in which that Gentleman has left his papers—or rather no papers—has occasioned more trouble and vexation to me engrossed as my time is with a multitude of other matters than any private circumstance of my life has ever done to renew and bring this business if possible to a satisfactory issue. However, I am determined that the accounts and disputes shall be liquidated—and the best, or worst known without much more delay; for this purpose I have this day written to the Gentleman who is vested with all the Papers to have them adjusted upon the best ground he can take for the accomplishment of this work.” GW’s agent in Alexandria was James Keith (1734–1824), formerly of Hampshire County, Va., and now practicing law in Alexandria. He was the town’s mayor in 1784, and he was a director of the Potowmack Company. Keith clearly found the morass of the Colvills’ affairs no less frustrating than GW did. See, for example, his letter to GW, 25 Feb. 1789. For an overview of GW’s own accounting of both Thomas and John Colvill’s estates, see Ledger C description begins Manuscript Ledger in Morristown National Historical Park, Morristown, N.J. description ends , 13–17.

1Letter not found.

2William Wilson (died c.1823), a native of Scotland, came to the United States around 1777 and, with his brother James (1767–1805), was a partner in a merchant and shipping firm in Alexandria, Virginia. He was also involved with the Glasgow firm of Dunlop & Co. which owed large sums to Thomas Colvill’s estate (GW to Thomas Johnson, 22 Nov. 1787). Wilson was a frequent visitor to Mount Vernon.

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