From Corbin Washington
Walnut Farm [Westmoreland County, Va.]
My dear UncleNovr 30. 1789
Some time late in September la⟨st I⟩ received a letter from Mr John Marshall informing me that the Suit of the Hites & ⟨Greens⟩ against me for a part of my land in Berkley was set for trial in the succeeding Octr, and, unless I could procure for him sundry papers &c., with which he had not been furnished, he could not maintain the Suit.1 Upon examination, I found that the papers required were not in my possession, neither did I know where to apply for them. In the height of this dilemma, I had the pleasure of seeing Mr Charles Lee, who informed me, that, in consequence of a conversation he had had with you some time ago, he inclined to believe that you could either inform me where to obtain the necessary papers, or give me some useful instructions respecting the business—if it is in your power to do either, you will much oblige me (Sir) by answering this letter as soon as you conveniently can. I enclose you a copy of Mr Marshall’s letter ⟨to m⟩e, which will serve to shew what papers and other proof he wants to secure me.2 Could you, without ⟨m⟩uch inconvenience to yourself, contrive, a letter on this subject to my brother in alexandria, come by the fifteenth of Decr it will meet with me there on my way to Berkley, and will possibly save me much fatigue & expence. The subject on which I now address you, is of such consequence to me, that I hope it will in some degree justify the liberty I take in calling your attention a few moments from matters of a public nature. Mrs Washington joins me in sincere love to Aunt Washington, and wishing health & happiness to you both.3 I am Dr Uncle Your Affectionate & Sincere Nephew
Corbin Washington (1765–c.1799) was the youngest son of GW’s brother John Augustine and Hannah Washington. He was married to Hannah Lee, the daughter of Richard Henry Lee.
1. Washington’s legal difficulties concerned a tract of 850 acres of land on Bullskin Run in Berkeley County, Virginia. The land originally had been sold by Jost Hite to Patrick Matthews and later was claimed by Corbin’s father John Washington, either through purchase or as part of his inheritance from his brother Lawrence. Because of the controversial legal entanglements surrounding the case of Hite v. Fairfax, still pending in the courts, Washington had not been able to secure a clear title to the tract. John Marshall had acted for the elder Washington in a petition submitted to the High Court of Chancery in November 1786 requesting verification of his title to the land (Cullen and Johnson, Marshall Papers, description begins Herbert A. Johnson et al., eds. The Papers of John Marshall. 12 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1974–2006. description ends 1:192).
2. Marshall’s letter to Corbin Washington, 23 Aug. 1789, concerning the “chasm in the Title” that marred conveyances from various owners of the tract, is in ViMtvL. See also Cullen and Johnson, Marshall Papers, description begins Herbert A. Johnson et al., eds. The Papers of John Marshall. 12 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1974–2006. description ends 2:37–38.
3. GW replied to Washington’s letter on 16 Dec.: “Your letter of the 30th Ulto only came to hand last night. To reply to it, therefore by the time requested by you, is impossible. But was it practicable, I can recollect nothing respecting the title of your Lands in Berkeley that would, I conceive, be essent[ial]ly serviceable to you in your dispute with the Hites. Nor is there any papers in my possession, that I recollect, which can throw any light on the matter. It is presumable that the title papers of the Lands in dispute were in your Fathers possession—and that, if the Conveyances to your Uncle Lawrence (from the Proprietors Office, & from individuals) were well drawn, you would there find a proper derivation of the Title. This is the source from whence you have obtained the Land, and the best channel of information that I can suggest to you to ascertain the title to it—Most of the Lands possessed by your father in Berkeley County, being unpatented at the time my Brother Lawrence bought them, were conveyed to him by Deeds from the Lord Proprietor—& to those files you must have recourse—It is possible however the Deeds might be granted to the persons of whom my brother bought the Land, in that case the transfers will be found among the Records of Frederick County Court, as they were made long before the division of that County took place. Mr James McCormick, & Messrs John Smith & Robt Worthington, if living, are the most likely persons to apply to for oral information—also Abraham Haynes—these being, all of them, persons who were intimately acquainted with ail the Lands in that part of the Country; The several claimants of them; And their Alienations. Confident I am that there is no authentic document relative to your Land among my Papers at Mount Vernon—but as I surveyed most of the Lands about Bullskin, it is possible, tho’ not at all probable, some minutes may be found or rough draughts had of these lands among my Papers which might lead to some discovery more important; and, if any exist, they are to be found in my Study, among my Land Papers in small parchment covered Books tied together; or in a broad untied bundle of loose & old Plats of Surveys in the Pidgeon holes which are labelled Land Papers. If the spot on which your house stands at the head of the Marsh, is involved in this dispute, you may, probably, derive useful information from Colo. (or Genl) Bull, and the purchasers from the Stephensons; all of whose Lands was originally one tract, and purchased, if my memory serves me, from Hite; consequently must be under one and the same predicament.
“Having suggested every thing that occurs to me on the subject, I have only to wish that no exertions of your own may be wanted to secure Lands which are of infinite more value to you than those ⟨you⟩ have chosen for your residence; and where your essential interest loudly called upon you to establish yourself. Where, as it is the last time, probably, I shall ever express any sentiment to you upon the occasion, I will venture to predict you might (by living thereon) have improved your fortune considerably, but without it, will find it a source of trouble, vexation & loss. So wide an odds is there between having your business conducted under your own eyes, and those of a manager at a distance; who, if he possesses skill, honesty & Industry, will extort half the profits for his share—If lazy or dishonest, will make nothing, or apply the whole. Your Aunt joins me in best wishes for you” (ALS, anonymous donor). On the same day GW sent this letter, unsealed, to Corbin’s brother, Bushrod Washington, “that you may aid it with your own opinion and advice or by searching among my Papers as directed for any thing that may be serviceable” (ALS, NHi: George and Martha Washington Papers). On 18 Dec. Corbin Washington sent GW a second letter, containing virtually the same information as that contained in his letter of 30 Nov., “lest my first letter should not have reached your hands” (PWacD: Feinstone Collection, on deposit PPAmP).
Two decrees of the High Court of Chancery settled Washington’s problem: the first, 5 Aug. 1790, confirmed his title, pending payment of the purchase price. This decision was appealed to the High Court of Appeals where the Court of Chancery’s decree was reversed. On 19 Mar. 1792 a revised decree was issued by the High Court of Chancery (Cullen and Johnson, Marshall Papers, description begins Herbert A. Johnson et al., eds. The Papers of John Marshall. 12 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1974–2006. description ends 1:192).