George Washington Papers

From George Washington to William Deakins, Jr., and Benjamin Stoddert, 28 February 1791

To William Deakins, Jr., and Benjamin Stoddert

Philadelp[hi]a Feb. 28th 1791


If you have concluded nothing yet with Mr Burn’s; nor made him any offer for his land that is obligatory; I pray you to suspend your negotiations with him, until you hear further from me.1 With much Esteem I am, Gentlemen, Your &c.



1David Burnes (1739–1799) owned a tract of some two hundred and twenty-five acres in the federal district, centered around the mouth of Goose Creek, including most of the length of what would become Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House. Burnes proved to be the one of the most difficult of the original proprietors with whom GW and the commissioners had to deal. GW apparently ordered Deakins and Stoddert to break off negotiations with Burnes to allow L’Enfant time to arrive and begin his survey of the site for the city. L’Enfant had instructions to begin on the Eastern Branch, which GW seems to have expected would prompt Burnes to agree to favorable terms for his land rather than see the Federal City located on the Eastern Branch. GW authorized Deakins and Stoddert to resume negotiations with Burnes in his letter of 2 Mar. 1791. GW reported to Jefferson on 30 Mar. 1791 that the proprietors had finally agreed to terms, “even the obstinate Mr Burns.” Burnes expected the establishment of the Federal City to make him wealthy and late in 1791 planned with L’Enfant to build a mansion for himself. In 1792, however, he complained that the activities of the commissioners, particularly in cutting streets through his land, had rendered the property useless and driven him to the verge of insolvency. He demanded that the commissioners immediately determine the amount of his land to be taken for public purposes and pay him according to the agreed terms of £25 per acre. The commissioners paid him £1,000 for eighty acres. Between 1791 and 1798 Burnes sold lots to obtain income and apparently also sold liquor to workmen employed by the commissioners. In 1798 Burnes sold most of his remaining lots to investors, realizing over $40,000 in the sale (Morganston, “Davy Burnes” description begins Ethel M. B. Morganston. “Davy Burnes, His Ancestors and Their Descendants.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society 50 (1948-50): 103–35. description ends ; Arnebeck, Through a Fiery Trial, description begins Bob Arnebeck. Through a Fiery Trial: Building Washington, 1790–1800. Lanham, Md., and London, 1991. description ends 119, 139, 160, 482).

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