George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Newton, Jr., 28 September 1792

From Thomas Newton, Jr.

Norfolk [Va.] Sept. 28th 1792


By request of Tench Coxe Esqr. I beg leave to inform you of the persons who, have offerd as keepers of the Light house[.]1 Capt. William Lewis of Fredricksburg, Capt. Leml Cornick of Princess Ann, Mr James of the same place & a Mr Thos Herbert are all that I have known. Capt. Lewis & Capt. Cornick are men that I am well acquainted with and proper persons to take charge of so great a trust. Capt. Lewis I beleive you are acquainted, with, his character. Capt. Cornick is a man of repute & property & has conducted himself with great propriety as commissr of Wrecks, is well acquainted with the Coast & vessels & I have no doubt but either of these wou’d give general satisfaction. Mr James is reputed an honest man but I beleive not able to make such observations as may be necessary. Mr Herbert I cannot recommend as a fit person. Mr Coxe mentiond a Mr Jno. W. Johnson, I am totally unacquainted with the Gentleman, but think seafaring men are the most proper for the service.2 The situation of the Light house is dreary & disagreeable, the Sea & bay on one side & a desart on the other & when the wind blows fresh the sand drifts in such a manner that one is almost blinded by it, no inhabitant within four five miles of the Light house no garden Spot near it & no comforts, but in the fishing seasons, deer are plenty in the desart but hard to get at. Under these circumstances I am of opinion that four hundred Dollars is not too great a compensation for a good man to keep it.3 Mr Coxe mentiond if the keeper was a man of decernment he might be able to check illicit practices, the situation is such, that a man well acquainted with vessels & their customs, might probably give such information, as woud be highly useful to the Revenue officers & be a means of detecting frauds.4 I expect this night the Light house will be finished & ready to be lit up, but judge some public information shou’d be given before a permanent light is fixed. I have prepared the minds of the Seamen that is nearly done & that a light might be soon expected in it. I inclose a letter to Mr Coxe wherein I have given every information that I am acquainted of & have only to observe that Mr McComb merits much in executing the work & running a wall to secure the Light & Dwelling houses, the price of which he leaves to be determind by you, the season was so far advanced that there was no time to be lost in executing it & if it had been left to another year it woud have cost double the sum to have done it.5 I am respectfully Yr Obt Servt

Thos Newton Jr

Since writing the above Capt. Robt Baron a good man has also proposed himself for a keeper & I have heard that Mr Johson is a serious steady man.6

ALS, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters.

1Commissioner of the Revenue Tench Coxe wrote to Norfolk merchant Thomas Newton, Jr., on 17 Sept. 1792 asking him “to receive propositions from persons disposed and able to perform the duties of a keeper and that you will also make enquiries for such suitable persons, transmitting to the President at Mount Vernon all the names that occur and applications that shall be made, with your opinion of that one which shall appear to you most eligible. Honesty, Sobriety, regularity and health ought all to be kept in view, and as the service is a new one the person ought to be [a] man of discretion & plain Sense” (DNA: RG 58, Letters Sent by the Commissioner of the Revenue and the Revenue Office, 1792–1807).

2For previous discussion about candidates for the position of lighthouse keeper at Cape Henry, Va., see Hamilton to GW, 22 Sept. 1792, and note 6. Although Lewis received the initial appointment, he died shortly thereafter, and Cornick succeeded him (see Lear to Hamilton, 22 Dec. 1792, DNA: RG 26, Inventory NC–31, entry 16, Miscellaneous Records Relating to the Lighthouse Service; see also the extract in Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 13:356–57). Mr. James of Princess Anne County, Va., was probably Henry James, a “native of the place, an old Seafaring Man,” and a naval veteran of the Revolutionary War, who was appointed lighthouse keeper at Cape Henry in December 1794 (see Coxe to Hamilton, 26 Dec. 1794, in Syrett, Hamilton Papers, description begins Harold C. Syrett et al., eds. The Papers of Alexander Hamilton. 27 vols. New York, 1961–87. description ends 17:482 and note 2; Gwathmey, Historical Register, description begins John H. Gwathmey. Historical Register of Virginians in the Revolution: Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, 1775-1783. Richmond, 1938. description ends 413).

3GW approved an annual salary of $400 for the lighthouse keeper at Cape Henry (see Tobias Lear to Hamilton, 13 Oct. 1792).

4Newton is paraphrasing a portion of the 17 Sept. letter he received from Coxe: “It is possible that the keeper of the light house, if an observing and discerning Man may be able to check illicet practices unfavorable to the Revenue of Impost” (see note 1).

5The enclosed letter from Newton to Coxe has not been identified. For background on the construction of the Cape Henry lighthouse and the awarding of the building contract to John McComb, Jr., see Hamilton to GW, 5 Jan. 1791, source note, and notes 1 and 2.

6Robert Barron (1748–1811), who had been an officer in the Virginia navy during the Revolutionary War, served several years on the Norfolk common council before expressing an interest in the lighthouse position. Another candidate for the appointment, not mentioned in this letter, was George Wray, Sr. (see Jacob Wray to GW, 13 Sept. 1792).

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