George Washington Papers

To George Washington from the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, 23 March 1794

From the Commissioners for the District of Columbia

City of Washington March 23d 1794


Major Ellicott’s, Briggs’s and Benjamin Ellicott’s Letters of the 29th of June, and 28th of February which you inclosed to Us assert so many untruths, artfully combined that an unusual lengthiness is required to draw the Circumstances into view which have happened for two or three years past.1

We certainly best know the real State of our own minds with regard to this Corps and Dermott, and of course know the falsity of the Suggestions which impute to us malicious or dishonourable Motives—nor did we enquire whether Mr Dermott was a Man of Courage as a necessary Qualification for the Division of Squares but we should have thought before the 28th of last month the Major’s Ideas of Mr Dermott’s prowess were corrected.2 Nor is the Major better grounded in his charge against Dermott of habitual Drunkeness, we were unwilling to take his Malice or the Mouthing of some of the people of George town as evidence of it we were well informed that he had now and then drank to excess and when inebriated that he is unruly and quarrelsome but we did not perceive that it’s frequency injured the business he was engaged in; we made inquiry and formed an opinion not that he was the most discreet nor faulty in this particular to a very uncommon degree; he has since tabled at Sims’s for near a year with Gentlemen of as much Sobriety and propriety of Conduct in every respect as any in George Town who Speak well of him—The Major would be far from gaining, by placing his moral Character in one Scale and Dermotts in the other—The Major is always giving verbal Evidence of his attachment to the Interest of the City but neither he nor any body introduced by him has purchased a Lot—Dermott says nothing about his attachment that we have ever heard, but out of his Savings on moderate wages, tho’ a Drunkard, has purchased Several Lots and is improving according to his Ability. The occasion and manner of Mr Dermott’s coming into Employment and the manner of his being dismissed differ widely from the Representation in the Letter. You may recollect that several Things in the Course of the Quarrel with L’Enfant strongly pointed to a duplicity and ill intentioned conduct of Ellicott3—you may recollect too tho’ Ellicott would save twenty shillings a day by discharging Dermott and putting a double and impossible duty on Fenwick—the Commissioners because of the extravagance of the Surveyors and their Slow Movements declared they would not pass the preceeding Accounts or have any thing to do with them in future unless those employed were on a different footing so far at least as that they should live at their own Expence.4

Mr Jefferson had intercourse with Ellicott on this Subject and the Major agreed; we presume, tho’ we do not know it, that more expedition was promised for about the time of a letter from Mr Jefferson,5 we received one from Major Ellicott dated 7th March 1792, to an extract of which we refer you.6 Mr Johnson did not attend the meeting when this Letter was received—Doctr Stuart did not even know Dermott by sight, but having heard of his being employed in the Farquair and afterwards in the Alexandria Academies—that he was a man of Science and going to the Southward, mentioned him and the Circumstances to Mr Carroll in Consequence of that letter of Elliotts—they both thought it best that Doctr Stuart Should endeavour to engage him—and he was engaged accordingly.7

The Temper and view of the Commissioners appear by their Letter of the 14 March 1792 to Major Ellicott (see the Extract).8

Major Ellicott cannot but remember that more than once he spoke of Dermott as the readiest Calculator he had met with; and though in the Succeeding Summer he employed him wholly, or nearly so, as an Overseer to overlook the Negroes in cutting down the trees in the Streets and Avenues, previous to the Sale in the fall and preparatory to it, he employed him in calculating the Areas and dividing the Squares.9

The Commissioners saw the impropriety of employing Dermott to overlook the cutting down the Avenues and Streets at his wages, and especially as he was an European, he had probably never had any thing to do of the kind: they perceived too, Dermotts uneasiness at his situation, and were glad to see that Ellicott had changed it.

Major Ellicott asserts that he communicated his intention to discharge Dermott, to Doctr Stuart who pointedly opposed his dismission—Doctr Stuart neither remembers or believes it—nor does Mr Johnson or Mr Carroll recollect they ever heard any thing of it. On some joyous Occasion, We believe on the laying a Stone of the Bridge,10 Dermott was in Liquor and in that State intimated to Doct. Stuart that there were inaccuracies in the work, but so far from a disposition to pick up Matter against Ellicott, Doctr Stuart let Dermott know, that he should take no notice of what he said unless he would at a more Seasonable time address himself to the Commissioners—Dermott did not and nothing more was done at that time—Not long afterwards as Ellicott said, he had discharged Dermott: and as Dermott said Ellicott told him, that there was no present business for him but to be ready against the Axmen should go to Work in the Spring—Ellicott 29th January 1793 desires the Commissioners to order Dermott to deliver up Papers-–5th February Doctr Stuart and Mr Carroll write to Dermott to deliver them (see the Extracts)11—the Commissioners then looked on Dermott as discharged without any inquiry into the Cause of it.

Afterwards on his way to attend as a Commissioner Doctr Stuart met with Dermott in Virginia, who then again entered on the Subject of Errors—Doctr Stuard unwilling to Act at all on verbal information to him Singly, and thinking it necessary there should be some Examination, desired Dermott to address what he had to say in writing to the Commissioners and to attend, himself, the meeting in George town; he did so.12

Major Ellicott was expected to be at George town by a particular day—the Commissioners met and received Dermotts letter—they all thought it best to say nothing of it ’till Major Ellicott came; had resolved to mention it to him in a private way, and if mistakes were really committed to have them rectified, if it could be done, without saying a word about them—their motives need not be mentioned, and Dermott had a caution accordingly—The Commissioners waited from Monday ’till Friday13 in Expectation of Ellicotts coming, but the sickness of his wife kept him back—On friday the Commissioners gave orders to Mr Fenwick to remeasure in a Cursory way, the Squares pointed out and except in an Instance, where the number of one was mistaken, they were erroneous and some very considerably so.14

Major Ellicott however returned from Philadelphia on Monday Night before we Separated—he was undoubtedly soon notified of the inaccuracies and it is equally true that his answer was desired in writing—we do not recollect that he was limitted in time and if we remember right Thomas Curtis who was Measurer under Ellicott did the Same Service under Mr Fenwick15—We desired the answer in writing to prevent shuffling and do not yet see that the Manner required would have given extraordinary trouble—The letters which passed between Us will shew the Temper and views of each—Indeed Major Ellicott in his verbal explanations to the Commissioners has taken liberties under a presumption of their ignorance and he deals with the same freedom towards others who are easier satisfied, and he is of so compliant a Temper that he would talk whole Days of altered Stakes, and altered figures and trifling inaccuracies but he was too Cunning to commit himself in writing.16

On Major Ellicott’s evading the delivery of the papers we went with Colo. Deakins to Prouts house, where he then kept his Office, and made a personal demand of them17—he then told us that Dermott had stolen a plan of the City, describing it, Mr Johnson remarked it was a Severe charge for which he ought to be well grounded before he made it—Major Ellicott said he had stolen it; that it was in his trunk and he could prove enough to obtain a search warrant, and if we would break open his trunk we should find it—Mr Johnson replied that the End might perhaps be answered by milder Measures without going to that violence—on turning off he proposed to Doctr Stuart and Mr Carroll to send for Dermott immediately on their return and question him about the plat and if he denied his having it, to desire him to submit his trunk to their Search—it was agreed to—Dermott was sent for and attended: Mr Johnson asked him if he had the plat,18 describing it, he answered yes. where is it? in my trunk—the Commissioners wish to see it—I will bring it to you immediately Sir—Major Ellicott knows very well I have it, and that I would deliver it to him at any time that he’d ask for it—He expressed astonishment at Major Ellicott’s making, (in his expression) a fuss about it, for he knew, he offered to deliver him any Papers he had and that Major Ellicott said it was no Matter then, it would do as well some other time—(see Dermotts letter to Ellicott 6 Feby 1793)19—He brought the Plat immediately, and believing it to be a public paper we ordered our Clerk to keep it20—this was known publicly—Sometime after Major Ellicott’s last return from Philadelphia an Advertisement appeared in the George town paper in the name of Benjamin Ellicott, though said to be inserted by Joseph, offering a Reward for apprehending Dermott as a Thief in stealing the plat and in the same paper under the same Date a Letter was addressed by him to the Commissioners containing an infamous insinuation against them21 In consequence of our letter to Benjamin Ellicott, inclosed, he and Joseph attended—the plat was produced; Hallet’s Certificate, inclosed was put into Benjamin’s hands, and he was told the Commissioners had no wish to surprize him:22 The end of their inquiry was to discover to whom the Paper, important only from Circumstances, really belonged—Joseph said that the Letter was not to be justified that his Brother was sorry for it and would make any Concessions the Commissioners required—he was told the Commissioners did not want Concessions: they instantly withdrew and the paper was put up again—Dermott’s letter to Major Ellicott, as it imports on his receipt of the Commissioners Order to deliver papers, must evince that he came to the possession of the papers in the Course of his Service under Ellicott in a way not reprehensible and was willing to deliver all up, and on the Contrary it Seems that Ellicott rather sought for cause of Complaint than for the papers else he would have taken the Short way of inquiring of Dermott if he had any particular paper which he wanted—The charge of Theft against Dermott is in a way of being examined into in a Suit he has brought against Hanson the printer—the removal of the Corps has prevented a writ being served on some of them also—they will now have an opportunity of adducing their evidence before an impartial tribunal.23

Another Charge against Dermott was his changing and maliciously misplacing Stakes: we heard nothing of that ’till we perceived the greater part of a Succeeding Summer was spent in going over the work of the preceeding and then the excuse was that Some body had altered the Situation of Stakes and it must be maliciously done because the alteration was so systematic that the greater part of a Season was spent before it could be discovered—Dermott was said to know nothing of the System but it was Dermott because he was malicious and he was malicious because he did it—it was first Suspicion afterwards certain, it was first several stakes afterwards one and now amongst all Dermott’s Crimes this the most capital is omitted—Briggs at several times mentioned to Doctr Stuart his Suspicion that Dermott had altered the Stakes, the Doctor inquired if he had any proof of it Briggs acknowledged that he had not but suspected it the Doctr remarked it was a very delicate thing and that it would be unjust to act on Suspicion—when in Briggs’s altercation with the Commissioners he recurred again to the Story of the Stakes—as an evidence of Dermotts infamous Conduct Doctr Stuart lost his Temper and spoke to him very roughly—The truth is the Commissioners had their Suspicions too whether ill or well founded they cannot say but they suspected that the whole story was invented to cover a mistake which had happened accidentally or for want of care.

If the charge of altering the work, of stealing or maliciously secreting a paper or misplacing a Stake was Substantiated the result would surely be against Dermott—We have seen Strong marks of Candour in this Man: we have no reason to suspect his telling us a lie. he shews an attention to the public interest in his divisions, has his business in good order and gives us and others such ready answers that he must have the clearest and most comprehensive view of his department—We had a good deal of trouble with Briggs before he was out of employ it was obviously necessary to return the length of line to the water and the width of the Streets to know whether the returns were accurate and what part was land and what was water but an affected misunderstanding of applications kept up a dodging for two or three meetings.

We had determined to separate the platting and dividing Squares from the execution of the field work and were confirmed in it by Major Ellicott’s making a merit of his preparing the Divisions because it was, as he said, out of the line of his duty and he intimated too his not being therefore accountable for their accuracy the check has proved useful, several inaccuracies, not more than might be expected, have been discovered in time and been rectified.24

The more perfect the work done may be found the better we shall be pleased but the experience we have had in marking out the lots on the lines of Squares does not lead us into Major Ellicott’s opinion that his is the most accurate work of the kind, and he is mistaken if he supposes we shall impute all future embarrasment to the ignorance or negligence of his Successor for we know that lines designed to be paralel so far as they differ from a paralel will grow narrower or wider by extending their length; and that there will be the like increase of error by extending diverging lines partly run on undue quantity of difference.

Is it possible that Major Ellicott believes his own insinuation that the Commissioners had any pleasure in the Baltimore publication against him? they had spoken their disapprobation of it severally and their joint letter to him of the 6th February last gave him, we believe, no new information on this head25—Major Ellicott has good reason to be satisfied that we dispise libellous publications. We are sir with the truest Respect Your most obedt Servants

Th Johnson

Dd Stuart

Danl. Carroll

LS, DLC:GW; LB, DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Sent, 1791–1802. Johnson wrote the closing on the receiver’s copy. None of the enclosures identified as “A” to “K” has been identified, but other versions of these documents, if known, are identified in the notes below.

1For these letters, see Andrew Ellicott, Benjamin Ellicott, and Isaac Briggs to GW, 29 June 1793, and Andrew Ellicott’s two letters to GW of 28 Feb. 1794 (letters 1 & 2). GW enclosed these three letters in a letter to the D.C. commissioners of 14 March. The long-running dispute between the commissioners and Andrew Ellicott, the former chief surveyor for the district, involved Ellicott’s accusations of incompetence and malfeasance against James R. Dermott, who also worked in the surveying department, and the commissioners’ countercharges of incompetence against Ellicott.

2For some of the aspersions made against the commissioners, especially David Stuart, see Stuart to GW, 18 Feb. 1793, and n.1 to that document. At this point in the letter-book copy, the letter contains the following text: “Nor could we have transactions with Major Ellicott or Briggs for any length of time without discovering their disregard to truth. From dates and other circumstances it may fairly be inferred that from the time, 10th April [1793], of them entering anew on the Surveying Department Major Ellicott, Benjamin and Briggs were preparing to have the Work of the City wholly in their Hands. we had no meeting in May; our first, was the 17 June there was no new complaint but that contained in the extract of the report of that date, which stated the Evil as remedied at a considerable expence by a resurvey though in the Majors letter to you of the 28th [Feb. 1794], he would have you impute any inaccuracy to the loss of the field notes without intimating any thing of a Resurvey—The Major knows that he employed a person at first to do the greater part of the field work who he represented to us before he employed him as not to be trusted for either Skill or Care in any thing we had but a very indifferent opinion of him from our own observation, the Resurvey may have added to the expence and ought to be much more accurate than the first Survey—The Majors Military achievements did not recommend him to the Head of the Surveying Department.” On Andrew Ellicott’s initial resignation and his subsequent return to the surveying department, both in 1793, see GW to D.C. Commissioners, 3 April 1793, and n.6 to that document.

3On the dismissal of Pierre L’Enfant, see editorial note, L’Enfant to GW, 21 Nov. 1791, and GW to L’Enfant, 28 Feb. 1792.

4On the employment of George Fenwick in the surveying department, see D.C. Commissioners to GW, 23 April, and n.3 to that document.

5For this letter, see Thomas Jefferson to D.C. Commissioners, 6 March 1792 (Jefferson Papers description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends , 23:224–25). The commissioners had this letter by the time they met on 13 March 1792 (DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Proceedings, 1791–1802).

6An “A” appears in the left margin to indicate which enclosure is the extract of Ellicott’s letter to the D.C. commissioners of 7 March 1792. In this letter, Ellicott requested an assistant who was “acquainted with practical Astronomy and expert in the use of Instruments” (DNA, RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Received, 1791–1802).

7During their meeting on 26 March 1792, the commissioners voted to hire Dermott as an assistant surveyor (DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Proceedings, 1791–1802).

8A “B” appears in the left margin to indicate the appropriate extract. The letter from the D.C. commissioners to Ellicott of 14 March 1792 is in DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Sent, 1791–1802.

9On the sale of lots in the Federal City, which commenced on 8 Oct. 1792, see GW to D.C. Commissioners, 29 Sept. 1792, and n.1 to that document; and Broadside: Sale of Lots in the Federal City, 8 Oct. 1792.

10On the building of Rock Creek Bridge and the laying of the cornerstone of the eastern abutment on 4 July 1792, see n.1 of GW to Jefferson, 21 March 1792, and Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser, 10 July 1792.

11Letters “C” and “D” appear in the left margin to indicate the extracts, respectively, for Ellicott to D.C. Commissioners, 29 Jan. 1793, and D.C. Commissioners to Dermott, 5 Feb. 1793. The complete texts of these letters can be seen, respectively, at DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Received, 1791–1802, and DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Sent, 1791–1802.

12A written report on the various surveying errors from Dermott to the commissioners has not been identified, but the minutes for the meeting of the commissioners on 13 March 1793 recorded the receipt of “a List of public papers from James Dermott” (DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Proceedings, 1791–1802).

13The original “Tuesday” was altered at this point. According to their minutes, the commissioners began their March 1793 meeting on Monday, 4 March, and ended it on Thursday, 14 March (DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Proceedings, 1791–1802).

14On the reaction of Ellicott and the commissioners to Dermott’s suggestion of inaccurate surveys and subsequent correspondence on this issue, see D.C. Commissioners to GW, 11–12 March 1793, and notes 8 and 11 to that document. On Friday, 8 March, the commissioners instructed George Fenwick to measure “several squares alledged to be erroneous,” and received his report the next day. On 14 March, he was directed to “remeasure the squares with a chain and to report to the Comrs from time to time their agreement or disagreement with the plats of those squares” (DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Proceedings, 1791–1802).

15On 14 March 1793, the commissioners directed “Mr Curtis and Mr Bennett Fenwick to proceed in measuring” (DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Proceedings, 1791–1802).

16On Ellicott’s return from Philadelphia on 12 March and his subsequent conversation with the commissioners, see the postscript to D.C. Commissioners to GW, 11–12 March 1793. In his letter to the commissioners of 12 March 1793, Ellicott wrote: “If I am to understand your letter of yesterday, that no work will be done in the surveying department, until you receive a particular explanation with respect to some errors which you were pleased to enclose; it will in my opinion be most proper, and expedient, to have the explanation immediately at the office in the City, where all the necessary papers may be immediatly recurred to.” In a postscript he added: “It is my meaning, that the explanation should be personal much information may be given by few words which would take much writing” (DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Received, 1791–1802).

17On Ellicott’s rental of a house from William Prout, see n.9 of D.C. Commissioners to GW, 11–12 March 1793. William Deakins, Jr., was the treasurer for the federal district.

18On the missing plat, see note 22.

19An “E” appears in the right margin to indicate Dermott’s letter to Ellicott of 6 Feb. 1793.

20John Mackall Gantt was the clerk for the D.C. commissioners.

21For Andrew Ellicott’s “last return,” see D.C. Commissioners to GW, 28 Jan. 1794. On the final dismissal of Andrew Ellicott in December 1793, see D.C. Commissioners to GW, 23 Dec. 1793, and n.8 to that document; see also D.C. Commissioners to Ellicott, 17 Dec. 1793 (DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Sent, 1791–1802). An “F” appears in the left margin to indicate the enclosed advertisement, which probably appeared in the Columbian Chronicle (Georgetown) along with Benjamin Ellicott’s unidentified letter to the D.C. commissioners, which is indicated by a “G” in the left margin.

22An “H” appears in the left margin to indicate the letter from the D.C. commissioners to Benjamin Ellicott of 25 Jan., in which they wrote that they had seen his letter in the newspaper demanding “a plan of the City.” After objecting to the publication of his request, they invited him to their office, “where the plan which has occasioned so much heat, has been deposited ever since the Spring, and shall order it to be delivered to you on your Substantiating your claim to it” (DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Sent, 1791–1802). In his reply of 25 Jan., written at the “Surveyor’s Office,” Ellicott acknowledged being the author of the advertisement and letter appearing in the Georgetown newspaper. He also wrote: “my aim so far as related to you was only to obtain a Map which had hitherto give me much pain and anxiety—being accountable to Majr L. Enfant for it.” He then agreed to meet with the commissioners (DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Received, 1791–1802).

An “I” appears in the margin to indicate a letter from Stephen Hallet to Dermott of 25 Jan. 1794, the so-called certificate given to Ellicott, in which Hallet wrote: “Being called upon by the Commissioners to examine a fragment of a Plan in their Office. I acknowledged that which has been laid before me to be the same Reduction of Major L Enfant’s Plan of the City, which I once undertook at his requisition from a Great Map he intrusted to me. . . . It was done on Silk paper in order to save time, but Major L’Enfant being at a Hurry took back his Original before the Reduction could be finished. And I delivered it in the same state to Mr Lear, upon his application in the name of the President” (DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Letters Received, 1791–1802).

23Samuel Hanson was the publisher of the Columbian Chronicle, a Georgetown newspaper, which was printed from 3 Dec. 1793 to 10 May 1796. On the dismissal of Andrew, Benjamin, and Joseph Ellicott, see D.C. Commissioners to GW, 28 Jan. 1794, and notes 1 and 2 to that document.

24On the allocation of work assignments according to this plan, see the minutes of the commissioners’ meeting on 25 March (DNA: RG 42, Records of the Commissioners for the District of Columbia, Proceedings, 1791–1802).

25The letter “K” appears in the left margin to indicate the letter from the D.C. commissioners to Ellicott of 6 Feb., which has not been identified.

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