Thomas Jefferson Papers
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To Thomas Jefferson from the War Department, with Jefferson’s Reply, 10 December 1801

From the War Department, with Jefferson’s Reply

From a recurrence to the Deeds registered in the Office of the Department of War, in relation to a purchase made by the United States, of a quantity of Iron Ore contained in a certain tract of Land situate in the State of Virginia, the following facts appear—That on the 7th. day of May 1800 Henry Lee and Anne his wife, for the consideration of Twenty four thousand dollars, executed to the President of the United States, a Deed, conveying to the United States all right and title to the Iron Ore, contained in a certain tract of land situate in the County of Berkley in the Commonwealth of Virginia, adjoining the river Potomack, near to the Keep Triste Furnace, in quantity about sixteen hundred acres, to the use and benefit of the United States forever (excepting so much of said Ore as had been sold and conveyed by the sd. Henry Lee, unto John Potts, William Wilson & George North by his deed duly executed and recorded) Also all the right of the said Henry Lee, to dig Ore in any part thereof and to remove the same; Provided that the Earth shall be leveled at the expense of the United States after the Ore shall have been removed—Also the free and absolute use of Roads thro’ the said Land, and wharves on the river for the purpose of moving said Ore. Moreover all the annual rent reserved to be paid forever to the said Henry Lee, his heirs and assigns by the said John Potts, William Wilson and George North, their heirs and assigns, issuing out of said tract of Land and every part thereof. Also one half-Acre of land adjoining the said river to be selected for the use of the United States aforesaid by their Agent duly authorised by the Secretary of War under the direction of the President of the United States.—

It further appears that on the same 7th. day of May 1800, James Mc.Henry Secretary of War, and Benjamin Stoddert Secretary of the Navy on behalf of the United States for the consideration of Forty two thousand dollars did purchase (for the use and benefit of the United States) of John Potts, William Wilson and George North, severally mentioned in the above described deed executed by sd Henry Lee and Anne his wife, all that part of the real estate which they the sd. Potts, Wilson and North purchased from said Henry Lee on the river Potomack, in the County of Berkley and Commonwealth of Virginia, containing about two hundred and thirty Acres, including the Keep Triste Furnace, Mill, Saw Mill, Houses and improvements of every kind with the whole right of the water of Elk branch by which the sd. Furnace and Mills are worked, and also the right of digging Ore, which they hold under the said Henry Lee from Freinds Ore bank. The said United States being subject to pay the rent received for General Lee.

[Reply by TJ:]

I think it would be proper that the statement of the titles should be either made or sanctioned by the Attorney General, & copies of the deeds be annexed that then any circumstances which might enable the legislature to judge whether they had better keep or sell these mines, should come to me in the form of a report from the Secretary at war, the whole of which I should lay before Congress. duplicate copies to be furnished for that purpose

Th: Jefferson

Dec. 10. 1801.

RC (DLC); in a clerk’s hand, reply by TJ at foot of text; endorsed by TJ: “Department War. Ore-banks.”

In 1788, Henry Lee acquired title to Friend’s Orebank, an iron-bearing stretch of the bank of the Potomac River, and the keep triste blast furnace, which was downriver from the ore bank and about two miles from Harpers Ferry. He sold the furnace site to a partnership that included John Potts, Jr., William Wilson, and an ironmaster, George North. Lee also leased them the rights to some of the deposits from the ore bank, and they produced iron at Keep Triste during the 1790s. By the latter part of that decade, Lee, who had invested heavily in speculative land purchases, experienced severe financial difficulties and began to sell many of his holdings for whatever price he could obtain. He would later go bankrupt. In the spring of 1800, Secretary of War James McHenry and Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert advocated that the United States should acquire a supply of iron ore close to Harpers Ferry and create a “National Foundry” there for the casting of cannons and shot. Early in May 1800, shortly before McHenry left the War Department, he and Stoddert made their case to John Adams, who deemed the project necessary for “the public interest, and service” and authorized McHenry “to execute this business as soon as possible.” The United States government never utilized the Keep Triste furnace and never mined Friend’s Orebank, although other users did draw ore from the five-mile-long deposit (McHenry to the secretary of war, 29 May 1800, incorporating Adams to McHenry, 5 May 1800, in Lb between 23 and 28 Dec. 1801 in DNA: RG 107, MLS; William D. Theriault, “Friend’s Orebank and Keep Triste Furnace,” West Virginia History, 48 [1989], 43–60; Michael A. Palmer, Stoddert’s War: Naval Operations during the Quasi-War with France, 1798–1801 [Columbia, S. C., 1987], 33–5; Merritt Roe Smith, Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology: The Challenge of Change [Ithaca, N.Y., 1977], 36–40; Charles Royster, Light-Horse Harry Lee and the Legacy of the American Revolution [New York, 1981], 15, 102–3, 172–6; Charles Varle, Topographical Description of the Counties of Frederick, Berkeley & Jefferson, Situated in the State of Virginia [Winchester, Va., 1810], 27).

Attorney general: in a letter to Dearborn of 25 Jan. 1802, Levi Lincoln summarized the government’s agreements with Lee and with Potts, Wilson, and North, the conveyance of the deeds, and the possibility that the United States had become responsible for the payment of mortgages on the ore bank property. TJ transmitted Lincoln’s statement to Congress on 2 Feb. 1802 with other papers relating to the War Department (ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States, Washington, D.C., 1832–61, 38 vols. description ends , Military Affairs, 1:159; National Intelligencer, 15 Feb. 1802).

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