Thomas Jefferson Papers

Project for Making the Rivanna River Navigable, 1771

Project for Making the Rivanna River Navigable


Trustees. Thos. Walker, Edwd. Carter, Chas. Lewis, Nich. Lewis, Thos. Jefferson, Nich. Meriwether, John Walker, Valentine Wood, James Adams, Richd. Harvie, Roger Thompson.

  • Trustees shall give them the benefit of a moiety of subscriptions till [they] shall have made thereout sum of £ and another moiety till &c.
  • Shall empower them to use their names in petitions and suits, but not to be chargeable themselves.
  • Undertaker to clear passage from Rook’s ford to mouth of river.
  • Shall be 15.f. wide in all falls and f. wide in other places.
  • The passages thro’ falls and for feet above them shall be strait, and elsewhere reasonably so as well respecting the convenience of the waterman as the labor of the undertaker.
  • There shall be no rock, gravel or other obstruction left within 21.I. of surface of water at Winter tide.
  • Winter tide to be accounted the lowest tide between 1. Jan. and 30. April.
  • Adams’s falls to be cleared by 30th. Octob. 1772.
  • The rest by 30th. Octob. 1773.
  • To be examined and received by Wm. Cabell, Jos. Cabell, James Neville, Cornelius Thomas, Bennet Henderson, Martin Key or any three, whose to be first.1

MS (DLC). At foot of page are rough notes on Emblements in the Case of A. B. and R. B., omitted here.

This is a rough memorandum, to which we have assigned an arbitrary but plausible date, on the earliest public cause in which TJ interested himself. In a statement made long afterwards summarizing the acts for clearing the Rivanna, or North Branch of the James, TJ wrote:

“In 1763 (I was not then quite of age) learning that a canoe, with a family in it, had passed and repassed several times between Buck island creek in Albemarle and the Byrd creek in Goochland, and that there were no serious obstacles below Adams’s falls (now Magruder’s) I went in a canoe from Mountain falls (now Milton falls) to Adams’s and found that that section of the river could be made navigable for loaded boats by removing loose rock only. I set on foot a subscription and obtained £200. Dr. Walker our representative, got inserted, in the act here cited, a nomination of 11 trustees, with authority to do what was necessary for effecting the navigation of this river, from the mouth upwards. Roger and George Thompson, then living on the river, undertook and executed the work, and on what was then done the river was navigated habitually for 35. years before any thing more was done to it” (“Notes on the several acts of assembly for clearing the Rivanna river,” DLC: TJ Papers, 211: 37587).

This is a somewhat simplified account, for though an act was passed in the 1765 session of the Assembly “for clearing the great falls of James River, the Chickahominy, and the north branch [i.e., the Rivanna] of James river” (Hening, description begins William W. Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia description ends viii, 148–50), the work was still to be done some years later. The present statement is in part a summary of the act of 1765, but changes in the list of trustees (e.g., the substitution of Richard Harvie for John Harvie, who died in 1767) show that it was later. In 1800 TJ listed this successful project first in order among the services he had rendered (second in the list is the Declaration of Independence); see DLC: TJ Papers, 219: 39161. From 1791, and especially from 1811 on, he was to be much concerned with enlargements of the early navigation scheme and the litigation that grew out of them. The documents relating to this litigation will be printed in the Legal Papers under the Rivanna Canal case. See Malone, Jefferson, i, 115–16; Woods, Albemarle County, p. 83–5.

1Thus in MS. There may have been a continuation that would have clarified the passage.

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