George Washington Papers

From George Washington to John Fitzgerald and George Gilpin, 27 January 1789 [letter not found]

Letter not found: to John Fitzgerald and George Gilpin, Mount Vernon, 27 Jan. 1789. The dealer’s catalog quotes from this letter: “As the business of the Poto’k Company seems, in some measure, to have come to a crisis—I have thought (since you left this on Sunday)1 whether a Full meeting of the Board is not More desirable than to write to Messrs. Johnson & Lee.—No communications can be so full and satisfactory as verbal ones—nor any measures so well devised as those which may be agreed on in such an Interview.—If in this instance you coincide with me in sentiment, and will request their attend’e at the Seneca falls2 (which is about central) I will make it a point to be there.—The sooner this happens after the General Election on Monday next (sooner it can not) the better it will suit me—and, according to your Acc’t the affairs of the Company also.—Do not trust the summons to accidental conveyances—but act, if you approve the Measure, on sure ground—and let me know the day that is fixed on. . . .”

ALS, sold by Alwin J. Scheuer, catalog no. 6, item 2712, 1931.

John Fitzgerald (d. 1799) came to America from Ireland in 1769 and opened a mercantile establishment in Alexandria in partnership with Valentine Peers. During the Revolution he served as an aide-de-camp to GW and after the war as mayor of Alexandria. In December 1793 GW appointed him collector of the customs for the port (Executive Journal, description begins Journal of the Executive Proceedings of the Senate of the United States of America: From the commencement of the First, to the termination of the Nineteenth Congress. Vol. 1. Washington, D.C., 1828. description ends 1:142, 144). George Gilpin (1740–1813) of Cecil County, Md., was established as a wheat merchant in Alexandria before the Revolution and during the war served as major and eventually colonel of the Fairfax County militia. This letter concerns the affairs of the Potowmack Company. At its October 1784 session, the Virginia legislature approved “An act for opening and extending the navigation of Potowmack river” from the tidewater to “the highest place practicable on the North branch.” The act created the Potowmack Company and empowered it to receive subscriptions for the improvements necessary to extend navigation along the river (11 Hening description begins William Waller Hening, ed. The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619. 13 vols. 1819–23. Reprint. Charlottesville, Va., 1969. description ends 510–25). By May 1785 the company secured enough subscribers to fulfill the requirements of the act. Fifty shares each were contributed by the states of Maryland and Virginia, and GW was voted fifty shares by Virginia in appreciation of his services during the Revolution. He agreed to accept the shares and hold them in trust for the state. At the company’s first meeting in Alexandria in May 1785, it elected GW president and Gilpin and Fitzgerald, as well as former Maryland governors Thomas Johnson and Thomas Sim Lee, directors. Dredging was begun almost immediately to open navigation on the Potomac from Great Falls to Payne’s Falls and around Shenandoah Falls on the North Branch of the Potomac. A vigorous recruiting campaign was launched to acquire skilled workers and managers. Work was started on the canal and locks at Great Falls, and by the summer of 1786 over two hundred men were employed on the company’s projects. By the late 1780s, however, the company was encountering difficulty in collecting subscriptions. GW noted in his second annual report, 8 Nov. 1787, that the company had received only a small part of the current amount due from subscribers, “& there are still considerable Ballances due of the sums previously call’d for.” In spite of these problems work on improvements progressed steadily, and by June 1788 the board of directors reported that work at the Great Falls, Seneca Falls, and Shenandoah Falls was “so far perfected in the approaching season as to permit the passage of loaded boats in favorable seasons” (Bacon-Foster, Patomac Route to the West, description begins Corra Bacon-Foster. Early Chapters in the Development of the Patomac Route to the West. Washington, D.C., 1912. description ends 81, 83). A newspaper account of a report, dated 26 Feb. 1789 and signed by GW, Thomas Johnson, Thomas Lee, George Gilpin, and John Fitzgerald, indicates that at the “meeting of the President and Directors of the Potomack Company, the 17th February, 1789” there was a call for delinquent subscribers “to pay up . . . or coercive measures will be pursued speedily” (Virginia Journal, and Alexandria Advertiser, 26 Mar. 1789). Potomac navigation remained one of GW’s major enthusiasms in spite of the difficulties and delays and the company’s increasingly troubled finances. He attended the directors’ meetings faithfully, wrote frequently in support of company affairs, and made a number of reconnaissance expeditions to view the progress of the work (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 4:170, 195–98, 207–9, 287–89, 347, 5:2–3, 47, 335).

1GW noted in his diary, Saturday, 25 Jan. 1789, that Gilpin and Fitzgerald dined at Mount Vernon and returned to Alexandria in the evening (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 5:443).

2Evidently Johnson and Lee seldom attended the directors’ meetings at Alexandria and Georgetown, although they apparently assumed considerable responsibility for the work at Shenandoah Falls and Seneca Falls.

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