George Washington Papers

From George Washington to John Marshall, 17 March 1789

To John Marshall

Mount Vernon March 17th 1789


I have taken the liberty to enclose a protested bill of Exchange drawn in 1765 by the Exts. of William Armsted Esqr. in my favor—which I will thank you to take the necessary steps to recover; and as a compensation for your trouble therewith I will allow you ten per Cent upon whatever you may obtain of the debt—The letters &c. whh accompany the bill will serve to shew that the matter has not been totally neglected by me between the time of its being protested and the present period; Applications have been also made by Colo. Fielding Lewis & Lund Washington on my behalf in my absence during the war—but without effect. If this Debt can be recovered without a suit it will be infinitely the most agreeable to me.1

I have been frequently troubled with applications to serve summonses in the dispute (which was supposed to exist) between the Heirs of Michl Cresap and myself concerning a piece of Land on the Ohio2—I cannot see what prevents this matter from being closed, for, I presume the Heirs never had an idea of a claim to that land after the nature of my right to it had been explained to them. The substance of the matter is this—when I was engaged in the public service—Michl Cresap had a piece of Land surveyed on the Ohio whh had been previously surveyed on Military claims for me—but in 1784, when I was in the western Country, I met with a Mr Jacobs who married the widow of the said Michael and upon an explanation of the matter he was fully convinced of the priority of my claim and readily gave up his pretensions—since which I have heard nothing of the claim from the Heirs, neither do I believe that they have the least intention of persisting in it—The person concerned in the Land office, upon finding that a warrent had been taken out for a part of the land contained in my survey and a Survey thereof returned me might think it was done by the party with an intention of disputing my claim thereto—and has therefore advised the entering a caveat—when I believe there is no intention on the part of any one to contend the Validity of my Patent which has been granted several years. I will thank you Sir, to have the business finally settled. I am &c.

Go: Washington


After his military service in the Revolution John Marshall (1755–1835) was elected to the Virginia general assembly in 1782 and then began his legal career by opening a law office in Richmond. In 1785 he received over eight hundred acres of prime land in Fauquier County from his father, Thomas Marshall, who had moved to Kentucky in 1783. Marshall again served in the assembly in 1787 and became one of the state’s strongest supporters for ratification of the Constitution. GW was probably using Marshall’s services because he succeeded to the law practice of Edmund Randolph, who had handled some of GW’s legal affairs in Richmond.

1This bill was drawn on the executors of William Armistead (died c.1755), of Gloucester County, Va., who had extensive landholdings in Caroline, Culpeper, and Prince William counties. The balance of the bond originally due the Custis estate was £132.1.8 in 1763, with “Interest since Decr 1st 1753. a 5 p. Ct pr Annm” at £62.3.9 (General Ledger A description begins General Ledger A, 1750–1772. Library of Congress, George Washington Papers, Series 5, Financial Papers. description ends , folio 150). See also Settlement of the Daniel Parke Custis Estate, 20 April 1759–5 Nov. 1761, Document IIIB, General Ledger A description begins General Ledger A, 1750–1772. Library of Congress, George Washington Papers, Series 5, Financial Papers. description ends , folio 192, and Ledger B description begins General Ledger B, 1772–1793. Library of Congress, George Washington Papers, Series 5, Financial Papers. description ends , 14, 62. GW wrote to William Armistead’s son twice in 1786 demanding payment of the debt and threatening to take the matter to court (GW to John Armistead, 17 April, 29 Dec. 1786). See also GW to Marshall, 5, 11 April 1789.

2Michael Cresap (1742–1775) was the son of GW’s old acquaintance frontiersman Thomas Cresap (1694–1790). The younger Cresap was noted for his leading and controversial role in the Indian hostilities accompanying Dunmore’s War in 1774. As a young man Cresap joined his father in trading activities near the latter’s post at Old town, Maryland. On his trip to the Ohio in 1770 GW had selected a tract of land known as Round Bottom on the southeast side of the river opposite Pipe Creek containing an estimated 587 acres. In the spring of 1771 William Crawford surveyed the tract for GW, but before he could obtain a patent GW heard that Dr. John Brisco had taken possession of the land. GW’s vigorous protests induced Brisco to abandon his claims, but in the late summer of 1773 GW learned that Michael Cresap had built houses on the tract and established a work force in residence (GW to Brisco, 3 Dec. 1772, GW to Cresap, 26 Sept. 1773). Cresap was claiming not only Round Bottom but, according to GW’s not unprejudiced opinion, “other Lands along the banks of the Ohio, for (as I am credibly inform’d) thirty miles . . . & founded upon no other right, or pretence, than that of claiming every good bottom upon the river; building a cabbin thereon to keep off others; & then selling them, and going on to possess other Lands in the same manner. . . .” Cresap offered to purchase GW’s tract, but GW refused (GW to Thomas Lewis, 5 May 1774). Believing that Cresap’s heirs did not intend to pursue the claim after his death, in 1784 GW approached John Harvie, register of the Virginia Land Office, for aid in securing a clear title (GW to Harvie, 10 Feb., 18 Mar. 1784, Harvie to GW, 12 April 1784, 13 May 1785). Harvie could discover no impediment, and in October 1784 GW received a grant to the tract from the state (State Land Grants and Survey, 1779–1800, Book M, 487–89, Vi Microfilm). The next year, however, Harvie informed GW that the Cresap heirs had revived their claims. Since the land office was about to issue them a patent, he advised GW to enter a caveat at once (Harvie to GW, 20 May 1785, GW to Harvie, 31 May 1785, GW to the Sheriff of Hampshire County, 15 Aug. 1785). By August 1788, when he first approached Marshall about the matter, GW still had not succeeded in bringing the claimants into court. He told Marshall that John Jeremiah Jacob, the stepfather of Michael Cresap’s children, had assured him that he was “so well convinced of the legality and equity of my Title as to declare he should cease all further prosecution of the claim in behalf of the Childrin to whom I have heard he was guardian,” but GW feared the Maryland lawyer Luther Martin (c.1748–1826), who had married Cresap’s daughter Maria in 1783, might revive the claim (GW to Marshall, 15 Aug. 1788). In 1798 GW sold the land to Archibald McClean of Alexandria, whose subsequent surveys showed the tract was considerably larger than GW had believed. McClean succeeded to GW’s problems with the Cresap heirs and others, and litigation continued in Virginia courts until 1834 when McClean’s title was upheld.

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