George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Matthew Whiting, 25 October 1789

From Matthew Whiting

Snow-Hill 25th October 1789.

Dear Sir,

The willingness with which you have ever extended your Beneficence to those whose Misfortunes required it, has implanted in the Breast of every Citizen, the most sensible Joy, that you, above every other Person, are possessed with the Means of rendering Assistance to those whose peculiar Situations entitle them to your Favor. It is no less under this Impression, than from that Confidence which, a long and intimate acquaintance with you has given me of your Friendship, that I now solicit your friendly Assistance and Favor, in a Matter, in which, from your high Station, and extensive Correspondence, I have the most flattering Hope it is in your Power to be essentially serviceable. It has been my Misfortune to lose an only Son whose Desire for Travel prompted him to leave this Country at an early Period of Life, and in Times of much Danger, to visit those Countries which were more distant. With this View he sailed from Charles Town in the Year 1779 among a Number of Gentlemen of Distinction, in a Ship destined for France, and of which, there has been no certain Account ever since: From the Length of Time that has elapsed since his Departure, the Perils attending a Sea Voyage, and a Variety of other Circumstances, I have not had the smallest Ground to cherish a Hope, that he is at this Time in Existence. To my small Encouragement, however, several Accounts have lately occured, of his being in the Hands of the Algerines. One was delivered by a Man about twelve Months ago, who made his Escape from the Emperor of Morocco’s Dominion, and who said, that he was desired by a Person, by the name of Whiting, at that Time in Slavery in the Sea Port Town of Salee, to inform his Friends, if he should ever escape, that he was in that Situation. Another Account, and which I have enclosed, in Corroboration of what I have before heared, comes from a Man who lately made his Escape from Algiers, and says, that he was personally Acquainted with a Person by the Name of Whiting whilst a Companion in his Misfortunes.1 These Accounts, altho’ rendered improbable by the Circumstance of his Destination when he sailed from Charles Town, are yet possible: and as it is utterly impracticable, from any Intercourse in my Power (except through the Channel of a Friend) to find out whether the Information which I have received be true or not; the only Resource left me is to solicit the Assistance of one, whose Correspondence with foreign Countries affords the most probable Chance of Information. In this Light I have considered you. Permit me, therefore, My Dear Sir, to solicit it as a Favor which will confer the most lasting Obligation on me, that you will render this Assistance, by conveying a Letter to every Quarter, where you may suppose that there will be a Chance of Information with respect to him. And should your Enquiry be successful, permit me to beg, as a further Favor, that you will also endeavor to negotiate the Terms of his Ransom. Any Part, or the whole of my Fortune, I shall deem an inconsiderable Price for his Freedom, to be delivered at any Time, and at any Place, it shall be appointed. I have the most flattering Ground to hope, that, if in any Person’s Power to procure this Intelligence, it is in your’s: And as, through your friendly Intercession, it may be practicable (should [he] be in that Situation) to obtain Access to him, I have thought proper to subjoin some Particulars with respect to his Situation before he left this Country, his Birth, his Connections, and Person, by which, the Person who makes the Enquiry, will be enabled to determine with certainty whether it be the same Person or not.2

He was Lieutenant in the 3d Virginia Regt commanded by Coll Marshall—after which, he became Aid-de-Camp to Genl Lincoln—His Mother’s maiden Name was Hannah Washington who was Sister to Coll Warner Washington—He had 2 Uncles & 3 Aunts—Frances Whiting one of his Uncles intermarried with Betty Kemp of Glo[uce]ster County—His other Uncle’s Name was John who never married—Mary Whiting one of his Aunts married Capt. John Waith—Anne Whiting another Aunt, married Coll Humphrey Brooke—and Elizabeth Whiting his other Aunt married John Ariss—He was himself very sensible, a spair Man, with black hair & Eyes, and, if now living, is 34 Years old.

I must beg that you will let this Description accompany the Enquiry; and should any Person be found to answer it—those Doubts which I have had with respect to his Existence will be entirely removed. ’Til I can receive some Information upon whh I can depend, I must forever remain disconsolate; and this, I humbly hope it will be in your Power to procure. Should no other Good result from the Enquiry, I shall at least have the Consolation to think, that every Exertion which the most tender Solicitude of a Parent could invent have been used to restore him to his Country and his Friends. You will be so obliging as to inform me whether this Letter comes to your hands.

With the most fervent Prayers for the Prosperity and Happiness of yourself and Lady, I have the Honor to be with great Esteem, Dear Sir, Your most affectionate, and obt hume Sert

Matthew Whiting.


Matthew Whiting (d. 1810) of Gloucester County, Va., moved about 1770 to Snow Hill on Bull Run in Prince William County. This letter concerns his son Matthew (born c.1755).

1For information on the American captives in Algiers and earlier attempts by the United States to free them, see Mathew Irwin to GW, 9 July 1789. Whiting’s information probably stemmed from a story concocted by a sailor, Archibald Ross, and some of his cohorts to cover an act of piracy committed in the Mediterranean. Ross’s account, which involved a fictitious ship, the Julius Caesar, out of Philadelphia and supposedly captured by the Algerians around 1785, listed numerous individuals among the crew, now supposedly captives in Algiers, and gave detailed accounts of the conditions of their captivity. Among his descriptions of the captives, Ross noted that “he saw a Captain Henry Whiting, belonging to Virginia, in slavery” (New York Daily Advertiser, 24 June 1790). Although Ross’s story did not appear in print until mid–1790 some garbled version of it may well have reached Whiting earlier. Upon its publication in New York newspapers, Jefferson immediately launched an investigation. See Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 41 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends 16:562–65. For correspondence relating to the episode, see also DNA: RG 59, Domestic Letters, 4:169–75.

2GW replied to Whiting’s letter on 18 Nov.: “Since my return from the Eastward I receiv’d your letter respecting your Son. Had I receiv’d it sooner, it should have been answerd sooner.

“Upon the receipt of it I immediately made application to the Office of Foreign Affairs, from whence alone any information upon such a subject could be derived—A Copy of the report from that Office you will receive with this—Whatever means of affording assistance in cases like this I may be possessed of, shall be most chearfully exerted, and if the desired end could be attain’d, I should receive great pleasure from it—The only channel thro’ which at present, (as I have just above observ’d) any information can be procur’d, is the Office of Foreign Affairs, nor do I know or believe that any other will present itself, unless it be thro’ Mr Jefferson the American Minister at the Court of France, whom I daily expect here on his return from thence—But here give me leave to advise you not to cherish too fondly your hopes—I know full well that persons of that description from whom you have accounts of your Son’s being in captivity at Algiers, make a practice of fabricating such tales, with a view of getting money from those, to whom, the persons of whom they give such accounts, are related—This has been done in other instances—I well know too that small circumstances will induce and encourage great hopes, where the object of our hopes is the object of our love & strongest affection” (Df, DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters).

No letter from GW to Jay requesting information on young Whiting has been found; GW’s request may well have been verbal. On 16 Nov. Jay sent the president an account of the current status of the Americans held captive by the Algerians: “Mr Jay has the Honor of observing to the President, that on examining the Papers relating to the american Captives at algiers, the names only of the Captains & mates appear to be mentioned. The enclosed Paper states all the facts which in his Judgmt are material to the Inquiry in Question—To render it the more perfect, he has obtained and added the Information of Mr [Paul R.] Randall, who was Secy to Mr [John] Lamb.”

The “enclosed paper” reads: “It appears from Papers in this Office that two american Vessels have been taken by the Algerines, vizt.

“The Ship Dauphin of Philadelphia commanded by Richard O’Bryan, which was captured the 30th July 1785, 50 Leagues to the Westward of Lisbon by an Algerine Chebeck, and carried into Algiers the 16th August following. She was bound from St Ubes: And the Schooner Maria of Boston commanded by Isaac Stevens, bound from Boston to Cadiz, which was captured the 25th June 1785 by an Algerine Cruizer of 20 Guns, and carried into Algiers.

“That the Officers and Crews of these two Vessels, including two Passengers, amounted to twenty one Men, of whom three have since died.

“That the Names of the Captains are Richard O’Bryan, Isaac Stevens and Zaccheus Coffin, the last of whom was a Passenger and is dead; and the Names of the Mates are Alexr Forsyth and Andrew Montgomery, one of whom was also a Passenger.

“That only eight of the said Captives were Natives of America.

“That no other american Vessels appear to have been captured by the Algerines; nor any by Tunis nor Tripoli. And that those taken by the Moors have been released.

“Mr Randall who was at Algiers with Mr Lamb, says, that during the time he was there, he dined in company with the american Captains, and had much Conversation with Capt: O’Bryan; that Captain O’Bryan was an Irishman, and he understood from him that all his Crew were foreigners; and that the eight american Captives were Eastern Men. That the three american Captains were at liberty to walk about, the french Consul and afterwards the Spanish Envoy having become answerable for them, that the two Mates were exempted from hard Labour, and that it was only the common Men on whom it was imposed. That if any young Man had been among the common Sailors, who was in any degree superior to them, he would at least have met with the same Indulgence as the Mates; that he did not hear of any such person, and does not believe there was” (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters).

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