George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Otho Holland Williams, 1 November 1790

From Otho Holland Williams

Hagers town [Md.] 1st November 1790

Dear Sir.

My brother, Mr E. Williams, informs me that, when he had the honor to converse with you at Williams port, you were pleased to intimate to him the propriety of propositions being made for grants of Lands to aid the execution of the law of Congress respecting the permanent residence.1

The expectation (created by the law itself) that the location of the federal district may include some lands in which I am interested is the inducement to my writing this letter.

It is agreeable to my idea of justice, on this occasion, that a grant should be made by all the proprietors of Lands immediately interested in the location, each bearing an equitable proportion of the expence, or diminution of his number of acres; But as there are many proprietors of Lands, in a square of ten miles, in this state, and as it would be a business of much time, and difficulty, to obtain a general consent to such a proposition; and to make a disposition of lines satisfactory to all parties; I think that it is expedient, and I hope for the approbation of most of the concerned, to apply to the Legislature of this state to pass an act, to appropriate to Congress, a district of ten miles square, in either of the Counties bounding on the river Patowmack, and between the eastern branch thereof, and Conococheague creek; And to condemn, and grant to Congress, [ ] acres of Land any where within the said district that the President of the United states will please to accept, for the purpose of erecting public edifices and building a City.2

And, as it is probable that no immediate estimation, of Teritorial property, will comprehend all the advantages anticipated by the hopes of Those who have speculated therein, with a view to future prospects—and as no pecuniary consideration, that would probably be granted, would compleatly compensate for all the advantages of situation, and relative value, of real property, the act of the legislature may provide that the expence, or loss, of the aforesaid number of acres shall be proportionably borne by an equitable apportionment, of the same, on all the lands within the district; to be adjusted, surveyed, marked, and bounded, by the Commissioners who shall be appointed by the President of the United States for laying off the district.

I propose, Sir, as soon as I can have them compleated, to send you platts of the lands in my possession on the river, and the town of Williams-port.3

If my interest is not too inconsiderable to justify my offering propositions, individually, you will allow me to suggest that in the event of my property being included in the location, and by no act of assembly being passed to make a grant upon general principles, I most willingly shall consent to grant (without expectation of compensation) as many squares, or Lotts, of my Land as shall be deemed necessary for public buildings, and that embarrassment may prevent the population of the place, I will further consent that all the lotts within the limits of the City may be disposed of by the Commissioners for the benefit of the proprietor.

The plan of the town of Williams-port being already carried partly into execution, many of the lotts being conveyed, and built upon, and others contracted for, I conceive that it would be no impediment, to the erecting a large City if the rights of purchasers, and the rents payable to the proprietor, and the reversions of titles, and interest, therein, Should be reserved. The town, although small, is upon a large Scale, the streets, and alleys, being wider than common and it is so disposed that it may be extended by the same lines, over the most suitable grounds in the vicinity to a great distance.

If my lands, at Williams port should be appropriated to the use of the public, whether advantageously for me, or not, there is one reservation which, I trust, will not be denied me—Reverence for the dust of my Parents; and affection for very dear friends, recently lost, will appologize for my requesting that one acre may be excluded from Condemnation by law, and from Sale by the Commissioners.

Without a wish, sir, to know the determination of the President, before it is Officially communicated to Congress, I would be happy to have my ideas of this business conformed to the public exp⟨ecta⟩tion; Some thing in the law presents an ambiguity to my understanding, and I confess that the policy of requiring private contributions does not accord with my conceptions of public justice, and the dignity of Government, Yet presuming that there are good reasons why the law should be as it is, I have attempted to stimulate the Citizens of this County to aid it by their exertions.

It would have been in vain to have attempted a contribution upon more liberal principles than those recommended in the printed paper inclosed herewith;4 What success it will have, in its present form, I cannot venture to predict. I hope that it will be respectable.

If, Sir, the propositions now made, on my own part, should be had in consideration by you in determining on the seat of Governme⟨nt,⟩ I shall acknowledge them obligatory On me. If not, I request that you will be pleased to confer on this merely as a private letter dictated by a desire of making you acquainted with my present sentiments, and information on the subject. I am, Dear Sir, With the most perfect respect, and Esteem Your Most Obedient and Most affectionate, Humble Servant

O.H. Williams

ALS, DLC:GW; ADfS, MdHi: Otho H. Williams Papers. Mutilated characters in angle brackets are taken from the draft.

For the background to this letter, see Memorandum from Jefferson, 29 Aug. 1790, source note, 14 Sept. 1790 and source note, to GW, 17 Sept. 1790 and notes, and Agreement of Georgetown, Md., Property Owners, 13 Oct. 1790, source note.

Otho Holland Williams had worked long and hard to have the federal seat established on the upper Potomac, preferably on Conococheague Creek at Williamsport, Md., which was incorporated by the state legislature at his request in 1786 and laid out at his direction the following year. In 1788 he wrote to David Ross, a member of the Confederation Congress, that it would be injudicious to fix the permanent seat of the national government in one corner of the continent or at a vulnerable tidewater site. In order for the new nation to reach its full potential, its control center should be located on the upper Potomac, which Williams expected would eventually be connected to the emerging states in the Ohio Valley by one of the streams flowing through southwestern Pennsylvania. Williams later depended upon U.S. congressman William Smith of Maryland to keep him informed of related developments in the First Congress (Williams to Ross, 1 Sept. 1788, and Smith to Williams, 15 July 1790, both in Otho Holland Williams Papers description begins Maryland Historical Records Survey Project. Calendar of the General Otho Holland Williams Papers in the Maryland Historical Society. Baltimore, 1940. description ends , 156, 220).

1Elie Williams (1750–1822), Otho’s younger brother, served as an officer during the Revolutionary War. Afterwards he was clerk of the circuit court of Washington County, Md., until 1800 (Williams, History of Washington County, Md., description begins Thomas J. C. Williams. A History of Washington County, Maryland, from the Earliest Settlements to the Present Time. 2 vols. 1906. Reprint. Baltimore, 1968. description ends 1:163; Scharf, History of Western Maryland, description begins J. Thomas Scharf. History of Western Maryland. Being a History of Frederick, Montgomery, Carroll, Washington, Allegany, and Garrett Counties from the Earliest Period to the Present Day; Including Biographical Sketches of Their Representative Men. 2 vols. 1882. Reprint. Baltimore, 1968. description ends 2:1233).

GW left Elizabethtown (Hagerstown), Md., on 21 Oct. 1790 on his tour of potential sites for the federal city and arrived at Williamsport later in the day. He probably met with Elie Williams at Springfield, the Williams family estate outside the town (see GW to Elizabethtown, Md., Citizens, 20 Oct. 1790, source note). Otho Williams wrote from Baltimore on 20 Oct. 1790 to his friend Dr. Philip Thomas of Frederick, Md., “The great man, I hear, is out upon his tour up Potomac,” and sent a note to be handed GW’s secretary William Jackson. The enclosure was a request for Jackson to introduce Thomas to GW when the president arrived at Frederick, but GW apparently did not travel that route. Williams also enclosed a letter (not found) to Elie, asking Thomas to forward it “without delay . . . so as to be delivered before the Prest arrives at Wmsport” (Otho Holland Williams Papers description begins Maryland Historical Records Survey Project. Calendar of the General Otho Holland Williams Papers in the Maryland Historical Society. Baltimore, 1940. description ends , 226).

2On 28 Nov. 1790 the Maryland legislature passed a law facilitating the condemnation of land on which the federal city was to be established. The limit of the condemnation to 130 acres suggests that the law favored a Rock Creek tract that size near Georgetown instead of a Washington County site (see William Deakins, Jr., and Benjamin Stoddert to GW, 9 Dec. 1790).

3Since GW received the plat of Williamsport (DLC:GW; see fig. 2), and no further letter from Williams regarding the federal seat has been found, Williams probably delayed sending this letter to GW until the plat was drawn. It was accompanied by a surveyor’s description of the town’s boundaries, “Courses of the Town of Williams port,” which reads: “Begining at an Iron boundary, the begining of Conococheague Manor, it being also the begining of Ross’s purchase, and of Leeds, and running thence, with an allowance of One Degree for variation East 49½ perches to a stone; thence South 38 degrees East 57½ perches to a stone; thence South 28 perches and 14 feet, to a Stone; Thence East 72 perches and 15 feet, to a Stone thence North 74½ perches to a Stone at the division line between Ross’s purchase, and Leeds; Thence North 30 perches to a Stone; Thence West 177½ perches; Thence south 30 perches to the begining: containing 82 Acres of Land.

Four Streets runing East and West are each 80 feet Wide.
Four other Streets North & South 66 do
One  do runs S. 38 d. East or nearly so 78 do”


4Williams enclosed a printed handbill signed “AN INHABITANT” and dated 26 Oct. 1790. It reads: “CONGRESS. The Residence Law of CONGRESS, and the late visit of our Illustrious PRESIDENT, encourage the Citizens of Washington County to hope that the Seat of the Federal Government will be located therein; And while the Citizens of other Counties, on the Patowmack, have the same expectations, and will probably contribute considerably towards the construction of the necessary buildings, an Inhabitant of Washington County invites his Country-men to make similar exertions. Partial or limited conditions annexed to a Subscription on this occasion, would divide the interest of the County into so many parts, favouring particular places, as to render the amount of any one of the Subscriptions of small consideration; He therefore recommends that the only condition to be annexed be ‘that the permanent seat of the Federal Government be located by the President, in Washington County;’ And, for uniformity, a form of a Subscription paper is now published for consideration.

“Gentlemen who favour the proposal are requested to meet at Hagers-Town, Williams-Port, Sharpsburgh, or Hancock-Town, on Wednesday the 3d day of November next, to appoint proper persons to receive Subscriptions” (DLC:GW). At the bottom of the page Williams added a recommended subscription form: “Maryland, Washington County, the [ ] Day of November, One thousand seven hundred and ninety.

We the Subscribers do agree to grant, and hereby promise to pay, in three equal annual instalments, into the hands of the Commissioners appointed, or to be appointed, by THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, under the law respecting the Permanent Residence of CONGRESS, or to their Agent, the several sums of Money by us respectively Subscribed, and to be applied as the President shall direct; On Condition That the Permanent Seat of the Federal Government be located in Washington County. The first Payment to be made within one Month after the location; and each subscriber to be responsible for the Sum by him subscribed and no more.

Name of Subscribers. Sums Subscribed. Dollars.
A***B*** One thousand Dollars 1,000”


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