George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Henry Knox, 18 March 1791

From Henry Knox

War Department, 18th March 1791.


I have the honor to submit to you the opinion of the Attorney General respecting the United States retaining Fort Pitt.1

Messrs Turnbull and Marmie the owners, are solicitous to have the premises yeilded to them—the place is in ruins, and for a long time past the public have had only a partial occupancy of it. The principal building which the public require is the magazine, which is public property.

I have the honor to submit to you the propriety of relinquishing to Messrs Turnbull and Marmie all the appendages of the said Fort, excepting such parts as Major General St Clair shall judge to be essential to be held for public service—and for such parts a rent must be paid.2 I have the honor to be with the highest respect Sir Your most obedient an humble servant

H. Knox

Secy of War


For the background to this letter, see Pierre Marmie to GW, 7 Oct. 1789.

1The enclosed report from Edmund Randolph, dated 28 Feb. 1791, reads: “The attorney general of the United States does himself the honor of replying to the questions propounded to him by the secretary of War, in his statement of the 26th of February 1791. as follows.

“1st Under the british government there was no prerogative to seize the lands of subjects for the erection of fortresses—Such seizures indeed have been generally acquiesed in, as being justified by some necessity of war, or perhaps the insignificance of the lands themselves—Fort Pitt had the appearance of devolving on the king of Great Britain, as having been once a french post. However the purposes of war being fulfilled, the original rights of the lawful owner returned; that is the proprietors of Pennsylvania were restored to their chartered rights.

“2d But even if the king of Great Britain had been the lawful owner of Fort Pitt, his title would have been forfeited to the state, in whose limits Fort Pitt was found to be: not to the United States. Nor did they acquire a right thereto during the confederation.

“3d The United States can therefore now acquire no right to Fort Pitt but what is derived by purchase according to the constitution of the United States” (DLC:GW).

2Tobias Lear replied to Knox on 18 Mar. 1791: “By the President’s command T. Lear has the honor to inform the Secretary of War that the President has received his letter of this date, together with the opinion of the Attorney General of the United States therewith transmitted, respecting the property of the United States in Fort Pitt, and the cession of it to Messrs Turnbull and Marmie. The President of the United States has commanded T. Lear to inform the Secretary of War that he consents to ceding Fort Pitt to Messrs Turnbull and Marmie on the conditions mentioned in the Secretary’s letter” (DLC:GW). The United States government ultimately evacuated Fort Pitt in May 1792 when a new fort farther up the Allegheny River was established.

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