George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Charles Vancouver, 5 November 1791

From Charles Vancouver

Connestoga Waggon in Philadelphia 5th Novr 1791.


Being in England in the year 1786, and seeing there a very curiously invented plough, which seemed to embrace every requisite of a complete drilling machine, and having frequent opportunities of attending to the operation of it, was ordered to purchase one, and Ship it to Philadelphia for the use of the agricultural society of Pennsylvania—Agreeably to the directions I gave the Gentleman to whose care it was consignd the machine was deposited in carpenters hall (the place where the society then met)1 and I was happy in finding on my arrival in Philadelphia in the year 1788 that a number of hints had been taken from it and applied to the improvement of Machines in the new husbandry which (as I am informed) have since been introduced into pretty general practice in the lower parts of this State, Delaware, and Maryland—So far my intentions have been answerd—Objections however have been urged to the adoption of the machine in Toto, by some of the members of the Society, which I am fully persuaded, in a great measure arise from their little experience in practical husbandry particularly with regard to the adjusting and working of wheel ploughs—From the attention I paid to the operation of the Machine when I was last in England, I was made thoroughly satisfied of the many excellencies, and that it was admirably adopted to the light and gentle soils of North America, especially where the fields were clear of stumps, and such impediments as must necesarily interfere with the working of a plough, which in every bent or turn of going up and down a land, completely drills, sows, and finishes off with its harrows, a space of Twelve feet wide on which according to the nature of the crop sown are 6, 12, or 18 equi-distant rows as regularly planted as even the distances measured by inches and the seed carefully and singly dropped into the drills by hand.

From these considerations and from the ardent desire I feel of promoting as far as in my power the improvement of Agriculture in this Country, I do with all possable defference and submission solicit the favour of you, Sir, to accept of the machine, and by your example in ordering a proper application of it bring to the farmer those advantages its principles are so well calculated to secure to him.2

The reduction of Manual Labour by the aid of proper Machines is a point of the utmost consequence in our rural as well as General Œconomy. The machine herein referred to very happily applies to that end, as well as to the sowing and regular distribution of the seed and dispatch of business, advantageous I believe never before completely united Till the ingenious Mr Cook produced his celebrated sowing Machines3—I am lately returnd from Kentucke where for three years past I have been endeavouring but without effect to establish permanent settlements on some large tracts of land I possess in that Country—some business of moment calls me early in the spring to England, but in the mean time must revisit Kentucke, from whence on my way to this place in February or March next (should you Sir, do me the favour of accepting the machine) I will do myself the honour of calling at Mount Vernon, when as I well understand the management of it ‘should any instruction be wanting’ I will most cheerfully attend.

I wish, Sir, in the very fullest manner to apologize for intruding so long on your more important moments and to be permitted to say that I remain with the highest veneration, and respect Sir Your most obedient and most devoted humble Servant

Charles Vancouver


Although Charles Vancouver (Van Couver) was a member of the Dublin Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Agriculture, Manufactures, and Commerce, GW declined his dedication to him of A General Compendium of Chemical, Experimental, and Natural Philosophy, with a Complete System of Commerce in 1785 (see GW to Samuel Powel, 15 June 1785, Powel to GW, 24 June 1785, and GW to Vancouver, 30 June 1785; Griffin, Boston Athenæum Washington Collection, description begins Appleton P. C. Griffin, comp. A Catalogue of the Washington Collection in the Boston Athenæum. Cambridge, Mass., 1897. description ends 213). Writing from Philadelphia on 17 Aug. 1786, Vancouver informed Arthur Young that he wished to subdivide and sell much of his 30,973–acre tract on the Big Sandy River in the Kentucky District (“Observations on the Proper Persons and Necessary Capital for Settling in the Kantucke District Ohio, North-America,” in Young, Annals of Agriculture, and Other Useful Arts, 6 [1786], 405–11). Before the end of 1793, probably after the progress of his settlement near Louisa in Mason County (now Lawrence County, Ky.) was checked by Indian attacks, Vancouver returned to England, where Sir John Sinclair asked him to undertake the British Board of Agriculture’s agricultural surveys of the counties of Cambridge and Essex (Hale, Trans-Allegheny Pioneers, description begins John P. Hale. Trans-Allegheny Pioneers: Historical Sketches of the First White Settlements West of the Alleghenies, 1748 and After. 3d ed. Edited by Harold J. Dudley. Raleigh, N.C., 1971. description ends 57). Vancouver completed and published those surveys in 1794 and 1795, copies of which GW owned at Mount Vernon (Griffin, Boston Athenæum Washington Collection, description begins Appleton P. C. Griffin, comp. A Catalogue of the Washington Collection in the Boston Athenæum. Cambridge, Mass., 1897. description ends 95). Vancouver also later published the board’s surveys of Devon (London, 1808) and Hampshire counties (London, 1813), and contributed to that of Huntingdon County by Richard Parkinson (London, 1813).

1Manasseh Cutler described in 1787 the agricultural implements exhibited in Carpenters’ Hall by the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture: “As we entered the Hall, we went into a spacious middle entry, and turned to our right into the part of the Hall where the models of mechanical instruments and various kinds of machines are deposited. The room was very high and large, and contained models of almost every kind of farming instruments, such as plows, harrows, hoes, spades, carts, wagons, etc., constructed in different forms, some in full size, others in miniature” (Cutler, Life, description begins William Parker Cutler and Julia Perkins Cutler, eds. Life, Journals and Correspondence of Rev. Manasseh Cutler, LL.D. 2 vols. Cincinnati, 1888. description ends 1:281–82).

2Tobias Lear replied to Vancouver this day: “The President of the United States has received your letter of this date offering for his acceptance a curiously invented plough and in obedience to his command I have the honor to inform you that the President has a grateful sense of your politeness in requesting his acceptance of this machine, and although it would be inconsistent with his general rule to receive it as a present yet he would gladly become possessed of it by paying the cost, was he not fully convinced, from repeated experiments, that all machines used in husbandry that are of a complicated nature, would be entirely useless to him, and impossible to be introduced into common use where they are to be worked by ignorant and clumsy hands, which must be the case in every part of this country where the ground is tilled by negroes—and, as you observe that this plough is adapted to light and gentle soils, this would alone destroy its utility to the President, the land which he cultivates about Mount Vernon being of a remarkably stiff and tenacious nature” (DLC:GW).

3The use of indented spoons or cups on seed drills was patented in 1782 by the Rev. James Cooke of Heaton Norris, Lancashire, England.

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