To Bushrod Washington
Philadelphia Jany 8th 1792.
I have long suspected—but, such has been my situation for some years back, that I have not been able to ascertain the fact—that a tract of about 1200 acres wch I hold on four mile-run near Alexandria has had the wood thereon dealt pretty freely with by unauthorised persons in its vicinity.1
The enclosed from Mr Whiting gives information of a particular act.2 He is directed in a letter of this date, to wait upon Colo. Little; and with such proofs of the trespass as he can obtain, to call upon you therewith.3
If they shall appear to you indubitable, I am resolved—as an example—to punish the agressors; and pray you to issue a process against them, and prosecute the same in the name of George Auge Washington as my Attorney, who I think has been announced as such in the Gazettes of Alexandria & Richmond; and, I presume, has a power from me to that effect.
Lest any misconception of Whiting’s should lead me, or you into an error, I beg you will, when an opportunity shall present itself, enquire of Colo. Little whether the Hoop poles were, incontestibly, taken from my land; who the persons are that did it—who to prove it—and whether there can be any demur to the propriety (legality I mean) of bringing the Suit in the name of G: A: Washington as my Attorney—not being willing to have my own name called in Court, on this occasion.4
Your Aunt joins me in best wishes, & the compliments of the Season to you and Nancy, and I am your sincere friend an[d] affectionate uncle
ALS, PHi: Dreer Collection; LB, DLC:GW.
1. GW had acquired the land on the north side of Four Mile Run, which enters the Potomac River north of Alexandria, from George Mercer in December 1774 for £900, but he did not clear the title to it until 22 May 1787. The tract’s proximity to Alexandria, two miles away, made its timber particularly tempting to trespassers. GW began to survey the land himself on 22 April 1785, but he was unable to finish the job after his servant Billy Lee fell and broke his kneepan. When GW completed the survey on 5 May 1786, he commented that he “found this tract fully equal to my expectations. The whole of it is well wooded—some part is pretty well timbered; and generally speaking, it is level.” He added, “About the main road, at the South side of the tract, trespasses (on the wood) had been made, but in a less degree than I expected to find” (Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 4:125, 324).
2. The enclosure has not been found.
3. No letter from GW to Anthony Whitting of 8 Jan. 1792 has been found (see Whitting to GW, 15–16 Jan. 1792). Charles Little (c.1744–1813) emigrated from Scotland in 1768, lived at Cleesh on Cameron Run, southwest of Alexandria, and owned land near GW’s Four Mile Run tract. He was a frequent visitor to Mount Vernon in the late 1790s, and he served as one of GW’s pallbearers. Whitting reported to GW on 22 Jan. 1792 that Little personally had promised him that Bushrod Washington would be presented a written explanation of the facts of the matter and that Bushrod had discharged Whitting of further responsibility in the affair.
4. Bushrod wrote GW from Alexandria on 1 Feb. 1792: “I recd your favour of the last month, and immediately applyed to Colo. Little for the necessary information respecting the trespass which had been committed upon your Land. he promised to send it to me in writing so soon as he returned home. Not hearing from him for some time I requested Mr Whiting to go up to him, and I have this day received his letter, which I find has been delayed so long on account of his indisposition. I mention this as an apology for my not having sooner returned you an answer. He informs me that he detected one man in the act of loading his Waggon with hoop poles on your Land, and discovered many thousands cut and scattered over different parts of the Tract. The man Justified his conduct to Colo. Little, by pleading your permission to get them; however being ordered to unload, he nearly did so before Colo. Little left him. notwithstanding this he was seen by the Keeper at the Turnpike to pass by with a load of hoop poles. another man the father in law of this person confessed to Colo. Little that he had assisted in cutting them. There is therefore no doubt about the fact, and the certainty of proof. The principal is an overseer to Mr Chs Alexander, the other a very poor man. All that remains is to determine upon the most proper method of preventing future trespasses or of punishing the present. it is impossible to mantain an action in the name of any but of yourself. the remedy belongs only to him who has the right, or to him who has sustained the injury and in his name only can the suit be brought. although this may be disagreable to you, yet if I might venture to advise, something ought to be done to convince those violators of the Law, that you have not only the means of detecting them in their transgressions, but that the important business which occupies all your attention will not prevent you from punishing them. I have no doubt, but that your property remote from those whose wish it is to guard it is frequently the subject of plunder to these people who think themselves secure by your other engagements. it requires the Eyes of Argus to protect property in this neighbourhood; even those who have it most in their power to watch over it, are nevertheless plundered. Whatever you may think proper to direct me to do shall be punctually & with pleasure attended to” (ViMtvL). Bushrod apparently did not institute legal proceedings in this case. On 4 April 1794 David Stuart informed GW of the continuing depredations, writing, “it has now become a practice to cut down & carry off the best timber trees” (DLC:GW). GW responded on 13 April that “Mr Bushrod Washington a year or two ago, was desired to commence a suit or suits against some of the Trespassers; but whether he did, or not, or what the result was, I do not recollect ever to have heard. The growth of the land, is more valuable than the land itself; to protect it therefore is important” (ALS [letterpress copy], NN: Washington Papers). Stuart’s information so disturbed GW that he retained George Minor, who lived nearby, to help prevent further losses. GW suspected adjacent landowners of being the worst offenders, and, to prevent their using the pretext that the tract’s boundaries were not clearly marked, he repeatedly directed William Pearce to have the land resurveyed (GW to George Minor, 13 April 1794, [ALS (letterpress copy), DLC:GW]; GW to William Pearce, 18 May, 23 Nov., 7 Dec. 1794, 15 Feb., 1 Mar. 1795, all ALS, ViMtvL). No survey seems to have been run until 3–4 April 1799, when GW again surveyed the Four Mile Run tract himself, but he did not mark the lines because of the absence of the neighboring landowners. He completed the job on 29–30 April 1799 (see Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 6:340–41, 345; see also GW to Ludwell Lee, 26 April 1799). At his death GW left the property to George Washington Parke Custis (see Prussing, Estate of George Washington, description begins Eugene E. Prussing. The Estate of George Washington, Deceased. Boston, 1927. description ends 224–31; see also Charles W. Stetson, “Washington’s Woods on Four Mile Run,” Columbia Hist. Soc. Recs. description begins Records of the Columbia Historical Society. Washington, D.C., 1895–. description ends 35–36 : 154–82).