George Washington Did Not Sleep Here But He Owned Land Here

Drawing of property boundaries

Some day if you are lucky you will open a file or a box and “find” a treasure. You may know it is part of your collection but its significance has not been noted or maybe even understood. That is what happened to me not long ago.

As is often the case I was looking for something else when I saw a reference to a land survey done by George Washington. I knew Washington had owned land in Kentucky but I really never gave it much thought. Because I am particularly inept at finding things in the archives I asked Deana Thomas, our archivist, to find the survey for me.

The day she walked into my office with a folder that contained the document will stay with me forever. As she handed it to me, she said, “Washington did the survey.” Dumbfounded, I repeated “Washington did the survey?” That is when it hit me that I was holding a piece of paper that George Washington had held. I was holding a survey that he created. Whoa, Nelly!

I completely nerded out. The hair on the back of my neck stood up and I got so excited I was grinning like crazy. As a member of a generation that grew up with George Washington’s image on the classroom wall and as a bona fide history geek I couldn’t believe what I was holding. (For the record, the survey is encased in Mylar and stored in an acid free box.)

What makes this survey especially interesting is that Washington created it without ever seeing the land. In 1788, while Kentucky still was part of Virginia, he purchased 5,000 acres in what is now Grayson County after seeing a note on John Filson’s map of Kentucky that there was “abundant iron ore” in the area. His friend, Henry Lee, owned the land and persuaded him to buy it – sight unseen.

Washington became president about six months after he purchased the property and therefore did not really have time to deal with the multiple issues that came with it. One of which was that Henry Lee sold the land a second time to Alexander Spotswood, a relative of Washington’s. After much back and forth among the three men, Washington retained ownership.

Washington created the survey in 1798 as part of his efforts to register his claim to the land. In a letter he wrote to Spotswood on Jan. 9, 1798, Washington describes having received land patents and original surveys of his land and the surrounding property. He goes on to say, “. . . I have, from the Surveys abovementioned, laid the three tracts down in a connected form.” We believe this is the survey we have.

The property in question was not registered with the land office until 1799 about six months before Washington’s death. The intricacies of the survey and the attention to detail attest to his skill as a surveyor and are a testament to the difficulties many people had with registering their lands in Kentucky.

This piece of paper represents not only a state story but an American story. One told through a survey done by the father of our country, George Washington. How cool is that?!

Related Link

History in the News: George Washington property survey (video)

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