Though George Washington’s first land purchase was in 1752, in Frederick County, Virginia, his holdings soon encompassed lands in West Virginia and extended westward into Pennsylvania, New York and the Ohio Valley.  Kentucky land would be among Washington’s last acquisitions.  He said of his purchasing philosophy, “It is true I am not fond of buying a Pig in a Poke.”1 However, in reading and studying John Filson’s The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucke, he came to believe  the land he was interested in potentially had iron ore deposits.2 Washington’s Kentucky land deal began in November of 1788 and on December 9, 1788, Washington recorded that he “concluded my exchange after dinner to day with Colo. Hy. Lee of Magnolio for 5000 acres of Kentucke Land ….”3

The deed noted payment by Washington of some £600 but no money passed hands. The land, acquired from Lee was given in exchange for a horse, an Arabian stud named Magnolio.  

Washington’s land in Kentucky was located south of Louisville in what is now Grayson County, Kentucky.  This parcel, about 5400 acres, was situated a short distance west from the mouth of Short Creek (now Spring Fork), on both sides of Hites Falls, about twelve miles from the “Falls of Rough.” 

In January 1789, Washington  wrote to Lee asking him to provide clearer title to the land, stating that the papers Lee provided had met neither Washington’s “inclination nor expectation.” The deed was not registered in Kentucky until 1799.5

In the intervening time, Lee had sold the same acreage to Alexander Spotswood, a cousin of Washington’s by marriage. Spotswood went to Kentucky for a new start and to see his newly acquired land holdings. While there in the spring of 1795, Spotswood met Washington’s nephew, George Lewis. The two soon determined that the land had been sold twice by Lee, once to Washington and then to Spotswood.  Spotswood, writing to Washington, “That he sold you these lands is certain, that he sold them to me and got pd. Is as certain; as land is a thing never to be forgotten when once sold, I leave it to you to determine, what could be his motives for the double sale.”6 Washington offered the land to Spotswood in exchange for Lee’s promise of even better land in Kentucky. However, Spotswood cancelled the deal with Lee leaving the land in Washington’s hands. Until his death, Washington’s correspondence regarding his land in Kentucky dealt either with securing or with maintaining his title to the land or fruitless attempts to purchase an additional 300–acre parcel in the vicinity.

Throughout the 1790s, while encumbered with the affairs of a new nation, the land proved to be the proverbial thorn in his side as he sought to learn more about the land and repeatedly failed. The entire affair was a miasma of double-dealings, unclear warrants and titles, confusion, chicanery and lost dreams. His last business with the land involved attempts to sell the property but he still held title at the time of his death. The whole matter had brought neither pleasure nor profit. Washington never saw this or any other Kentucky land; the closest he came was about forty miles from Huntington, West Virginia in 1770.7

Today there is a Kentucky Historical Highway marker, number 212, located west of Yeaman Church of Christ on KY 54. The marker highlights the temptation, and expectation of Washington for the land in the fact that Filson’s 1784 map of "Kentucke" showed "abundance of iron ore" here.”8

 

Nancy Richey

Western Kentucky University

 

Notes:

1. “From George Washington to Henry Lee, 30 November 1788,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 1, 24 September 1788?–?31 March 1789, ed. Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987, pp. 139–140.]

2. Filson, John. The Discovery, Settlement & Present State of Kentucke

3. “From George Washington to Henry Lee, 30 November 1788,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 1, 24 September 1788?–?31 March 1789, ed. Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987, pp. 139–140.]

4. “From George Washington to Henry Lee, 20 January 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 1, 24 September 1788?–?31 March 1789, ed. Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987, pp. 251–252.]

5. “From George Washington to Alexander Spotswood, 31 July 1799,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, vol. 4, 20 April 1799?–?13 December 1799, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999, pp. 218–219.]

6. “To George Washington from Alexander Spotswood, 21 September 1795,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 18, 1 April–30 September 1795, ed. William M. Ferraro, David R. Hoth and Jennifer E. Stertzer. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015, pp. 721–723.]

7. “[Diary entry: 8 October 1770],” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017. [Original source: The Diaries of George Washington, vol. 2, 14 January 1766?–?31 December 1770, ed. Donald Jackson. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976, pp. 287–288.]

8. Kentucky Highway Historical Marker database

Bibliography:

Cook, Roy Bird. Washington’s Western Lands. Shenandoah Publishing: Strasburg, VA, 1930.

Dewees, Curtis. George Washington’s Kentucky Land. Lake Orion Books: Lake Orion, MI, 2005.

Jillson, Willard Rouse. The Land Adventures of George Washington. Louisville, KY: The Standard Printing Company, 1934.

Jillson, Willard Rouse. "George Washington’s Western Kentucky Lands.” Register of Kentucky State Historical Society 29, no. 89 (1931): 379-84. 

"Deed of Henry Lee, of Westmoreland Co., Va. to George Washington, of Mount Vernon." Register of Kentucky State Historical Society 5, no. 15 (1907): 31-35.

Wilson, Samuel. “George Washington's Contacts with Kentucky,” Filson Club Quarterly 6, no. 3 (July 1932): 215-260.

 

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