Perhaps more than any other leader of the Revolutionary Era, George Washington was shaped by his experiences in western lands. Washington came away from his early ventures in the West with a conviction that the destiny of Virginia, and later of the United States itself, would be one of expansion. Washington was a youth when he began surveying in the Shenandoah Valley and was only twenty-one when he made a perilous journey across the Allegheny Mountains to command the French to withdraw from the Ohio region claimed by King George II. When Washington returned to Williamsburg with news of the French defiance, he brought back a vision of the almost inconceivably rich interior beyond the barrier of the mountains. That vision remained with him for the rest of his life as he invested in western lands and worked to politically and commercially link the west with the eastern seaboard.
When Washington's band of soldiers fired the shots that triggered the French and Indian War in 1754, they did so to enforce Britain's claim to the entire Ohio Valley. Enlisting men to fight in such a war was no easy matter. Accordingly, Governor Robert Dinwiddie issued his Proclamation of 1754, promising 200,000 acres to all who would join the Virginia forces in an expedition to capture control of the Ohio from the French.
Victory in the war, however, was followed closely by a royal proclamation forbidding settlement in the Native American territories west of the Alleghenies. George Washington described the Proclamation of 1763 as a temporary expedient to placate Native groups. By 1769 new treaties were negotiated with the Iroquois and Cherokee that opened the Ohio Valley to settlers once again. George Washington began his quest to settle the land promised by Dinwiddie fifteen years earlier.
Washington started his push westwards at the fall 1769 session of the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg by having the text of the Proclamation of 1754 read into the record as evidence. On November 29, the House passed the resolution calling on the Governor to make known all land grants applied for in the Ohio. A few days later Washington wrote directly to Virginia Governor Botetourt voicing his concern that given the amount of land already granted, little would remain for the veterans of 1754. Having thus prepared his case, on December 15 Washington presented a formal petition on behalf of the officers and men of his old command, requesting that the 200,000 acres be set aside in several specific areas along the Ohio River. The Governor was quick in granting the request.
George Washington had the responsibility of representing the entire group of veterans in surveying and claiming the land. As the plans developed the uncertainty of ever realizing a profit from property so far removed from existing settlements led many eligible ex-soldiers to sell their rights in exchange for ready cash. Frequently it was Washington himself who was the purchaser, buying the rights to a little more than 5000 acres of land. This was in addition to the 15,000 acres that had been established as the bounty for field officers, giving George Washington a total of more than 20,000 acres to be located, surveyed, and registered in the Ohio Valley.
In October of 1770 Washington crossed into the Ohio country again, accompanied by his friend Dr. James Craik and a few guides and servants. The two veterans intended to survey their bounty land in the region where the Great Kanawha emptied into the Ohio River. Along the way Washington revisited the scenes of his battles against the French, recording his observations with the eye of a land speculator rather than an old soldier. It was not until late 1772 that the Governor gave final approval to Washington's application for four patents on the Ohio and Great Kanawha Rivers containing a total of 20,150 acres in what is now the state of West Virginia.
Added to the land that Washington already owned at Mount Vernon, near Fredericksburg, and in the Shenandoah Valley, the new patents brought George Washington's total land holdings to a substantial 32,855 acres. He continued to amass western land for the rest of his life. The schedule of property he appended to his will in the summer of 1799 listed over 50,000 acres, exclusive of the 8000 he also held at Mount Vernon.
Washington's hopes for great wealth from his western lands, however, were never realized. Nevertheless, Washington's recognition of the promise of the West would have a profound influence on his country, and predicted the rapid expansion of American borders westwards that would occur during the next century.
Achenbach, Joel. The Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002.
Ferling, John. The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009.