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George Washington's lifelong association with the American West began in his youth. As a young and ambitious military officer, he experienced the wilderness on a number of occasions. In late 1753, twenty-one-year-old Major Washington set off on a two and a half month journey on rough trails into the Ohio country to warn the French against encroachment into the Virginia backcountry.
Still in his twenties, Washington served as an aide to General Edward Braddock in the French and Indian War and trekked the forests, built roads, and led troops through western Pennsylvania. During this time, Washington became an accomplished surveyor and achieved notoriety on the battlefield. He also developed an awareness of the vast resources of the American interior, as well as the role of the Potomac and other waterways as important routes to the West.
These experiences greatly influenced Washington. During the years prior to the American Revolution, Washington spent significant time acquiring and managing vast land holdings in the Ohio Valley. By 1770, Washington amassed more than 20,000 of the approximately 60,000 acres he would eventually own in the West by taking advantage of a 1754 proclamation that awarded land to officers who had served in the French and Indian War.
Washington became actively involved in efforts to establish an organization called the Potomac Company. It was the company's goal to develop links between the Potomac, James, and Ohio Rivers via networks of roads, canals, and locks in order to expedite the transportation of produce and people between the East and the West. After the American Revolution, Washington's thoughts turned to improving the navigation of the Potomac River.
In 1784, Washington again journeyed to the West, both to inspect his lands and to explore the shortest river routes for inland navigation. Since easterners were pouring into the Ohio country at a rapid rate, Washington believed it was vital to ensure that these settlers did not establish deep trading relations with either the Spanish or British. Washington believed the development of the Potomac would provide commercial benefits while also helping to create a strong political Union.
Washington helped establish the Potomac Company, working to create cooperation between Virginia and Maryland in developing the Potomac River. Washington and the directors made several trips to inspect the sites and to consult about the best methods of improving the navigation of the Potomac. Ultimately, the company cleared channels and built canals and locks to negotiate the rapids between Georgetown, in the District of Columbia, and the area near Harpers Ferry.
The 1785 charter provided "liberal wages" for "one hundred good Hands with provisions and a reasonable Quantity of Spirits." The one hundred plus hands were divided into crews and put to work at various points along the river. During the life of the company, workers included a mixture of hired hands, indentured servants, and slaves. The work was dangerous and many of the men were inexperienced in the use of explosives; several were injured and some died. Often workers' rations and their acquisition of basic equipment were delayed because contracts were not fulfilled.
Throughout the life of the project bad weather, labor problems, and mounting expenses plagued the operation, and tensions and jealousies occurred among the field managers. In July 1785, when no other individuals applied for the job as superintendent to initiate and oversee the fieldwork, George Washington offered the position to James Rumsey who Washington observed demonstrating a mechanical boat propelled by poles, an intriguing means to ease upstream navigating. Rumsey held his position for less than a year, resigning in July 1786 because of poor pay, difficulties in managing the workers, and his desire to further his experiments.
The Potomac Company increased trade between east and west, with boats carrying diverse products including flour, pig iron, pork, beef, tobacco, and even cast iron stoves. The canal and lock systems of the Potomac Company were eventually taken over in 1828 by the Chesapeake and Ohio Company, and later the railroads superseded the canal system. However, it was Washington's vision for a strong Union that shaped the development of inland navigation and opened up the rich interior of the United States.
Abbot, W.W. "George Washington, the West, and the Union." Indiana Magazine of History 84 (March 1988): 3-14.
Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, Vol. 1. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia. "Notes on the Navigation of the Potomac," July-August 1754; (Vol. 8, 1993) "George Washington to Thomas Johnson, 20 July 1770," Confederation Series: (Vol. 2, 1993) "George Washington to Benjamin Harrison, 10 October 1784," "George Washington to Jacob Read, 3 November 1784," "George Washington to Henry Knox, 5 December 1784," (Vol. 3, 1994) "George Washington to James Rumsey, 5 June 1785," "Thomas Johnson to George Washington, 13 July 1785." Retirement Series, Vol. 4, 1999; "George Washington to Alexander White, 8 December 1799."
Bacon-Foster, Cora. Early Chapters in the Development of the Potomac Route to the West. Washington, D.C.: Columbia Historical Society, 1912, 35-100.
Garrett, Wilbur E., "George Washington's Potomac Canal," The National Geographic Society 171, June 1987: 716-52.