Much of the land that would become George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate was held in the Washington family since 1674 when Thomas Lord Culpeper, proprietor of the Northern Neck of Virginia, granted 5000 acres of Potomac wilderness to Colonel Nicholas Spencer and Lieutenant Colonel John Washington. John Washington arrived in Virginia in 1657 as the first mate of a small vessel trading on the Potomac. When the Sea Horse of London returned to England, Washington remained behind. He soon married and entered enthusiastically into the familiar Virginia cycle of land, politics and tobacco.
Culpeper's 1674 grant describes the land as being between two waterways, Dogue Run and Little Hunting Creek, helping define the small Potomac peninsula that his land lay upon. In 1690, the tract was divided between the heirs of the two partners and Lawrence Washington received the land that was the nucleus of his grandson's five Mount Vernon farms.
The land at the time was known as the Little Hunting Creek Plantation. The original 1690 survey explains that Lawrence Washington received the eastern half of the peninsula bounded by the waters of Little Hunting Creek and the Potomac, while the Spencers claimed the western part of the neck, lying along Dogue Run. From Lawrence the plantation passed to his daughter Mildred in 1698. In 1726, Mildred and her husband Roger Gregory sold the estate to her brother, Augustine Washington for £180 sterling.
In 1735, Augustine brought his second wife and their young family—including the three-year-old George—to Little Hunting Creek where they lived for five years. Augustine deeded the plantation to his eldest son Lawrence in 1740, and on his death in 1743 the gift was confirmed in his will. That same year Lawrence Washington settled at the plantation that he renamed "Mount Vernon," in honor of his former commander Admiral Edward Vernon. Lawrence made the first additions to the original Washington holdings when he purchased around 170 acres on Dogue Run; this land eventually became the site of the Washington grist mill. Lawrence remained the proprietor of Mount Vernon until his death in 1752.
Lawrence Washington bequeathed a life interest in Mount Vernon to his widow Ann Fairfax Washington, with the provision that the estate should afterward pass to Sarah, the couple's only living child. But should their daughter die without issue, Mount Vernon was to become the property of Lawrence's half-brother, George Washington. Sarah died even before her father's will was probated. Ann Fairfax Washington soon became Mrs. George Lee, putting an end to any plans she may have had of remaining at Mount Vernon.
George Washington took advantage of the opportunity to take possession of the home that he always loved. On December 17, 1754, Washington leased Ann's life interest in Mount Vernon for yearly rent specified as his choice of 15,000 pounds of tobacco or £100 cash. Colonel Washington was just twenty-two years old. For the next forty-five years the expansion and improvement of his estate was both a relentless preoccupation and a welcome respite. In 1757, Washington paid his neighbor Sampson Darrell £350 for 500 acres along Mount Vernon's northern boundary. In 1760, he made his largest single addition when he purchased a sizeable tract on the opposite bank of Little Hunting Creek from William Clifton. When Lawrence's widow died in 1761, George Washington became the unencumbered owner of the plantation.
Washington snapped up a series of small adjoining parcels near the headwaters of Dogue Creek. In 1761 he paid John Ashford £150 for 135 acres. The following year he bought another 135 acres from Ashford's brother George. Around the same time he added 178 acres from Simon Pearson to Dogue Run. This tract was the only land at Mount Vernon that George Washington would ever part with, deeding 460 acres to Lund Washington in 1785. Dogue Run grew by another 200 acres when Washington bought a tract from William and Diane Whiting in 1764. It was here that he would build the pond and mill race to power his grist mill.
George Washington bought no more land for the next five years due to financial concerns. Confident that he had escaped calamity, he was emboldened to turn again to the task of gathering new lands. Washington's first acquisition of 1769 was 100 acres bought from George Mason. He soon had his eyes on a richer prize—the 200 river front acres of his old friend and neighbor, Captain John Posey. In October of 1769 most of Posey's property was sold in a court ordered auction. At this sale Washington acquired 200 acres of Potomac farmland.
In 1770 Washington purchased a parcel from John West north of the land he had previously acquired from Posey. In the same year he added 75 acres from Valinda Wade to Dogue Run Farm. Washington's old pastime of surveying along the borders of his estate paid off in 1771, when he stumbled on a small plot of twenty acres adjoining Dogue Run that had never been claimed from the Northern Neck Proprietary. He applied directly to the Proprietor, his old patron Lord Fairfax, and soon received a patent for the land. Washington made his last purchase before the Revolution when he paid Charles West twenty-five shillings an acre for 412 acres on the western side of Dogue Run. A generation later this tract would become the Woodlawn home of Nelly Custis and Lawrence Lewis.
On the May 4, 1775, Washington rode away from Mount Vernon on his way to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. About six weeks later, Congress appointed him to lead the Continental Army. Yet even the burdens of military command did not deter him from his quest to buy up the last lands remaining from the old Spencer-Washington patent. In 1779, Washington struck a deal with Thomas Marshall for another 480 acres, and in June of 1783 Washington bought 118 acres from William Barry.
After the war Washington turned his attention to the approximately 650 acres left to complete the estate. Most of this land was owned by the widow Penelope French and managed by her son-in-law, Benjamin Dulaney. Sandwiched in the middle of Mrs. French's land was a tract controlled by William Triplett. By the end of 1786 Washington bought Triplett's land, and also arranged a trade with Dulaney. Washington finally owned all of the land between Dogue Run and Little Hunting Creek.
Washington added more than 5000 acres to his estate, starting with his first purchase in 1757. Although he described Mount Vernon as a round 8000 acres, the true figure was closer to 7600 or almost exactly twelve square miles. The four working farms—River, Dogue Run, Union and Muddy Hole—contained around 3300 acres of cultivated ground while the rest remained in woodlands. Mansion House Farm encompassed another 500 acres including Washington's home, his gardens, lawns and vistas.
The Agricultural Papers of George Washington. Boston: R.G. Badger, 1919.
Dalzell, Robert F. and Lee Baldwin Dalzell. George Washington's Mount Vernon: At Home in Revolutionary America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.