Perhaps more than any other Founding Father, George Washington believed that America's destiny lay in expansion to the west.

Even before the Revolution, Washington became obsessed with the idea of opening the west to trade and navigation. His dream was to link his beloved Potomac River through a series of canals and roads to the mighty Ohio River.  The challenge was to skirt the several falls of the Potomac River, the most violent and unpassable being Great Falls about 10 miles above the port city of Georgetown, now in the District of Columbia. 

After the war, in 1784, Washington made a trip across the mountains to inspect his western land holdings and to investigate the best route for extending the navigation of the Potomac. When he returned home, he wrote a letter to the governor of Virginia calling for the opening of the west as a means of binding the Union together and countering the influence of foreign powers.

The following year, under Washington's leadership, the Potomac Company was chartered by both the legislatures of Virginia and Maryland, for the purpose of building a system of canals around the falls.

Washington's Exploration of the West

George Washington's lifelong association with the American West and its expanding frontier began in his youth.  During his early teenage years he was exposed to school exercises that taught the basics of surveying and land measuring.

Washington's first trip out west came in 1748 when he was invited to join a survey party organized by his neighbor and friend George William Fairfax of Belvoir. Fairfax assembled an experienced team to layout lots within a large land tract along the western edge of Virginia.

He noted in his diary the "beautiful Groves of Sugar Trees," the Potomac swollen by melting spring snows, and encounters with settlers and Native Americans.

Learn More about Washington's Life as a Surveyor 

The Military Deepens Washington's Knowledge of the West

Potomack & Shenandoah Navigation Lottery Ticket

Potomack & Shenandoah Navigation Lottery Ticket

Patowmack Company Logo

Patowmack Company Logo

Washington continued professional as a surveyor until 1752 when he recieved a military appointment as adjutant for southern Virginia.

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 2 ½-month journey on rough trails and through deep snows into the Ohio country to warn the French against encroachment into the Virginia backcountry.

Still in his twenties, he served as an aide to General Edward Braddock in the French and Indian War and trekked the forests, built roads, and led troops through the western Pennsylvania wilderness.

During this time, Washington perfected his skills as a surveyor and achieved notoriety on the battlefield. He also developed an extraordinary awareness of the vast resources of the American interior, the role of the Potomac and other waterways as important avenues to the West, the potential for personal wealth there, and the attraction of the hinterlands to a multitude of diverse settlers.

These experiences greatly influenced the young master of Mount Vernon. Aside From expanding his estate and changing his agricultural focus from tobacco to wheat, nothing occupied his time more intensely during the years prior to the American Revolution than acquiring and managing vast land holdings in the Ohio Valley.

By 1770, Washington had amassed more than 20,000 of the approximately 60,000 acres he would eventually own in frontier areas by taking advantage of a 1754 proclamation that awarded land to officers who had served in the French and Indian War.

He traveled to the Ohio country in the fall of 1770 to inspect and choose specific parcels for himself and other officers, and he renewed his acquaintance with the rich interior.

At that time Washington became actively involved in efforts to establish an organization, called the Potomac Company, that would develop links between the Potomac, James, and Ohio Rivers by networks of roads, canals, and locks in order to expedite the transportation of produce and people between the East and the West. He commented on the "immense advantages" of "making the Potomac the Channel of Commerce between Great Britain and that immense Tract of Country which is unfolding to our view ...."

Post-Revolution Brings Opportunity

Gateway to the West: Daniel Boone Leading the Settlers Through the Cumberland Gap (© David Wright - davidwrightart.com)

Gateway to the West: Daniel Boone Leading the Settlers Through the Cumberland Gap (© David Wright - davidwrightart.com)

After the American Revolution Washington's thoughts turned once more to improving the navigation of the Potomac River. In 1784, at age 52, he journeyed again to the West, both to inspect his lands and to explore the best and shortest river routes for inland navigation.

Since settlers were pouring into the Ohio country much faster "than anyone would imagine,"it was important he wrote, "to prevent the trade of the Western territory from settling in the hands, either of the Spanish [to the South] or the British [to the North]." If the inhabitants "should form commercial connexions [sic]" with these other "kinds - they would in a few years be as unconnected with us ... and wd [sic] soon be alienated from us."

Now Washington believed the development of the Potomac would not only provide commercial benefits but was necessary politically to create a strong Union.

Washington led the way in chartering the Potomac Company by first seeking interstate cooperation between Virginia and Maryland in developing the Potomac River. Both states passed legislation in early 1785, and the details of trading rights were set forward in the Mount Vernon Compact that same year. 

Work Begins

Illustration by William H. Bond of what Matildaville (near Great Falls) would have become once the canal was in place. (National Geographic Society)

Illustration by William H. Bond of what Matildaville (near Great Falls) would have become once the canal was in place. (National Geographic Society)

Harpers Ferry along the Potomac River in 1803 (Harpers Ferry NHP Historic Photo Collection (HF-628))

Harpers Ferry along the Potomac River in 1803 (Harpers Ferry NHP Historic Photo Collection (HF-628))

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, traversing the rapids in canoes and walking both shores in order to select suitable channels and proper depths. Ultimately, the Company cleared channels and built canals and locks to negotiate the rapids between Georgetown, in the District of Columbia, and the area above Harpers Ferry.

The 1785 charter provided "liberal wages" for "any Number not exceeding one hundred good Hands with provisions and a reasonable Quantity of Spirits; that a further Encouragement will be given to such as are dextrous [sic] in boring and blowing Rocks in which Service a proportion of the Men will be employed .... " Rations for the workers included ~1 lb. Salt pork or 1 ¼ lb. Salt Beef or 1 ~ lb. fresh Beef or Mutton-- 1 ½ ibs. Flour or Bread and 3 Jills Rum a day."

The one hundred plus hands were divided into crews and put to work at various points along the river: Shenandoah Falls, Seneca Falls, Little Falls, House Falls, and Great Falls. During the life of the company, workers included a mixture of hired hands, indentured servants, and slaves.

The crew led a difficult life, being required to remove a certain amount of debris and rock before their rations of "spirits" were distributed. The work was dangerous, and since many of the men were inexperienced in the use of explosives several were injured and some died.

A July 1786 report noted: "One Run off the other Blown up." Often their rations and acquisition of basic equipment, such as boats, were delayed because contracts were not fulfilled. Sometimes these contractors were neighboring settlers who resented the disturbances of the unruly crews.

Running the Company

"List of Workmen Employed at the great falls by the Potomack Company under Richardson Stuart [Stewart] from the 11 th of April last up to the 12th of May 1787, and Certified by the Subscribing Overseers" (MVLA)

In 1999, Mount Vernon had the good fortune to acquire a manuscript entitled "List of Workmen Employed at the great falls by the Potomack Company under Richardson Stuart [Stewart] from the 11 th of April last up to the 12th of May 1787, and Certified by the Subscribing Overseers."

This fascinating document illustrates in microcosm the basic organization of the company during the time of its existence. The 25inch long payroll lists the names and wages of 53 workers--including five overseers, two blacksmiths, a cook, one carpenter, and 44 laborers--during a 30-day period in the spring of 1787.

A ranking by skill and management level is indicated: the overseers earned the most, followed by the skilled carpenter and blacksmiths, and finally by the laborers. Although the overwhelming majority on the project were men, it is interesting to find the name of Mary Tuinch, the lone cook for the group. (A laborer named George Tuinch was probably related to Mary.) This wage tally was written by Richardson Stewart, manager, and verified by James Smith, assistant manager, and by the five overseers.

On the reverse Stewart notes receipt of the last portion of the payroll from William Hartshorne, company treasurer. The document is signed and approved by George Washington, president of the company until 1789, and two of the company's four directors, George Gilpin and John Fitzgerald.

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 applicants applied for the job as superintendent to initiate and oversee the fieldwork, George Washington offered the position to James Rumsey. Washington had witnessed Rumsey's demonstration of a mechanical boat propelled by poles and had learned of his ideas for developing a steamboat, both promising inventions for navigating upstream. Richardson Stewart was chosen assistant manager to Rumsey, and later James Smith was appointed as another assistant manager.

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. He made a formal complaint against Stewart, which included "want of truth and candor, disobedience of his orders, misrepresentations to the board, [and] interfering with the overseer's men .... "The board dismissed these charges and Stewart was appointed as Rumsey's replacement. By June of 1788, however, charges were once more brought against Stewart, who was this time relieved of his position, and James Smith was promoted to manager of the project.

A Lifelong Promoter

Mules pulling boats on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (C&O National Historic Park)

Mules pulling boats on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (C&O National Historic Park)

Whether serving as president of the Constitutional Convention or as the newly elected president of the United States, Washington's enthusiasm for the Potomac Canal never wavered. Visitors to Mount Vernon commented on his long discussions on the subject; Robert Hunter, a visitor to the estate in 1785 noted that, "The General sent the bottle about pretty freely after dinner and gave success to the navigation of the Potomac for his toast, which he has very much [at] heart, and when finished will, I suppose be the first river in the world." In the last week of his life Washington "rejoice[d] that the means are likely to be obtained which will accomplish this desirable object."

The Potomac Company increased the trade between east and west, with boats carrying such diverse items as barrels of flour, pig iron, pork, beef, tobacco, ginseng, linseed off, and even cast iron stoves.

The canal and lock systems of the Potomac Company were taken over in 1828 by the Chesapeake and Ohio Company, and the railroads superceded the canals by the middle of the 19th century.

However, it was Washington's vision for a strong Union that shaped the development of inland navigation, opened up the rich interior, and helped "bind those people to us by a chain which never can be broken."

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