The Covenanter’s Personal Run-in with George Washington

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In 1777, David Reed who was born in 1747, his brother John Reed, brother-in-law Samuel McBride (husband of David Reed’s sister Lydia) and several other Covenanters, moved from Lancaster County to what later became Washington County, Pennsylvania, to take possession of land that they believed to have purchased lawfully from a Colonel George Croghan. Colonel George Croghan had established an early British American trading post here during the French and Indian War. Calling themselves the Covenanters, they identified themselves with the Scotsmen who in the 1640s had opposed King Charles I’ efforts to tax and rule them without their consent.

But apparently there was a problem. In September 1784, Washington traveled into western Pennsylvania to survey the 2,813 acres the British government had awarded him for his service in the French and Indian War. But already there, the Covenanter families had already settled on the lands since they bought it from George Croghan in 1777 and when these Covenanters had arrived in the early 1770s, the area was a trackless forest, still considered by many to be part of the sprawling colony of Virginia. These frontier families had cleared the land; built fences, log cabins and barns; and endured the risk of Indian attacks. They had grown their own corn and wheat, raised cows and other farm animals, and hunted wild game.

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George Washington was not happy to say the least, the general feared that the loss of even a single parcel to squatters would have a cascading effect, and that he and other legitimate investors might lose hundreds of thousands of acres. Washington had hoped to attract settlers to western Pennsylvania as part of a tremendously ambitious plan for development of the new nation. The retired general was planning a grandiose scheme of canals and roads that would link Lake Erie to the Ohio River to the Potomac River to the Atlantic Ocean, a system that would carry the wealth of the nation’s interior to himself and his home state of Virginia.

These Covenanters, now, years later, were being confronted by an absentee landlord who they believed was not the true owner of the land they had purchased. But Washington had kept track of every acre he owned and calculated every shilling of rent that he believed was due.

The Covenanters operating on the assumption that those who improved the land had stronger legal and moral claim to ownership than someone who simply possessed a paper title, they refused to grant Washington occupancy and were unimpressed by his revolutionary war credentials.

Washington was convinced that the squatters had taken advantage of him, penalizing him for the years he had led his country’s army in its fight for independence.

“Indeed, comparatively speaking I possess very little land on the Western Waters,” he wrote to his attorney. “To attempt therefore to deprive me of the little I have, is, considering the circumstances under which I have been and the inability of attending to my own affairs, not only unjust, but pitifully mean.” He had little sympathy for this “grazing multitude,” who “set forth their pretensions” to his land, and attempted to “discover all the flaws they could in my Deed.”

Washington was intent on enforcing his legal rights to collect back rent. Attempts were made to arrive at a peaceful solution. On September 14, 1784, Washington met with the squatters met at his gristmill near present-day Venice. On September 20, 1784, a second meeting was held between Washington, Reed and a group 13 of other squatters (Washington’s term for these Covenanters). The efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.

The meeting was recorded in Washington’s journal thusly:

“September 20, 1784 dined at David Reed’s, after which Mr. James Scott and Squire Reed began to enquire whether I would part with the land, and upon what terms; adding that, though they did not conceive they could be dispossessed, yet, to avoid contention, they would buy if my terms were moderate. I told them I had no inclination to sell; however, after hearing a great deal of their hardships, their religious principles which had brought them together as a society … and unwillingness to separate or remove, I told them I would make them a last offer and this was The whole tract at 25 shillings per acre. The money to be paid in three annual payments with interest or to become tenants upon leases of 999 years at the annual rental of 10 pounds per C per annum, etc.”

These were stiff terms. None of the thirteen squatters was interested in the lease. When they asked Washington if he would sell the land at his asking price over a much longer period of time and without any interest, he refused, at which point they formally declared that they did not recognize his ownership.

George Washington decided to proceed with a law suit. The ensuing lawsuit dragged on for two years. In October 1786, a trial on the issue was held in Washington, Pennsylvania, with Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Thomas McKean riding circuit as the presiding judge.

When the jury came back with a verdict in favor of the general, he became the proprietor of thirteen separate plantations. Washington won the suit.

Abandoning the homes they had built over many years, they all moved away. Several obtained warrants for land adjacent to or near Washington’s land, cleared it, and built new plantations. The Reed brothers acquired farms in Cecil township in Washington County. Samuel McBride settled on a farm in what later became Lawrence County, Pennsylvania.

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What happened to the land? Washington would keep his grip on the land for another decade. In 1796, with western land speculation in full collapse, he sold the entire tract to a local agent for the modest sum of $12,000. When the agent defaulted on the mortgage, the general then retained the land until his death.

George Washington was being extremely unfair. These Covenanters purchased the land lawfully and settled it. They also had the moral high ground by which they had improved the land for more then a decade and Washington was absent and not present. Washington was apparently gifted this land by the British Government of which no longer had any claims in the territory. The Covenanters were willing to compromise and buy the land of which they already owned but Washington demanded far too stiff of terms. Thus was the run in of Covenanters with America’s First President.

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