Thursday, October 11, 2012

David Burnes and President George Washington and the new Capitol City in Washington DC - How it all Started

Difficult Days in a City's Beginning
Carving Out the Capital Put Landowners in a Troublesome Spot
By Linda Wheeler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 28, 2000; Page T03


David Burnes, a veteran of the Revolutionary War who had willingly sold much of his land to the federal government for the new capital, prided himself on being a good citizen. So he was amazed when he was stopped from building a simple log cabin for his family on land he owned in the new District of Columbia.
"Our [approval] is necessary for the erection of any temporary building in the City of Washington," three appointed commissioners, the capital's very first bureaucrats, wrote him Jan. 20, 1792. "We yesterday saw one carrying on, avowedly under your authority, in which we were not consulted, and which we do not approve of, and to prevent unnecessary expense and trouble to you, we thus notify you of our sentiments."
Burnes, who had owned most of what is now downtown Washington, was outraged. A lawyer and third-generation American, he fired off letters to President George Washington, who refused to get involved, and to the commissioners, whom he later characterized as having "cringing meanness."
Burnes and others had sold their land to the federal government in 1791 in a complicated plan that was supposed to lead to riches for the sellers and a shiny new capital city for the government. President Washington himself had struck the deal.
The confrontation over the log cabin was just the beginning for Burnes, who spent the remaining seven years of his life battling the commissioners at every turn.
He wasn't the only unhappy resident of the new federal city.
Samuel Davidson was threatened with arrest by the same commissioners when he tried to erect an outhouse on land slated for use as a future street. They went after him the very day he began to dig the new privy near his home.

Today's Washington, with its broad avenues, sweeping Mall and magnificent buildings, reveals little of its rough beginnings -- when the nation's capital was carved out of a forested landscape dotted with small farms. Two ports -- Georgetown and Alexandria -- were purposely included in the 10-square-mile federal enclave, but the new city took shape in the undeveloped area.

Residents of the future District of Columbia, with the exception of those in Georgetown, didn't lobby for the privilege of hosting Congress and the president as had Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore. Congress struggled for years before making a final decision. In 1790, it passed the Residence Act, making Philadelphia the temporary capital for 10 years and mandating a move to the new, and then-unknown, capital in 1800.
Congress did not pick the site. President Washington was appointed to explore and evaluate a 110-mile stretch of the Potomac River. He visited Maryland's Hagerstown, Williamsport and Sharpsburg, asking for detailed real estate maps and a price for the land. At each stop, officials were left with the impression that their town was a strong candidate.

In Georgetown, then a part of Maryland, Washington was given a map and an offer to sell some land at $40 an acre. In December 1790, the Maryland government sweetened the deal by promising condemnation proceedings against any owners who refused to sell.

On Jan. 22, 1791, Washington named the three commissioners who would manage the acquisition and eventual sale of lots in the new capital. Two days later, Washington told Congress the capital would be built between Georgetown and the Eastern Branch, now the Anacostia River.
However, the president wanted to keep his choice secret from the local residents, fearing a jump in land prices if the news got out. In particular, he was worried about Burnes because his land was in the middle of the area that would be the capital.

Burnes was known as a shrewd businessman who had built up his family's holdings, ran a profitable farm and was a stickler about maintaining his boundaries. In 1784, he had evicted Dick Goosequill from what is now Third Street NW at the foot of Capitol Hill, calling him an illegal squatter.
In 1790, Burnes lived at what would become 17th and D streets NW, in a 20-by-24-foot plank house with a stone chimney. The tobacco house that also was on his property was "almost blown down," according to a description from one resident, and his land was "worn out, very much grubbed and washed." However, his house and the adjoining acreage was on the road leading from the Eastern Branch ferry to Georgetown -- a great location for capital planners.

Washington quietly sent two representatives to Burnes to make an offer for his property, approximately 450 acres that stretched roughly from today's H Street to Constitution Avenue between Third and 18th streets NW -- and included the land that would become the site of the White House.
He instructed them to act "in the most profound secrecy" and "to conduct themselves as to excite no suspicion that they are on behalf of the public."
Burnes turned them down.

Next, Washington had his city planner, Maj. Charles Pierre L'Enfant, begin his survey of the Eastern Branch area to fool Burnes into thinking the capital would be built to the east of his holdings.
The ruse failed, and Washington was forced to call a meeting in late March 1791 with Burnes and other major landowners -- 18 men and one woman -- at Sutter's Tavern in Georgetown. No one is sure where the one-story, wood frame tavern stood on what today is Wisconsin Avenue NW, but it was favored by traveling dignitaries and was where Georgetown residents cast their votes on Election Day.
Washington wanted the owners of properties with such names as "Widow's Mite," "Jamaica" and "Hogpen Enlarged" to agree to sell their land for about $67 an acre. That was to be the price for land reserved for buildings and other city improvements. Land designated for future streets was to be donated by the owners, and the remaining land was to be platted into building lots and divided equally between the landowners and the federal government.

Each party expected to make money when the lots were sold at auction, and all but one of the owners signed an agreement to sell. Although Washington was credited with making a shrewd deal, the sellers saw the $67-an-acre price as a bonanza, the equivalent of a year's pay for a day laborer.
They also were convinced that the land they retained would become extremely valuable once the capital was built and Congress moved to Washington.

Elizabeth Wheeler , the only woman to attend the meeting at the tavern, wouldn't sell land deeded to her in 1778 near the present-day Navy Yard. Several months later, the commissioners had her declared insane and got her husband, Aquilla Wheeler, to agree to the sale.

When openly presented with the land-sale plan, Burnes readily agreed. Washington was amused that all his indirect dealings with Burnes had been unnecessary. But after the signing of the agreement March 31, 1791, Washington began to refer to him as "the obstinate Mr. Burns." This led historians to assume that Burnes had been reluctant to sell his land and was an obstacle to establishing the new capital. More recently, however, Washington's comments on Burnes have been viewed as something said in admiration of one good businessman by another.

For Burnes and others living in what was called Washington City, creating the capital was a painfully slow process, hindered often by their growing distrust of the three commissioners. Then L'Enfant, the man whose zeal and passion for his work had made him a favorite of the property owners, was fired by Washington for not preparing a platted map quickly enough for the first public sale.
When the auction finally took place, very few lots sold and prices were far below what was expected. That meant Burnes and others, who had agreed to wait for their money until the government raised revenue from the sale of the lots, didn't get paid.

In 1792, Burnes wrote the commissioners, saying if he wasn't paid, "my family may starve and my person be imprisoned." He complained that his farm had been "rendered useless" by a public street cut through it.
Burnes was desperate and pressed the commissioners to have his land surveyed ahead of schedule so he could sell the lots he had been allowed to keep. He believed he would find buyers for land that adjoined the President's House. When they refused, he asked the commissioners to estimate how much he was owed for the 80 acres the government had taken, pay him that amount and adjust the balance later when the survey was finally done. Again, they refused.

So Burnes, who was still farming the area between 14th and 18th streets NW, put up a fence that went right across Pennsylvania Avenue. He refused to take it down and later placed an ad in the local newspaper, warning people to stay off his property.
Washington was feeling equally desperate. His choice of a capital had been harshly criticized for having fever-producing swamps, unusable roads and a dearth of substantial development. To make matters worse, two real estate syndicates had bought property on credit, then failed, leaving titles on some lots in dispute for the next 50 years.

To demonstrate his faith in the capital, Washington eventually purchased two lots near the Capitol building, then under construction, and had houses built on them. However, in 1799, there still wasn't much of a town to show for all his effort.

Just before he died that year, the former president grew angry with all who seemed to have conspired to defeat the new city.

"By the obstructions continually thrown in its way, by friends of enemies, this city has had to pass through a fiery trial," he wrote to a friend. "Instead of a fiery trial, it would have been more appropriate to have said, [the capital] was passed, or is on its passage through, the ordeal of local interest, destructive jealousies, and inveterate prejudices."

When Congress arrived for its first session in November 1800, the Senate had a splendid chamber furnished with red-velvet chairs. The House had to make do with a much simpler meeting hall in the same building. There were too few accommodations for the members, and many ended up sleeping two to a room in boarding houses and sharing meals at tables set for 30. Vice President Thomas Jefferson managed to secure a bedroom and a parlor for himself, luxury quarters for the time.
President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, moved into the President's House with its unplastered rooms and a yard piled high with construction materials. Pennsylvania Avenue had only a footpath connecting the White House and Capitol. Much of Washington was still heavily forested, even within the platted area that extended only to Florida Avenue.

Burnes did get to build his log home at the site of the present day Pan American Union building. The 11/2-story house had a splendid view of the Ellipse and the shoreline of Tiber Creek, along what is now Constitution Avenue.

There he raised his extraordinarily attractive daughter, Marcia, who later married John P. Van Ness, a New York congressman. The couple built a palatial mansion right behind her father's house.
Burnes, who had spent years complaining about the deal he had made with the federal government, finally got paid and had managed to sell a number of his own lots. Although he had become wealthy, he continued to live as a simple farmer, growing crops on the land he still owned.
When he died at age 60 in 1799, he left his daughter an estate valued at $14 million in today's currency.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company


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