David Burnes (The Original Owner of the White House Land)

David Burnes Cottage. Photo Credit: DC Public Library Commons Flickr Site. Unidentified Men

Most people don't know that the current WHITE HOUSE land was originally owned by David Burnes and others. The First American President, George Washington had a vision of the Capitol City and and was divinely driven to carry out his plans. He was able to buy the land from the 18 other land owners, but the 700 acres he was most interested in belonged to David Burnes who was putting up a fight, and wanted "top dollar" for his land. The President George Washington spent many hours in person negotiating with the "Obstinate Mr. Burnes" in order to purchase his land for his Capitol City. Here's how the story plays out. Click here to read the entire story of David Burnes & President George Washington

Original Letter From David Burnes to President George Washington.
Photo Credit: Barb Price (Genealogist & Descendant of David Burnes)

Translation to the above letter:
(Courtesy of Barb Price)

"Goose Creek 26 Feb 1791
To President Washington,

I presume to address you with great deference on a subject in which I think my own character and reputation and interest involved. Reports have been circulated here that some designing speculative men have been making you offers for the property which I among others gave up to you on certain conditions stipulated in a paper which we all signed giving you the power to make any advantage therefrom towards erecting the Federal City and I am the more induced to believe that speculation is in view from an offer which I have lately had for a further part of my property on the specious pretext that it will be necessary to give it up to complete your designs should you fix on the ground we have already offered you for the purposes aforesaid. To convince you that I do not withhold that farther part of my property from your application of it to the uses designed I am willing if it is your desire to add a further quantity of my land not exceeding 79 acres at any price not under 15 pounds per acre that you may please to nominate or I will agree to take every third lot of the said for the percent (?) of ground.

David Burnes"

Fun Fact: It is said by many that David Burnes is one of the ghosts that have been seen in the White House.

Trying to prove David Burnes as my 7th Great Uncle; here are the facts:

David Burnes II was born on 14 February 1746 in Prince George's County, Maryland to James Burnes & Jemima Brown. David Burnes. He is the grandson David Burnes I, who originally purchased the land in 1721. David Burnes married Ann Wight around 1770. They had two children:

  • John Burnes 1772-1795
  • Marcia Burnes 1782-1832
David Burnes died on 7 May 1799 in Washington City, District Of Columbia, District of Columbia, USA.

Research Credit: Barb Price (Genealogist & descendant of David Burnes) writes the following:
"The "Obstinate Mr. Burnes" was the name given to David Burnes II by President George Washington because of his "obstinance" in dealing with him. It took many visits by Washington's French Business man; Major L'Enfant to create much presuasion and finally get David to agree to sell his land for 1.5 million dollars (in 1790) for the Capitol City, where the White House now resides.

The David Burnes II that sold the land to the Federal government was the grandson of David Burnes I. The first David Burnes was born around 1690 and died in 1762--we have his will and his early land records, of which "Elinor" is the first. He purchased this tract of land from John Allison in 1721 and it comprises the southern grounds of the White House, the old Navy and War Building and the Treasury Building. He then purchased two more tracts of land, "Part of Beall's Levels" in 1730 and 1732. This land comprises the Ellipse area of Washington, DC.

David I and Anne Fleming, his wife, had one son, James, and he added to the land holdings by purchasing the following tracts of land:

1754 "Gleanings", adjoins "Elinor"

1761 "Burnes Discovery"
1764 "Part of Vineyard"
1771 "Part of Beall's Levels"

The "Capital City" blue print before the White House was built. Showing the original land owners.

The "Capital City" blue print before the White House was built. Showing the original land owners.

The "Capital City" blue print before the White House was built. Showing the original land owners.

The "Capital City" blue print before the White House was built. Showing the original land owners.

The total acreage was close to 700 acres. James, the son of David I, died in 1772 without a will, so all of the land that he owned was inherited by his eldest son, David II, born in 1745, except for the two thirds that went to their mother, Jamima (Brown) Burnes. We have Jamima's will, too, which names all of their children.

So, David II, inherited quite a lot of land that Geo Washington, and his Commissioners, were very interested in once the government had decided on the spot for the nation's capital. I was lucky enough to come across a repository of records pertaining to the Burnes family in the NY Historical Society. It was amazing and contained many of the original deeds to the land! I copied about 80 pages, some I've scanned and placed on our family website, but I still have a lot to do. In it is also correspondence between David Burnes II, Geo Washington and the Commissioners, it's all very interesting. David Burnes was attempting to get the full value of his land and because of this, was labeled as being "obstinate!" Well, when I saw that Washington had called him "the obstinate Mr. Burns", I knew I was related!!! In reality, he was wanting to be paid a decent price for his land because the government had decided that they didn't want just part of it, they wanted all of it. How was he to eat, if he didn't have any land?

David Burnes II died in 1799 and he left all of his holdings to his daughter, Marcia, her older brother, John, dying in 1795. She was filthy rich and married John Peter Van Ness in 1802. He was a congressman from New York, became the Mayor of Washington, DC and they were both very prominent citizens, building a beautiful mansion across the street from the White House. The carriage house of their mansion is still standing in DC on 18th Street NW."

The Above information was researched by Barb Price.

Click here for David Burnes' Descendants List

More David Burnes Info: Courtesy of www.visitwashingtondconline.com

A very fortunate man was David Burnes, another of the original land-holders. His property was situated largely in what is now the fashionable northwest quarter of the city. Burnes—" crusty Davie Burnes," as he was called—was a very bigoted, choleric Scotchman; fond of controversy, and never known to agree with any one in the slightest particular. He lived in a rude cottage near the river, and cultivated a large plantation extending over the spot where the White House now stands. The demand for his land made him very wealthy, and his only child, Marcia Burns, was known in all the country around as " the beautiful heiress of Washington." For some time Burnes was opposed to the projected transfer of land to the government, and the President and the commissioners had several conferences with him in his cottage to explain the advantages of the plan. On one of these occasions, so the tradition runs, the testy old planter answered one of Washington's arguments by this outburst: " I suppose, Mr. Washington, you think people are going to take every grist from you as pure grain; but what would you have been if you hadn't married the rich widow Custis I" The usually sedate Washington at this audacious remark is said to have actually lost his temper, and left the house in indignation. He afterward spoke of the impertinent Scotchman as that obstinate Mr. Burnes," and would never meet him again.
Miss Marcia Burnes was placed by her father in a cultivated Baltimore family, where she received an excellent social and literary training. When she returned to Washington after several years' schooling she became the belle of the embryo city, and attracted many admirer.. She was lovely in person, and gracious and winning in her manner. Her father could not be induced to leave his old house—a small, rudely-fashioned structure, with only two rooms on the ground floor, and but little better than the cabins of the slaves who tilled his plantation—and, with all his great wealth, would not change his plain way of living. The girl uttered no complaint, but came from the refined Baltimore home at her father's bidding, and resumed her former life with the lonely man. Her mother had died when she was a child, and for years she had been her fathers sole intimate companion.

Fun Fact: It was said that Marcia Burnes Van Ness was the wealthiest woman in America in the early 1800's.
Fun Fact: One of Marcia Burnes Van Ness' Closest friends was Dolly Madison.

Oil Paintings of Marcia Burnes Van Ness; daughter of David Burnes II:
Marcia was given the title: "The Heiress of Washington City", Click here to read more.

Oil Painting of Peter John Van Ness; husband of Marcia Burnes Van Ness
VAN NESS, John Peter, a Representative from New York; born in Ghent (formerly Claverly), Columbia County, N.Y., in 1770; completed preparatory studies and attended Columbia College in New York City; studied law and was admitted to the bar, but never practiced; elected as a Republican to the Seventh Congress to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of John Bird and served from October 6, 1801, to January 17, 1803, when his seat was declared forfeited, as he had accepted and exercised the office of major of militia in the District of Columbia bestowed on him by President Jefferson; he then made Washington his home; president of the second council in 1803; promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel commandant of the first legion of militia in 1805, brigadier general in 1811, and major general in 1813; alderman of the city of Washington in 1829; mayor 1830-1834; second vice president of the Washington National Monument Society in 1833; president of the commissioners of the Washington Canal in 1834; president of the branch bank of the United States at Washington, D.C.; first president of the National Metropolitan Bank from 1814 until his death in Washington, D.C., March 7, 1846; interment in a mausoleum at Oak Hill Cemetery.

John Peter Van Ness Biography; click here

More Photos of David Burnes' Cottage:David Burnes Cottage.

Credit: IRC 3D Animator Phillip Thomas created this 3D model of David Burnes' Cottage. (North side)

Credit: IRC 3D Animator Phillip Thomas created this 3D model of David Burnes' Cottage. (South side)

Credit: IRC 3D Animator Phillip Thomas - side by side of David Burnes' original house and 3d animated house.

David Burnes Cottage with Washington DC monument in the background.

Front view of David Burnes' cottage before it was demolished.

Painting of David Burnes' cottage.


  1. Very neat I had no idea that our family owned the land where the White house is.

    Ethan WIlliam Burnes.(my name)

  2. This is such a fun find! I love it! You have done a fantastic job on this blog, Sarah.

  3. I wonder if this is the same family as George who moved to Tx ca1830-1850 and his bro who moved to Calif.George lived in San Antonio for awhile and I think he was the black sheep of the fam? Do you know about him?

    1. Kit Maribeaux, I have always wondered the same thing about my Burnes lineage in Texas. I know my grandpa, William Burnes was out there for a while, but haven't traced any other Burnes' to that area. After doing research, I have found thousand of Burnes' in TX. I am sure we are related somehow, but haven't figured out how yet.

  4. I should clarify my question. Are there any portraits of David Burnes II? Also, do you know where he is buried? And what of his wife? Is it possible to post some of the correspondence between President Washington and "obstinate Davy"? Those would be fun to see.

    And, have you seen this amazing article? If so, any comment or additional family lore about it?


    1. @anonymous, I have all the information on David Burnes' death and birth and his wife Anne Fleming. I will post that info soon. I also do have copies of the original letters to David Burnes from President George Washington. I will add those too. I belong to a Burnes group of about 200 David Burnes descendants, and no one has ever seen a picture of David Burnes. But David's mantle is in the Washington DC City Museum, with lots of pictures of his daughter Marcia. Good questions. I will post more soon.

  5. Hi Sarah. I posted a comment back in February regarding the location of David Burnes II (obstinate Davy) and his wife's grave. A photo would be nice. I also asked about the correspondence between General Washington and David. You said you had copies of those letters and would post them here. Could you address those two items? I'm still anxious! I am surprised, considering David's standing as a prominent land owner, that no one painted a portrait of him. Perhaps Davy didn't see the point to such things and refused to sit for a portrait but it would be nice to put a face to the name. Are you SURE no one painted a portrait of him? Ever?

    A. Wilhelm

    1. A. Wilhelm,
      I am currently working on this now. I have been working on my other site and have time this week to add those letters from George Washington to David Burnes. Sorry for the wait.

    2. A. Wilhelm,
      I just wanted to let you know that the letters have been posted to my site. You can find the original scanned letter that David Burnes wrote to George Washington here on My Burnes Clan. I have looked everywhere in hopes to find a painting of David Burnes, and there is nothing so far; pretty crazy that someone of his wealth, didn't have an oil painting done, but he was extremely frugal. I am also working on finding his place of rest. I will let you know what I find on that. Take Care.

  6. BTW, I just noticed you're in Utah. So am I. West Jordan. Where are you? (You don't have to say. I understand. I'm a stranger.)

    1. Anonymous, Without giving my exact location, I live 30 minutes outside of Salt Lake City :) -Sarah

  7. We have pictures of Davy`s nephew, Thomas Schultz Burnes, and of his great-nephew, William Henry Burnes, my great-grandfather. They are second cousins and strongly favor and I think they would resemble Uncle Davy too.

    1. Ralph, I would love to see these pictures of Thomas Schultz Burnes and William Henry Burnes. Could you email me a copy at sarah@tmgenealogy.com and I will give credit to you on my website. I think this is great that you found these pictures.
      Thanks again for keeping me updated on the Burnes line.

  8. My family and I are visiting DC this week. I was disappointed to not see David Burns' name on the DAR monument to the original landowners on 15th. Do you know why his name was excluded?

    1. Kynthos,
      I can't say for sure why this is the case, but that doesn't seem right for David Burnes to be excluded from the DAR. I will contact another cousin of ours and see if she has any answers for us. Maybe, it was because he was not liked by George Washington any others. I will get back to you hopefully with an answer about this.
      Take Care.

  9. Sarah:
    Please contact me.
    Buck Matthews

  10. I read many years ago his spirit (Mr.Burnes) was trapped at the White House. How sad the writer of this lets us know he haunts there as a FUN FACT. I did enjoy reading this (not the haunting fact but the history of the land). Do you know whether or not the land had Native Americans? If so who were they and was thatland bought or stolen from them? Some one really ought to put up a plaque (if it hasn't been done yet) giving this man some acknowledgment. I sense he still hangs around because he felt because he feels its still his land. I hope someone can help him move on. I have to I admire his FIRE and getting as much money as he could get and standing his ground. No picture of him exsists? Thats something that should be in the Whitehouse, a reminder of how things got started. Have a good one, I'm sorry if I offended anyone btw.

  11. I have information that he is connected to my linage,and would like to study and research through that linage..dla

  12. Marable...no mention. My understanding was that much of the land of the Capitol all the way to the White House and nearby was owned by William Marable. I may have first name wrong. Ineligible his sons inherited, but sold the land...maybe to Burnes?


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