Showing posts with label George Washington. Show all posts
Showing posts with label George Washington. Show all posts

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Why President George Washington didn't like David Burnes

A very fortunate man was David Burns, another of the original land-holders. His property was situated largely in what is now the fashionable northwest quarter of the city. Burns—" crusty Davie Burns," as he was called—was a very bigoted, choleric Scotchman; fond of controversy, and never known to agree with anyone 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 Burns 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. Burns," and would never meet him again.

Sources courtesy of

David Burnes' written letter to President George Washington - Goose Creek 26 Feb 1791

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 

Photo Credit: Barb Price - Genealogist - 8th cousin to Sarah Burnes Heiner
Research credit goes to Barb Price and her incredible discoveries.

Note From Barb Price:

This letter to the President was amongst the papers in the Van Ness-Phillips Collection.   I was not aware of this Collection until I stumbled upon an article written by Bob Arnebeck, he was in the midst of writing a book about the building of the Federal City and he had come across them.   The Collection totals 93 boxes, of which I was only able to search through the first 3, that took me 3 days!   I will have to go back to NY and search through the rest, eh?

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.
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