A major landholder and promoter of western settlement, George Washington dies on this day in 1799 at his Mount Vernon home along the banks of the Potomac.
From an early age, the future first president of the United States had a passionate interest in the vast unsettled territories of the West. Like many other aristocratic Virginians, Washington coveted land, and most ambitious young men of the eighteenth century had one way to acquire land: they went west.
As a 16-year-old in 1748, Washington made the first of several long journeys into the West, working as a skilled surveyor in the Shenandoah Valley. Unusually tall and strong, Washington loved the wild western lands of Virginia and was an excellent frontiersman. From the start, Washington's ambitions were unabashedly mercenary, and he could not gaze on any tract of pristine land without considering its potential for development and profit. To that end, Washington had little tolerance for the remaining bands of Indians he encountered during his travels, writing in his journal that he found their war dances "comical." Washington also had a strong distaste for the illegal pioneers who squatted on western lands they did not own, calling one group of Pennsylvania Germans as "Ignorant a Set of People as the Indians." Washington believed both the Indians and the illegal squatters would need to be removed if the land was to be properly settled and exploited.
After joining the colonial military to defend British interests in the West, Washington moved quickly to increase his own land holdings and develop them for profit. As a reward for his military service, Washington claimed 30,000 acres of prime agricultural land along the Kanawha and Ohio rivers west of the Appalachian Mountains (an area that lies in modern-day West Virginia and Ohio). To solidify his claim and begin generating a profit, Washington advertised for settlers and purchased indentured servants to colonize his holdings.
The outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1775 and Washington's growing political responsibilities often interfered with his personal plans for western expansion during the following years, and he rarely had time to visit his distant landholdings. Not surprisingly, when he became the first president of the United States, Washington strongly endorsed the idea that the young nation must expand westward and settle the Trans-Appalachian regions of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. It remained for Washington's successors to fully realize his vision, but the first president led his countrymen in speculating on and profiting from the sale and rent of western lands.