March 1, 2013 marks the 339th anniversary of the land grant given to Lt. Col John Washington (George Washington’s great-grandfather) and Col. Nicholas Spencer for the land that we today call Mount Vernon.
When visitors come to Mount Vernon to see George Washington’s home and gardens, one of the major aspects of his life that is emphasized is his connection to the land, through his agricultural pursuits and his early career as a surveyor. Over the course of his life, Washington completed many surveys and drew numerous maps that detail the growth of his plantation: Mount Vernon.
Before George Washington inherited Mount Vernon, a succession of Washington family members owned the land beginning in 1674. The first Washington to own the land was George’s great-grandfather, Lt. Col John Washington (1632-1677), an English adventurer who migrated to Virginia in 1656. After a few years of farming and service in the Virginia militia, John Washington and fellow planter Col. Nicholas Spencer applied for a patent (similar to a modern land deed) for 5,000 acres on the Potomac River. A tract on the present-day Mount Vernon Neck was surveyed on April 27 1669, and an official grant was given to Washington and Spencer in March of 1674. Unfortunately, Washington did not live long enough set up a plantation on his patent, which he left to his son, Lawrence Washington in 1677.
One 17th century map drawn by surveyor George Brent survives from 1690 that illustrates how the Mount Vernon Neck was divided between the Spencers and the Washingtons . A dividing line down the center of the neck was established, effectively giving both families an equal 2,500 acres. The Spencer family sold off most of their land beginning in 1739, while the Washington family kept their acreage mostly intact. When George Washington assumed ownership of the land in 1754, he controlled about 2,000 acres. He gradually purchased the old Spencer holdings and those of other neighboring small farms, and at the time of his death in 1799 had increased his acreage to 8,000 (for more information see: http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/maps/mtvernon/growth.html).
Luke J. Pecoraro
Asst. Director for Archaeological Research
Dept. of Historic Preservation and Collections
- Surveying Our First President — A Lesson Plan for Middle School
- George Washington: Surveyor and Mapmaker
*This website, from the Library of Congress, has background information on George Washington as a surveyor and examples of his early maps and surveys.