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Historian says Washington had business reasons to visit the area

| Monday, Feb. 20, 2012

To many, George Washington's name probably evokes thoughts of cherry trees, Fort Necessity, Valley Forge and the father of our country.

But there is another side of the first president that is not as well known -- his entrepreneurial endeavors.

At a Presidents Day luncheon hosted by the Queen Alliquippa Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, historian Dr. Miles Richards talked about two little-known visits by Washington to Western Pennsylvania.

"Usually you think of him during the French and Indian War in 1750," Richards said. "Or you think of George Washington, the military leader, president or statesman. Often we forget George Washington, the businessman."

Washington made two trips to this area -- in the fall of 1770 and in 1784. Richards said Washington hired Capt. William Crawford in 1768 as his land agent to survey and lay out the parcels. Two years later he visited his property -- 1,500 acres in what is now Perryopolis, called Washington's Bottom at that time.

"He followed Braddock Road, which he surveyed," the historian said. "He went to Connellsville, where he stayed a couple days. While he was there, he visited a coal mine and said the coal looked nice and burned very well, and said it would make a good investment. He never invested in the coal mine."

Being familiar with the area from the French and Indian War, he often talked about how the fertile, black soil would be good for farming, especially the bottom lands along the Youghiogheny River.

A reminder of Washington's connection to that community is a gristmill located off Route 51 South.

"Washington hired Gilbert Simpson of Virginia to run the grist mill," Richards said. "But he ignored the locals who told him there wasn't significant water in the spring, especially during droughts, and that debris and boulders clogged the water's flow."

The gristmill was built and operational within a year, "but Simpson's management was not very good and it never made much of a profit," he said.

On his way to Pittsburgh, Washington continued along the Yough and, according to Richards, "If anyone was along the river in Buena Vista the afternoon of Oct. 17 in 1770, they would have seen George Washington across the river."

When he arrived in Pittsburgh, he spent a couple days at Fort Pitt before embarking on a canoe journey down the Ohio River.

"Washington wanted to connect the Potomac (River) with the Ohio with an east-west canal," the historian said. "It never happened but he spent three decades working on it. There are remnants around Harpers Ferry of the Potomac Canal Company."

On his return to Mount Vernon, Washington and his entourage were caught in a blizzard and had to spend a couple days in Turtle Creek. Richards said Washington planned to return to Western Pennsylvania once a year, but did not make another trip to this area until 1784.

Circumstances were a bit different when he returned 14 years later. Crawford was killed in 1781 and most of the land lease papers were lost. The result was squatters claiming parcels that Washington owned. One member of the group on this second visit was Washington's nephew who, according to Richards, said of his uncle, "he knew every acre he owned and every shilling owed."

Upon arriving in Perryopolis, he discovered many of his tenants had left. He also did not like how Simpson was operating the grist mill.

"He gave Simpson a piece of his mind and fired him and told him to get off his property," Richards said.

Frustrated with what he saw, Washington decided to put the grist mill up for public auction.

"He was pleased when he saw about 200 people showed up. But in 20 minutes he had no bidders. The people had come out to gawk at him, not bid," Richards said. "Also, no one would move into Simpson's house, so he allowed him to stay. His last day there was spent going around to collect money from his tenants."

The grist mill was sold in 1794 and remained in operation for more than 100 years, although it was never very productive, Richards said.

This time, on his way to the Monongahela River, Washington rode through what is now Rostraver Township "and probably took what is Route 136 to what is now River Road to Monongahela City," Richards said.

He returned to Pennsylvania once more during the Whiskey Rebellion, but only as far as Bedford.

"It's possible he took a personal interest in the Whiskey Rebellion because many of the people involved with that were the same cast of characters whom he crossed paths with over the land issue," Richards said.

When remembering Washington, the historian said, "think of Braddock Field or Fort Necessity. But you also need to think of him arguing with people low on the totem pole and not being able to get rid of a grist mill. You need to think of him as a businessman, too."

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