For the Love of Goose Creek
There is no portrait of David Burnes. The men in the photo above standing in front of the Burnes cottage south of the White House just prior to its demolition in 1896, probably had no idea personally of what he looked like or what he was like. Burnes died in 1799.
But they probably knew the stories: the crusty old Scot balked at George Washington's pressure to sell his land for the new federal city. When confronted by Washington, Burnes stood up to him: "I suppose you think people here are going to take every grist that comes from you as pure grain, but what would you have been if you hadn't married the Widow Custis?" So the great reporter Ben Perley Poore handed down what he recalled his Georgetown born mother telling him.
In further retelling Burnes spoke in brogue and a bit spicy at that as he reminded Washington of how he had been enriched by the "Wid'er Custis and all her niggurs!" (Burnes himself had a handful of slaves.)
In a March 28, 1791, letter to Thomas Jefferson about the land dealing, Washington referred to the "obstinate Mr.Burns" even as he joined with other land owners in selling to the government all the land wanted. When George Washington called someone "obstinate", it stuck.
When I began research for my book Through A Fiery Trail: Building Washington 1790-1800, I assumed that all the major archival repositories containing family papers of the original proprietors of the land which became the capital had been examined and relevant material long ago published. To my surprise it seemed that no one had examined the Van Ness-Phillip Family Papers in the New-York Historical Society which contain the papers of Gen. Van Ness's wife's father David Burnes.
I found a "copy" of a letter Burnes wrote to Washington on February 26, 1791, that seemed to explain his obstinacy. Because no letter from Burnes is in Washington's papers, that copy has been ignored by the editors of the most recent edition of the Washington Papers that includes letter sent to Washington, even though there is another letter in Burnes' papers suggesting that his letter was sent and received.
One of Burnes' descendants, Barb Price, following my directions and got a good photo of Burnes' letter and put it on her blog. (I did my research before the digital era.)
In the letter Burnes explains that he was resisting the offers of speculators who he feared were secretly buying up property that he and other proprietors had agreed to sell to the government.
Goose Creek 26 Feb 1791
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.
One assumes that if Washington wrote a letter replying to Burnes, it would have been cherished by the Burnes Family. But it is likely he didn't because in these land deals he was playing his cards close to his chest. Washington well knew the "designing" speculators that Burnes referred to since Washington had made them his secret agents.
On February 28 he wrote to those agents:
Gentlemen: If you have concluded nothing yet with Mr. Burn's; nor made him any offer for his land that is obligatory; I pray you to suspend your. negotiations with him until you hear further from me.
On March 2, Washington wrote again to "authorise the renewal of the negotiations with Mr. Burns agreeably to former powers, at such time and in such a manner as, in your judgments is likely to produce the desired effect."
Since Washington was in Philadelphia, his stopping and re-starting negotiation with Burnes had nothing to do with meeting him. Washington arrived in Georgetown to finalize a deal with the land owners on March 28th. Washington also likely did not received Burnes' letter before he wrote to his agents on February 28 and March 2. In 1791 they did not have overnight delivery between Goose Creek and Philadelphia.
But on March 11 one of Washington's agents, the Georgetown merchant and speculator Benjamin Stoddert, wrote to Burnes and addressed the fears he expressed to Washington about speculators buying up all the land already promised for the Federal city.
It is clear that Stoddert knew what Burnes wrote to Washington as he wrote to Burnes:
I understand you have heard I was concerned in an offer to purchase of the President the whole of the land he might fix on....
Stoddert probably learned about the letter, or saw the actual letter, when the man Washington appointed to make a plan for the new city, Major L'Enfant, arrived in Georgetown on March 9.
Stoddert reduced the complexities of the situation to a simple proposition: stop being obstinate and I will pay you 1,000 Pounds, roughly $2800, tomorrow -- 100 Pounds in cash the rest in secured personal notes. In addition he will still get the 25 Pounds an acre everyone else is getting for selling their land.
11 March 1791
I am sorry the negotiation I have endeavored to carry on with you, should be considered in the light of speculation for my private views - the truth is, I have no object, but a public one - I think it of the utmost importance to Georgetown that the President should fix on the situation offered him from this Neighborhood for the Federal City - and I think the only chance of his so doing will be, by making the offers as unexceptionable as possible.
All those who hold lands have agreed to an extension of their offers, except yourself - but their agreements would be of little consequence unless you also agree - for these lands cannot be taken with out yours, as the President no doubt, would choose to make Good Creek one of the boundaries if he accepts the upper situation.
Thus thinking - permit me to make you one more offer, which I promise you shall be the last I will trouble you with - the offer is this - I will give you L1000 if you will agree to let the President of the United States take one hundred acres more of your land, then you have already offered, on the terms of your former offer. I mean the L1000 to be yours whether the President accepts of one foot of your land or not - if he should accept of the upper situation, I should expect he would not let me be a loser, but this will depend entirely on himself and if he should not accept, I should certainly lose the L1000, and you would gain it without losing an acre of your land and if he should accept you certainly could not be a loser, as you would get full L25 per acres; for the 200 acres. L100 of the L1000 I will pay you in cash - for the remaining L900 I will give you my bond with such security as you should approve, payable in 12 months.
Your own candid consideration of the offer herein made, must satisfy you, that I can have no private view in making it - the fact is that I think fixing the Federal City on the Eastern Branch, would destroy Georgetown in which I have a good deal of property that would thereby be rendered of little or no value - and I think that unless the offer from this side of Goose Creek should be much better than those from the Eastern Branch, that Carrollsburg will carry it. It is to prevent so great an evil to Georgetown that I am induced to make you such an offer - for I think with 100 acres more of your land than you have already have agreed to give up - and with what Pearce and Waring have agreed to give up, the offer from this side would be much better than any that could be made from the Eastern Branch.
I understand you have heard I was concerned in an offer to purchase of the President the whole of the land he might fix on - I can only say that I never had a serious thought of the kind - and never will be concerned in such a purchase, even if the President should ever consent to sell which I am sure he never will do - and I consent that this letter may remain evidence against me.
If you should think it in your interest to accept the offer, you must do it today or tomorrow as I cannot consent to be bound by it longer.
Take a look at a map of what became downtown Washington to get a better sense of Burnes' reason for being careful, if not obstinate. Burnes owned the land flanking Goose Creek. His land north of the creek was relatively low and while his land south of the creek had more elevation that area was too out of the way for development. Two earlier attempts to develop a city in the area, Hamburgh to the west of Burnes and Carrollsburg to the southeast, plated land that was higher and more convenient to navigable water. Goose Creek was too shallow for a harbor and went no where of commercial value.
Add to those reasons the rumors in town that President Washington was either going to center the new capital city on the hills north of Carrollsburg facing the Anacostia River, then called the Eastern Branch, or on the high ground between Goose Creek and Georgetown. Burnes had every reason to believe his creek would only be a boundary line of the new city.
Burnes lived on his land. Several owners, like Stoddert, were only speculating. Samuel Davidson, who owned land on higher ground north of Burnes, hoped the government would buy as much as possible, place important buildings there and thus make the lots he retained valuable.
Burnes looked at it differently. He was the third generation of Burnes to live on Goose Creek. The Burnes, originally from Scotland, had been competing as farmers and battling over land boundaries with a clan of very wealthy Catholics just to the east. He wanted to retain enough of his own land to build his manor house. Notley Young, about as old as Burns, lived on the other side of the peninsula formed by Goose Creek and the Potomac and had a manor house and upwards of 265 slaves.
Burnes's son was 19 years old about to be sent off, I believe, to study law in Baltimore. He had a daughter Marcia who was 9 years old. Burnes was one of the older land owners and would be 60 years old when the government was scheduled to move to the city. What money he made off the new city would make a fortune for his children, except that Burnes wanted to build a manor house on his land, not in Georgetown as Stoddert and Samuel Davidson would do.
At meetings in Georgetown prior to President Washington designating the area as the site for the future capital, the land owners agreed to a scheme that would let the federal government buy all the land it needed for public buildings, streets, and parks. Plus the government were survey all the remaining land into building lots and reserve not more than half of those lots for itself. The original land owners could sell the other half of the lots. What the government made would help finance the construction of the public buildings. What the land owners made would make them wealthy men for how could building lots in the nation's capital not be valuable?
As it turned out, Washington decided to buy far more land for the city than anyone expected, an area as large as London. Rather than being on the edge of the new city, Burnes was right in the middle. The problem of shallow seemingly useless Goose Creek was going to be solved by Major L'Enfant, an engineer as well as city planner. Goose Creek would become a canal easing the way for barges from the upper Potomac and Ohio rivers to get around the tricky tidal reaches of the Potomac below Georgetown and safely to a deep harbor on the west shore of the Eastern Branch.
When Washington revealed the extent of the new city, Burnes should have been the happiest land owner at the meeting. He owned the land right in the middle of the city. There is no evidence that Washington had a kind word for Burnes.
Washington was loath to hobnob with a man simply because he owned land in the federal district. That one of them, Uriah Forrest, had risen to the rank of colonel in the Revolutionary War and lost a leg serving under Washington at the Battle of Germantown, made it easy to accept a dinner invitation from him. In his diary entry about the dinner, Washington refers to the rest of the land owners invited as "others."
Not to be noticed by Washington had its advantages. David Burnes has been forever "obstinate." The reputation of only one other man involved in the development of the city was dealt a worse blow by Washington. Most historians can't resist denigrating L'Enfant for his "perverseness."
Ironically, judging from letters between them, Burnes and L'Enfant had a great rapport. Burnes told L'Enfant about the manor house he wanted to build. L'Enfant offered to mark out a whole square for the house at the foot of 17th Street, south of the White House, and he thought public money could be spent to ornament the house and grounds. L'Enfant even offered to design the house.
L'Enfant found no obstinacy in Burnes. He found a man as passionate about the land the new city would be built on as he was.
Thwarted by commissioners placed above him who visited the city about once a month, L'Enfant left the project in early 1792 and so did not carry out his promises to Burnes. He in turn struggled, as did all the land owners, to find some way to profit from their holdings as the commissioners mismanaged the development of the city.
Then Burnes' son died in 1795 and Burnes' himself became a sick man. He sold many lots in bunches mostly to speculators, those designing men, and amassed an estate of $50,000 cash plus he remaining land holdings. He died in 1799 leaving his widow quite comfortable financially and his 17 year old daughter a desirable match. She married a New York congressman and in 1816 the manor house was finally built, designed by Benjamin Latrobe.
Matthew Brady photographed it
Eventually like the original Burnes' home, it was torn down. But the photographic record of those homes gives the true measure of the "obstinate Mr. Burnes." He believed in Goose Creek and the City of Washington and tried to keep his family stuck in both, and succeeded better than the rest of the cast of characters who built the city.