Tuesday, October 2, 2018

George Washington: Farmer - A Critical Visitor (Richard Parkinson) at Mount Vernon

George Washington as Farmer by Junius Brutus Stearns. 1851

George Washington: Farmer  
Paul Leland Haworth (1876-1936) 
Ch 15 A Critical Visitor (Richard Parkinson) at Mount Vernon

About thirty miles down the river Potomac, a gentleman, of the name of Grimes, came up to us in his own boat. He had some little time before shot a man who was going across his plantation; & had been tried for so doing, but not punished. He came aboard, & behaved very politely to me: & it being near dinner time, he would have me go ashore & dine with him: which I did. He gave me some grape-juice to drink, which he called Port wine, & entertained me with saying he made it himself: it was not to my taste equal to our Port in England, nor even strong beer; but a hearty welcome makes everything pleasant, & this he most cheerfully gave me. He showed me his garden; the produce of which, he told me, he sold at Alexandria, a distance of thirty miles. His garden was in disorder: & so was everything else I saw about the place; except a favourite stallion, which was in very good condition--a pretty figure of a horse, & of proper size for the road, about fifteen hands high. He likewise showed me some other horses, brood-mares & foals, young colts, &c. of rather an useful kind. His cattle were small, but all much better than the land.

This chapter is taken from A Tour of America in 1798, 1799, & 1800, by Richard Parkinson, who has already been several times quoted. Parkinson had won something of a name in England as a scientific agriculturist & had published a book called the Experienced Farmer. He negotiated by letter with Washington for the rental of one of the Mount Vernon farms, & in 1798, without having made any definite engagement, sailed for the Potomac with a cargo of good horses, cattle & hogs. His plan for renting Washington's farm fell through, by his account because it was so poor, & ultimately he settled for a time near Baltimore, where he underwent such experiences as an opinionated Englishman with new methods would be likely to meet. Soured by failure, he returned to England, & published an account of his travels, partly with the avowed purpose of discouraging emigration to America. His opinion of the country he summed up thus: "If a man should be so unfortunate as to have married a wife of a capricious disposition, let him take her to America, & keep her there three or four years in a country-place at some distance from a town, & afterwards bring her back to England; if she do not act with propriety, he may be sure there is no remedy." I have rearranged his account in such a way as to make it consecutive, but otherwise it stands as originally published.

He praised the soil very highly. I asked him if he was acquainted with the land at Mount Vernon. He said he was; & represented it to be rich land, but not so rich as his. Yet his I thought very poor indeed; for it was (as is termed in America) gullied; which I call broken land. This effect is produced by the winter's frost & summer's rain, which cut the land into cavities of from ten feet wide & ten feet deep (and upwards) in many places; and, added to this, here & there a hole, which makes it look altogether like marlpits, or stone-quarries, that have been carried away by those hasty showers in the summer, which no man who has not seen them in this climate could form any idea of or believe possible....

In two days after we left this place, we came in sight of Mount Vernon; but in all the way up the river, I did not see any green fields. The country had to me a most barren appearance. There were none but snake-fences; which are rails laid with the ends of one upon another, from eight to sixteen in number in one length. The surface of the earth looked like a yellow-washed wall; for it had been a very dry summer; & there was not any thing that I could see green, except the pine trees in the woods, & the cedars, which made a truly picturesque view as we sailed up the Potomac. It is indeed a most beautiful river.

When we arrived at Mount Vernon, I found that General Washington was at Philadelphia; but his steward had orders from the General to receive me & my family, with all the horses, cattle, &c. which I had on board. A boat was, therefore, got ready for landing them; but that could not be done, as the ship must be cleared out at some port before anything was moved: so, after looking about a few minutes at Mount Vernon, I returned to the ship, & we began to make way for Alexandria....

No doubt Anderson, Washington's last manager.  When I had been about seven days at Alexandria, I hired a horse & went to Mount Vernon, to view my intended farm; of which General Washington had given me a plan, & a report along with it--the rent being fixed at eighteen hundred bushels of wheat for twelve hundred acres, or money according to the price of that grain. I must confess that if he would have given me the inheritance of the land for that sum, I durst not have accepted it, especially with the incumbrances upon it; viz. one hundred seventy slaves young & old, & out of that number only twenty-seven[10] in a condition to work, as the steward represented to me. I viewed the whole of the cultivated estate--about three thousand acres; & afterward dined with Mrs. Washington & the family. Here I met a Doctor Thornton, who is a very pleasant agreeable man, & his lady; with a Mr. Peters & his lady, who was a grand-daughter of Mrs. Washington. Doctor Thornton living at the city of Washington, he gave me an invitation to visit him there: he was one of the commissioners of the city.

Most certainly a mistake.  I slept at Mount Vernon, & experienced a very kind & comfortable reception; but did not like the land at all. I saw no green grass there, except in the garden: & this was some English grass, appearing to me to be a sort of couch-grass; it was in drills. There were also six saintfoin plants, which I found the General valued highly. I viewed the oats which were not thrashed, & counted the grains upon each head; but found no stem with more than four grains, & these a very light & bad quality, such as I had never seen before: the longest straw was of about twelve inches. The wheat was all thrashed, therefore I could not ascertain the produce of that: I saw some of the straw, however, & thought it had been cut & prepared for the cattle in the winter; but I believe I was mistaken, it being short by nature, & with thrashing out looked like chaff, or as if chopped with a bad knife. The General had two thrashing machines, the power given by horses. The clover was very little in bulk, & like chaff; not more than nine inches long, & the leaf very much shed from the stalk. By the stubbles on the land I could not tell which had been wheat, or which had been oats or barley; nor could I see any clover-roots where the clover had grown. The weather was hot & dry at that time; it was in December. The whole of the different fields were covered with either the stalks of weeds, corn-stalks, or what is called sedge--something like spear-grass upon the poor limestone in England; & the steward told me nothing would eat it, which is true. Indeed, he found fault with everything, just like a foreigner; & even told me many unpleasant tales of the General, so that I began to think he feared I was coming to take his place. But (God knows!) I would not choose to accept of it: for he had to superintend four hundred slaves, & there would be more now. This part of his business especially would have been painful to me; it is, in fact, a sort of trade of itself.

I had not in all this time seen what we in England call a corn-stack, nor a dung-hill. There were, indeed, behind the General's barns, two or three cocks of oats & barley; but such as an English broad-wheeled waggon would have carried a hundred miles at one time with ease. Neither had I seen a green plant of any kind: there was some clover of the first year's sowing: but in riding over the fields I should not have known it to be clover, although the steward told me it was; only when I came under a tree I could, by favour of the shade, perceive here & there a green leaf of clover, but I do not remember seeing a green root. I was shown no grass-hay of any kind; nor do I believe there was any.

The cattle were very poor & ordinary, & the sheep the same; nor did I see any thing I liked except the mules, which were very fine ones, & in good condition. Mr. Gough had made a present to General Washington of a bull calf. The animal was shown to me when I first landed at Mount Vernon, & was the first bull I saw in the country. He was large, & very strong-featured; the largest part was his head, the next his legs. The General's steward was a Scotchman, & no judge of animals--a better judge of distilling whiskey.

I saw here a greater number of negroes than I ever saw at one time, either before or since.

The house is a very decent mansion: not large, & something like a gentleman's house in England, with gardens & plantations; & is very prettily situated on the banks of the river Potowmac, with extensive prospects.... The roads are very bad from Alexandria to Mount Vernon.

The General still continuing at Philadelphia, I could not have the pleasure of seeing him; therefore I returned to Alexandria.

I returned [to Mount Vernon some weeks later] ... to see General Washington. I dined with him; & he showed me several presents that had been sent him, viz. swords, china, & among the rest the key of the Bastille. I spent a very pleasant day in the house, as the weather was so severe that there were no farming objects to see, the ground being covered with snow.

Would General Washington have given me the twelve hundred acres I would not have accepted it, to have been confined to live in that country; & to convince the General of the cause of my determination, I was compelled to treat him with a great deal of frankness. The General, who had corresponded with Mr. Arthur Young & others on the subject of English farming & soils, & had been not a little flattered by different gentlemen from England, [pg 278] seemed at first to be not well pleased with my conversation; but I gave him some strong proofs of his mistakes, by making a comparison between the lands in America & those of England in two respects.

First, in the article of sheep. He supposed himself to have fine sheep, & a great quantity of them. At the time of my viewing his five farms, which consisted of about three thousand acres cultivated, he had one hundred sheep, & those in very poor condition. This was in the month of November. To show him his mistake in the value & quality of his land, I compared this with the farm my father occupied, which was less than six hundred acres. He clipped eleven hundred sheep, though some of his land was poor & at two shillings & sixpence per acre--the highest was at twenty shillings; the average weight of the wool was ten pounds per fleece, & the carcases weighed from eighty to one hundred twenty pounds each: while in the General's hundred sheep on three thousand acres, the wool would not weigh on an average more than three pounds & a half the fleece, & the carcases at forty-eight pounds each. Secondly, the proportion of the produce in grain was similar. The General's [crops were from two to three[11] bushels of wheat per acre; & my father's farm, although poor clay soil, gave from twenty to thirty bushels.

A misstatement, of course. During this conversation Colonel Lear, aide-de-camp to the General, was present. When the General left the room, the Colonel told me he had himself been in England, & had seen Arthur Young (who had been frequently named by the General in our conversation); & that Mr. Young having learnt that he was in the mercantile line, & was possessed of much land, had said he thought he was a great fool to be a merchant & yet have so much land; the Colonel replied, that if Mr. Young had the same land to cultivate, it would make a great fool of him. The Colonel did me the honour to say I was the only man he ever knew to treat General Washington with frankness.

The General's cattle at that time were all in poor condition: except his mules (bred from American mares), which were very fine, & the Spanish ass sent to him as a present by the king of Spain. I felt myself much vexed at an expression used at dinner by Mrs. Washington. When the General & the company at table were talking about the fine horses & cattle I had brought from England, Mrs. Washington said, "I am afraid, Mr. Parkinson, you have brought your fine horses & cattle to a bad market; I am of opinion that our horses & cattle are good enough for our land." I thought that if every old woman in the country knew this, my speculation would answer very ill: as I perfectly agreed with Mrs. Washington in sentiment; & wondered much, from the poverty of the land, to see the cattle good as they were.

The General wished me to stay all night; but having some other engagement, I declined his kind offer. He sent Colonel Lear out after I had parted with him, to ask me if I wanted any money; which I gladly accepted.