George Washington never got to visit it, but he did own land in Kentucky. Like many land deals at the time, though, it involved double dealing and even horse trading. Jim Holmberg, curator of collections at the Filson Historical Soceity in Louisville, said Washington bought 5,000 acres in what is now Grayson County.
Washington was among the landowners intrigued by the works of John Filson, a surveyor and land speculator, who came to Kentucky in 1783 and within a year published a book and map of Kentucky. “These really were promotional tracts,” Holmberg said. “They were publications that were touting Kentucky as this land of opportunity.”
Filson himself had invested in Kentucky land, and realized his land would be more valuable if more people settled the state. His book became a best seller in Europe, and was published in German and French. Filson sent a copy to Washington, a hero of the American Revolution and a heavy investor in land.
“So if he can get Washington’s endorsement of the book, you know, this is only going to help sell copies and help bring people to Kentucky,” Holmberg said.
His book started a land rush. “That’s why Kentucky’s early land history is what it is, one of confusion, opportunity, kind of tragedy and bankruptcy, and things like that. Because there’s this true land rush of people coming in to Kentucky, and buying up the land, or thinking they’d bought up the land, because of faulty title and things like that.”
Unscrupulous landowners would sell the same parcels of land multiple times. Among those who might have done so was “Light Horse Harry” Lee, the father of Civil War General Robert E. Lee. Lee sold Washington the 5,000 acres in 1788 in exchange for one of Washington’s prized Arabian stallions. However, Lee had already sold the same land to someone else.
Washington thought his land was valued at $2 an acre, but it ended up being worth less than half that.
“Never having seen the land, Washington took it on good faith,” Holmberg said. Washington relied on what turned out to be erroneous reports that the Rough Creek area contained deposits of iron ore.
Washington’s descendants sold the land at a loss. Not only were there questions about the title to the land, but the boundaries were disputed as well, according to retired farmer Leon Joiner, who currently owns a portion of Washington’s original acreage.
Joiner said he has tried to improve and preserve the land. “It was high risk land to crop down in the bottoms until we got some flood control projects installed,” he said. Kentucky Historical Marker 212, located on Kentucky Highway 54 west of Yeaman Church of Christ, commemorates Washington’s land deal.
Ultimately, Filson’s book helped drive a dramatic rise in population in Kentucky. According to the U.S. Census, Kentucky’s population grew more than five fold in the period of 1790 to 1810, from 73,677 to 406,511.
“People literally were pouring into the state, and in their minds, the credit goes to Filson, thinking that this was a land of great opportunity and, as Kentucky has been called, the Eden of the West,” Holmberg said.
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2210, which originally aired on February 18, 2017. Watch the full episode.