To the 13 families living in the Western Pennsylvania village of Venice, Gen. George Washington was an arrogant, elite Virginian who dared to claim ownership of the land where they had built log cabins, grown crops and conducted their lives for nearly 15 years.
To them, he was “the first true 1-percenter,” local historian Clayton Kilgore said, recalling Occupy protesters’ description of wealthy Americans.
Washington represented everything they despised, according to Kilgore.
“These were Scotsmen who identified with the Covenanters, those Gaelic warriors who opposed King Charles’ tax policies,” he said. “They held anything associated with government in utter contempt.” Based on the standards of that time, when great land ownership meant great wealth, Washington indeed was very rich — quite possibly the wealthiest man in the fledgling nation.
He owned nearly 60,000 acres, spread out between Western Pennsylvania and present-day West Virginia. This particular tract contained approximately 3,000 acres given to him by the British for his French and Indian War service.
Of all things dear to him, Washington loved his youthful craft as a surveyor and its role in helping him to evolve into a gentleman landowner.
You can imagine his surprise, in the late summer of 1784, when he rode out to survey his property and found squatters permanently settled on the land.
Washington feared the domino effect they would have, explained Kilgore, who runs the David Bradford House in nearby Washington, Pa.
“He envisioned this land as critical to the new nation, with investors building roads and canals, and commerce flourishing with trade, crops and development,” Kilgore said.
Instead, he met a band of hardheaded Scots-Irish Presbyterians, led by David Reed, who had no intention of leaving his land. They had built a church, homes and lives here, and looked down their noses at this elite truant-landlord.
“He really didn’t care much for the ‘rabble,’” Kilgore said. “He thought they had no regard for his grueling time spent commanding the Revolutionary War, which kept him away from his lands, and he was right — they thought very little of him.”
What ensued was a verbal showdown between Washington and the squatters in the gristmill that once stood in the village. Neither party would back down.
Washington offered them choices: Pay back rent, lease the property for 999 years, or leave.
They said “no” to all three options.
So much for negotiating with those who have no claim to your property in the first place.
The situation back then really does remind one of today’s Occupy movement, Kilgore agreed. Washington was about as popular among those squatters as a modern-day Wall Street banker is among today’s Occupy crowd, he said.
Eventually, the two sides met again; the squatters agreed — without conceding Washington’s ownership — to buy the land from him. Yet the price Washington demanded was too steep for them; they refused to pay — and colorfully rejected his claim of ownership.
No wonder that, years later, Washington sent 13,000 troops to quell fewer than 500 angry farmers, when this same breed of Scotsmen rebelled over a federal excise tax levied on whiskey.
Washington, by then president, “wanted to make sure they got the message,” said Kilgore, official historian at the home built in 1762 by whiskey rebel Bradford.
Washington’s land dispute eventually went before Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court. The case dragged on for two years before he finally won.
He generously offered to allow the 13 squatter families to remain on their plantations without paying back rent, but insisted they pay going forward.
“They would have none of it” and moved on, Kilgore said.
Along state Route 980, all that is left of this confrontation is a historical marker badly in need of repair.
On that spot, an enterprising Virginia gentleman-general foresaw all the potential of this country on its Western frontier, not far from the rivers that converge into the mighty Ohio, and fought to keep what rightfully was his.
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