Williamsport, DC? How a Maryland Town Vied to be the Nation’s Capital

Constitutional Debate

May 31, 2022
by Derrick E. Lapp Also by this Author


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After seven years of fighting in the Revolutionary War, Otho Holland Williams returned home. It was the Spring of 1782. When he left Frederick, Maryland, in 1775 he was the first lieutenant in a company of riflemen; now he was back from a long campaign in the Carolinas and was receiving a commission as a brigadier general. Although there was no brigade for him to command, with the war winding down, Williams’s rise in rank in the Continental army now translated into a rise in status in the state of Maryland. Before the year was out, Williams would hold the lucrative post of Collector for the Port of Baltimore. He would also increase and improve his land holdings throughout the state, including a few parcels at a place known as Conococheague, where a creek of the same name empties into the Potomac River. In 1750, Williams’s father uprooted the young family and moved to Conococheague to set up a home and business. Thirty-six years later, Otho founded a town at that site, calling it “Williams’ Port.” And for a brief time, in the late summer and autumn of 1790, Williamsport, Maryland, was being considered as a possible site for the capital of the United States of America.

The tale of Williamsport’s improbable contention for the seat of national government begins at the end of the War for Independence and the ignominious flight of the Confederation Congress from Philadelphia, tail tucked behind its collective rear. In June 1783, as the Continental army melted away on permanent furlough after being handed “settlement certificates” (scraps of paper representing IOUs for their back pay), a group of Pennsylvania veterans mobbed the statehouse where both Congress and the Pennsylvania assembly met. Congress, alerted ahead of time about the march of the disaffected soldiers, asked the Pennsylvanians for militia protection. Neither the host city, nor the host state, would provide aid to Congress, so they fled to Princeton, New Jersey, and later to Annapolis, Maryland (where General Washington would resign his commission).[1]

This end-of-war incident was just one of many examples of how relatively powerless and beholden to the states Congress was under the Articles of Confederation, and one of the myriad reasons that served as catalysts for the Constitutional Convention (albeit a small one as compared to financing the national government, though curiously the two items would become infamously intertwined in a vital compromise). Therefore, when the architects of the Constitution put together their plan for a national, federal government, they included their vision for a national, federal capital to seat that government. Found among the powers enumerated to Congress in Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution is Clause 17, which authorizes creation of a “District (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of Government of the United States.” Congress would have complete legislative authority over this federal district, meaning no need to rely on a host state for support. We know this district today as the District of Columbia, the principal city of which is Washington, but when the first Congress convened in New York City in March 1789, the question of where to locate the federal capital was quite up in the air and the subject of much debate—and a little intrigue.

“I have reason to believe that it is in contemplation by the Pennsylvanians immediately after the President is Announced to make a motion to adjourn to Phila[delphia],” wrote William Smith, a representative from Maryland, to his son-in-law back home in Baltimore about the proceedings of the new Congress. It was April 1789 and the votes of the electoral college were being counted, making George Washington’s election as first President of the United States official. Since 1785 the Confederation Congress had been holding sessions in New York, so when the government under the new Constitution met in 1789, they too convened in New York City. But thoughts were already on a new location to establish a permanent capital. “I believe many members are dissatisfied with this place,” William Smith continued, “for the board is more expensive than in Philadelphia and Baltimore and not as good.”[2]

The son-in-law to whom William Smith wrote was Otho Holland Williams, the same man who had recently founded the town of Williamsport in western Maryland. The letters Smith wrote from New York to Williams over the next year and a half would chart the disjointed, fairly tumultuous path that the eventual site of the national capital (or “residence” as the contemporaries referred to it) would take. The situation was well summed up by Smith early on. Prior to the start of official debate he wrote, “a majority of Congress want to remove from New York, but nothing is likely to be done at once . . . members who want to ‘go hence’ cannot agree on a place to which to go.”[3]

Otho Williams may have been hopeful that the town he laid out on the upper Potomac would prove to be the place for the government to go. After all, as the new republic expanded further south and west, the balance of power in the United States was expected to shift with it as the territory beyond the Appalachian Mountains was organized into new states. Williams speculated as much to a friend, David Ross, who was serving as a member of the Confederation Congress shortly after the ratification of the Constitution. “If the proposed System of [Government] is ever carried to the extent of which it is capable,” he wrote, “Kaintucky—Muskingum, and States not yet emerged from the . . . western Wilds, must be admitted, and received, into the Union.” In Williams’ view, similar to that of others with southern and western proclivities, “to fix the permanent residence of the America Court at one corner of the Continent” was inconsistent with this expansion of the republic. Besides, from a practical, military standpoint, an inland capital was more secure from seaborne threats. “Attachment of Congress to seaport towns,” he argued, was “injudicious.” He was right, as we of course know, for just a generation later, on the evening of August 24, 1814, Washington, D.C., was sacked by a British army that had just routed American defenses at the Battle of Bladensburg during the War of 1812. Williams then proved himself further prophetic (although at the time he was engaging in what was more like wishful thinking) observing to Ross that “Ultimately, some spot on Potomac must be determined upon . . . where Virginia and Maryland may unite in a Cession of territory.”[4]

Conococheague, where Otho Williams grew up, was of course the “some spot” he had in mind. “There is no desirable circumstance in situation not to be found on the fruitful banks of that majestic stream,” he noted.[5] Originally a crossroads for Algonquin- and Iroquois-speaking peoples traveling for trade, for hunt, and for war, European habitation at Conococheague began as early as 1721 with a cabin sitting on the east bank of the creek, just above its mouth on the Potomac. It is thought to have been used by fur traders. Thomas Cresap, an adventurer, land speculator, and officer in the Maryland militia, was closely associated with the place, and was one of those early fur traders. He and some business partners from Virginia formed an enterprise called the Ohio Company. Their plan was to turn the Potomac River into a major trade route between the tidewater Chesapeake Bay and the vast region west of the Appalachians. The Ohio Company used Conococheague as a provisioning and storage site for these endeavors. The old cabin on the east bank was not the only improvement in the area for long. By the 1740s and 50s early settlers patented tracts with names like “Sweed’s Delight” and “Jack’s Bottom.” Charles Calvert, 5th Lord Baltimore and the Proprietor of Maryland, reserved a large portion of “Conococheague Manor” to himself, leasing to tenants. Joseph Williams, Otho’s father, leased a tract of land within the Conococheague Manor named “Limestone Hill.”[6]

Records are largely silent about Joseph Williams, but there are hints here and there about his life. He was “a tavernkeeper,”[7] and a map prepared by Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson in 1751 shows a “Williams Ferry” located along with Watkins Ferry in the vicinity of Conococheague.[8] Operating a tavern and a ferry would have been profitable, especially when these operations were situated at such a strategic site. The Great Wagon Road, which followed an old Iroquois hunting trail, funneled travelers and settlers from Philadelphia through Maryland into the Valley of Virginia and the western backcountry of North and South Carolina. It crossed the Potomac River at Conochocheague. The modern U.S. Route 11 and Interstate 81 now follow the general track of the old wagon road. Today, over twenty million vehicles pass over the U.S. Interstate Bridge at modern Williamsport, Maryland, roughly the same spot where the ferries once operated.

Detail from the 1751 Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson map showing Williams Ferry at the upper left and Alexandria, Virginia, at the lower center right. (Library of Congress)

The 133-acre Limestone Hill tract that Joseph Williams leased was technically sublet from a farmer and sometime government contractor named George Ross. Part of Ross’s property within Conococheague Manor also included a 300-acre tract called “Ezekiel’s Inheritance.” Over time, as the Williams and Ross families became aligned and intertwined, these two plats would evolve into the town which now sits at the old Conococheague settlement. It was a complicated evolution. Joseph Williams eventually purchased Limestone Hill and conveyed the tract back to George Ross for £300 in 1763. When Joseph died a year later, the youngest of his eight orphaned children moved into Ross’s home, known as Springfield Farm. It made perfect sense for the Williams children to move in with Ross—he was married to Joseph Williams’ eldest daughter, Mercy. George Ross died in 1772. His will named Otho Holland Williams as his heir, and Springfield Farm passed into the Williams family’s possession. Springfield Farm, with additional land purchased in Conococheague, served as the foundation for the town he would lay out in 1787 now called Williamsport.[9]

In the fifteen years between the death of George Ross and the establishment of Williamsport a war was fought, of course, between the British Empire and her colonies in North America, and Otho Williams fought in the War for Independence from the beginning. He was the first lieutenant in Captain Thomas Price’s company of riflemen, one of two such units fielded by Maryland in the summer of 1775. His service sent him north to Boston, and south, deep into the backcountry of South Carolina. In between these extremes, he was shot and imprisoned in New York. Conococheague is believed to be a corruption of the Lenni Lannape word “Guneukìtschik” meaning “indeed a long way!”[10] Not a few times, certainly, during his years in the American army must Otho Williams have felt he was indeed a long way from home. Late in the war he wrote as much to his brother Elie: “My disposition is wholly domestic; my feelings flow with excess of tenderness whenever I indulge the thoughts of home.”[11]

Home was in the rolling hills between Catoctin and South Mountains to the east, and the Allegheny highlands to the west. Here the Potomac River makes a wide, meandering loop and the Conocoheague Creek meets it amid the great arc. When he marched off in 1775 as Lieutenant Williams, this area was part of Frederick County, as was every part of Maryland west of the town of Frederick. When he returned as General Williams in 1782, his boyhood home was now part of Washington County, and he was arguably her most famous son. By 1785 he had acquired additional properties adjoining his original inheritance from George Ross, which were “contiguous to the mouth of Conococheague creek.” Several citizens of Washington County “encouraged and induced [Williams] to lay out part of [his] tracts into a town.”[12] They had good reason. Improvements in navigation on the Potomac River were making the site more advantageous for commerce. Conococheague had long been a transportation hub, as noted above, for travel along the Great Wagon Road. Now the Potomac Company, a joint venture chartered by leading men of both Virginia and Maryland in 1784-1785, picked up where the Ohio Company left off a generation earlier. It was developing a plan to build a series of “skirting canals” allowing river traffic to pass the several falls encountered between Conococheage and Georgetown, with the goal of enabling continuous navigation on the Potomac from as far up as its headwaters near Cumberland, Maryland, down to the tidewater.[13]

The Maryland Assembly approved the application submitted by Otho Williams for his property in Conococheague “to be erected into a town, and to be called and known by the name of Williams’s Port” in January 1786. Commissioners were appointed (Thomas Hart, Thomas Brooke, Moses Rawlings, Richard Pindell and Alexander Clagett—most of whom were Williams’s comrades from the war) to survey up to one hundred and fifty acres and “to lay out into lots, streets, lanes and alleys, (the main streets running east and west, or nearly so, not to be less than eighty feet wide, and the streets crossing the said main streets not to be less than sixty-six feet wide).”[14] The specific dimensions perhaps indicated Williams’s aspirations for the town. Did those aspirations rise as high as seating the federal capital?

“Fort Cumberland and the mouth of Canogocheague, Harrisburg [Pennsylvania], Wright’s Ferry [Pennsylvania] and Havre de Grace are spoken of by many,” Congressman William Smith wrote to Otho Williams. It was August 1789. The first session of the first Congress was well under way and debate on the “seat of government” was proving to be a significant topic in both houses. Almost from the outset, the Potomac and Susquehanna Rivers were front runners, as Smith noted: “the Western Country being taken into the account a spot between the Susquehanna and the Potomac will be more the interest of the U[nited] S[tates].”[15] It’s not clear how “the mouth of Conococheague” came under consideration to begin with, but it is important to note that Smith wasn’t the only connection Otho Williams had in Congress. Benjamin Contee, another member of the House of Representatives from Maryland, served in the Continental army with Williams, as did the brother of Representative George Gale. Williams also corresponded with both of Maryland’s senators, John Henry and Charles Carroll of Carrollton. His familiarity with the two senators was strong enough for William Jackson, a former Continental army major, to ask Williams to “use his influence” on Henry and Carroll for a job as secretary in the Senate.[16]

In late 1788 and early 1789, as the nation was transitioning into a republic governed under the new Constitution, Otho Williams was mounting a private campaign to secure his position as Collector for the port of Baltimore (which had been a state position but was now being federalized). He not only worked the Maryland delegation named above, but also leveraged connections like Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee to provide an introduction to Virginia Senator Richard Henry Lee.[17] He contacted Pennsylvania Senator Robert Morris as well, requesting Morris’s support in securing the Collector position.[18] Morris replied that while he never offered promises as to how he intended to vote on issues, “he had the greatest esteem for Williams’ conduct and abilities.”[19] To further press his case, Williams journeyed up to New York to lobby in person in May 1789, even securing a breakfast meeting with President Washington.[20] Whether the result of his lobbying or not, Otho Williams was appointed Collector for the Baltimore district. It is not improbable that during his discussions with members of Congress and the executive, the subject of the nation’s capital and the suitability of Williamsport, being on the Potomac at “the mouth of Conogocheague,” would also have come up.

The Annals of Congress don’t indicate who officially suggested Conococheague. The formal debate during the first session of Congress began in the House of Representatives with a motion by Thomas Scott on August 27, 1789, that “a permanent residence ought to be fixed for the General Government of the United States.”[21] Samuel Livermore noted that “many parts of the country appear extremely anxious to have Congress with them” as indicated by the petitions that had so far been received from “Trenton, Germantown, Carlisle, Lancaster, Yorktown, and Reading,” in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.[22]

Throughout the 1789 session, William Smith kept Otho Williams informed as favorability shifted from one location to another. On August 17, he wrote that somewhere on the Potomac River was “the most likely place for the permanent seat.” By August 23, a spot on either the Susquehanna River or Potomac River was likely, but “Baltimore, Annapolis and Georgetown” were being spoken of. Eight days later, August 31, Smith observed to Williams, “much intrigue going on about the seat of congress.” Of course, some of that intrigue he may have been stirring up himself. Just two days earlier Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania noted in his journal, “I met Mr. Smith, of Maryland. He had a terrible story, and from the most undoubted authority. A contract was entered into by the Virginians and Pennsylvanians to fix the permanent residence on the Potomac, right or wrong, and the temporary residence was to be in Philadelphia.”[23] Come September 4, Smith had “no doubt that a majority of the House will vote in favor of a site on the banks of the Susquehannah.” But as the end of the first session loomed in late September, Smith wrote that even those in Congress who favored a site on the Delaware River were “still hopeful.”[24]

The stalemate continued well into the second session of the first Congress. Despite the fact that the “Pennsylvanians wished to take up business left unfinished in September . . . federal seat will remain status quo until near end of session,” noted William Smith.[25] The topic of funding the Federal Government and its assumption of the debt incurred by individual states during the Revolutionary War took center stage in Congress. Everything seemingly became bound to it. In January 1790, Otho Williams wrote to his friend Phillip Thomas, “if Hamilton’s scheme of adopting the state debts is found eligible, Congress may adopt it; if they do so, the whole of the public paper will be of one denomination and of one value, which is the intention of the Sec[retar]y’s Scheme.”[26] Little did Otho know how this “scheme” would raise the prospects for Williamsport as the nation’s capital.

The story goes, according to Thomas Jefferson, that by June 1790 Alexander Hamilton “was in despair.” Despondent and unkempt, Hamilton was pacing in the street before the President’s door practically begging Jefferson for help. Debt assumption was being vigorously contested by “those who were called the creditor States.” The Congressional delegation from Virginia, a state which had paid its wartime debt, was leading the resistance. The subject was so heated there was a real “danger of the secession . . . and the separation of the states.”[27]

A self-professed “stranger to the whole subject” of assumption, Thomas Jefferson took pity upon his nemesis Hamilton. After all, the Secretary of State reasoned, “if its rejection endangered a dissolution of [the] Union at this incipient stage,” a compromise on debt assumption had to be reached. Therefore, Jefferson invited Hamilton to come dine with him “the next day.” He would also invite “another friend or two.” This way the parties could “conference together” as “reasonable men, consulting together coolly,” and come to an agreement.[28] Cue the music for a song about a room where something happened.

The famous dinner meeting at Jefferson’s residence with Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and “perhaps one or two others” is credited with settling the stalemates over both debt assumption and the permanent seat of the government. According to Jefferson, the compromise that was arranged the evening of June 20, 1790, fixed the federal capital on the banks of the Potomac River as the tradeoff to win Virginia’s support for Hamilton’s debt plan. Immediately after the official vote in July, William Smith wrote to Otho Williams, “you are to know that the permanent seat of the government of the U.S of America is fixed by Law, on the Banks of Potowmac, at the mouth of Conogocheague.” It wasn’t a done deal, however, as Smith further explained, “the President has the power of locating the Spot anywhere from that place to the Eastern Branch.”[29]

To evaluate potential sites for the capital, Washington and his secretary, William Jackson, left Mount Vernon for an “excursion” up the Potomac on October 15. It was hardly a state secret. Otho Williams wrote to his friend Phillip Thomas, “The great man, I hear, is out upon his tour up Potomac.” He enclosed a note for Thomas to present to Jackson as an introduction to meet the President. [30]

Georgetown, situated near the “East Branch” of the Potomac (now known as the Anacostia River), was the President’s first stop. As we all know, this would prove to be the eventual site of the nation’s capital. But even without the benefit of hindsight it was probably the strongest contender, sitting as it does across from Alexandria, Virginia, and just a few miles upriver from Mount Vernon. Much of the rest of the itinerary is speculation. Washington certainly stopped at the mouth of the Monocacy River, the second of the three major sites in contention for the “federal seat,” where he met with a property owner, Francis Deakins. Harpers Ferry and Shepherdstown, both on the Virginia side of the Potomac, were likely the next stops before arriving at Elizabethtown (present day Hagerstown, Maryland) on October 20. Here citizens rolled out the red carpet, for which Washington offered his “grateful and sincere acknowledgements.” The President was wined and dined, and apparently pressed by his hosts to reveal his preference as to where to locate the capital. Washington demurred, “assuring them that the same impartiality, which has heretofore directed, will continue to govern my conduct in the execution of public trusts.”[31]

The next day, Washington toured Williamsport, and stayed with the Williams family at Springfield Farm. Otho Williams was unable to attend, but his brother Elie was there to represent the family and serve as the town ambassador. Elie accompanied the President as they surveyed the grounds. It was not, however, Washington’s first time at the mouth of Conococheague. The Ohio Company, of which Washington and his brothers Lawrence and Augustine were members, maintained a store house at Conococheague in the early 1750s. And after young militia Maj. George Washington accidentally touched off the French and Indian War, Conochocheague served as a supply caché for the British army and garrison point for Marylanders on the frontier to fall back as raids by French-allied Indians became more frequent. As they walked the grounds, memories flooded back to Washington. According to one tale, “He pointed out to his host [Eli Williams], as they stood at the fountain on Springfield farm, an old hut, which he said was the only improvement to be seen on the face of the country thirty years before. This hut had been the dwelling of the noted Col. Cresap.” [32] Williams family tradition also holds that during his visit, the President spilled coffee on a tablecloth; one descendant recalled, “this tablecloth, never washed, from time to time was taken out of its obscurity and proudly exhibited to family and to friends”[33]

Washington left Williamsport the next day. Elie felt the visit was positive and suggested as much to Otho. “My brother,” Otho wrote to the President a few days later, “informs me that, when he had the honor to converse with you at Williams port, you were pleased to intimate to him the propriety of propositions being made for grants of Lands to aid the execution of the law of Congress respecting the permanent residence.” He offered to provide “platts” both of his private landholdings and of the town. He also espoused the virtues of the Williamsport in a last minute sales pitch:

The plan of the town of Williams-port being already carried partly into execution, many of the lotts being conveyed, and built upon, and others contracted for, I conceive that it would be no impediment, to the erecting a large City if the rights of purchasers, and the rents payable to the proprietor, and the reversions of titles, and interest, therein, Should be reserved. The town, although small, is upon a large Scale, the streets, and alleys, being wider than common and it is so disposed that it may be extended by the same lines, over the most suitable grounds in the vicinity to a great distance.

Williams made one condition only to his proposed grant, requesting that a single acre where family members had been interred be set aside out of “Reverence for the dust of my Parents; and affection for very dear friends, recently lost.”[34]

If Washington answered Williams’ letter, it is not found within the collections of either man. By January 2, 1791, the President and his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, were evaluating surveyors notes on fixing the lines for the federal district. The mention of Alexandria and Hunting Creek in those notes indicates that the Georgetown location was the final decision. On January 24, Washington made it official. “The President has this day announced to both houses of Congress, the district for the Federal Town,” William Smith informed Otho Williams. “This District will include Geo. Town.”[35]

While Otho must certainly have been disappointed, he accepted the decision with grace. His father-in-law commended him for being as “good a Philosopher, [and] a Christian, as to have learned to be content with whatever may happen.” Georgetown seemed always to have been the front runner. “I had long contemplated the determination of the Federal Seat, as it is announced,” wrote Smith, but he stopped short of accusing the President of overt bias, insisting that he did not “believe interest had the smallest influence on the Chief magistrate in this decision.” Still, in his own bit of philosophizing, Smith opined to his son-in-law, “I have lived long enough to Discover that almost all men form their opinions by their interest without always knowing the governing principle of their motives or actions.”

Did Williamsport ever have a real chance? From the beginning of the debate, several in Congress expressed distain for a location on the upper Potomac. Congressman Aedanus Burke of South Carolina “preferred Baltimore to Conococheague. He thought a populous city better than building a palace in the woods.”[36] Congressman Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts “ridiculed the idea of fixing the Government at Conococheague. He did not think there was any serious intention of ever going to this Indian place. He considered the whole business to be a mere manoeuvre.”[37] As early as 1783, James Madison was espousing his favor for the Potomac River as a site for the “permanent seat” of government.[38] And Thomas Jefferson would write openly to Madison about their “effort to remove [Congress] to Georgetown” in 1784.[39] Washington, for his part, was deeply involved in a plan during the 1780s to develop the area of Alexandria, Virginia, and Georgetown, Maryland, as a commercial center on par with Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. His work with the Potomac Company encouraged cooperation between the states of Virginia and Maryland, which helped set the table for the Constitutional Convention in 1787. In a letter to Robert Morris in 1785, Washington extolled the virtues of the area: “Alexandria & Georgetown are the highest shipping Ports of this river [the Potomac, the navigation of which] is equal, if not superior to any in the Union.” Washington’s own home, Mount Vernon, was right there, less than ten miles from Alexandria. To some, the whole process felt rigged. “We did not need this demonstration to prove that the whole business was prearranged,” fumed Senator William Maclay in his journal, “nor can any person be now at a loss to discover that all three subjects—residence, assumption, and the funds equivalent to six per cent—were all bargained and contracted for on the principle of mutual accommodation for private interest.”[40] Maclay fixed blame squarely on “The President of the United States,” charging, “The game was played by him and his adherents of Virginia and Maryland, between New York and Philadelphia, to give one of those places the temporary residence, but the permanent residence on the Potomac.”[41]

As for the small town of Williamsport, Maryland, the improvements in navigation on the Potomac River led to a boom in the 1790s. Large quantities of wheat and flour (milled in or around Williamsport) were being boated down river to Georgetown.[42] Prosperity continued with the coming of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in 1835, to which the town’s fortunes would be fixed over the decades. Of their brief brush with national prominence, the citizens of Williamsport would remember with pride. Just a few years after the President’s visit, a man named George Bishop opened “a house of entertainment” on main street at “the Sign of General Washington.” On the Fourth of July, 1799, “a respectable collection of citizens” celebrated Independence Day, and a correspondent for the Hagerstown Herald noted how “the countenance of the company bespoke a lively sense of the interesting event under which our country assumed a national position.”[43] Shortly before his death, Otho Williams reflected to a friend with pride how Williamsport was growing. With his health deteriorating from wounds sustained during the war, and fully aware of his coming demise, Williams noted with melancholy, “God only knows [in] how short a time I must leave that [town] . . . to the care of my surviving friends.”[44]


[1]James Kirby Martin and Mark Edward Lender, A Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763-1789, 2nd ed. (Wheeling, VA: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 2006), 196.

[2]William Smith to Otho Holland Williams, April 6, 1789, Otho Holland Williams Papers, Maryland Center for History and Culture, MS.908. Microfilm copies in author’s possession.

[3]Smith to Williams, August 17, 1789, Williams Papers.

[4]Williams to David Ross, September 1, 1788, Williams Papers.


[6]Mary Vernon Mish, “Springfield Farm of Conococheague,” Maryland Historical Magazine, XLII (December, 1952), 315-316. Edward Smith, Historic Resource Study: Williamsport, Maryland: Historical Data, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, Md – D.C. – W.Va. (Denver: Denver Service Center, National Capital Team, National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior, 1979), 1-2.

[7]Edward C. Papenfuse, et. al., A Biographical Dictionary of the Maryland Legislature 1635-1789 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979),792.

[8]A Map of the most Inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole Province of Maryland with part of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and North Carolina, Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson, 1751.

[9]Mish, “Springfield Farm of Conococheague,” 317.

[10]William C. Reichel, Names which the Lenni Lennape of Delaware Indians Gave to Rivers, Streams and Localities, within the States of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia, with Their Significations, (Bethlehem, PA: H.T. Clauder, Printer, 1872), 25.

[11]Williams to Elie Williams, June 12, 1781, Williams Papers.

[12]Laws of Maryland, 1785-1791, printed by Frederick Green, Archives of Maryland On-line, 204:153, msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc2900/sc2908/000001/000204/html/am204–153.html.

[13]Smith, Historic Resource Study: Williamsport, Maryland, 10-11.

[14]Laws of Maryland, Volume 204:153.

[15]Smith to Williams, August 23, 1789, Williams Papers.

[16]William Jackson to Williams, January 20, 1789, Williams Papers.

[17]Williams to Henry Lee, January 3, 1789, Williams Papers.

[18]Williams to Robert Morris, January 3, 1789, Williams Papers.

[19]Morris to Williams, March 1, 1789, Williams Papers.

[20]Williams to Phillip Thomas, June 7, 1789, Williams Papers.

[21]The Debates and Proceedings of the Congress of the United States (Annals of Congress), 1:816, memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lwaclink.html.

[22]Ibid., 819.

[23]William Maclay, Edmund S Maclay, eds.,Journal of William Maclay: United States Senator from Pennsylvania, 1789-1791 (New York: D. Appleton, 1890), 142.

[24]Smith to Williams, September 21, 1789,Williams Papers.

[25]Smith to Williams, January 24, 1789, Williams Papers.

[26]Williams to Thomas, January 26, 1790, Williams Papers.

[27]Thomas Jefferson, The Complete Anas of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Franklin B. Sawvel (New York: The Round Table Press, 1903), 33.


[29]Smith to Williams, July 15, 1790, Williams Papers.

[30]Williams to Thomas, October 20, 1790, Williams Papers.

[31]George Washington to Elizabethtown, MD, Citizens, October 20, 1790, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-06-02-0269.

[32]J. T. Scharf, History of Western Maryland(Philadelphia, 1882), 2:1223.

[33]Mish, “Springfield Farm of Conococheague,” 329.

[34]Williams to Washington, November 1, 1790, Williams Papers.

[35]Washington to Thomas Jefferson, January 2, 1791, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-07-02-0090-0002; Smith to Williams, January 24, 1791, Williams Papers.

[36]Annals of Congress, 2:1719.

[37]Ibid., 1724.

[38]James Madison to Edmund Randolph, October 13, 1783, founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/01-07-02-0197.

[39]Jefferson to Madison, February 20, 1784.

[40]Maclay, Journal of William Maclay, 328.

[41]Ibid., 329.

[42]Scharf, History of Western Maryland, 2:1223.


[44]Williams to Thomas, August 11, 1793, Williams Papers.


  • Wow! A fun article to read.

    Foggy Bottom’s choice was inadvertent good luck, even if it was a pestilent swamp: Had Williamsport been selected, or any site near it, the US might have avoided the invasion of Washington by the British in 1814 – although not by the MAGAs in 2021.

    OTOH, it would have put the Nation’s Capitol right in the path of the Army of Northern Virginia in 1862 and 1863 (and Early’s feint in 1864) when Lee tried to invade. But a 10×10 mile square city with the ring of forts and mountain ranges would have stopped the Shenandoah route invasions. And OTOH again, perhaps opened up Baltimore as a target.

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