Actual work on the project began in the summer of 1785, with a short canal, with locks, around the Great Falls, near the present site of the District of Columbia. Work was slow, however, and while local navigation was improved, the grander vision of the Company was not realized, and in 1828 it was subsumed by the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company. The documents in the present archive date from the very beginning of the venture and provide a wealth of information, including the names of the overseers and laborers, their rates of pay, and the wages they actually received. The careful bookeeping of the Potomac Company reflects Washington's resolution, as articulated in his 8 August 1875 letter to James Rumsey, the principal supervisor of work on the project, that as president of the Company he was to receive as much information as possible regarding expenditures "least any Disappointment should happen in the ready Payment of the Company's Debts, which by all means is to be avoided."
The documents are numbered, running non-consecutively from 29 to 208, with three unnumbered. The receipts and other documents span a wide range of activities and provide an extraordinarily detailed view of the operations of this early attempt to improve the infrastructure of the United States. The documents fall into two main categories: 14 Lists of the workmen who were employed at various locations along the proposed canal, including Seneca Falls, Shanandoah Falls, the Great Falls, including in some instances a record of inches bored by each worker; and 42 payrolls, pay slips, and receipts to individuals for various goods and services rendered, including rum, whiskey, beef, mutton, flour, canoe timber, shoes and stockings, felt hats, carpentry tools, bar iron, gunpowder, hauling coal and wood, “apprehending & Securing in Gaol, one of the Company’s Servants,” and, of course, “sundries.”
A complete inventory of the documents is available on sotheby's.com, as well as from the New York Book and Manuscript Department.
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