Role in Ravensworth: owner Parcel 1.1.2

David Stuart was born in Scotland where he studied medicine before emigrating to Virginia and setting up a medical practice in Alexandria. He joined George Washington’s extended family in 1783 when he married Eleanor Calvert Custis (1757/1758-1811), widowed daughter-in-law of Martha Washington.1 They raised two of four children from Eleanor’s marriage to Martha Washington’s son John Parke Custis: Eliza Parke and Martha Parke Custis. The Washingtons adopted the two younger children: Eleanor Parke and George Washington Parke Custis (1781-1857).2

David and Eleanor had 16 children together, including:3

  • Ann Calvert Stuart
  • Sarah Stuart (born 1786), married Obed Waite (1766-1845), lawyer and mayor of Winchester, VA from 1824 to 18314
  • Ariana Calvert Stuart (born 1789)
  • William Sholto Stuart (1792-1822), unmarried
  • Eleanor Custis Stuart (born 1796), unmarried
  • Charles Calvert Stuart (1794–1846), married Cornelia Lee Tuberville
  • Rosalie Eugenia Stuart (1801–1886), married William Greenleaf Webster
L'Enfant's plan of the City of Washington, March 1792

L’Enfant’s Plan of the City of Washington, March 17925


Visualizing early Washington DC
presents a digital visualization of the early city by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Imaging Research Center (IRC)

Creating the Capital

David Stuart is probably best known for his four years (1791-1794) as a Commissioner of the District of Columbia. He was one of the original three, and the sole commissioner from Virginia, appointed by President George Washington to oversee the creation of the new U.S. Capital. They supervised the survey and acquisition of land, sale of lots and construction of public buildings, including the work of Pierre Charles L’Enfant in implementing his design for layout and construction of the city. Early on, the commissioners chose “Washington” for the city’s name. During Stuart’s tenure, difficulties with L’Enfant led to his dismissal by President Washington in 1792.6

State and Local Positions

Stuart for several years represented Fairfax County in the Virginia House of Delegates, along with George Mason. He was a member from 1786 to 1789 and perhaps even earlier, and represented the county in the Virginia convention of 1788 that ratified the U.S. Constitution – Stuart voted to ratify. He was an elector in the 1789 presidential election that chose George Washington the first President of the United States. 7

In local offices, he served as a justice of the Fairfax County Court in 1784 and 1808. In May 1798 he was appointed Commissioner with Colonel William Payne, Charles Little, James Wren, and Charles Minor to select the site for and manage building a new courthouse.8

Advisor to George Washington

George Washington’s correspondence reveals that enlisting Stuart in guiding creation of the new capital city was not the first time Washington had relied on him in important matters. Three examples:

  1. During the public debate between the Federalists, who favored ratification of the proposed United States Constitution, and the opposing Anti-federalists, Washington called on Stuart. Sending him copies of anonymous Federalist essays that were being published in New York – part of what became known as The Federalist Papers – Washington asked Stuart to have them also published in Richmond, Virginia.

    He swore Stuart to secrecy: “Altho’ I am acquainted with some of the writers…I am not at liberty to disclose their names, nor would I have it known that they are sent by me to you for promulgation.” Stuart passed the essays to Augustine Davis, who printed them in the Virginia Independent Chronicle in December 1787.9

  2. In July 1789, three months after assuming the presidency, Washington wrote Stuart, in part:

    …your communications without any reserve will be exceedingly grateful and pleasing to me. While the eyes of America, and perhaps of the world, are turned to this government, and many are watching the movements of all those, who are concerned in its administration, I should like to be informed, through so good a medium, of the public opinion of both men and measures, and of none more than myself; not so much of what may be thought commendable parts, if any, of my conduct, as of those which are conceived to be of a different complexion.10

  3. An exchange of letters in June 1790 mixed family business with a report on public opinion like the president had encouraged from Stuart.
    1. On June 2nd, Stuart first reports on a legal case with a Mr. Alexander – probably the long standing dispute over terms for land that John Parke Custis had purchased before his death. The letter then reports on a “Catalogue of Public discontents” in Virginia regarding: a percieved effort in Congress to constrain slavery; whether the new federal government should assume state war debt from the Revolution; closed-door sessions of the U.S. Senate; “The slowness with which the business is carried on…Congress it is said, sit only four hours a day, and like School boys observe every Saturday as a Holyday.”11
    2. Responding on June 15, Washington begins: “Your description of the public Mind, in Virginia, gives me pain. It seems to be more irritable, sour and discontented than (from the information received) it is in any other State in the Union, except Massachusetts; which, from the same causes, but on quite different principles, is tempered like it.” He then responds to each of the complaints, first defending Congress’ work schedule and slow pace: “The fact is, by the established rules of the House of Representatives, no Committee can sit whilst the House is sitting; and this is, and has been for a considerable time, from ten o’clock in the forenoon until three, often later, in the afternoon; before and after which the business is going on in Committees.” Washington’s thorough arguments in countering this complaint and objections to debt assumption perhaps were directed to more than just David Stuart, as though he expected that Stuart would pass the arguments on. He closes with a complaint of his own, explaining steps taken to control his schedule and protect his time from: “Gentlemen, consulting their own convenience rather than mine, were calling from the time I rose from breakfast, often before, until I sat down to dinner.”12

Ossian Hall Plantation

David Stuart bought Parcel 1.1.2, which he named Ossian Hall, from Nicholas Fitzhugh in 1804. That same year, his stepson George Washington Park Custis married Mary Lee Fitzhugh, daughter of William Fitzhugh (of Chatham) of closeby Ravensworth. The short walking distance between the Ossian Hall and Ravensworth manor houses likely facilitated the already close relationship between these members of the Fitzhugh and Washington families. (The Stuart family moved to Ossian Hall from the 1250-acre Hope Park plantation, which Stuart bought in 1785 from Edward Payne.)

On David Stuart’s death in 1814, Parcel 1.1.2 passed to his son William Sholto Stuart, and on William’s death in 1822, to his sisters Sarah, Arianna, Eleanor and Rosalie. They sold the property in 1833.


 

  1. National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Volumes 7-9 (National Genealogical Society, 1922), 47 (Google ebook).
  2. William Spohn Baker, Washington After The Revolution: MDCCLXXXIV-MDCCXCIX (J.B. Lippincott Co., 1898), 23 (Google ebook).
  3. Robert Winder Johnson. The Ancestry of Rosalie Morris Johnson: Daughter of George Calvert Morris and Elizabeth Kuhn, His Wife (Printed for private circulation only by Ferris & Leach, 1905, 28 (Google ebook); “David Stuart (Virginia Politician).” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, October 26, 2014. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=David_Stuart_(Virginia_politician)&oldid=607846754. In cases of conflict between these two sources, Johnson is followed. Some information about dates is from personal research, primarily in land deeds.
  4. Greene, Katherine Glass. Winchester, Virginia and Its Beginnings, 1743-1814. Heritage Books, 2009, 126. They married about 1830, a second marriage for him.
  5. Plan of the City of Washington, March 1792 by Andrew Ellicott, revised from Pierre (Peter) Charles L’Enfant; Thackara & Vallance sc., Philadelphia 1792 (Library of Congress) From Wikimedia Commons, Public domain
  6. “Commissioners for the District of Columbia,” accessed November 3, 2014, http://mallhistory.org/items/show/308; “Pierre Charles L’Enfant,” accessed November 5, 2014, http://mallhistory.org/items/show/82.
  7. “David Stuart (Virginia Politician).” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, October 26, 2014. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=David_Stuart_(Virginia_politician)&oldid=607846754. For a record of Stuart’s years in the House of Delegates, see Virginia General Assembly House of Delegates, Journal VA House of Delegates 1786 – 1790, 1828 (Google ebook).
  8. “The Fairfax County Courthouse by Ross De Witt Netherton and Ruby Waldeck – Free Ebook,” 12 and 110-111, accessed July 26, 2013, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/28750.
  9. Leibiger, Stuart. Founding Friendship: George Washington, James Madison, and the Creation of the American Republic. University of Virginia Press, 2001, 118.
  10. Washington, George, and Jared Sparks. The Writings of George Washington: Pt. IV. Letters Official and Private, from the Beginning of His Presidency to the End of His Life: (v. 10) May, 1789-November, 1794. (v. 11) November, 1794-December, 1799, 1839, 17 (Google ebook).
  11. “Founders Online: To George Washington from David Stuart, 2 June 1790.” Accessed November 4, 2014. http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-05-02-0288.
  12. “Letter to David Stuart | Teaching American History.” Accessed November 4, 2014. http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/letter-to-david-stuart-3/.