Our Brush With Fame

Although it really doesn’t matter to me that I haven’t found any famous ancestors, I confess that it was kind of excited to learn that George Washington mentioned one of my ancestors in his diary. Of course, he didn’t write about him in a flattering context, but he mentioned him just the same.

Matthew Hills is one of my fifth great-grandfathers on the Donaldson side of the family. Admittedly, I haven’t done a great deal of research on Matthew. He was the father of Rebecca Hillis, who married Ebenezer Donaldson. From the little research I have done to date, Matthew was born around 1742, possibly in Washington County, Pennsylvania. It appears that Matthew lived most, if not all, of his life in Washington County.

In September 1784, George Washington journeyed from his Virigina estate, Mount Vernon, to Washington County to dissolve an ill-advised partnership, consider the potential for water transportation between the Ohio River and the Potomac River, and visit some of his unoccupied bounty land.

In 1784, Matthew lived in a community of Seceders, a group of Scots-Irish Presbyterians in Washington County. When the Seceders arrived in this area over a decade earlier, they cleared the heavy forest and built their homes. Unfortunately for Matthew and many other members of this community, they had settled on the bounty land George Washington was setting out to visit.

To make a long story short, General Washington, despite having thousands and thousands of acres of bounty land, didn’t take kindly to having squatters on what he claimed was his land. For their part, the Seceders didn’t take kindly to General Washington. They disputed his ownership of the land.

Washington wanted to inspect the disputed land. On Sunday September 19, 1784, he recorded in his diary, “Being Sunday, and the People living on my Land, apparently very religious, it was thought best to postpone going among them till tomorrow.” Well, I must say that my admiration for the Father of Our Country evaporated the minute I read that! Incidentally, George wrote “apparently” in italics – I didn’t add them.

On September 20, George Washington was able to inspect the land, recording a description of the land and the improvements the squatters made. Regarding my ancestor’s land, Washington wrote, “Matthew Hillast [Hillis]. Has within my line—abt. 7 Acres of Meadow. 3 besides, Arable—also a small double Barn.”

Despite contesting Washington’s ownership of the land, the settlers tried to negotiate a purchase of the land, but they couldn’t reach an agreement. The squatters refused to budge and Washington sued the squatters to force them to leave his land. Matthew Hillis was not among the squatters that Washington sued. The case went to trial two years later and the verdict was in Washington’s favor.

So, there it is – my family’s brush with fame.

To read more about this little-known incident in American history, check out The Papers of George Washington at http://gwpapers.virginia.edu and “George Washington's Western Adventure” by Joel Achenbach at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A10634-2004Jun2_2.html.


  1. How very interesting!! How fun to have learned that about your family. I enjoyed your "brush with fame"! Have a wonderful weekend!

  2. Flattering or unflattering...it is still a fun and exciting to find these tidbits in our history.
    Theresa (Tangled Trees)


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