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Title: Description of the Potowmack [Potomac?] River [U.S.]
CollectionIrish Emigration Database
Sender Gendermale
Sender Occupationunknown
Sender Religionunknown
OriginVirginia, USA
DestinationDublin, Ireland
Recipient Genderunknown
SourceThe Belfast Mercury, no.84, Vol.II, March 20, 1785, p.4, c.3-4.
ArchiveThe Linenhall Library, N. Ireland.
Doc. No.9406032
Partial Date
Doc. TypeEMG
LogDocument added by LT, 13:05:1994.
Word Count1335
TranscriptA description of the Potowmack [Potomac?] River in North America, extracted
from a letter from a gentleman who lately left Ireland and
purchased in Virginia, to his friend in Dublin.

"The river Potowmack [Potomac?], in the boundary between Virigina and
Maryland from its mouth to its source, in which last-mentioned
state the river is included, as far as high-water mark on the
virginia shore, consequently all the islands therein are in
the state of Maryland.
The Potowmack [Potomac?] is certainly the most navigable, noble,
excellent, and beautiful river known in America; indeed
it can be excelled by no other in the universe; for after
seeing it, and the grand majestic perspectives thereon,
all others are totally eclipsed. - It is upwards of three
hundred miles in extent, in direct lines, and including its
multitude of bendings (for which it is particularly distinguished)
it cannot be less than five hundred miles, of which about
two hundred and twenty are navigable for the largest ships,
which with the greatest safety and ease of navigation
(for there is good anchorage in every part of it) go up
to Alexandria as well as George Town, and even to the
very foot of the Great Falls; but large ships generally
stop at Alexandria; from its being a very rising and
encreasing place in trade, as well as its vast convenience
of wharfs, which extend quite to the deep channel of the
river, and the excellent warehouses built thereon.
The mouth or entrance into the Great River Potowmack [Potomac?] is
from the Bay of Chefapeak, upwards of a hundred miles
within the Capes of Virginia, where it is almost twenty
miles wide: - The Lands at each side, for a few miles from its mouth,
are low and flat. -The navigation of the Potowmack [Potomac?] is so plain
and easy, the tides so gentle, and the anchorage so very
safe, that ships of any berth may go up to Alexandria and
even to the foot of the Falls, without the direction or aid
of a pilot.
There are several fine and beautiful rivers and creeks
which empty themselves into the Potowmack [Potomac?] as you sail up.
- The most conspicuous of these rivers and creeks are on
the Maryland side: the St.Mary and St.Innigoes Rivers (the
banks of which are chiefly inhabited by Roman Catholic
gentlemen, descendants of the first settlers of the Provinence);
the river Wycomico (which is as large as the Shannon;)
the River Portobaeco; Piseatawy; the Eastern Branch; Swan
and Broad Creeks, etc., etc. And on the Virginian side are
the rivers Tocomico; Machodock; Chotank; Quantico, Occoquan;
Powick and Hunting Creeks, etc., etc. - The soil on each side
of the river, even from its mouth, is fertile, well cultivated,
and abundantly productive of all necessaries of life; yet the
higher you go up the river, the more fertile and luxuriant is
the soil, and the more contracted the river becomes in breadth,
the greater are its beauties on the banks. The Potowmack [Potomac?] abounds
with myriads of fish and many of such species as are unknown in
Europe; and including the rivers and branches which fall into
it, it contains a most astonishing quantity of water. From its
very source in the western mountains, two or three hundred miles
above its falls (which obstruct all vessels from sea, they form
and make a good [batteau?] navigation above) it passes through a
country as rich and fertile, and contains on and adjoining its
waters, as large a quantity of fine and fertile land as any river
in the universe.
The trees in and near this river are most uncommonly large,
luxuriant in foliage, and of such species as are unknown in
Europe; for besides the oak (which is reckoned the best in all
North America for ship-building and staves) the pine, and the
cypress; there is the black walnut, the popular or tulip (which
grows here to much larger sizes than any oaks in Europe), the
wild or bird cherry, the hickory, the arcassia (called here the
locust), the sycamore or plane, the dogwood, the sassafras, etc.,
etc. In respect to pleantiful [plentiful?] productions of the earth no
country can exceed this; and their fruits are so various and
abundant, that it would take pages to describe them; the grape,
the finest flavoured melons, and all the fruits of Great Britain
are spontaneous here; and peaches of the most equisite flavour
grow in standards and in orchards of much larger extent than I
have ever seen apple orchards in England or Ireland.
It is a custom with the Captains of ships as they go up and
down the river to visit or call in at the Gentlemen's houses; in
many of which I attended [with] the Captain, and was most
sumptuously and plentifully entertained with the best plain
meats, fish and fowl, and the best liquors; and had at leaving
them various kinds of poultry, stock and other refreshments forced
upon us, for our own use and supplies on our voyage up the river.
Here I may say, the face of plenty is to be seen in a greater
degree than I ever before imagined, - poverty is an entire
stranger in this quarter of the country, and the gentry (of
which there are great numbers and some very opulent) as well
as the planters, and the middling people in life are the most
hospitable people that can be met with.
On account of the adverse winds, and the tides being but very
mild and gentle, we were upwards of ten days getting from the
mouth of the river up to George Town, which is a very flourishing
town on the Maryland side, ten or twelve miles above Alexandria,
and near the Great Falls. The river here is not more than three
quarters of a mile wide, although it is near two miles wide at
Alexandria, but its general width is from two to six miles.
There are a number of towns upon the River Potowmack [Potomac?], and
the branches or waters which fall into it, but there are none
of any consideration except Alexandria and George Town. Alexandria
is the principal one, and, indeed, may be reckoned the most
beautiful and conveniently situated, as well as the most rising
and flourishing town south of Philadelphia: Its increase since
the conclusion of the war has been remarkably great, so as even
to astonish the inhabitants of it: This circumstance is owing to
its situation and convenience for shipping to the fertile and
extensive country back of it, to its natural exports, and to its
vicinity to many lesser towns to which Alexandria seems to be
the emporium, viz. to George Town, the Falls, Blandensburgh,
Carrollsburgh, Broad Creek, Piscataway, Portobacco, etc. on
the Maryland side; and to the towns of Occoquon, Dumfries, etc.,
etc., on the Virginia side, all of which are within twenty miles
of Alexandria. This place was so named from its similitude of
situation to Alexandria, in Egypt. It is built upon a flat
level, though a high promontary above the bed of the river,
and the cliff is sloped and laid down in grass to a number of
fine wharfs which extend to the channel, along side of which
ships of any berth may unload and load without using their cables
or anchors, and empty their cargoes immediately into commmodious
ware-houses. There are three or four ship yards adjoining the
town, and several vessels are built here of what is reckoned the
best oak in North America.
I have had but a cursory view of the Potowmack [Potomac?] river from the falls upwards, but I mean to examine this astonishing river from
its source to its mouth, and give you a further descriptiion of it.
Throughout the whole of what I have seen of the river and its banks
above the Falls, which, like the river below, affords most extensive
perspectives, there is not the least feature or trace of art and
improvement to be discovered - all are the genuine effects of nature
alone laid down on her most extended and greatest scale, and is one
continued, grand, wild and uncultivated scene of perspective."