On the thirteenth of September, 1784, coming down from the mountains into the valley of the Youghiogheny, George Washington arrived at the gristmill. His gristmill. He had never seen it. Years earlier, before the Revolution, he'd been told that his mill was the finest west of the Alleghenies. But now that he was finally free from his duties as commander in chief, and could make the long journey to inspect the mill personally, he saw to his dismay that it harnessed the might of a feeble stream, a virtual rivulet -- a seep! The millrace was essentially dry. Perhaps the masters of the place were expecting some other source of power to come along, something more sophisticated than water.

The surrounding land boasted some patches of rich soil, but the level tracts were interrupted by gullies, depressions, rocky outcroppings -- "broken" terrain. He owned 1,644 acres of rolling backwoods turf inhabited by people living in extremely modest dwellings. It would someday be named Perrypolis, but for now the residents called this place "Washington's Bottom." What an honor.

"I do not find the Land in general equal to my expectation of it," Washington wrote in his diary. "The Mill was quite destitute of Water . . . In a word, little rent, or good is to be expected . . .

Washington knew who was to blame for the mill disaster: Gilbert Simpson, the mill operator, whom Washington had once described as a man of "extreame stupidity."

When the general finished dealing with Simpson, he knew he'd have to cope with a second, even more irritating problem. A group of people had journeyed to Washington's Bottom to discuss his allegation that they were squatting on his land. They were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who belonged to a sect called Seceders. They lived on Washington's land -- or what Washington claimed was his land -- about half a day's ride to the north, on Millers Run, southwest of Pittsburgh.

Pennsylvania had been founded by Quakers, but these Scotch-Irish were a different breed -- rougher, more belligerent and ready to tromp into every remote mountain hollow of the Appalachians to hack out a new life. They did not come to the mill to give the general a parade. The great man threatened to take away their farms. When they had arrived in this part of western Pennsylvania in the early 1770s -- it was then considered part of the sprawling colony of Virginia -- they had found a trackless forest. They had hacked down trees, burned and grubbed the stumps, built fences, log cabins and barns, and found a way to survive in a world that still knew the howl of the wolf. They had endured the constant risk of Indian attacks, and, indeed, one of their members, Thomas Bigger, had narrowly escaped a massacre that claimed the lives of three families a dozen miles to the west, near Raccoon Creek. And now, years later, they'd gotten word of a visitor, at best an absentee landlord, but perhaps more properly a man with no right to their farms whatsoever.

What bad luck for the Seceders: They had squatted on the wrong man's land. Worse, he was a details freak. George Washington kept track of every shilling he was due, every acre he owned. He had an extraordinary gift for seeing the big picture of America, of perceiving the possibility that on this continent a new and powerful nation might spring into being, something to rival the great powers of Europe -- but he also paid attention to the vexing minutiae of his considerable landholdings. The 52-year-old war hero doubled as an accountant.

The Seceders had several things going for them. In Pennsylvania there was a general presumption that settlers who improved land had priority over an absentee landlord with only a paper title. The Seceders had heard that Washington had a bogus title and that the original surveyor of the land, William Crawford, lacked proper credentials. When they began clearing land and burning stumps, the Seceders had assumed they'd found their place in the world, beyond the machinations of moneymen far to the east. They would grow their corn and wheat, raise their cows and pigs, hunt wild game and worry only about the weather and the threat of Indians, wolves and panthers. That was the plan.

And then the grave, frowning, humorless George Washington himself came riding in. Who could have imagined?

Washington saw himself as the victim, not as a feudal lord showing up to slap around some lowlifes. He felt abused. These people had taken advantage of him. He hadn't been around for the last decade because he'd been busy winning freedom for the nation. He insisted that, although he owned tens of thousands of acres in the West, he was not a land speculator or "monopolizer":

"Indeed, comparatively speaking I possess very little land on the Western Waters," he wrote to his attorney. "To attempt therefore to deprive me of the little I have, is, considering the circumstances under which I have been" -- fighting for liberty! -- "and the inability of attending to my own affairs, not only unjust, but pitifully mean."

The historian Archer Hulbert, in Washington and the West (1905), noted that the general had more than just the Millers Run tract on his mind. He feared that a loss of this one parcel would have a cascading effect, and that he might lose all of his tens of thousands of land in the remote backcountry. Being lenient "would certainly result in the establishment of a precedent that would be ruinous to him; and if Washington could not keep his land, how would the less influential and less powerful fare?" He would fight this battle on behalf of all absentee landlords.

This dispute was, in miniature, the conflict of the continent: Who owned the land? How was that ownership established? Would the laws of the East hold sway in the distant forests of the West? Was the game stacked against the common man, the pioneer, the tribesman? Would ordinary Americans own their own farms or pay rent to far-off aristocrats? Would order triumph, or chaos?

What kind of country was this going to be?

THIS WAS BOTH a business trip for Washington and a chance to scout the terrain of his young nation. In the closing days of the war, he had declared his intention to make a grand tour of the new United States, to take its measure from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi to the Deep South. It was, after all, the fourth-largest country in the world by size, yet much of it was scarcely mapped.

Pressed for time, constrained by his duties at Mount Vernon, Washington had dramatically scaled back his ambitions. The new plan: Ride up the valley of the Potomac, across the mountains, through forests so dark they had names like "the Shades of Death," to the frontier of the nation, and then keep going by canoe down the Ohio River for hundreds of miles, far beyond the outer reaches of what people of his society called civilization.

Washington loved the backcountry and had seen more of it than almost anyone of his generation. He'd slept many times under the stars. He'd spent years as a surveyor, tromping through remote valleys and across swollen rivers, learning the way of the woods, sharing the pipe with Indian chiefs, and imposing imaginary lines on the wilderness. He and Thomas Jefferson had corresponded at great length in recent months about the western country, but while Jefferson was content to remain at Monticello -- in his entire life he never traveled farther west than the Shenandoah Valley -- Washington always had the urge to see things directly, to rub that western soil between his thumb and fingers.

Washington also knew better than anyone how hard it was to get anywhere. The few roads that existed were muddy trenches choked with stumps. In the entire country there was not a single bridge over a major river. The Appalachian Mountains stood like walls between the East and the West. The country was spread out and disconnected to a potentially disastrous degree. Washington feared that the West -- the rapidly settling Ohio country -- would become a breakaway republic.

But he thought there was a solution: He could help create the Potomac Route to the West. The river could become the premier commercial artery for the young republic. It would bind the settlers in the Ohio country to the markets of the Atlantic Seaboard. But without improvements in the river and the creation of a good portage road over the mountains, the centrifugal forces of the Revolution might rip the country apart. There might even be a civil war -- West against East.

Most biographers have focused on Washington's full-time jobs (plantation owner, warrior, president). Yet sometimes we understand a person best when we see what he does in his spare time, when he is not forced by necessity to dash off into battle or settle a political dispute. Washington, given the chance, high-tailed it to the hinterlands. Less than a year after returning from the war, and declaring that he was forever retired to "my own vine and my own fig tree," Washington saddled up and headed west. Washington's detailed diary of his epic 1784 journey to the frontier -- and the annotations and insights provided over the years by historians and archivists of The Papers of George Washington -- is the primary basis of this account. Washington hadn't kept a diary for nearly three years, but when he set out on September 1, 1784, he began scribbling with gusto in his small leather-bound notebooks. He was accompanied on the trip by his nephew, old friend James Craik, Craik's son and several slaves who were unidentified in the diary.

The 1784 trek and the encounter with squatters have been largely a footnote in the biographies of George Washington. Douglas Southall Freeman allots the expedition 14 fine and evocative paragraphs in his seven-volume biography. John Marshall, one of the first Washington biographers, gives the '84 trip precisely 15 words. Marshall's contemporary David Ramsay is even more efficient, summarizing the entire 680-mile frontier adventure in nine words (". . . he made a tour as far west as Pittsburgh . . .").

The trek never became part of Washington lore. There are countless 19th-century engravings illustrating highlights of Washington's life, but the artists somehow missed this particular chapter. It may be that what happened failed to fit into the narrative that biographers were fashioning for the great man. The western trek reveals Washington at his most appealing but also at his most imperious. He's wonderfully intrepid, unafraid to sleep out in the open in a thunderstorm -- but he's also an aggressive entrepreneur, disdainful of the westerners.

The 1784 journey gives us a glimpse of an infant nation, destiny uncertain, sprawled upon a wild and tantalizing landscape. It shows some of the first steps in the creation of what would become a continental nation, and eventually the most powerful country on the planet. Most of all, it provides an unusually vivid look at a man whose personal issues had a way of becoming national ones.

IN THOSE DAYS, a forest covered most of the American backcountry. This was a gloomy world, and a person could walk for miles without encountering a sunbeam. From a bluff, a traveler looking down on the forest would see a surprisingly uniform canopy, with a slash or dip here and there to signify a stream. But rising above the tree line would be a few giants -- the white pines, soaring 50 feet higher than everything else, surveying their domain. White pines were prized timber, so beautifully straight, perfect for masts, easily sawed, lightweight, buoyant, a wood so congenial that this tree alone could entice a person halfway across the continent. Sycamores leaned over the creeks and rivers, hollow inside, roomy enough that a family could live in the trunk while building a cabin. (Washington once found a sycamore that, three feet above the ground, measured 44 feet 10 inches in circumference.)

The agents of change act on different scales. Mountains form over tens of millions of years; animals evolve and become extinct over millions of years; ice ages come and go on the order of tens or hundreds of thousands of years; and the works of human beings take place in decades, years, months, days. As Washington rode across the mountains, he knew the West had changed dramatically since his last visit, 14 years earlier.

Naturally he didn't know about plate tectonics, could not imagine that entire continents could move. Washington had no inkling that life evolved, that from a single primordial germ a diverse array of organisms could appear, that giant reptiles once roamed the planet, that the flora and fauna that framed his life had not sprung fully into existence at the moment of the Creation. And yet the general knew facts that later generations would forget. He knew the names of the trees, the habits of the animals. He knew the soils and the rocks, the resources beneath his feet. He knew where to find useful mud and fuel for the fire. He knew how to read the sky and measure the wind and smell the coming of a storm. Washington had abundant knowledge of the western terrain, from a lifetime of exploration and adventure. He knew where he was on the planet.

THE SECEDERS were part of a great migration of people into the West. For decades, European Americans and African Americans had been pooling on the eastern side of the Appalachians, constrained first by the Indians and the French, then by the British proclamation that the western waters would be reserved to the Indians. But the Revolution opened the floodgates. The powers of attraction of the West, which so many times had yanked Washington from the comforts of his Mount Vernon estate, had an even more powerful effect on landless people.

There was a presumption underlying this westward movement, a belief that the continental interior was in some fundamental way unoccupied, that although the Indians had lived there for millennia and knew every trail and stream, every spring and salt lick, and had built villages and raised crops and interred their dead in ceremonial mounds, they still did not own these ancestral lands. The native Americans didn't have any use for the concept of private property and found bizarre the European belief in imaginary lines that enclosed the natural world. So it was all up for grabs.

The Scotch-Irish, Germans and French were in the vanguard of the western assault, along with Finns and Swedes. In addition to families, there were many lone wolves, usually young men fleeing the backbreaking labor of the indigo and rice fields of the Deep South or recently released from debtors' prison. For many Americans, the dangers and deprivations of the West, the terror of Indian raids, the shortage of staples and ordinary comforts, were still a step up in life.

Voyagers to the West had to supply all their own needs as they migrated. For food they would hunt deer, bear, wild turkey and perhaps the occasional squirrel, raccoon or groundhog. At the end of their journey through the forest would be nothing as coherent as a village or town, just a patch of woods along a river or stream. Many a family made a clearing in the forest and, using nothing but an axe, built a cabin, complete with wooden hinges, wooden pins, wooden chinking (held in place by clay or mud), even a wooden chimney. Packed clay served well enough for a floor.

Peace, as a rule, did not follow the settlers as they infiltrated the domain of the Indian. When the frontiersmen weren't killing Indians, they were inventing ways of maiming one another. Eye-gouging became something of a sport, and the countryside had an unusually large number of one-eyed men. The historian Leland Baldwin reported that a "fair fight" meant the use of fists and nothing more, but the "rough and tumble" was the more common form of frontier combat, one in which "the endeavor of each man was to maim and disfigure the other by gouging out his eyes, biting off his lips, nose, or ears, or kicking him in the groin." These people did not follow Washington's maxims for gentlemanly behavior.

Whiskey cost three cents a glass. Wagoneers would dance to a fiddler, drink all night and never repair to their room, since they had no room, only a claim to a few square feet on the barroom floor. They smoked a crude cigar that emitted a mephitic stench and cost four for a penny. That such twists of tobacco were smoked by drivers of Conestoga wagons gave the cigars their enduring name: stogies.

When George Washington moved among frontier folk, he didn't mix. He passed over these people like a dark nimbus cloud. To be George Washington required an adherence to certain principles, behaviors and beliefs that could properly be described as elitist, and that elitism wasn't superficial, it came from the marrow. Whatever he found common in himself he tried to purge. He once referred to ordinary farmers as "the grazing multitude." Apparently, he did not subscribe to the Jeffersonian dictum that yeoman farmers were God's chosen people.

And now the general had to meet face to face with these squatters. In his diary, one can sense a steady reddening of Washington's visage. They "came here to set forth their pretensions to it; & enquire into my right," he wrote. They attempted to "discover all the flaws they could in my Deed."

The energetic editors at The Papers of George Washington, and the 19th-century historian Boyd Crumrine of Washington County, Pa., have done heroic work in trying to untangle the legal knots around the property, though this may require several more centuries of labor. It appears that in 1763, a war veteran named John Posey, one of Washington's neighbors, obtained a military warrant (as payment for service in the French and Indian War) for 3,000 acres between Millers Run and Raccoon Creek, in the primeval forest southwest of Forks of the Ohio. A few years later, William Crawford told Washington about Posey's land. Washington obtained Posey's warrant in exchange for forgiving a debt. (In none of these transactions did any actual money change hands.) Late that year, or perhaps early in 1771, Washington recalled, Crawford surveyed 2,813 acres near Millers Run in Washington's name. But the backcountry trader George Croghan, an ambitious man with his own aspirations of a western empire, claimed the land and encouraged a number of settlers to move in.

The situation at that point turned downright devilish. To secure rights to a piece of property, the owner had to improve it by clearing land, putting up fences or building a cabin. Crawford, representing Washington's interests, arranged for a man to build a cabin on the Millers Run site. That single, humble dwelling -- as lost amid the 2,813 acres as a mollusk at the bottom of a lake -- supposedly satisfied the improvement requirement. But then Croghan's people built their own cabin inches from the first. They simply blocked the door to the first cabin. If there had been someone inside he would have died of thirst.

Now, more than a decade later, September 14, 1784, Washington and the Seceders faced off at the mill and explained their respective positions. They resolved nothing -- except that they'd meet again in a few days, when Washington would visit Millers Run and see the land himself.

The next day, the general tried to sell his gristmill to the highest bidder. A crowd formed, but Washington quickly realized that the people had not come to bid on the mill. They were there to gawk, to see the famous George Washington. He had serious business to conduct, and they seemed to view the whole thing as entertainment.

He called for bids.

No one answered.

The great man waited. Still no bids. A total disaster, this auction. At some point, it became obvious that no one was going to buy his mill. The general had all this wealth on paper, but what was it worth if you couldn't make it liquid? He decided he would simply abandon the mill and let it rot.

Doing his best to salvage the situation, the general announced that he would rent the farm on which Gilbert Simpson had been living. He would not even ask for cash, merely a payment in wheat. Five hundred bushels a year would cover it, he said.

Again, no one in the crowd showed any interest and only one man wanted to rent the farm: Gilbert Simpson. The vile Simpson! Washington wanted to end all connection with the man, but the general had no choice. He agreed to keep Simpson as a tenant.

The general always had a good instinct for when to retreat.

THE NEXT DAY the sky opened. In a pouring rain, Washington formally ended his business arrangement with Simpson to run the gristmill. The general wrote almost nothing in his diary, just a few terse sentences. Then he hit the road again, north and west, to Millers Run, home of the squatters. This wasn't going to be pretty.

The general wasn't in a rush to confront these people. He arrived on a Saturday afternoon, and on Sunday morning decided to postpone the reckoning. "Being Sunday, and the People living on my Land, apparently very religious, it was thought best to postpone going among them till tomorrow . . ." There's a rare whiff of sarcasm there. Apparently very religious -- his italics.

The next day, Washington made a tour of the 13 farms that had been carved out of his land. The general knew as well as anyone alive how to eyeball a farm by horseback. He examined the soils, the trees, the houses, the barns, the fences. He took notes, recording the names of the squatters and the number of acres cleared and under cultivation.

"James McBride. 3 or 4 Acres of Meadow . . . Pretty good fencing -- Land rather broken, but good -- white & black oak mixed -- A dwelling House and barn (of midling size) with Puncheon roofs . . . Brice McGeechen. 3 Acres of Meadow . . . Arable -- under good fencing. A small new Barn good . . . John Reed Esquire. 4 Acres of Meadow . . . A Small dwelling House -- but Logs for a large one, a still House -- good Land and fencing . . ."

And so on.

That night the settlers showed their visitor a modicum of respect, hosting him for dinner at the home of one of their leaders, David Reed. They announced that they would be willing to buy the land from the general outright -- a sign that, as much as they doubted his legal right to the properties, they feared that they might lose their farms should Washington prosecute his claim. They made clear to the general that they weren't conceding that he owned the land, but rather they merely wanted to avoid a nasty fight. Washington said he had no inclination to sell. They talked of their hardships, their history, how they'd come together, their religious beliefs and so on. The steel in Washington's resolve softened ever so slightly. He would consider selling, he said.

Now they talked price. Washington said he would accept no less than 25 shillings an acre, paid in three annual installments, with interest. Otherwise, they could sign a 999-year lease. No one was interested in the lease, but the squatters asked if the general would sell the land for his asking price but over a much longer period of time and without any interest. He said he wouldn't. That ended the negotiations. The squatters formally declared that they did not recognize Washington's ownership.

He would have to sue them, they said.

There is a bit of local lore about what happened next. Supposedly, Washington declared that he would have the land, and accompanied this vow with a curse. Squatter John Reed, who served as a justice of the peace, promptly fined Washington five shillings. The general supposedly paid up on the spot and apologized for violating the laws of God and man. That anecdote does not emit the resounding peal of truth. Crumrine, the Washington scholar, dismissed the story, noting that the son of one of the squatters later denied that Washington had made any such oath. But Crumrine endorsed the son's account of what Washington told the squatters in this testy moment. The general, the son said, pulled out a red silk handkerchief, held it by one corner, and said: "Gentlemen, I will have this land just as surely as I now have this handkerchief."

What we know of the general and his personality leads us to doubt that he would taunt the squatters. Usually an icy stare served his purposes well enough.

Washington now found himself in an uncomfortable position. The squatters believed that they'd called his bluff. He knew it wasn't a bluff -- but he also knew he lacked sufficient documentary proof of ownership. He held out hope that somewhere in the motley bunch there might be men willing to abandon this stance, and he decided to resort to a little theatricality. As commander in chief of the Continental Army, he had managed to quell rebellions through the force of his personality. The most famous incident happened late in the war, when his officers, furious at Congress for failing to provide money or support, threatened to stage a military coup. Washington rebuked them and then, in a wonderfully theatrical gesture, pulled out glasses to read an otherwise inconsequential letter. "Gentleman, you will permit me to put on my spectacles," he said, "for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country." The mutinous atmosphere suddenly evaporated. Blind in the service of his country! Tears ran down the faces of the officers. Washington had won again.

So now Washington had to stage a little more theater and see if it would work. He asked each of the settlers if he would stand up individually to attest an intention to go to court over the land dispute. The general said he would call out the names of the settlers one by one. He wanted to break up this gaggle of Seceders into its constituent parts. It was time to fight man to man.

"James Scott," the general said.

James Scott rose to his feet.

"William Stewart."

William Stewart stood.

"Thomas Lapsley . . . Samuel McBride . . . Brice McGeechin . . . Thomas Biggar . . . David Reed . . . William Hillas . . . James McBride . . . Duncan McGeechin . . . Matthew Johnson . . . John Reed . . . John Glen."

One by one, they all stood. Thirteen backwoods settlers were defying the great George Washington.

WASHINGTON'S TESTY ENCOUNTER with the squatters destroyed his western momentum. He wanted to go home. The Grand Tour of America had already been downsized into a mere business trip to his western properties, and now even that was turning into a bust.

He'd been thinking of turning back even before he'd run into the Seceders. He had been told that the Indians were in arms, and had recently killed a number of white settlers who had encroached on Indian lands north of the Ohio. Washington didn't want to push his luck. Discretion is different from cowardice. Later he wrote in a letter that it was "better to return, than to make a bad matter worse by hazardous abuse from the Savages of the Country." Thomas Freeman, his land agent, subsequently informed him that the Indians knew Washington was headed to his western lands, and they were preparing to greet him with an ambush. "The Indians by what means I can't say had Intelligence of your Journey and Laid wait for you," Freeman informed the general.

Washington in his reluctance to go farther west surely had in mind the fate of Crawford, the surveyor who'd obtained these Pennsylvania lands for him. In a gentler world, Crawford would have been on hand at Washington's Bottom to greet the arriving general and would have been a handy witness for Washington in his ejectment suit. But Crawford was a warrior as well as a surveyor, and, in 1782, he discovered directly the price of the settlement of the West.

Earlier that year, an expedition of Pennsylvanians had launched a campaign against Indians in the Ohio country. They soon encountered a group of Christianized Indians known as Moravians (from the Protestant missionaries who had converted them). They were considered friendly Indians. They had adopted many of the ways of white farmers. But to the fierce settlers of western Pennsylvania, they were still a suspect class. The Moravians had traded with the hostile Indians for pewter dishes that had been stolen from the whites. They also traded for branded horses stolen from the whites. Worst of all, they had a bloody dress -- purchased from Indians who had massacred a Pennsylvania family named Wallace.

The militiamen rounded up the Moravians -- women and children included -- and led them, with ropes around their necks, to two huts that the whites called their "slaughter houses." A debate broke out among the whites: How, exactly, should they kill these Indians? They chose scalping. The Indians asked for a moment to prepare their souls for death.

Then the militiamen scalped them -- 42 men, 20 women and 34 children.

The campaign against the Indians continued months later with another expedition, this time led by Crawford. Crawford and his men camped initially in the ruins of the Moravian village, where orphaned corn still stood in the fields. They were being watched. Wyandot, Delaware and Shawnee Indians, accompanied by a white compatriot, Simon Girty, quickly routed the militiamen, and during Crawford's retreat, he was captured by Delawares.

Because another captured man, a surgeon, witnessed the ensuing events, there is an elaborate narrative of what took place. According to the surgeon, the Indians found the most flamboyant means of putting an end to Crawford's earthly existence. They stripped him naked, beat him, cut off his ears, prodded him with burning sticks, made him walk on coals, tied him to a stake, scalped him, fired gunpowder into his body and poured hot coals on his head. He begged Girty to shoot him, but Girty just laughed. Instead the Indians built a hot fire in a circle about 15 feet from the stake. That was far enough to ensure that he wouldn't burn to death quickly. They slowly roasted him.

And so, George Washington did not want to go to the West if the Indians were in arms. He rode south again, back toward Gilbert Simpson's, and along the way received assurances from some of the local gentry that they would hunt up proof of his ownership of the Millers Run land. The next day, he rode south to Beeson's Town (now Uniontown, Pa.), where he found himself a good lawyer. In fact, he found a great one: Thomas Smith, a Scotsman who had emigrated to America and had become one of the leading land lawyers in the state, a kind of traveling salesman of legal services. In a single year, by Smith's calculation, he'd ridden 4,000 miles on horseback, all over the craggy Pennsylvania terrain. He had seen a lot of different characters in his day, and when George Washington came calling, Smith had to use all his legal and psychological skill to guide the case toward a positive outcome.

Washington was almost too eager to sue. Had it not violated his maxims on personal deportment, he would have been literally hopping mad. But Smith quickly detected the lack of documentation behind Washington's claim. This would not be an easy case.

The general told Smith he would return to western Pennsylvania to testify against the squatters. But he knew it would be no minor matter to make yet another trip over the mountains. Events might easily detain him elsewhere. This was only the second time since 1758 that he had managed to venture to the West. He might never see this part of the world again.

In a couple of weeks, after a detour through a remote section of the backcountry, Washington reached Mount Vernon and resumed his life as a plantation owner and generator of grand ideas. He vigorously pursued his Potomac project and became president of the Patowmack Company, a venture designed to improve navigation in the river and turn it into a commercial artery. His Potomac scheme absorbed him, but he took time out to prosecute his case against the Seceders. They were still rooted on his land at Millers Run, still growing crops and raising livestock and acting as though they weren't the lowlife squatters that Washington knew them to be.

The lawsuit dragged on for two years. After Washington's western trek in 1784, he regularly corresponded with Smith. The general might have been a master of delegation in certain arenas of combat, but in this lawsuit he intended to lead the charge personally. Not even Cornwallis had faced such rage.

Washington vigorously compiled a packet of information for Smith's scrutiny. The general made it clear that the only acceptable outcome of the case would be the total surrender of the enemy. He was rankled by all the paperwork he needed to obtain to support his case, which he believed was self-evident. "I think nothing more is necessary but to state facts," he wrote.

In a later letter, he told Smith that he had heard a rumor that the squatters might voluntarily leave before the suit went to trial. He requested of Smith that, even if the Seceders did abandon their homes and relinquish their claims, "you will sue them respectively for Trespasses, rents or otherwise as you shall judge best & most proper to obtain justice for me." The general wanted his lawyer to chase these people through the American backcountry and punish them. He was not about to forgive and forget. (He'd been winning freedom! And to be treated like this . . .)

Smith wrote back with gentle words to cool the litigious ardor of his client. Any move that seemed designed to punish the squatters might backfire, Smith informed Washington. Juries in similar cases had sided with the defendants. To bring trespassing suits against the squatters "may produce a bad effect, in the minds of the Jury who are to try the Ejectments -- their modes of thinking may lead them to believe the Defendants rather unfortunate, then blamable, and that as these double actions will well nigh ruin most of them; will not the jury be willing to lay hold of every point however trifling which may make against your title or in favour of the Defendants."

Washington replied in the tone of a man recognizing that he had momentarily lost control of his passion (a maxim violation). He didn't intend, he said, for Smith to file additional suits for trespassing, but rather believed they might be pursued after the main ejectment cases had been settled. But now that he had heard about other cases that had not gone well, he wrote, he would leave such suits entirely to Smith's discretion.

"I never should have thought of this mode of punishment, had I not viewed the Defendants as willful and obstinate sinners -- persevering after timely & repeated admonition, in a design to injure me," Washington wrote, and then added, incredibly, "but I am not at all tenacious of this matter."

The general separately prepared a long legal brief that laid out both sides of the case, as he saw it. Washington had never prepared a legal argument, but he demonstrated such a grasp of the adversarial nature of the courts that one might have assumed him a member of the bar. Giving his own side of the story would clearly not be sufficient: He first would prepare the most persuasive arguments in favor of the defendants, and only then, Socratically, demolish them one by one. To make this point-counterpoint legal brief all the easier to follow, he wrote down the squatters' "Pleas" side by side with his "Answers."

Plea: "Supposing (they may say, because they have said it) that my Patent was originally good, yet, my right is forfeited for want of that cultivation and improvement which was required by Law, and which is conditional of the Grant."

Answer: "It may be asked how I could improve or cultivate the Land when they had taken possession of it & violently detained it from me? . . ."

Plea: "That one of the Defendants, in behalf of the rest had been sent to the Land Office of this State to ascertn the truth of the Report of my having a Grant of the Land; -- but finding no Record of the Patent or Survey, the presumption was, that none had ever been made . . ."

Answer: "Whether this search was really made, or not, is not for me to determine; but admitting it, it can be no reason why I should loose my right, because they did not, or even could not, discover a record of it . . ."

Plea: "Under these circumstances, and this conviction, they took possession; and at great expense have improved the Land; and ought not in Law or equity to be deprived of it."

Answer: "[T]hey knew this Land was reputed to be mine. That as soon as they set down upon it, they were so informed, and repeatedly warned off, and admonished of the consequences thereon . . . [If the law did not protect absentee owners], no one could be secure in Lands at a distance -- as possession & occupancy wd. set aside the best title, and put legal Right at defiance."

The legal brief ran pages and pages, covering every conceivable point of law and, more importantly, every shade of right and wrong.

PENNSYLVANIA SUPREME COURT Justice Thomas McKean, riding circuit in the western part of the state, presided over the trial in Washington, Pa., in October 1786. Because the record of the trial is extremely sparse, it is impossible to know if anyone involved asked for a change of venue to a community that had not been named after the plaintiff.

A flamboyant Pittsburgher represented the Seceders: Hugh Henry Brackenridge, the leading literary figure west of the mountains, a title for which, admittedly, there were few rival claimants. Brackenridge started the first newspaper in the West, having contrived, with a partner, to haul a printing press over the Alleghenies. He also wrote plays, pamphlets and a novel titled Modern Chivalry. He would someday be a savvy advocate of restraint during the Whiskey Rebellion, which would incite the wrath of then-President Washington. But that was in the future: There was no such thing yet as a U.S. president. For now, Brackenridge was a local lawyer taking on a case against a retired war hero.

Washington said he wanted to travel to western Pennsylvania for the trial, but he pleaded illness. Possibly he couldn't stomach another encounter with the western rabble.

Smith, Washington's attorney, took the case to trial with great anxiety. He'd never been more agitated, he later told Washington. He was a successful man, elected to public offices, but to represent such a client was clearly the pinnacle of his career. (No doubt he told his associates: Yes, the George Washington.) It could not have been a palliative to his nerves to be reminded with each letter from Mount Vernon precisely how much the client cared about the suit. Failure was not an option.

Smith spent months figuring out how to get a friendly jury and the best possible judge. He personally served many of the subpoenas to Washington County residents who had been named to the jury. He decided to "take the Bull by the Horns," as he later told Washington, and brought the first suit against James Scott Jr., the group's ringleader and the man with the strongest claim to ownership of the land. It was a smart move, because Smith would smoke out all the best arguments in favor of the Seceders' claim, but risk only the solitary defeat, reserving the chance to try the other cases with knowledge of what to expect. Smith called as a witness Charles Morgan, who had been with William Crawford when he had surveyed the land and who had seen Crawford pay five pounds to a man named Thomas Crooke to build a cabin on the property. Smith had many more witnesses as well, including another surveyor and several prominent members of the community.

Smith had one tremendous handicap: Washington's warrant to the land, as the general himself discovered unhappily in the summer of 1786, showed a date of 25 November 1773 -- "posterior," as Washington put it, to the arrival of the Seceders in October 1773. The date on the warrant was simply a bureaucratic mistake, but on paper, it appeared the Seceders had been on the property before Washington officially owned it. Washington hoped to dig up the original survey by Crawford, which would have showed a date of 1770 or 1771, but he learned that the survey and many other public documents had been destroyed by the British during their 1781 romp through Virginia.

The jury learned about the complex history of the land, the shifting jurisdictions, the missing paperwork, etc. Smith won an important ruling from the judge, who barred any evidence about improvements to the land. The trial began the afternoon of October 24, 1786, and lasted through the next day and until 11 in the morning of the 26th. There is no record of how long the jury deliberated, but Smith perceived that the jury wanted badly to give verdicts in favor of James Scott. "We had very strong prejudices artfully fomented to encounter," he told Washington. Yet even as Smith steeled himself for defeat, the jury came back with a verdict in favor of the general.

It is not entirely clear why a jury with natural sympathies for settlers sided with an absentee landlord, even one as famous as Washington. There were limited means in America for turning anyone into what would later be called a celebrity, and Washington himself hadn't appeared; the jury had to render a verdict in favor of someone far away and against James Scott, who was right there in the courtroom. Perhaps Smith, a lawyer of considerable talents, destined to be on the state Supreme Court, had managed to show beyond any doubt that the general had legitimate title to the land and had been unable to pay more attention to it because of his service to the country. Or perhaps the verdict was just another example of the Washington magic. Bullets couldn't hit him, and squatters couldn't defy him.

Smith persuaded Justice McKean to consolidate the other 12 cases, and that trial was quickly and efficiently concluded with yet another verdict in Washington's favor.

"You have now thirteen plantations -- some of them well improved," Smith informed the general, and then delicately raised the possibility that now would be a good time to back off and show these frontier families some mercy. "[They] are now reduced to Indigence; they have put in crops this season which are now in the ground they wish to be permitted to take the grain away. To give this hint may be Improper in me -- to say more would be presumptuous."

Smith advised Washington to employ an agent to take possession of the land immediately, because the squatters were likely to burn down all the houses and barns and even the fences. Washington turned to John Cannon, a major landowner, and asked him if he would handle the matter, ideally by demanding rent from the Seceders. Washington, softening a bit, indicated that he didn't want back rent from the past 12 years.

But the Seceders wanted nothing to do with Washington. They would not be his tenants. They would own their own land. The Mount Pleasant Township Warrantee Map, compiled from early plats, shows a kind of splatter effect from the explosive visit of Washington in 1784. Several of the Seceders obtained warrants for land adjacent to or near Washington's land. They pulled out their axes once again, hacked down trees, burned the stumps, broke the ground. For years, settlers had been pulling up stakes and moving toward deeper wilderness to start anew, and perhaps, as they scouted nearby land to settle, they could pretend they were another band of restless Americans. But just as surely a few of them thought of George Washington as they swung their axes at the oaks and pines and hemlocks of the Pennsylvania forest.

Washington's litigation would keep his grip on the land for another decade. In 1796, with western land speculation in full collapse, he sold the entire tract to a local agent for the modest sum of $12,000, though the agent defaulted on the mortgage and the general retained the land until his death. The property over the years went through many hands, including those of Washington's heirs. From beginning to end, this "body of fine Rich level land" would be vexatious.

Brackenridge many years later jotted down a postscript to the case: Washington, he thought, should have compensated the Seceders for the buildings and cultivated fields they were forced to abandon. Strictly as a matter of law, Brackenridge wrote, Washington did not have to pay them anything. "He could not be considered as under more than an imperfect obligation," he concluded. Washington may have thought that the state of Pennsylvania would compensate the Seceders, since their land had been taken from them in deference to Virginia's claim to sovereignty, in the 1770s, over what became southwestern Pennsylvania. But it was all moot, Brackenridge said.

"It remains now, not a matter of legal discussion, but of history."

Joel Achenbach is a Post staff writer. This article is adapted from his new book, The Grand Idea: George Washington's Potomac and the Race to the West (Simon & Schuster). He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.