An 1809 Real Estate Deal Between John Vowell and George & Anne French

Ken Lopez
Posted by Ken Lopez on Apr 5, 2021 12:35:49 PM

The year was 1809, James Madison had been president for just a few months, Alexandria was still part of D.C., Alexandria's Lee Street was still known as Water Street, and George French had recently completed his fifth of eight terms as mayor of Fredericksburg, Virginia.

John C. Vowell was a successful Alexandria business person who would marry Mary Smith the following year. Their daughter Sarah would marry Francis Smith, well-known for being Robert E. Lee's lawyer in the dispute over Arlington house and Arlington cemetery. They were also noteworthy for living in the Vowell-Smith house.

George French's wife, Anne Brayne French, had purportedly danced with George Washington when he went to Fredericksburg as part of his post-Revolutionary War peace tour. She was given the nickname the "Barefooted Doll" by Anne's sister, who was angry about the dance. Anne's response was, "tell her that General Washington not only danced with the 'Barefooted Doll,' but called the next morning and spent three hours in her company." 

This is how rumors get started.

The document below describes a simple real estate transaction between the Frenches and John Vowell in an extremely complicated way. Using the powers of law school, I have decoded the document, which is also pictured and transcribed below.

Jacob Cox purchased a 1792 lease whereby 435 S. Lee Street was rented to William Wright. Jacob Cox sold the lease to William Thornton Alexander & Lucy Alexander in 1795. The Alexander's attorney was John Wellford. In 1806, the Alexander's sold the lease to George and Anne French. In 1809, the French's sold the lease to John Vowell, and that transaction is what is recorded in this document.

Still, why would George and Anne French have real estate dealings in Alexandria? He was a successful doctor in Fredericksburg 50 miles away, a full day's ride at the time. Why does the transaction happen exactly between two of his Fredericksburg mayoral terms? Does anyone know or want to venture a guess?

Here's a map of the property in question:

Screen Shot 2021-04-05 at 9.26.51 AM


Transcription is interspersed with the images below:

This indenture made and entered into this seventh day of July in the year of our Lord 1809 between George French & Anne Brayne his wife of the town of Fredericksburg and State of Virginia of the one part and John Vowell of the town of Alexandria in the District of Columbia of the other part. Whereas Jacob Cox did buy his indenture bearing the date the 19th day of December 1792 grant unto William Wright his heirs and assigns forever a piece of ground situated and lying and being upon the west side of Water Street and the north side of Wilkes Street in the said town of Alexandria and bounded as follows to wit. Beginning at the intersection of said streets and running fence north Fridley with water Street and finding their upon 50‘2“ thence westwardly with a sine parallel to Wilkes Street 74 feet, thence southwardly with a sine parallel to water Street 50‘2“ to Wilkes Street, thence eastwardly with Wilkes Street and finding there with 74 feet to the beginning. He the said William Wright his heirs and assigns paying for the same onto the said Jacob Cox his heirs and assigns yearly and every year forever upon the 20th day of June in each


year a rent of $41 and 1/8 of a dollar in which indenture is also contained a provision for levying the said rent by distress and re-entering when ever the sad rent or any part of it should be in a rear for the space of _______ days and good chattels not be found upon the said piece of ground whereupon to levy the rent in arrears by distress and sale which rent and the power of distress and re-entry that said Jacob Cox by his indenture bearing the date 16th date of September 1795 assigned and transferred onto a certain William Thorton Alexander his heirs and signs forever

And whereas the sad said William Thornton Alexander by John Wellford his attorney in fact and his wife Lucy Alexander by their deed of bargain and sale bearing date the fourth day of January 1806 did sell and convey unto the said George French his heirs and assigns forever that said annual rent of 41 silver dollars

As is more fully explained in the said deed duly recorded in the United States Circuit Court for the District of Columbia the 26th 22nd day of July 1806 – Now this indenture witnesseth that says the said George French and and bring his wife for and in

IMG_3910in consideration of the sum of 107 £.09 current money of Virginia to them in hand paid by the said John Vowell at and before the in sealing and delivery of these presents (the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged) have granted, bargained, sold, assigned and transferred and buy these presents to Grant, bargain, sell, assign and transfer onto the said John Vowel his heirs and assigns forever, they said annual rent of 41 silver dollars and 1/8 of a dollar issuing out of the piece or parcel of ground before mentioned, and the powers of distress and reentry are reserved and expressed in the indenture of lease from the said Jacob Cox to William Wright before mentioned and also all the estate, right, title, interest claim and demand whatsoever of them The said George French and Anne Brayne his wife, of, in, and to the sad piece or parcel of ground and premises and every part and parcel thereof - to have and to hold the said rent with the powers of distress and reentry as express in said indenture of lease with all covenants clauses and stipulations contained there in, unto said John Vowell his heirs and assigns forever and the sad George French and Anne Brayne

IMG_3886 2

his wife for themselves their heirs executors and administrators to covenant grant and agree to and with the said John Vowell his errors and the signs, that they the said George French and Anne Brayne his wife and their airs at any time hereafter upon request and at the cost and charges of him they said John Vowell his heirs and assigns execute and acknowledge any further lawful ask and deed for the more certain assigning and conveying all and singular the said premises unto him that said John Vowell his heirs and assigns as by him that said John Vowell his heirs or assigns his or there or any of their counsel learned in the law shall or may be advised or required – and lastly that they just said George French and Anne B his wife for themselves and their heirs, all and singular, the said premises unto him that said John Vowell his heirs and assigns, against the claim and demand of them the said George French andAnne Brayne his wife and their ears and also against the claim and demand of all and every other person and persons whatsoever shall and will warrant


warrant and forever defend by these presents –

In witness whereof the said George French and Anne Brayne his wife have here on to set their hands and seals the day and year before written

S/George French

S/Anne B French

Received Alex July 12, 1809 of John Vowell his note for $272 which shall which when paid will be in full of the within

George French


At the United States Circuit Court of the District of Columbia continued and held for the County of Alexandria the 12th day of July 1809.

George French acknowledged this deed receipt to John Vowell, to be his act and deed which together with a commission and return for the foregoing conditions of Anne Brayne French, wife of the said George are ordered to be recorded





Topics: Alexandria, VA, George Washington, Vowell-Smith house, Alexandria, D.C., Robert E. Lee, George French, Fredericksburg, John Vowell, Anne French, William Thornton Alexander, Lucy Alexander, Lee Street, Water Street, Wilkes Street, Francis Smith, John Wellford, William Wright, Jacob Cox, People, Places, Things

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