“I have the honor to be, your obedient servant”: Why Did Washington End His Letters this Way?

How many times have you watched Hamilton? It’s okay, I’ve lost count too. In my most recent viewing, when Burr and Hamilton each proudly proclaim their letter-ending valedictions in the song “Your Obedient Servant”, I began thinking “Where exactly did this phrase come from, why did they use it, and how did it fall out of use?” Even though I am a historian, I have always taken the phrase for granted. It has always been there at the end of letters by Washington and his contemporaries, but I never really gave it much thought.

When was the last time you sat down to write a letter? – Better yet, an email? How did you “sign off”? Today, we mostly use short phrases like “sincerely”, “regards”, “best wishes”, or simply “yours” when we end written communications. However, in the 18th century, writing was not only a form of communication; it was also a method of entertainment, personal expression, and the preservation of events and thoughts for posterity. Simply put, longer, more expressive valedictions were more popular because writing letters was more popular.  For example, in 1541, Spanish conquistador, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, wrote to the King of Spain and signed the letter “Your Majesty’s humble servant and vassal, who would kiss the royal feet and hands.”  Could you imagine someone saying that to someone like Queen Elizabeth II today?

The truth is that our letter writing skills have all but gone by the wayside considering modern conveniences of instant communication. Making a phone call, texting, and sending an email are much more informal than sitting down and writing out a letter – or even typing out a letter. When George Washington put pen to paper, like he so often did, he put much more thought into his words than we do when we send a quick “lol”.

During the 18th century, the most common valedictions – defined as statements made as farewells – were variations on the letter’s author referring to themselves as the servant of the recipient. To determine the popularity of this “servant valediction” and its variations, I used Google Books Ngrams to search their database of books and see how many times various valedictions were used over time. While Ngrams searches books and not all letters from the time, it can still give us a good idea of how common each phrase might have been.

In the first graph, for example, we see that the shortened “your servant” appears quite a bit over time. It seems to fade from fashion briefly around 1700 before coming returning to popularity around 1800. It then begins to fall out of favor again and was rarely used in the 1900s.  However, there appears to be an uptick in recent years and, perhaps we can credit this, at least partially, to the Hamilton-effect.

In the second graph, we see the phrase “your humble servant” was most popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Looking to Washington’s writings, we see him use this phrase in a letter to George Beall, a shopkeeper, in 1756.

Next, I entered the phrase “your obedient servant”. This phrase was also in its heyday at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries. Again looking to Washington’s papers, he does use the “your obedient servant” variation and often adds the word “most” as seen in a1755 letter to Robert Orme, a British soldier he fought with during the French and Indian War.

Ultimately, Washington’s most common servant valediction combined all of these variations into the lengthy “your most obedient and most humble servant” as seen in this letter to Governor Fauquier from 1758.

If you search the phrase “obedient servant” in the entirety of Founders Online, a digital repository of documents written by Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin and other early American luminaries, it will return over 16,000 results! That number wouldn’t include all of the instances where the words were abbreviated, which was also common. Indeed, even in the letters referred to in the Hamilton song; Alexander Hamilton writes “your obed. Servt”, abbreviating both key words in the phrase.

The use of the servant valediction didn’t fully fade from popularity until well after Washington’s life. By 1883, however, a different variation of the servant valediction had become popular. On page 43 of The Art of Correspondence, John Staples Locke instructs authors to use “respectfully yours” as a way to convey the same sentiment. It is still commonly seen today. Ultimately, even our simple “Yours” at the end of an email can be traced back to the flowery valedictions of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington.

I have the honor to be, your obedient servant,

E. Hosier
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

True or False? Test Your Knowledge of Mary Washington

Mary Washington Monument in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Credit: Beth Hosier/The George Washington Foundation

True or False?

Mary Washington had a set of false teeth like her son George?
FALSE – Mary did not have a famous set of dentures like her son George.

All of Mary’s children lived to adulthood?
FALSE – Mary and Augustine Washington had six children together, five living to adulthood.  Their youngest child, Mildred, born in 1738, died at the age of 16 months and is buried at Ferry Farm.

Mary often traveled to Mount Vernon for extended visits with her son George and his wife Martha?
FALSE – In fact, George dissuaded his mother from living with them in her later years, arguing that Mount Vernon was much too busy with constant travelers and guests for someone such as his dear and aged mother who deserved peace and quiet.

Mary lived in Virginia her whole life?
TRUE – Born and raised on the Northern Neck, Mary moved with her husband throughout their marriage to different family farms located in Westmoreland County, Fairfax County, and then King George County. She lived at Ferry Farm, then called the “Home House”, from 1738 until 1772, when George purchased her a house – the Mary Washington House – in the town of Fredericksburg. She lived there until her death in 1789.

Mary Washington’s Fredericksburg home was almost sold and moved in its entirety to Chicago for The Colombian Exposition of 1893?
TRUE – Plans were made to disassemble the Mary Washington House and rebuild it at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities stepped in and purchased house in 1889. They restored and opened it up to the public.

Chicago World’s Fair looking west from Peristyle, Court of Honor and Grand Basin, 1893. Credit: C. D. Arnold (1844-1927); H. D. Higinbotham; Wikipedia

Mary remarried after her husband Augustine died in 1743?
FALSE – It was commonplace during the Colonial era for women to remarry after the death of a spouse. Mary did not, however, preferring to manage the family properties and raise her five young children herself without committing to another marriage that might have restricted her parental control.

Mary did not live to see her son George become president of the new United States of America?
FALSE – George visited his mother at her home in Fredericksburg on the way to his presidential inauguration in April 1789 in New York City. Mary died later that same year in August at the age of 81.

Mary died of breast cancer?
TRUE – Two doctors treated Mary during the last months of her life in 1789. They could do nothing for her cancer beyond making her comfortable with palliative remedies.

Mary did not know how to read or write?

Mary Ball Washington had a ship named after her?
TRUE – The SS Mary Ball was a “Liberty ship” built during World War II.  Liberty ships were a class of mass-produced cargo vessels simple in design, cheap in cost, and constructed in just a few months.  Built and launched in 1943 as a tank carrier and aircraft freighter, the SS Mary Ball was eventually sold for scrap in 1972.

SS John W. Brown as an example of a “Liberty Ship” similar to the SS Mary Ball.
Credit: Wikipedia

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Co-Field Director

We’re Digging!: A Preview of This Year’s Archaeology Excavation at Ferry Farm

It’s that time of year again!

Actually, it’s past that time of year but better late than never! The annual summer archaeological dig at George Washington’s Ferry Farm – delayed like so many other things by the COVID-19 pandemic – has finally begun!  Ferry Farm’s summer archaeological excavation has become a fall dig too as it runs from August to October this year, instead of in the more typical April to July window.

In 2019, we began excavating a 30 foot by 30 foot square in the work yard in search of outbuildings from George Washington’s time. We know there was a kitchen, slave quarters, store houses, barns, and other buildings on the farm, but we have yet to locate them all. Without these outbuildings, which will eventually be reproduced like the Washington House, we can’t accurately represent what the landscape looked like during George’s childhood.

Archaeologists Lizzie O’Meara and Frank Amico cleaning last year’s dig area for the final photo of 2019.

Last year, we were tasked with excavating the 30 foot by 30 foot area, where we suspect there are still remains of and artifacts from undiscovered buildings. We completed about half of the total area. We dug the soil level down to the colonial-era level in half of our square before we had to close for the year. We also lost a few weeks of time last summer because of the nearly 2 feet of gravel that first needed to be removed. You read that right. 2 FEET! This gravel was from the construction of the Washington house replica in 2017 was leveled directly on top of the area where we needed to excavate.

This summer, we begin the other half of the 30 foot by 30 foot square. We are very excited to continue to dig this area.

Last year we excavated thousands of amazing artifacts including several Washington era wig curlers, Civil War bullets, and Native American projectile points of all shapes and sizes. You can read about last year’s discoveries here.

If visit Ferry Farm during the next several weeks, you can watch us dig on weekdays. My fellow archaeologists and I will be happy to talk with you (while masked and at a 6-foot distance) about our excavation work and some of our recent discoveries.  There will also be occasional updates on the excavation’s progress on our Facebook and Instagram. Then, after the conclusion of the 2020 excavation, watch this space for a summary of our work!

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Co-Field Director

Washington and the Culper Spy Ring

At George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we largely focus on George’s youth but also eagerly research and learn as much as we can about all periods of his life. During our unexpected closure due to COVID-19, some of our interpretive staff had the chance to study a little more about Washington and the Culper Spy Ring for a reading group we created.

Early on during the American Revolution, it was apparent to George Washington that he would need a way to get information about British troop movements and, hopefully, their overall plans. The Siege of Boston was a huge success for Washington and his Continentals, but capturing New York proved to be much tougher. In fact, New York remained occupied by the British for the entire war but Washington continued to hope that he could liberate the city. And in that hope, he knew he needed intelligence from inside the city. Everyone who crossed the border, however, was searched by British soldiers and any direct letters were confiscated and the bearer convicted of treason.

After a failed attempt by a young solider named Nathan Hale, Washington knew the intelligence would be very difficult to gather, and even more difficult to transmit. He called upon another young Yalie named Benjamin Tallmadge to help him with his goal. In November of 1778, Tallmadge began The Culper Spy Ring. He contacted operatives in New York City and they developed a complex system of routes to pass along information. The operatives in Manhattan passed the information to a carrier in Long Island and then eventually a second carrier brought the information to Tallmadge in Connecticut.

Benjamin Tallmadge (1790) by Ralph Earl

Portrait of Benjamin Tallmadge along with his son William painted after the war in 1790 by Ralph Earl. Credit: Wikipedia

The identity of the spies was so restricted that of the five operatives known to have helped, at least one of their identities is still highly debated by historians. Washington himself did not want to know their real names thus the agents were given nicknames. For example, Benjamin Tallmadge was called John Bolton, Abraham Woodhull went by Samuel Culper, and Robert Townsend was referred to as Samuel Culper, Jr.

The spy ring also developed a code that used over 760 combinations of numbers to represent people, places, and things. For example, Washington was 711, New York City was 727, and the lone female spy was referred to as 355. Of course, randomly filling a letter with numbers was a sure way to get caught, so they also used invisible ink and ciphers.

Culper Code

A page from the key to the Culper code. Credit: Library of Congress

Even with all these precautions, the work was dangerous and risky. The news traveled to Washington too slowly to be of much use, and he pressured Tallmadge to speed up the process. The spies were constantly in danger of being found out.

However, the Culper Spy Ring is credited with several key achievements. In 1780, the French Army arrived to reinforce Washington’s men and their ships landed in Rhode Island. The British knew they were coming and the spy ring passed that information along to Washington. He arranged a ruse to distract the British and allow the French to land without conflict. The Culper Spy Ring also unearthed some of the information that would lead to the discovery of Benedict Arnold’s treason as well as the capture of a major British intelligence officer, John André.

So, after reading about the Culper Spy Ring, one historic interpreter who leads tours of the Washington house was happy to share the part of the story that made them most interested in the intricate spy ring that helped win the Revolution.

Thanks to modern depictions, when I think of a spy the image that immediately comes to mind is someone with all the newest technology and an expensive taste in cars and clothes. Those that made up the Culper Spy Ring couldn’t be farther from the glamorized and romanticized depiction of spies that we have come so used to seeing. Though the five that made up the ring were from different walks of life and social statuses, they worked together (not always seamlessly) for a cause they believed to be worth more than their own lives. Through rather mundane means and careful exchanges, they were able to provide the key information for Washington under the nose of the enemy. The daring escapes across water by Caleb Brewster in a rowboat while taunting the most powerful naval force in the world were both hilarious and unbelievable. Brewster’s personality and general lifestyle makes him the odd one out in my mind. However, he also seems to be one of the most willing in many cases and jokes about the British not being able to catch him. Brewster’s personality more closely matches that classic spy image but his means are what really catch your attention. – Hunter Robinson

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

Josiah Wedgwood: Man of Pottery and Principles

The 18th century was dominated by the ideas of the Enlightenment which gave rise to a range of principles like liberty, equality, constitutional government, and free enterprise.  It was a revolution in thought led not by politicians and soldiers, but by a handful of thinkers, scientists, artisans, and merchants. Josiah Wedgwood was a thinker, scientist, artisan, merchant all rolled into one. He became one of the founding fathers of the industrial revolution, creating a new artistic industrialism that used the division of labors, scientific experimentation, and commerce to make affordable yet quality products that democratized artistry.[1]

Josiah Wedgwood (1780) by George Stubbs

Josiah Wedgwood (1780) by George Stubbs. Enamel on a Wedgwood ceramic tablet at the Wedgwood Museum in Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent, England. Credit: Wedgwood Museum / Daderot / Wikipedia

In his heart, Wedgwood believed that man could create a better world through self-improvement, education, and commerce.   Although he lived in England, he saw the American colonists’ struggle against taxation imposed on them and America’s potential as a capital of finance and freedom smothered under a foreign ruler. He was naturally sympathetic to their plight. Wedgwood spent the Revolutionary War trying to walk the fine line between being a patriotic British merchant and a radical dissenter.

Josiah Wedgwood was born in July of 1730 in Burslem, England to a family of potters that stretched back more than four generations.  When he was a child, he survived a bout of small pox that left his left leg too weak to work a potter’s wheel. This led him to focus his energies on design rather than the physical production of ceramics.[2]

In 1759, he set up his own pottery called Ivory Works. The pottery had swift success and became one of the largest manufacturers of Staffordshire pottery, known particularly for fine earthen and stonewares.  Demand for quality minimalistic earthenware design was high among the English at the time. Wedgewood devoted himself to glaze development, kiln technology, and marketing to fulfill demand. He perfected a cream-colored earthenware which took over 5000 glaze tests to get the color just right. He developed a new colored unglazed body known as “jasper” that allowed for the production of two-color ornamental wares to match the public’s desire for minimalistic, neo-classical styling.[3]

Wedgwood became a producer of fine ceramics and transformed pottery-making into an industry that rivaled European porcelain in elegance of shape, durability, and lightness of weight.  In 1765, shortly after opening his first London showroom, he got a huge break when he was invited to take part in a contest to design a tea set for Queen Charlotte.  It took months of experiments but his gilded tea set with green flowers won the competition.  With royal recognition, Wedgwood became a Georgian super brand, distinguished by quality while delivering artistic perfection on an industrial scale.[4]


Dating from about 1765, this circular Wedgwood plate has a molded shell edge and is finely painted in deep purple with flowers and leaves. The edge is feathered in purple.

Why was America so important?

In the middle of the 18th century, a new consumer group appeared: the middling class.  This middling class was particularly prevalent in the American Colonies.  They wanted British goods like sugar, coffee, chocolate, and tea and their accompanying accessories and ceramics to show off their new social status and refinement.[5]

Pre-Revolutionary War, America did not have a single pottery manufacturer to create tea accoutrements like teapots and saucers capable of matching the quality and aesthetic of Wedgwood.  Thus, America became a good client in the booming British export trade and one of Wedgwood’s most important overseas markets.  The colonies, in fact, became such a huge market that “around half of all English exports of copperware, ironware, glassware, earthenware, silk goods, printed cotton and linen goods, and flannels were shipped to colonial consumers.” Josiah took advantage of this boom and packed as many crates as possible on Liverpool ships bound for the New World.[6]

85024 cd

This miniature covered creamware Wedgwood coffeepot dates from between 1785-1800. It has a plain loop handle, straight spout, and knob finial and is painted with underglaze iron red scattered flower sprays and border stripes. The lid is dome-shaped.

“All the world are with the Ministers & against the poor Americans…”

There were two reasons why Josiah Wedgwood disagreed with the war against America, one was philosophical and one was financial.  Wedgwood enjoyed the American boom in ceramic exports and worried about what taxation and colonial unrest might have upon his trade.  Many businessmen with interests in America saw a threat to the market for British goods with undue taxes like the Stamp Act of 1765. They agreed with future Prime Minister Lord Pitt’s criticism “that this kingdom has not right to lay a tax on the colonies…Trade is your object with them and taxing was ill advised.  If you do not make suitable laws for them, they will make laws for you.”  Because of the strong opposition from merchants and American resistance, the Stamp act was repealed. However, that did not ease the anxieties of Wedgwood and other merchants.[7]

Wedgwood knew he had much to lose if American markets became inaccessible because of war stating, “the bulk of our particular manufacture you know is exported to foreign markets for our home consumption is very trifleing [sic] in comparison to what is send aboard, …this trade to our Colonies.” He continued, “we are apprehensive of losing in a few years.”[8]

Legislation continued to cut into Wedgwood’s trade and profits. Besides imposing an indirect tax on the colonists, the Townshend Acts of 1767 got rid of a refund on the duty that manufacturers paid, which meant it would cost more to export goods to the colonies.  In 1775, Parliament issued the New England Restraining Acts, restricting the Colonies’ trade and commerce to Great Britain, Ireland, and the British West Indies.  This was Parliament’s response to the declaration of the Continental Congress in the fall of 1774 instigating a “non-consumption agreement” and promising “we will not import, into British America, from Great Britain or Ireland, any goods, wares, or merchandise whatsoever.”  By the next year, diplomatic and commercial relations had broken down and, three months before the Declaration of Independence was signed, American ports were officially closed to British trading ships.[9]

This all had a major effect on commerce for merchants and manufacturers like Wedgwood.   In 1770, customs and excise officers recorded over 1.2 million pieces of glass and earthenware shipped to America.  In 1775, less than 139,000 pieces had been shipped.[10]


An oval form with a tall, off-center oval foot rim. The inside is molded with fluted sides, a deep pear, and two flanking leaves on bottom. This Wedgwood form dates from between 1810 and 1820.

Enlightenment Philosophy at Work

While war took a large chunk out of Wedgwood’s bottom line, that was not the only reason he opposed war.  He was a man of the Enlightenment and held fast to many of the philosophical principles that formed the basis for this new America.

Josiah was born and raised a Unitarian.  The seven principles of Unitarianism include the belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, the free and responsible search for truth, the use of democratic process, and peace, liberty, and justice for all.  Wedgwood grew up in a society that created its own culture distinct from the Anglican status quo, a culture with a strong sense of morality and responsibility. So his interests in the ideas of the Enlightenment were not too surprising.[11]

Josiah delved into the Enlightenment, reading many of the writings from the great thinkers of the time including John Locke’s Treatise on Education, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.  They all talked about concepts of self-improvement, education, liberty, and inalienable rights. Wedgwood truly believed in these principles and put them into practice in his own life and business by trying to use his company and wealth for the social good.  He reinvested profits back into the company to create a better standard of living for the employees in under his care.  Schools were started for the workers’ children, additional training was made available for workers, and work place safety was improved with the elimination of harmful lead glazes and the constant search for better environmental practices.  He believed that the people mattered more than the profit.[12]


A “Queen’s” shape Wedgwood plate from 1956 with a view of Kenmore as the center transfer-print. The six lobed rim is transfer-printed in brown with various leaves.

With the American Revolution and then the French Revolution, he saw a chance to create societies built upon Enlightenment philosophies that could flourish without an authoritarian regime and without imposition of unnecessary taxation. A society ruled by reason, truth and free enterprise.  Wedgwood’s idealism was high.  Life does not always follow abstract principles, however, and he would struggle to balance his ideals with political, financial, and social realities.[13]

He supported America’s right to self-rule and knew the colonists were a force to be reckoned with commercially. Yet, he was also a British businessman with a prominent reputation.  At home, he had to balance his principles with his need to seem patriotic.  He tried to stress to government ministers the economic devastation a war would have on Britain but he was clear in his opinion of “the absurdity, folly & wickedness of our whole proceedings with America.”[14]

Wedgwood lived to see America’s victory in the struggle for independence, passing away in January 1795.  He and his business had survived the war with their Enlightenment ideals and financial success intact.[15]

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager


[1] Wilson, A.N., The Genius of Josiah Wedgwood, BBC Two, April 19, 2013.

[2] “Josiah Wedgewood (1730-95) ,” The Royal Collection Trust, rct.uk/collection/people/josiah-wedgwood-1730-95#/type/subject; Pirie, Madsen. “Josiah Wedgwood, An Industrial Revolution Pioneer.” Adam Smith Institute, The Adam Smith Institute, 12 July 2019, adamsmith.org/blog/josiah-wedgewood-an-industrial-revolution-pioneer

[3] Perry, Mike. “WEDGWOOD (JOSIAH WEDGWOOD & SONS LTD),” Pottery Histories potteryhistories.com/page99.html; Wilson, The Genius of Josiah Wedgwood; “Josiah Wedgewood (1730-95) ,” The Royal Collection Trust.

[4] “Josiah Wedgewood (1730-95) ,” The Royal Collection Trust; Wilson, The Genius of Josiah Wedgwood.

[5] Berg, Maxine. “Men and Women of the Middling Classes: Acquisitiveness and Self-Respect.” Luxury and Pleasure in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Oxford University Press, 2007, 199-246; Dolan, Brian. Wedgwood: The First Tycoon. New York City, Viking, 2004, 74-75; Wilson, The Genius of Josiah Wedgwood.

[6] Wilson, The Genius of Josiah Wedgwood; Dolan, 250, 75.

[7] Dolan, 160-161.

[8] Dolan, 161.

[9] Dolan, 160, 254.

[10] Dolan, 254.

[11] “The Seven Principles.” Our Faith, Unitarian Universalist Association, 2020, uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles; Wilson, The Genius of Josiah Wedgwood.

[12] Dolan, 253, 266.

[13] Dolan, 314.

[14] Dolan, 255.

[15] Dolan, 323.

“Your Entire George Washington”: The Affection Between George and Martha

After George Washington died on December 14, 1799, his wife, Martha, burned all of their correspondence. From the perspective of a historian, her decision devastates. However, it was a common 18th century practice for married couples to burn personal correspondence after the death of one spouse. Perhaps it was a way for the surviving spouse to keep a portion of their loved one to themselves, especially in couples where the public might have a keen interest. Nonetheless, the loss of letters that display affection can often lead to speculation. For example, George Washington never seems to escape rumors about his teenage-crush, Sally Fairfax, as well as the fallacy that he only married Martha for her money. These two claims have been debated by historians practically since George’s death.

Despite Martha’s efforts to conceal the private life of her and her husband, whether on purpose or on accident, she missed two letters. These letters, both from George to Martha, were found caught behind a drawer in her desk by her granddaughter, Martha Parke Custis Peter, who received the desk as part of her inheritance. The letters were written within five days of each other.

The Wedding of Washington and Martha Custis (1854) by Junius Brutus Stearns

Painting in the 1850s, artist Junius Brutus Stearns imagined how the wedding of George Washington and Martha Custis on January  might have looked. Credit: Library of Congress

In June of 1775, the marriage between George and Martha Washington entered the biggest challenge it ever faced. A month earlier, George had arrived in Philadelphia, after being persuaded to attend the meeting of the Second Continental Congress. While he contributed to several committees, by June the other members of Congress realized Washington’s true value lay in his previous military service during the French and Indian War. George’s fate to serve as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army was sealed even though the official announcement wouldn’t come until June 19.

The day before, on June 18, 1775, George Washington penned a letter to Martha and informed her that, instead of returning to Mount Vernon, he would leave for Boston to take command of the army very soon. In the letter, he expressed his reservations about taking the position of Commander-in-Chief, but also pointed out that it was his duty. He assured Martha “that I should enjoy more real happiness and felicity in one month with you, at home, than I have the most distant prospect of reaping abroad, if my stay was to be Seven times Seven years.” The notion of desiring one month of marital bliss over 49 years anywhere else is certainly a window into George’s true feelings regarding his “dear Patsy”.

Over the next few days, as he prepared for his departure, George must have thought about his wife and pondered how long it would be until he saw her again. For that reason, he wrote her again on June 23, 1775, only five days later.  A shorter letter, but one that also expressed his true feelings, George wrote “I retain an unalterable affection for you, which neither time or distance can change.” It might seem like poetry or a line from the latest RomCom but, as he penned these words, his country, marriage, and life were each in a precarious position. Perhaps all of this was weighing on his shoulders and he felt the need to express his adoration for his wife. He closed the letter “Yr entire Go:Washington”.

Throughout history, George and Martha’s marriage has often been questioned. The lack of letters (due to the burning) left little evidence of any affection. Martha was a very wealthy widow when she agreed to marry the young upstart George. Many believe the marriage was strictly strategic. It was true that many marriages and many aspects of marriages in the 18th century were strategic. It was also true that, as a young man, George had eyes for Sally Fairfax. However, the two letters between George and Martha that survive demonstrate the real warmth and adoration George felt for his wife.

If there is a lack of evidence in letters showing Martha reciprocating George’s affection, there is evidence in other places. Martha is said to have called him “my dearest” or sometimes “old man.” I imagine that during his more stressful moments, like many husbands, George turned to his wife for comfort, advice, and perhaps to just vent. There is evidence that Martha, who was publicly disinterested in politics, made a comment on the final presidential election of her life. Thomas Jefferson, who had been a thorn in George’s side throughout his presidency, stopped at Mount Vernon for the first and only visit he would ever make there. Martha referred to the visit as the “most painful occurrence of her life.” Furthermore, when Jefferson was elected president in 1800, she stated it was the “greatest misfortune our nation has ever experienced.” She despised Jefferson for his years of his opposition to her husband. A wife supposedly indifferent to her husband probably would not feel so strongly about one of his rivals.

The Washington Family (late 1790s) by Edward Savage

The Washington Family (late 1790s) by Edward Savage showing George and Martha, of course. There is also George Washington “Washy” Parke Custis and Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis, Martha’s grandchildren and George’s adopted children, as well as an enslaved man, perhaps Billy Lee, George’s manservant or valet. Credit: National Gallery of Art

The couple would be a little less than a month shy of their 41st wedding anniversary when George died on December 14, 1799.  When he died, he famously uttered the words “’Tis well.” After years of being asked to make sacrifices, years of being separated from her husband for long stretches of time, Martha echoed her husband saying “’Tis well, all is now over. I shall soon follow him. I have no other trials to pass through.”

Whether you find the few letters and stories of their affection convincing or not, I think it can be agreed that George and Martha’s marriage was one of strength and balance. They completed each other in several ways even though their personalities were quite different. The 6 foot, 3 inch George was the yin to Martha’s 4 foot, 11 inch yang.

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

Charlotte and the Mercury Pills

As part of our ongoing effort to research the enslaved communities that once lived and worked at Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we recently came across some very unusual information pertaining to a young enslaved woman named Charlotte who resided at Kenmore.

Charlotte, unfortunately, is a somewhat enigmatic figure. We know only a few things about her. She was about 11 years old in 1781, when Fielding Lewis died – her name appears as “Sharliot” in his probate inventory. She is also listed (along with her age) on a document called the Divvy List created by Betty Lewis shortly after her husband’s death and listing which slaves were to stay with her at Kenmore and which ones would eventually be given to her three youngest sons. Betty chose Charlotte to stay with her at Kenmore. Sixteen years later, Charlotte appears again on a list of slaves from the Lewis properties who were to be sold at vendu (public sale or auction). This document indicates that Charlotte worked as a seamstress in the Lewis household, and that she had both a young son named George, and a baby (although the baby was not identified by name or gender). One final reference to Charlotte in Kenmore’s manuscript collection is a notation that she was among 21 enslaved persons receiving textile rations sometime around 1796 (she received 5 yards of linen).

enslaved seamstress

Enslaved seamstress in the 18th century. Credit: Historical Images

As often happens in this kind of research, we can have very sparse detail about a subject’s life until we find a new document that provides incredible detail about a very specific moment in that person’s life. Such is the case with Charlotte. The new document is a list of charges for medical examinations and treatments “to Charlotte” submitted by an “R. Wellford”, a doctor, to Betty Lewis’s estate sometime after Betty’s death in 1797. It shows that from April through November of 1796, Betty Lewis paid over £10 to treat Charlotte’s unidentified ailment.

ms 850

Transcription of MS 850, Charges for Medical Expenses [1]

The Estate of Mrs. Betty Lewis
Dbt. To R. Wellford

April 15th Examining Charlotte’s throat & advice for do . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.10.0
22nd Visit from the Courthouse to Charlotte . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.10.0
Twelve Mercl. Alt. pills for 12 doses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.12.0
Volatile discutrent Liniment @ 32 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.9.0

May 10th Visit from Frdbg. To Charlotte . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.10.0
Ings. For one Galen of Sudorific decoction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.6.0

July 9th Volatile Linament @3, Charlotte . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.4.6
30th Visit from Fredbg. To Charlotte . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1.0.0
31st Fifteen Alt. Merc. Pills for 15 doses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.15.0

Aug. 2nd Visit to do from Courthouse . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.10.0
Ings. As before for 1 Galen of decoction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.6.0
24th Visit refd. From Fredbg . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1.0.0
Twelve Mercl. Alt. pill as before . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.12.0
Ings. for decoction repeated . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0.6.0
Sugar of lead for 4 discontent poultices . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.3.0
Strong vitriolic astringent gargle @3 or . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.6.0

Novr. 10th Fifteen Alt. Merc. Pills . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0.15.0


What can this new document tell us about Charlotte’s life? First, we can take a look at the medications prescribed to treat what we assume to be a respiratory ailment…

To begin her treatments, Charlotte was given 12 doses of mercury tablets on April 15, 1796. When ingested mercury causes the body to sweat and salivate and, as was incorrectly believed at that time, to rid itself of excess moisture and any toxins causing the sickness. In reality, mercury is a poison and the sweating, salivating, and intense diarrhea is actually the the body trying to rid itself of the deadly mercury. Mercury can also stimulate the mucous membranes thus increasing congestion and actually making it more difficult for the body to expel the mercury.

In the 18th century, much of medicine was still heavily based on a theory dating back to ancient Greece when it was believed that an imbalance of the body’s liquids or humors (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood) caused illness. While there were many medical voices in the 18th century who questioned the humors theory of illness, the idea persisted deep into the 19th century. Similarly, mercury in a drug called ‘calomel’ was still prescribed by doctors well into the 20th century.

On April 15, Charlotte was also prescribed a ‘Volatile discutrent Liniment’. This was basically ammonia suspended in some kind of oil that was spread on her chest or face to open up her airways. Think of this liniment as a very early form of Vicks VapoRub that smelled of urine. This probably would work pretty well to temporarily ease congestion if you had a nasty cold.

Then, on May 10, Charlotte receives a ‘sudorific decoction’ that, like the mercury tablets, was supposed to make her sweat a lot. If she had a fever, profuse sweating could possibly help bring down her body temperature by spurring the body’s natural cooling process of evaporating sweat from skin. The doctor may have been once again been trying to purge her body of supposed excess moisture. Regardless, with repeated purgings, Charlotte was in real danger of dehydration, a significant problem when you are ill.

On July 9 and 31, Charlotte is given even more ammonia liniment and mercury. By now, you can’t help but wonder if these treatments were making her feel far more terrible than her underlying disease.

Twice more in August, Charlotte is given more heroic amounts of mercury in addition to the ‘decoction’ to purge her system further. She is also given an ammonia gargle, probably for a sore throat, that would have tasted incredibly vile. For the first time, she is given sugar of lead poultices, which were placed on skin to dry up conditions that were ‘weepy’. Charlotte probably had some kind of sore that her doctor was trying to dry up. Perhaps it was a bed sore from being laid up for long periods by her treatments and by what we assume to be a prolonged respiratory condition?

Finally, on November 10, long suffering Charlotte is dosed once again with mercury. Presumably she still has some excess moisture in her respiratory system but as this is the only treatment given on that day and the last of the treatments recorded, she must have been recovering somehow.

Beyond the course of treatment that Charlotte underwent and clues to her what underlying illness may have been, the document also answers a few longstanding questions about the fate of many in Kenmore’s enslaved community at the end of the Lewis era. We have always wondered how many enslaved people Betty Lewis took with her when she left Kenmore and moved to Millbrook, the small farmhouse on the Po River south of town. It’s never been clear whether or not Millbrook was a large enough house to require much labor to keep it running, nor has it ever been clear how much of a farming operation Betty undertook on that land. And yet, the enslaved population that once worked at Kenmore went somewhere in 1795, when Betty left (a document in Kenmore’s collection shows that Betty paid tax on 17 slaves for the year of 1795[2]).

The bill submitted to Betty’s estate by Dr. Wellford answers at least a bit of that question. Charlotte was with Betty at Millbrook, showing that Betty felt she needed the services of a seamstress in her new home, which may indicate that Betty intended to keep up a robust household. Additionally, we know that Betty’s financial situation was precarious by the time she moved to Millbrook. The £10 that she spent on Charlotte’s medical treatment was a sizable sum for her at the time. The willingness to pay out so much money for repeated treatments may indicate that Charlotte held favored status in the household, perhaps because of her particular skilled trade, but also perhaps because she had been in the Lewis household since she was just a small child.

Interestingly, this document also tells us about the doctor prescribing Charlotte’s treatment. The “R. Wellford” shown at the top of the list of charges was almost certainly Dr. Robert Wellford, who was an interesting figure in American history. During the Revolution, Wellford began the war as a doctor in the British army, assigned to the care of American prisoners. Apparently, he was so moved by the plight of these prisoners, that he began advocating for more resources to better their living conditions. When his superiors refused, Wellford more or less “allowed” himself to be captured by the Continental Army. He informed his captors that he would provide intelligence on British movements if they sent him back to the British, which they did. Over the course of a year, Wellford spied for the Americans, smuggling out information to them, before he eventually fled to the American lines after his superiors began to question his loyalties.

Following the war, Wellford chose to stay in America, although as a former British officer he had difficulty in attracting patients to his practice in Philadelphia. George Washington eventually recommended that he move to Fredericksburg, where Washington’s family and friends would be happy to have his services. Washington even wrote a letter of introduction for him to some of the leading citizens of the area. Wellford and his family remained in Fredericksburg for the rest of his life, and he continued to be a family physician to all of the various Lewis and Washington households in the area.

Along with being a well-known physician to some of the most prominent families in Fredericksburg, Wellford seemed to take a special interest in the healthcare of the enslaved community in the area, as well. In addition to making the trip south of town to Millbrook to see Charlotte seven times over the course of his treatments, Wellford kept a diary detailing his treatments of various enslaved persons in Fredericksburg. One such treatment included a cranial surgery performed to relieve pressure on the brain of young man who had suffered a severe fall. [3]

Healthcare for the enslaved in the antebellum south is a complicated topic. While lack of proper nutrition and housing, as well as harsh working conditions, plagued enslaved communities, slave owners often thought of their enslaved workers as significant investments of money, and therefore had a vested interest in keeping them at least healthy enough to work. It was often the plantation mistress who provided the majority of healthcare to the enslaved people on the property. She mixed medicines, provided first aid, birthed babies and directed the re-housing of those affected with contagious disease (outbreaks were a constant worry in the crowded confines of slave quarters). Actual physicians were only brought in when an injury or disease was beyond the mistress’s skill. The receipt for Wellford’s services in treating Charlotte shows us that this was indeed the case on Lewis properties.

Remarkably, Charlotte survived both her ailment and the agonizing treatment for it. Unfortunately, in the 1798 document showing the final disposition of the Lewis family slaves put up for sale, we learn that Charlotte had to face another all-too-common occurrence in the lives of the enslaved. Charlotte was sold to Charles Carter for £103, while her son George was sold to Howell Lewis for £55. Carter resided in present-day Frederick County, Virginia at the time, while Lewis was still a resident of Fredericksburg, meaning that mother and son would probably see very little of each other again, and no mention is made of the listed baby. At the age of only 27, Charlotte had endured far more than horrendous illness and questionable 18th century medical treatments.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Surpervisor

[1] Account, 5 April, 1796 – 10 November, 1796. Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 850.

[2] Receipt, 5 September 1796.  Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 423.

[3] Diary of Robert Wellford (Mss1 W4599 a6), Wellford Family Papers (1794-1940), Virginia Historical Society.

Family Leaders Guiding a Younger Generation: George and Betty’s Letters

George Washington was the oldest of Augustine and Mary Washington’s five children. The next oldest was daughter Betty, who was born 14 months after George and was his only sister.

George and Betty are immensely important to us at George Washington’s Ferry Farm & Historic Kenmore. They spent their formative years at Ferry Farm and Betty called Kenmore home for two decades.  As main characters in our historic sites’ stories, we often ponder what their relationship as siblings was like.

The only way to gauge George and Betty’s relationship is through two dozen letters they wrote to each other between 1779 and 1796.  As we saw in our first post about the two letters Betty wrote to George during the Revolutionary War, theirs was a complex relationship of sibling love and camaraderie strained by intermittent conflict.  The wartime letters revealed a sadness over extended absences and stress from the tensions and difficulties of George’s wartime position as the new nation’s leader.

This second post in our multi-part examination of George and Betty’s sibling relationship deals with their roles as leaders of the Washington and Lewis families.  They were the eldest of the Washington siblings and, after 1781, Betty was the widowed matriarch of the Lewises.  In these roles, Betty and George both cared for and guided a brood of children, grandchildren, step-children, nieces, and nephews.  In fact, of their twenty-four surviving letters, thirteen of them deal substantially with the life of some younger member of the extended Washington-Lewis families.  Most of these 13 letters focused on niece Harriot Washington, whose saga we’ve previously written about here and here.  The others dealt with Robert and Howell Lewis, both sons of Betty and nephews of George, who each became his secretaries for a time.

Robert Lewis was 20-years-old when Uncle Washington was inaugurated president on April 30, 1789.  Robert saw opportunity in George’s position and apparently requested, through Betty, that he might work for the new president.  Uncle Washington replied to Betty with an offer for Robert to be one of his secretaries, writing “I have thought it probable that I may have occasion for a young person in my family of a good disposition, who writes a good hand, and who can confine himself a certain reasonable number of hours in the 24 to the recording of letters in books.”  George warned that Robert’s pay “cannot be great as there are hundreds [of others] who would be glad to come in)” but, if he was okay with a relatively small salary, George would “be very glad to give him the preference.”  In fact, Robert was paid $300 per year, the smallest amount among Washington’s secretaries.  Since Robert was family, however, he could reside with the Washingtons in New York “at no expence (except in the article of clothing) as he will be one of the family and live as we do.”  George desired to know immediately if Robert would accept the offer and, if so, would his nephew accompany Martha “(and at her expence, as she will want somebody to accompany her) when I send my horses back [to Virginia] after I am fixed in New York.”  Robert himself enthusiastically replied to this offer, writing “I shall ever consider myself under a thousand obligations for the proffered post, and think the confinement you speak off rather a pleasure, and hope from my assiduous attention to merit that station.”  Robert Lewis worked as secretary for George until early 1791, when he returned home to get married.

Roughly a year and a half later Robert’s younger brother Howell Lewis, who was at that time also age 20, was offered a secretarial position by President Washington.  George wrote to Betty on April 8, 1792, proposing…

If your Son Howell is living with you, and not usefully employed in your own Affairs; and should incline to spend a few months with me, as a writer in my Office (if he is fit for it) I will allow him at the rate of Three hundred dollars a year, provided he is diligent in discharging the duties of it from breakfast until dinner—Sundays excepted.

This sum will be punctually paid him and I am particular in declaring beforehand what I require, and what he may expect, that there may be no disappointment, or false expectations on either side. He will live in the family in the same manner his brother Robert did. If the offer is acceptable he must hold himself in readiness to come on immediately upon my giving him notice.

I take it for granted that he writes a fair & legible hand, otherwise he would not answer my purpose; as it is for recording letters, and other papers I want him. That I may be enabled to judge of his fitness let him acknowledge the receipt of this letter with his own hand, and say whether he will accept the offer here made him, or not. If he does, & I find him qualified from the specimen he gives in his letter I will immediately desire him to come on which he must do without a moments delay, or I shall be obliged to provide another instead of him.

Betty replied to George, reporting that Howell was away at the time but that she had dispatched George’s offer to him and expected an answer in two weeks’ time.  She worried that Howell’s “very Slender Education” and “his Fathers Death at so Early a Period has been a great disadvantage to him” for he was “left without any Person of Age and Judgement” to guide him.  Howell, Betty said, had to rely on only himself to improve his lot in life and was “not very well informd.”  She closed by praising her son’s “exceeding Good disposition,” felt that “the employment you have design’d for him not difficult,” and he could serve George satisfactorily.

Howell accepted the position, writing to his Uncle Washington that “I consider myself extremely favour’d by your proposal of a birth in your family & shall chearfully accept it provided my probation is deemed satisfactory—I lament that I have not been more attentive to the improvement of my writing tho hope that I shall soon be qualified to do the business for which you mean to enploy me.”

Howell soon set out to join the President in Philadelphia, the national capital since late 1790, carrying another letter from Betty for George with him.  She wrote

You will receive this by Howell, who seems Very happy In the thought of becoming One of your family,1 I sincerely wish he may be Equal to the task you desire for him, he has Promis’d me to Indeaver to Please, and by Close application to improve him self, it is with Infinite Pleasure to my self that he has a Prospect of geting in a Place where he may receive so much advantage to him self, his Fortune being very small there is little Prospect of happiness in this world without thay Can get into Busness of some sort.

In a letter to Charles Carter of Ludlow, Washington revealed that, in actuality, he had “no real want . . . of Howell Lewis” but had offered him the work because “he was spending his time rather idly” and was very slenderly provided for by his father.”  George thought that “by taking him under my care, I might impress him with ideas, and give him a turn to some pursuit or other that might be serviceable to him hereafter.”  Howell worked as secretary until July 1793, when his uncle tapped him to be manager at Mount Vernon.

So, as might be expected between the eldest siblings of a family, much of the correspondence and relationship between Betty and George Washington focused on their respective and extended families’ offspring.  George and Betty were the family leaders and propriety dictated that they work together when necessary to provide for and guide these children, grandchildren, stepchildren, nieces, and nephews to success in life.  As we have seen, earlier with Harriot, and now with Robert and Howell, nearly half of Betty and George’s surviving letters and thus their relationship dealt in some fashion with matters concerning the Washington and Lewis families’ younger generations.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs