Harriot Washington’s “Hard Knock Life”

With one sister and three brothers, George Washington was uncle to numerous nieces and nephews.  One niece was Harriot Washington was born sometime in 1776 to his brother Samuel and Samuel’s fourth wife Ann Steptoe.  Harriot was orphaned by the time she was five years old, when her mother died in 1777 and her father in 1781.  Harriot’s younger years were a hard life of shuffling between relatives’ households.  She gained stability with her aunt Betty Lewis at Kenmore, where she spent her teenage years.  Both George and Betty were constantly concerned about her financial well-being and development into a respectable woman of the gentry class.[1]

HARRIOT AT MOUNT VERNON, Late 1780s-1792

mount-vernon

Mount Vernon. Credit: Wikipedia/Martin Falbisoner

After her parents’ deaths and living in the care of her mother’s relatives for four or five years, Harriot came to live with uncle George at Mount Vernon because, as Washington noted to nephew George Augustine Washington, he knew of “no resource that Harriot has for Supplies but from me.”

When George and Martha departed Mount Vernon for New York City and his presidency, however, Martha’s niece Fanny became Harriot’s de facto guardian.  Washington lamented to Tobias Lear that Fanny was “little fitted” to the task of caring for her, however.  The new president seemed perplexed by Harriot “who is almost grown” but “is not quite a Woman” and wondered, with some exasperation, about what to do with her.  He judged that, while she was by no means too old to attend boarding school, any such school would have to “enforce good rules” since Harriot was “prone to idleness” and had been “under no control.”

Several letters between Harriot and her uncle survive.  The first in the record was written on April 2, 1790.  Harriot was 14-years-old and living at Mount Vernon while Washington was in New York. Harriot asked her uncle to send her a guitar since she wanted to take lessons for “all the young Ladyes are a learning musick.”  Harriot was confident “that five or six lessons would be sufficient for any body to learn.”  The records consulted reveal no response from Washington.

Harriot wrote a brief letter on October 24, 1791 with short comments about the dreadful weather and an illness plaguing Lund Washington. Harriot mentioned that she had waited until the last minute to write the letter before it had to be sent. This seeming laziness displeased Washington and, worried about his niece’s idle behavior, he took the opportunity to provide a lengthy letter of advice beyond admonishing her to not wait until the last moment to begin a task.  He warned Harriot of the…

“delicacy and danger of that period, to which you are now arrived under peculiar circumstances—You are just entering into the state of womanhood without the watchful eye of a Mother to admonish, or the protecting aid of a Father to advise and defend you; you may not be sensible that you are at this moment about to be stamped with that character which will adhere to you through life.”

Washington assured Harriot that her cousins at Mount Vernon were “well qualified to give you advice” and he hoped that she was “disposed to receive it.”  If she was “disobliging—self willed and untowardly,” however, her cousins would not “engage themselves in unpleasant disputes” but would likely leave her to descend into poor character.  Washington encouraged her to “Think then to what dangers a giddy girl of 15 or 16 must be exposed in circumstances like these—To be under but little or no controul may be pleasing to a mind that does not reflect, but this pleasure cannot be of long duration.”  Washington seemed to express concern about those with whom she was associating and that from them she “can derive nothing that is good.”  This warning might have also been a general caution against keeping poor company.  Regardless, he wanted her to “aid to your Cousin in the domestic concerns of the family.”

Harriot replied, “I was very sensible, of your kindness in giving me such good advice, and shall try to profit, by it as much as I can, I know very well, the obligations I am under, to you and I am very thankful for your care and attention to me.”  She duly promised to assist more with the household duties.  On May 28, 1792, Harriot requested a guitar again and this time, Washington bought her one for $17.

HARRIOT AT KENMORE, 1792-1795

Betty Washington Lewis

Portrait of Betty Washington Lewis by John Wollaston, c. 1755.

In the fall of 1792, Washington determined it was necessary for Harriot to go live with his sister Betty Washington Lewis in Fredericksburg.  He and Martha were to return to the new national capital of Philadelphia while Fanny and her ill husband were leaving for New Kent County.  No one was left at Mount Vernon to care for Harriot.

Betty raised no objections to taking in Harriot “if she comes well cloath’d or Provided to get them, that she may appear tolerable.” She wanted to forestall any chance that the young lady “was prevented frequently from appearing in publick.”  Betty reminded George of the Lewis family’s deep financial difficulties and that her grandchildren were living with her too.

Washington assured his sister that Harriot would arrive “very well provided with every thing proper for a girl in her situation.”  He judged Harriot as having “sense enough, but no disposition to industry nor to be careful of her Cloaths.”  He hoped Betty’s example and guidance would end the 16-year-old’s habit of always wearing her best things while also leaving clothing lying all over her room. Fanny had been too lenient with her, Washington suggested, but Betty’s firm hand could still yet “make a fine woman.”

Not long after getting settled in Fredericksburg, however, Harriot requested money from Washington for a dress or dress material so that she could attend the town’s ball celebrating the president’s birthday.  She apologized for again troubling Washington and assured him that any money sent would be kept by Betty.  Harriot promised to “properly care for the new dress.

At the end of January 1793, Betty confirmed receiving money sent by Washington for Harriot.  She noted that living in town was “unfortunate” for Harriot “for many [of her] things that could be wore to the last string in a [country] Place, will not do here, where we see so much Company.”  Betty took the opportunity to praise Harriot as well, noting that she “Payes the strictest regard to the advice I give her and really she is very Ingenious in makeing her Clothes and altering them to the best advantage.”

Time and a few other letters about money passed back and forth until September 1793 when Betty sent a letter to her brother asking when he might send for Harriot so that she could again live at Mount Vernon.  Betty revealed that, while she knew “of none that I would sooner have to live with me,” her own dire financial situation was not conducive to Harriot staying.  Betty expressed dismay over the small amount of her income and the small number of servants she had. To compound matters, she now only owned two horses, which kept her from visiting over any lengthy distance.  All the while, Harriot and two grandchildren lived with her.

Washington perhaps agreed that the time had come for Harriot’s return to his household.  It seems he told Betty that if Philadelphia’s yellow fever epidemic continued, Martha would spend the winter of 1793-94 away from danger at Mount Vernon.  If this were the case, he would send for Harriot and she could stay with Martha.  This plan, however, was not implemented.  Instead, Harriot spent part of the winter of 1793-94 with a relative in Culpeper.

As Kenmore, life for Harriot seemed to settle into something of a routine.  Her letters reveal a growing maturity and an understanding of her situation.  Money was still an ever present matter but one gets the impression that her requests were for real needs.  In 1794, requests for cash went to Washington on May 25, and June 27.  A letter of thanks from Harriot to him is dated July 10.  One further request for money came on January 4, 1795.

Betty and Harriot left Kenmore to live at Millbrook in November 1795.  Harriot turned 19-years-old that year and the focus of her relationship with both her aunt and uncle shifted from an orphan girl who had lived a “hard knock life” to a eligible and mature young woman with a respectable suitor and marriage on the horizon.

To be continued….

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] ; Frank E. Grizzard, Jr., “Washington, Samuel, (1734-1781),” George! A Guide to All Things Washington, Charlottesville, VA: Mariner Publishing, 2005, 337-338; Note accompanying “To George Washington from Harriot Washington, 2 April 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-05-02-0199;  “Samuel Washington,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Washington, [accessed September 8, 2014].

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