Happily Ever After at Happy Retreat

At George Washington’s Ferry Farm, most of our thinking, research, and writing is focused on the best known and most significant of all Americans, George Washington.  But George was not the only Washington to live at Ferry Farm nor was he even the only Washington boy to grow up on this land along the Rappahannock River.  Indeed, three other sons of Augustine and Mary Washington called Ferry Farm their boyhood home.  They were Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles.

West Virginia state coat of arms illustrated in 1876 by Henry Mitchell

West Virginia state coat of arms illustrated in 1876 by Henry Mitchell. Public domain.

As two native West Virginians transplanted to Virginia, we feel a special affinity for Charles Washington.  Charles Town, a present-day city in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle, bears his name.  Charles’s life is admittedly less documented than older brother George’s but it is no less interesting, even with several frustrating gaps in his story.  Being that it is the season for June weddings as well as the very day West Virginia declared its statehood 155 years ago, we thought it fitting to briefly examine one of the more interesting (and better documented) incidents in the life of young Charles Washington.

In 1757, 19-year-old Charles Washington and 18-year-old Mildred Thornton wanted to marry.  Charles, however, was underage from a financial standpoint.  He could not receive the inheritance promised to him by his late father Augustine until he turned 21-years old.

Frances Thornton, Mildred’s widowed mother, apparently expressed concerns to Mary Washington that if Charles died before he turned 21 then his property as well as any property that Mildred brought into the marriage as part of her dowry would all go to George Washington and leave Mildred with nothing.

In a letter that has not been found, Mary wrote to George about Mrs. Thornton’s worries.  On September 30, 1757, George replied “that if there is no other objection than the one you mention, it may soon be removed.”  He seemed hurt that Mrs Thornton apparently believed him “capable of taking these ungenrous [sic] advantages.” He scathingly criticized her as knowing “little of the principles which govern my conduct.”  In the next sentence, however, he granted that Mildred’s mother was probably “actuated by prudent Motives.”  In the end, George told Mary that if Mrs. Thornton, “will get any Instrument of writing drawn I will sign it provided it does not effect me in other respects than her Daughters Fortune, if my Brother dies under Age.”  In other words, even though offended, he promised to observe Mildred’s rights as a widow.

It’s not clear why but it seems that George’s resentful and reluctant promise did not actually settle the matter.  Perhaps he was unhappy with the ‘instrument of writing’ presented to him and refused to sign?  Perhaps Mildred Thornton was not satisfied with his begrudging promise?  Regardless, a couple of weeks later, Charles’ uncle Fielding Lewis and Mildred’s uncle John Thornton appeared in court to be named guardians of their nephew and niece respectively.  Each man posted a bond of £2,000 as a measure of security for the couple (Paula Felder, Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family: A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg, The American History Company, 1998: 132-33).

Mildred and Charles finally married, and in 1760, they moved into a house in Fredericksburg on what is now Caroline Street. They had four children, George Augustine, Frances Ann, Samuel and Mildred.

Ultimately, in 1780, Charles moved his family to western Virginia, where he built a home called Happy Retreat.  The town that bears his name was founded on his land in 1786 and it was there he died of unknown causes in September 1799 at the age of 61.  While not as well-known as George, Charles left behind an important legacy in the form of Charles Town and Happy Retreat.

HappyRetreat_CharlesTownWV

“Happy Retreat,” the home of Charles Washington, as seen in present-day Charles Town, West Virginia. Public domain.

Happy Retreat was privately owned by a descendant of the Washington family for a number of years. However, it was recently sold to the City of Charles Town and a board of citizens was created to oversee the preservation and restoration of the property and to plan and present programs and events at the site. Among the sitting board members is Washington family descendant Walter Washington. Some of the rooms within Happy Retreat have been restored and an archaeological dig is currently underway to discover more information about the family and land. In the near future, Happy Retreat will be a gathering place used for education and special events in the community of Charles Town and surrounding areas.

Allison Burns
Museum Educator

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

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