George Washington’s “Last Act of Personal Duty”

The Presidential election of 1789 looked quite different than our current election day. For one, the election had to last almost a month to ensure that each state had time for their voters to choose their candidate. Then, in February, the Electoral College announced that Washington would be the first president with a resounding 69 electoral votes. Along with this victory, George Washington was unanimously chosen by the popular vote to lead our country. No other president has accomplished this feat. To most, Washington was the obvious choice. His status as a war hero, his strong self-will, and his determination to provide our new nation with solid-ground to build upon were just a few of the things that led him to victory.

When George was first notified of his new job title, he was at Mount Vernon and knew he must prepare to travel to New York City, the nation’s first capital city, to be inaugurated. First, he started by preparing Mount Vernon for his departure. He ordered his overseers, farm managers, secretaries, and even nephews keep him up-to-date on all goings-on while he was away. Washington, like most landed-gentry in the new country, was land rich and cash poor. So he also wrote a letter to a friend and merchant, Richard Conway, asking to borrow money. “Five hundred pounds would enable me to discharge what I owe in Alexandria &ca;” he wrote, “and to leave the State (if it shall not be permitted me to remain at home in retirement) without doing this, would be exceedingly disagreeable to me.” From this letter, we can see that Washington apparently was not especially enthusiastic about his new appointment. Nonetheless, he saw undertaking the presidency as his duty as expressed in his first inaugural address.

Among the other plans and arrangements he made, George visited his mother Mary in Fredericksburg. Once Richard Conway had agreed to lend him the needed funds, Washington thanked him and wrote that he would “set of tomorrow for Fredericksburg in order probably to discharge the last Act of personal duty, I may, (from her age) ever have it in my power to pay my Mother it would be very inconvenient for me.” Indeed, by 1789, Mary had fallen quite ill with breast cancer. She had been sick for a while, but only recently had the family realized she was ultimately nearing her end.

Washington's Last Interview with his Mother

“Washington’s Last Interview with his Mother” (1860) by an unknown artists, printed by H.E. Coates. Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

It had all started in April of 1787. George was heading to Philadelphia to join the Constitutional Convention when he received an urgent letter from Fredericksburg. He wrote to Henry Knox to inform him of his delay in reaching the convention, saying “I am summoned by an express who assures me not a moment is to be lost, to see a mother, and only Sister (who are supposed to be in the agonies of death) expire; and I am hastening to obey this melancholy call, after having just bid an eternal farewell to a much loved Brother who was the intimate companion of my youth and the most affectionate friend of my ripened age.” The previous few months had been rough for the entire family, as George’s letter suggests. John Augustine had passed away suddenly and it had taken its toll. George himself was complaining of arthritis, saying that he was “so much afflicted with a rheumatic complaint (of which I have not been entirely free for Six months) as to be under the necessity of carrying my arm in a sling for the last ten days”.

Upon arriving in Fredericksburg, after a hasty pace of a ride, George found Betty to be doing much better. Mary, on the other hand, he said “left little hope of her recovery as she was exceedingly reduced and much debilitated by age and the disorder.” It is not certain that this bout of illness had anything to do with the cancer that would later take Mary’s life, but the illness certainly kept the children, especially Betty, watchful of Mary’s health.

Mary Washington House

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

Mary Washington Monument

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

So in 1789, when Mary’s health was deteriorating once more, George knew that he had to visit her before he left for New York and the presidency. Later, he wrote Betty, “When I was last at Fredericksburg, I took a final leave of my Mother, never expecting to see her more.” Many say that when George visited Mary in March of 1789, it was to ask for a blessing on his new position as President of the United States. Unfortunately, there is no documentation of what their visit entailed other than Washington spending time with his sick mother. Furthermore, given his personal adversity to taking the position, it seems unlikely that he would have needed or wanted permission to take the job. However, I think it can be said that given Mary’s strong influence as a single parent, George’s sense of duty may have been all the blessing or permission he needed from his mother.

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

Flowers of Kenmore [Photos]

While Historic Kenmore remains closed temporarily because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, nature’s seasons move forward as normal.  One of the highlights of spring in Kenmore’s gardens is the first blooms of our tulips and other flowers.  Since visitors cannot see the beauty of these flowers in person, we wanted to share some photos for everyone to enjoy.

 

I Spy: Sewing

Sewing was an important and necessary skill that all girls in the 18th century learned from a young age.  A family’s clothing, bed and table linens, and other items made of fabric were in constant need of repair. These repairs and other sewing tasks were considered women’s work. Along with practical applications, sewing skills included fancier needlework used to make decorative luxuries.

To showcase these artistic needlework skills, girls and young women made samplers. One tool used to make such samplers was a special embroidery hook called a tambour hook. One of these hooks was found by archaeologists in the remains of the Washington house at Ferry Farm. Young Betty Washington probably used this special tool, made of a bone handle and a portion of a steel hook, to add decorative touches to fine needlework projects.

Tambour Hook

Tambour hook used for neddlework excavated by archaeologists from the reamains of the Washington house at Ferry Farm.

Using the picture and list below to find sewing-related artifacts excavated at Ferry Farm!​ Click on the image to enlarge.

Sewing I Spy

Sewing tools

Can you find these artifacts?

  • 3 gold military buttons
  • 2 ‘hook & eye’ hooks
  • 6 thimbles
  • A black button with a star
  • 3 pair of scissors
  • 7 button blanks (one hole)
  • 13 buckles
  • 2 sets of cufflinks
  • A wooden tambour hook handle

Siblings Strained by Revolution: George and Betty’s Wartime 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 best and, frankly, only gauge of George and Betty’s relationship are the letters they wrote to one another later in their lives.  Twenty-four letters written between 1779 and 1796 have survived. They wrote more than just these two dozen but many have not been found.  The 24 that have survived depict a complex relationship of sibling love and camaraderie tempered by occasional conflict.  Let’s begin, on this National Siblings Day, a multi-post examination of George and Betty’s letters and what they may indicate about the relationship of this historically consequential brother and sister.

In our first post, we look at the letters George and Betty wrote to one another during the Revolutionary War.  There are only two, both from the hand of Betty, but they are profoundly interesting, nonetheless.

The first surviving letter comes in 1779 while George was away commanding the Continental Army.  He had been commander-in-chief for four years by that time and, during the second half of 1779, his service found him headquartered at the highly-fortified and strategically important West Point, New York overlooking the Hudson River.  On September 21, Betty wrote her brother there to thank him for “the miniature Picture—for which I am much Indetted”.  The miniature was painted by Charles Willson Peale and was a small version of his portrait of Washington commemorating the American victories at Trenton on December 26, 1776 and Princeton on January 3, 1777. Peale painted s miniature copy of the portrait specifically for Betty indicating that either George wanted to share his likeness with his sister or that Betty had requested a likeness of her brother that she could have while he was away fighting.

George Washington at the Battle of Princeton (1779) by Charles Willson Peale

“George Washington at the Battle of Princeton” (1779) by Charles Willson Peale. Credit: Yale University Art Gallery

Indeed, this letter shows that Betty cleared missed George.  In sharing that she, her husband Fielding, and their daughter also named Betty had recently visited George’s wife Martha, Betty noted her wish that she could have found George there upon their arrival at Mount Vernon. Doing so, she wrote, “would of Compleat’d My Happiness.”  It had been at least four long years since Betty had laid eyes on George.  Closing the letter, she wistfully expressed her longing for the war’s end, writing, “O when will that Day Come that we Shall meet again[?]—I trust in the Lord soon, till when you have the sincere Prayr’s and Good wishes for your helth [sic] and happiness.”

The only other surviving wartime letter written between George and Betty comes towards the end of the Revolutionary War and reveals a bit more conflict in the sibling relationship than the first.  It is dated August 25, 1783 and is quite a confusing and unclear letter at times.

Betty begins by congratulating George on “the happy Change in our Affairs” because she hoped “it will be the meanes of our Seeing you Soon”.  Betty may simply be congratulating George on the looming end of the war but, at the same time, throughout her letter she refers to more than one event that happened back at the end of 1781.  Indeed, much in the letter seems to indicate that their correspondence had lapsed for a substantial amount of time and that this is may be a catching up letter. If so, then perhaps her good wishes are for George’s victory at Yorktown and the surrender of General Lord Cornwallis back on October 19, 1781?

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis (1820) by John Trumbull

“Surrender of Lord Cornwallis” (1820) by John Trumbull. Credit: Architect of the Capitol

Regardless, Betty is quite upset that she has not heard from George in an extraordinarily long time.  She starkly admonishes him for not writing, saying “I have been at a loss how to account for your long silence,[.] the multiplicity of Business you have on your mind is the only One I Can find that flatters me [that] I am not quite forgot[ten.]”  While acknowledging the pressures on his time as the army’s commander, Betty scolds her “Dear Brother” for not finding “one half [h]Our you Could Spare to write a few lines to an only Sister whoe [sic] was lab[o]ring under so mutch [sic] Affliction both of Body and mind.”

The affliction faced by Betty was the deaths of both her brother Samuel and her husband Fielding, which she says took place within three weeks of one another.  Samuel died on September 26, 1781.  Fielding’s death did not actually take place until sometime between December 10, 1781, when he swore out a codicil to his will, and January 17, 1782, when his will and codicil were presented in court.  Perhaps Betty mistakenly wrote the word “weeks” when she actually meant “months”?  Perhaps time and grief caused her to misremember the length of the interval between the two deaths?  Perhaps she was attempting to make George feel guilty for his long silence?  Regardless, save for the Yorktown victory, late 1781 was indeed a grim time for Betty and it seemed to affect her physical health, if not also her mental health.  She told George that “the uneasiness of mind it Caus’d me to get in an Ill state of helth and I expect’d Shortly to follow them”.  She feared joining Samuel and Fielding.

Betty writes that her illness “happen’d at a time when every thing Contributed to ad[d] to my uneasiness” including a failure to see George when he apparently passed directly through or close to Fredericksburg on his way north after Yorktown.  We’re not entirely sure George actually went through his hometown on this trip.  Betty’s opaque phrasing — “your being in Fredericksburg the only Chance we had of seeing you from the Commencement of the War” — is not terribly helpful in figuring it out.  She is upset because she missed seeing him during his visit or because this was his only visit since the war started or because he passed close to town without stopping at all.

There is evidence, however, that George did travel directly through Fredericksburg but that Betty and his family were not in town at that moment and so did not see him.  In a letter written to George on March 13, 1782, Mary, his mother, laments not being at home “when you went through fredirecksburg [sic].”  She indicates that she was “over the Mountains”, perhaps meaning present-day Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, where the Lewis and Washington families often traveled to use the hot springs for pleasure and medicinal reasons.  Indeed, fearing targeted abduction by the British during the fighting in Virginia in the fall of 1781, Fielding took Mary and Betty and fled to a Lewis property probably in or near today’s Berkeley Springs.  With Fielding in exceedingly poor health, it is thought that this is where he ultimately died, which would put the family there until at least December 1781.  George passed through or near to Fredericksburg sometime in November.

After her scolding and laments, Betty did end her letter to George with a bit of hope and expresses again how much she missed him.  She tells him that she is “Recovering my helth fast and Please my self with thoughts of Shortly Seeing you once more with us.”  But, in a postscript, she gives one more scolding to her beloved brother, saying “I Wrote you three Letters when you was in Virginia but never heard if you got One of them.”

These two wartime letters written by Betty Lewis to her brother George Washington reveal a complex relationship between the two siblings.  It was a relationship characterized by love and by the deep sadness of absence.  It was also a relationship strained by the tensions and difficulties of war and by George’s all-consuming responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

True or False: Test Your Knowledge of George Washington!

True or False…

George Washington was born in England in 1732?
FALSE – Although technically he was born a subject of the King on “English” soil, George was born on his father’s farm on Pope’s Creek in Westmoreland County in the English colony of Virginia in 1732. The site is now the George Washington Birthplace National Monument.

George Washington wore a white wig?
FALSE – As an adult, Washington did not wear a wig, as was the fashion at the time and even though contemporary portraits make it seem that he did.  He chose to pull his hair back in a queue and powdered his hair white to make it look like he was wearing a wig.  Based on the number of wig curlers excavated archaeologically at Ferry Farm, we do suspect that he and his brothers wore wigs as boys. Read more about wigs and wig curlers.

Portrait of George Washington (1795) by Gilbert Stuart

Portrait of George Washington (1795) by Gilbert Stuart. Credit: Public Domain/Metropolitan Museum of Art

George Washington was the only President not to reside in the White House?
TRUE – The Federal government did not move from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. until 1800 when John Adams was the President. Washington did pick the location of the President’s House and approved the architectural design by Irish-born James Hoban.

Washington visited only one other country during his lifetime?
TRUE – In September of 1751 at the age of 19 he traveled to Barbados with his step-brother Lawrence, who was ill with tuberculosis and advised to spend the winter in a warmer climate.  George only stayed until December, but it was during this time that he contracted smallpox. This trip was the only time Washington ever traveled outside the borders of what would become the United States. Read “Three Military Adventures that Inspired George Washington” to learn more.

George Washington chopped down his father’s cherry tree?
FALSE – This story was written by Mason Locke Weems in the first biography of Washington’s life to encourage readers to emulate what Weems, a parson, saw as admirable qualities (truthfulness and physical strength) expected from a great and patriotic leader.

George Washington signed the Declaration of Independence?
FALSE – Washington was in New York City on July 4, 1776, anticipating and preparing for an attack by the British army. On July 9th, he assembled his troops to listen to a reading of the proclamation from the Continental Congress which declared independence from Great Britain.

George threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River as a young man?
FALSE – The earliest version of this legend claims that George threw a piece of slate the size of a silver dollar across the Rappahannock River when he lived at Ferry Farm.  Over the years, it somehow became an actual silver dollar (dollars did not exist when George was a boy nor would he have wasted one by throwing it) and got moved north to the Potomac at Mount Vernon.  Although the Rappahannock at Ferry Farm was wider in George’s day, a few baseball players have achieved the feat. Read “George Washington, Baseball Player?” to learn more.

George Washington’s first job was as a surveyor?
TRUE – George learned how to survey as a teenager and was hired in 1748 at the young age of sixteen to survey land in western Virginia. The following year he was appointed surveyor for Culpeper County.  Surveying was his main occupation until 1752 when he was commissioned as a district adjutant for the Virginia militia by Governor Dinwiddie. Washington made a survey of Ferry Farm in 1771 titled “the fields where my mother lives.” Read more about “George’s First Job.

George Washington did not have a middle name?
TRUE.

George Washington uttered the famous words “Give me liberty or give me death!”?
FALSE – this quote is attributed to Patrick Henry from a speech he made to the Second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775 at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia. George Washington was a delegate in attendance at this convention when a resolution was approved to supply troops from the Virginia militia to the Continental Army.

George Washington was the first person to sign the Constitution in Philadelphia?
TRUE – On September 17, 1787, Washington signed the document as both “President” of the Constitutional Convention and as a delegate from Virginia.

Signatures on the Constitution

Signatures on the Constitution of the United States by delegates to the Constitutional Convention. George Washington’s is visible at the top of the right-hand column. Credit: National Archives

Washington signature closeup

A closeup of Washington’s signature on the U.S. Constitution.

George Washington was tall and had reddish brown hair?
TRUE – George was 6’2” and, yes, he was a ginger!

George Washington’s false teeth were made of wood?
FALSE – His dentures or false teeth were not made of wood, as is commonly supposed. One of his denture sets (he had many throughout his life) on display at Mount Vernon is made of human, cow and horse teeth held together in a lead frame with wires. When Washington was inaugurated as President in 1789, he had only one real tooth remaining in his mouth! Read more about “George’s Troublesome Teeth.”

George Washington’s Secretary of Treasurer was Alexander Hamilton?
TRUE – And he was in the room where it happened, the room where it happened, the room where it happened!

When Washington became the first President of the United States, our federal government was based at its current location of Washington, DC?
FALSE – When Washington was inaugurated President in 1789, New York City was the seat of the government.  In 1790, it was moved to Philadelphia.  Ten years later in 1800, it moved to the purposely-built city of Washington where it has remained ever since.

Washington's Inauguration at Philadelphia by Ferris

“Washington’s Inauguration at Philadelphia” (1947) by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. Credit: Library of Congress

Washington once had his clothes were robbed by two women while he swam in the Rappahannock River?
TRUE – The women, Ann Carrol and Mary McDaniel, were arrested and tried in court. Charges against Ann Carrol were dismissed when she gave evidence for the prosecution. Mary McDaniel was found guilty and punished with “fifteen lashes on her bare back” at the whipping post.  Read “‘Not Having Been Wett All Over at Once, for 28 Years Past’: Bathing in Early America” to learn more about this incident.

As a boy, George Washington helped run the ferry service that ran between his family’s property (now called Ferry Farm) and the town of Fredericksburg?
FALSE – Though located riverside on the Washington farm, the ferry was not actually owned by the Washington family.  The moniker “Ferry Farm” was not ever applied to Washington’s boyhood home until the late 19th century.  To the Washington family, it was called the Home Farm.

Ferry Farm, the boyhood home of George Washington in Stafford County, VA, was actually owned by George, not his mother?
TRUE – Eleven-year-old George inherited the farm upon his father Augustine’s death in 1743.  As he was not of age yet, his mother Mary decided to manage the farm for him until he turned 21.  In the end, Mary lived at and managed the farm until 1772, when George sold the property and moved her into a new home across the river in Fredericksburg.

Judy Jobrack
Co-Field Director, Archaeology Lab Assistant