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]

860031

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]

840018

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]

87544

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.

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

Washington’s St. Patrick’s Day General Order

Saint Patrick’s Day honors St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, who was born in England and lived during the 5th century. Early in life, he was kidnapped, sold into slavery, and ended up living in Ireland. He is credited with converting the Irish to Christianity, as illustrated in the legendary tale that says he drove the snakes (a metaphor for pagans and druids) from Ireland.  He established many churches and was honored with a feast day in his name.

Over time, Saint Patrick’s Day shifted from a religious holiday to a secular celebration of Irish culture and history. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in Boston in 1737. By the time the Revolutionary War started, there was also a parade in New York City and the holiday had become a meaningful celebration to Irish-Americans. Subsequently, during a cold winter encampment in 1780 in Morristown, New Jersey, General George Washington, then commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, noticed his men were having a bout of particularly low morale. The soldiers were low on food, had very shabby shelters, and the winter was harsh.

Washington, a man of many curiosities, became interested in the political goings-on in Ireland, which was also ruled by the British. He could see that Ireland, like the colonies at that time, was struggling to find common ground with the Crown in England. He found the Irish struggle relatable, and also useful. Perhaps, if England could be distracted enough by unrest in Ireland, they would falter in the war against the colonies.

Recognizing the need for a boost, and the opportunity to resonate with specific groups, Washington issued an order on March 16, 1780. Today, it is known as the St. Patrick’s Day General Order. It reads in full:

Head Quarters Morris Town March 16th, 1780
General Order

The general congratulates the army on the very interesting proceedings of the parliament of Ireland and the inhabitants of that country which have been lately communicated; not only as they appear calculated to remove those heavy and tyrannical oppressions on their trade but to restore to a brave and generous people their ancient rights and freedom and by their operations to promote the cause of America.

 Desirous of impressing upon the minds of the army, transactions so important in their nature, the general directs that all fatigue and working parties cease for tomorrow the seventeenth, a day held in particular regard by the people of the nation. At the same time that he orders this, he persuades himself that the celebration of the day will not be attended with the least rioting or disorder, the officers to be at their quarters in camp and the troops of the state line to keep within their own encampment.

St. Patrick's Day General Order

Copy of Washington’s St. Patrick’s Day General Order. Credit: National Archives

The celebration in the camp was the only day the men had off throughout the winter of 1780. According to Washington, the army was in a perilous state well into May. However, the day of rest and celebration certainly helped the troops soldier on. It seems that March 17th was meant to become a day of happenings for George Washington and his army, because 4 years previous to the Morristown order, Washington and his men watched the British retreat from Boston during the opening act of the Revolution.

Irish George Washington

So, this year as you don your shamrocks and green top hats, think of: Hercules Mulligan, a spy for the continentals born in Derry, Ireland; Henry Knox, artillery master extraordinaire and a Boston-native with Irish parents; General Richard Montgomery who before “he caught a bullet in the neck in Quebec” for the cause and had a father in the Irish Parliament; and all the other Irishmen who helped create a free and independent nation here before their own nation could gain that same freedom.

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

LiberTEA

With hindsight, the events of history often seem inevitable.  America was destined for independence from Britain.  All colonists were patriots who saw themselves as a nation and a people separate from the mother country.  This was absolutely not the case.  Colonists’ views on the appropriateness of independence evolved with events.  Over time, British identity gave way to American identity.

US and UK flags

The American Stars and Stripes and British Union Jack, the present-day flags of the United States and the United Kingdom. Credit: Hellerick / Wikipedia

We have written several blog posts about how colonists, including members of the Washington family, clung to their Englishness.  They expressed this identity through Westerwald mugs emblazoned with ‘G.R.’ for Georgius Rex in homage to three British kings named George, including George III who would be the foe of the American independence movement. They expressed their English identity through pipe bowls emblazoned with the British royal coat of arms.  Even as protests against their lack of representation in Parliament increased, colonists still hung onto their English roots through, in the Washingtons’ case, wearing cuff links emblazoned with an image of King William III, who “came to represent the right of subjects to resist a king who was abusing power.”

The shift from a British identity to an American identity took time as colonists gave up aspects of British culture while they resisted, first, governmental overreach and, then, ultimately embraced full national independence.

Tea was one aspect of English culture given up as a political act to protest British rule and to show support for the American cause.  Abstention from tea drinking began with the Tea Act of 1773.  Parliament passed the Tea Act to bailout the financially troubled East India Company (EIC).[1]  The government told the Company that it could ship tea directly to the colonies, duty-free.  The EIC could get rid of loads of tea piling up in their London storerooms.  Colonists could get tea that was cheaper than the illegal stuff smuggled in.  Everyone should have been happy.  But everyone wasn’t.  The tea the Company sold to the colonists was to be taxed under the Townshend Acts.  If colonists purchased it, they indirectly accepted Parliament’s right to tax them without representation.[2]

Tea became an emblem of British oppression and a boycott of the drink became a revolutionary act.  John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that “Tea must be universally renounced and I must be weaned, and the sooner the better.”  Rejecting British culture, patriotic associations gave less than hospitable “tea parties” in Boston and Yorktown for merchants who continued to sell the politically incorrect brew.[3]  Less well-known was a tea party of sorts organized by the women of Edenton, North Carolina, who came together on October 25, 1774 and pledged to boycott tea and other British goods.  Whether politicians or housewives, Americans up and down the colonies joined these protests and vowed to never serve tea in their homes.[4]

A Society of Patriotic Ladies

“A society of patriotic ladies, at Edenton in North Carolina” printed for R. Sayer & J. Bennett on March 25, 1775 in London. This satirical print shows American women pledging to boycott English tea in response to Continental Congress resolution in 1774 to boycott English goods. Credit: Library of Congress.

By at least May of 1774, Virginians near Fredericksburg had given up their tea.   Philip Vickers Fithian, tutor to the Carter family at Nomini Hall, visited some neighbors on May 19 and noted in his diary that he “Drank Coffee at four, they are now too patriotic to use tea.”[5] Indeed, as Fithan indicates and as we’ve previously explored in this post, coffee became Americans’ go-to substitute for tea.

Fithian did not seem all that enthusiastic about the tea boycott, however. A few months later, he got very excited when “Something in our palace this Evening, very merry happened—Mrs Carter made a dish of Tea. At Coffee, she sent me a dish—& the Colonel both ignorant—He smelt, sipt—look’d—At last with great gravity he asks what’s this?—Do you ask Sir—Poh!—And out he throws it splash a sacrifice to Vulcan” [meaning the Roman god of fire, of course, and not Spock’s homeworld on Star Trek].[6]  While “the Colonel” Robert Carter III “did not volunteer for political or military service during the Revolution. He did, however, sign the Virginia loyalty oath and supported the non-importation agreements drawn up by the First Continental Congress.”  He patriotically did not partake of the British beverage but Fithian clearly missed his tea.

For those who disliked coffee or simply still wanted tea, there was a black market to provide one with British tea but there were also American-grown substitutes that adhered to the boycott and came to be known as “Liberty Teas.”  Dr. Leonard Perry, extension professor at the University of Vermont, provides an excellent summary of tea substitutes used by early Americans during their tea boycotts…

“One of the most common substitutes was the native American shrub New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), also known then as Indian tea or Walpole tea.  Leaves of raspberry also were commonly used for these colonial teas, as were sweet fern and spicebush. Bark from some trees such as sassafras and willow were used.

Common flowers used for the Liberty teas were sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora), red clover, chamomile, and violets.  Leaves of herbaceous plants such as bergamot (bee balm or Oswego tea), lemon balm, and mints were brewed as many are today.  Many herbs were brewed in the 18th century including parsley, thyme, marjoram, rosemary, and sage. Native Americans introduced the colonists to many of these plants which they often brewed to use medicinally.  Even some fruits were used in colonial teas, including those of dried strawberries, blueberries and apples.  Rosehips, rich in vitamin C and used today in teas, were used then as well.  “Indian lemonade tea” was made from boiling the berries of the red sumac.

Often ingredients were combined, such as a common tea recipe of that time including equal parts sweet goldenrod, betony, clover, and New Jersey tea.”

New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus)

New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus). Credit: John Oyston / Wikipedia.

Tea would return to American tables following the successful War for Independence.  There are several receipts from the 1790s that show Betty Washington Lewis purchasing tea, including a type of imported Chinese green tea, at Kenmore.  But, for the most part, these imported teas as well as the herbal liberty teas were ultimately eclipsed by coffee, which became, like tea for the British, the drink synonymous with American culture.

Betty Lewis receipt for tea copy

Receipt showing Betty Washington Lewis’ purchase of some “young hyson tea,” a type of Chinese green tea, on February 8, 1797.

Visit Historic Kenmore on Saturday, May 4 for “Tea and Tour: The Ladies of Kenmore” focusing on the many generations of ladies who have called Kenmore home! Enjoy Kenmore tea and gingerbread while experiencing eighteenth-century tea service first hand. See the first floor of the mansion, learning the history of the grand 1775 home through vignettes, and meet a few of the extraordinary ladies of Kenmore along the way as part of this dramatic tour.

Event admission is $20 Adults and $10 under 17.  Reservations required and there are only a very few spaces left. For more information and reservations, please call (540) 370-0732 ext. 24 or email events@gwffoundation.org.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

 

[1] Breen, T. H., The Marketplace of Revolution, Oxford: University Press, 2004: 298-301.

[2] Breen, 235-239.

[3] Clark, F, “Chocolate and other Colonial Beverages” in Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage, 2009 (eds L. E. Grivetti and H.-Y. Shapiro), John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ: 276.

[4] Root, Waverly et al., Eating in America, New York: Ecco, 1981: 127

[5] Diary entry, May 19 1774 by Philip Vickers Fithian, Journal & Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian, 1773-1774: A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion, Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg, 1943, 147.

[6] Diary entry, September 26, 1774 by Fithian, 257.

Introducing Caty: More Than “Merry Laugh…and Lively Wit”

Editor’s Note: At George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we are always interested in reexaminations of accepted history.  Archaeology is creating new and more complete understandings of George’s Washington’s youth as well as of Mary Washington as a person.  Mary has been both revered and reviled by history but archaeological discoveries at Ferry Farm are painting a more complex picture of her as an independent and intelligent woman facing the world on her own after her husband’s death. Inspired by Mary, Lives & Legacies asked Carin Bloom, Museums Program Associate at Middleton Place Foundation in Charleston, South Carolina and a friend of the blog, to re-examine another independent, intelligent woman in the Washington family’s orbit: Catharine “Caty” Greene.

George Washington is considered the Father of the United States of America, but long before he and his wife Martha became the parents of the nation, they were parents, both real and surrogate, to several prominent patriots and revolutionaries. For example, much is known of the relationship between General Washington and his Aide de Camp, the Marquis de Lafayette – the affection of a father and son are clear in their communications, both during and after the American War for Independence.

Nathanael Greene

Nathanael Greene (1783) by Charles Willson Peale

The Marquis was not the only one to enjoy the mentorship, tutelage, and friendly affection of the great General Washington. So too did the only other man to hold the rank of General for the duration of the American Revolution: Nathanael Greene. Promoted from the rank of Private in the Kentish Guards, a militia unit raised in his home county in Rhode Island Colony, Greene became the Brigadier General of all three Rhode Island regiments of the Continental Army in the spring of 1775. He quickly became (in turns) a close friend, advisor, and student of General Washington. The two commanders’ relationship is perhaps less well-known outside of academic circles, but it is still well-documented.

Those relationships aren’t what this blog post is about.

This blog post began in very much the way that stories from the past often begin – with the great men of the Age and what they did, or how they interacted. Their wives are secondary (if mentioned at all) and are supporting characters in a drama of great ideals and noble causes. In reality, these women were so much more, and their stories are important. While Women’s History and Women’s Studies programs in academia became prominent around the time of the nation’s Bicentennial, there has been relatively little advance or innovation in the study of feminine experiences of historic eras. Now, however, modern social and political climates are bringing women’s stories into focus again, allowing the women of the past to be re-examined once more. Conspicuous among the women of the Revolutionary era being re-examined are the same names we’ve all heard since elementary school – Abigail Adams, Peggy Shippen, the fictional Molly Pitcher, and of course, Martha Washington.

Incomplete Portrait of Martha Washington (1796) by Gilbert Stuart

An unfinished portrait of Martha Washington begun in 1796 by Gilbert Stuart.

Martha and George Washington are revered for many reasons, but little is spoken about their personal nurturing and encouragement of young patriots, the men and women with whom they were surrounded. In fact, they occupied the parental pedestals for both Nathanael and his wife Catharine Greene – but perhaps especially for “Caty”. Orphaned at a young age and raised by a somewhat eccentric aunt, Caty was 19 and newly married when the Revolution broke out. She was tutored and educated in the 18th century society that befit her station, but it seems she wasn’t ready to be a General’s wife. For tutelage she looked to Lady Washington.

Their mother-daughter relationship blossomed quickly, and Catharine seemed to flourish under Martha’s indulgence. Caty is most often described in terms of her appearance and temperament, “She was a small brunette with high color, a vivacious expression, and a snapping pair of dark eyes.”[1] Her biographer adds, “To men her appeal, like that of her Aunt Catharine, was not simply a matter of flirtation that fed their masculine vanities; deep emotions were touched as well.”[2]

Carin Bloom as Caty Greene (3)

The blog post’s author Carin Bloom portraying Caty Green reading from Joe Miller’s Jests, or the Wit’s Vade-Mecum (1739) in the Washington house at Ferry Farm.

With a description like that, I started to wonder, why don’t we know more about the young Catharine Greene? She was called Kitty as a girl, was known to her husband’s equals and subordinates as Lady Greene, and to her devoted husband as Caty – and no matter what she was called, she became a force to be reckoned with. Her biographers make careful note that she would have grown up in the cradle of the Revolution, listening to the great minds gathering in her uncle’s library discussing politics, self-governance, and eventually open rebellion. An enigma equal to her fighting Quaker husband for her indifference to religious leanings, she is described as a balm of good morale for dour officers and aides: “she laughed, danced, sipped Madeira wine and played cards and parlor games. She engaged in repartee…with perhaps a burst of unladylike glee at a slip of the tongue or double entendre that would have horrified her female counterparts but delighted their husbands.”[3]

Many of these attributes came naturally to Caty or were self-taught, but her refinement as a true lady of the 18th century came from her time spent with her equals and betters. Specifically, she was looked after by Lady Washington; when other young officers’ wives felt threatened by Caty’s beauty, and exuberance, “Martha was secure in her place in her husband’s heart. Although she knew that the general looked at the beautiful Caty with deep male appreciation, she found no cause for disapproval. Caty was like a daughter to them both. She was accepted for what she was…”[4]

Carin Bloom as Caty Greene (2)

Caty Greene (Carin Bloom) pens a letter to husband Nathanael on the escritoire desk in the Hall of the Washington house.

From the his occasional service as a personal courier for Caty and Nathanael’s letters to one another, to his own assurance of her safe arrival in camp during the Siege of Charleston early in 1782, General Washington’s own words and actions belied his affections not just for his best General, but for Caty as well. Likewise, Martha Washington opened her home at Mount Vernon to Caty, as well as to both Ladies Stirling, Lucy Knox, and a few other officers’ wives, when they could not be with their husbands. It was at these gatherings, presumably around a copious amount of tea, that Caty would have come to understand feminine refinement that would have served her well into old age, and long after Lady Washington was gone.

Though only one nonfiction biography of the remarkable Catharine Greene has been written, she comes to life with alarming effervescence in its pages. Her abilities to both navigate her world as a cog in the wheel of 18th century society, as well as to stand apart from it and maintain utterly her own identity, were enough to cause me to delve into her world for over a year. As a young woman she was the subject of much gossip; everything from accusations of turning her husband from his Quaker faith in disgrace, to extramarital affairs with his subordinates – none of it managed to stick to her. In her later life Caty was a financier (and now suspected to have been a partner in design) of Eli Whitney and his Cotton Gin, as well as a property-holding single woman until she chose of her own accord to remarry.

Catharine Littlefield Greene

Catharine Greene (1809) attributed to James Frothingham

All in all, this was a woman whose life could be the stuff of Hollywood legend, and yet, in every living history scenario that manages to feature a woman, she is always a Martha Washington, or an Abigail Adams, or a Molly Pitcher – and always in a vacuum. Surely Martha did not spend her days with only her husband and his men, or alone by herself? The past is populated with scores of women, and yet, we rarely see the majority of them come to life. That is my aim in portraying Catharine Greene – to use her life as a vehicle for an immersive experience of a multifaceted past, so much more complex than what we currently understand. George and Martha Washington, Nathanael and Catharine Greene, they weren’t so different from us; as we understand their stories, both individually and as participants in a community, a nation, and a world, we may find new enrichment in our own lives.

Carin Bloom
Museums Program Associate
Middleton Place Foundation

Trained as an archaeologist specializing in the American Revolution, Carin plans and executes programs at Middleton Place National Historic Landmark in Charleston, South Carolina. She holds a BA (University of Delaware) and two MAs (University of Pennsylvania and Temple University), all in Anthropology with a concentration in Historical Archaeology, and has been working at non-profit historic sites for over a decade.  She has studied Catharine Littlefield Greene extensively and enjoys bringing Caty to life at living history events up and down the east coast, as well as working in classroom settings with school programs and summer camps.

Carin Bloom as Caty Greene (4)

[1] 1871 – Greene, George Washington. The Life of Nathanael Greene, 3 vols, Cambridge. Vol 1, pg. 72.

[2] 1977 – Stegeman, John F. and Janet A. Stegeman. Caty: A Biography of Catharine Littlefield Greene, pg. 8, University of Georgia Press.

[3] 1977 – Stegeman, John F. and Janet A. Stegeman. Caty: A Biography of Catharine Littlefield Greene, pg. 26, University of Georgia Press.

[4] 1977 – Stegeman, John F. and Janet A. Stegeman. Caty: A Biography of Catharine Littlefield Greene, pg. 58, University of Georgia Press.

Hessians and History: Learning Something New Every Day

As an historian, one of the many things I find rewarding is constantly learning.  I truly learn something new every day.  It’s exciting.  Many people might find this curious since to them history perhaps seems stale, unchanging, and boring.

In reality, history is incredibly dynamic.  Things historians thought we knew with certainty for years can be instantly tossed aside with the discovery of some hidden treasure trove of historical documents or archaeological artifacts.  It’s also impossible to know everything so, even as you’re researching familiar and well-used sources, you always learn things you did not know before.

I’ve recently been researching the enslaved community at Historic Kenmore when I came across a completely unrelated bit of history that I did not know about before.  I learned that, at the end of October 1781, a group of Hessian prisoners of war passed through Fredericksburg.  This may be familiar history to life-long Fredericksburg residents and historians but perhaps there are some, like me, who were not aware of these prisoners’ brief visit to town.  For those unaware of the incident either in Fredericksburg or among our global readership, I thought I would share almost the entirety of the information I found in one afternoon about the Hessian prisoners in Fredericksburg.

First, however, we should begin with a quick overview of who were these Hessians.  As explained on Mount Vernon’s George Washington Digital Encyclopedia, the British hired about 30,000 German soldiers to fight in the Revolutionary War.  These auxiliary troops came from several small states in pre-unification Germany then known as the Holy Roman Empire.  The largest contingent was from the state of Hesse-Cassel. Confusingly all German soldiers fighting in the colonies no matter their state of origin were often called Hessians.

Holy Roman Empire, 1789

Map of the Holy Roman Empire as it existed in 1789. Arrows point at Ansbach and Bayreuth. Credit: English map by Robert Alfers based on a German original by Ziegel Brenner. / Wikipedia.

The use of Hessians by the British Army was disliked enormously by the American colonists. Hessians were so disliked, in fact, that their use was listed in the Declaration of Independence as one of the king’s “repeated injuries and usurpations” aimed at “the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”  George III was “at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.”

Ansbach Bayreuth Regimental Flag

Ansbach-Bayreuth Regimental Flag surrendered at Yorktown on October 19, 1781. Credit: National Museum of American History

Who were the Hessian prisoners who visited Fredericksburg in the fall of 1781?  Well, they were prisoners taken as a result of the British surrender at Yorktown on October 19.[1]  Among them was Johann Conrad Dohla, a private in the 4th Company of the Bayreuth Regiment from the state of Ansbach-Bayreuth.  He kept a diary for his entire period of service in the war starting with his arrival in America in 1777 and ending after his return to the German states in 1783.[2] His diary titled A Hessian Diary of the American Revolution is still in print today.  The remainder of this blog post quotes extensively from Dohla’s entries describing Fredericksburg and its surroundings, which I found quite fascinating.

After the surrender, Dohla and his fellow prisoners began a long journey north escorted by Virginia militia.[3]  They neared Fredericksburg after a ten day march.  On October 29, Dohla wrote, “We marched to within one and one-half miles of Fredericksburg, where we camped in an opening in the forest.  During our march today, we saw many individual houses built in a poor manner of wood and covered with clay and patched together. But inside they were richly and well appointed, and in part furnished with the finest articles….  Poultry was plentiful here and inexpensive.  There is no shortage of good tea in Virginia because everywhere, in the forest, on the heights, and meadows, there is an abundance of such tea herbs.”[4]

The Hessian held up by General Washington on December 25, 1776 at Trenton are earned as prisoners of war in Philadelphia

“The Hessian held up by General Washington on December 25, 1776 at Trenton are earned as prisoners of war in Philadelphia.” An engraving by Daniel Berger after a sketch by Daniel Chodowiecki created in 1784 showing Hessian soldiers captured during the Battle at Trenton marching to Philadelphia. It turns out that buildings located in Fredericksburg’s present-day Alum Springs Park housed both British and Hessian troops captured at Trenton. Credit: Library of Congress.

The next day, Dohla and his compatriots entered Fredericksburg itself.  He wrote, “Our march passed through the small city of Fredericksburg and two miles beyond that place to a main river, the Rappahannock, where we camped. This river contains sweet water and was hardly 100 to 150 feet wide here, and also so shallow that it could be waded across….  It is not to be compared to the James and Potomac rivers.  It rises on South Mountain and is of little value for inland navigation. One to one and one-half miles above Fredericksburg, near Falmouth, it has a waterfall over the granite rocks and becomes navigable from that point to its mouth in the bat, which is a distance of ninety miles.  From its source, however, it might measure two hundred miles. Here it is about a half mile wide, and at its mouth, more than four miles wide. Large ships cannot sail as far as Fredericksburg….  In the region of Fredericksburg glass bottles can be sold at high prices because they are seldom to be had here.”[5]

Dohla breaks from his daily record to make a several observations about Fredericksburg itself. He notes that “Fredericksburg is a medium-size city of rather long and wide layout. It lies in a valley and to the right and left, on heights, along the banks of the Rappahannock River. It has nearly four to five hundred houses and is heavily settled by Germans.  The public buildings lie in ruins, and for no other reason than because it was considered unnecessary to tend to them during the war period and therefore they were neglected, because no English troops came here who could have destroyed them.  They local tobacco industry is of great value and has many advantages.  The price of the best Virginia leaves was formerly twenty-five shillings per hundredweight. The hills surrounding Fredericksburg and on the Rappahannock River consist primarily of sandstone of various colors.  The bed of sand along the river between here and the bay contain, in many places, whale bones, sharks’ teeth, oysters and other shellfish.  Not far from Fredericksburg, in the vicinity of the Rappahannock Falls, one of the most important ironworks in all North America is to be seen because each year more than six to eight hundred tons of iron are said to be manufactured there….  Concerning grain, in addition to corn, much grain and wheat are grown here, although large fields are given over to the raising of tobacco.  Also in some regions below Fredericksburg, the most beautiful cotton is planted and harvested.  Six hundred Englanders are already in Fredericksburg in captivity.”[6]

On the last day of the month, Dohla and his fellow prisoners “broke camp and had to wade through the Rappahannock River.  Some crossed in their shoes and socks; however, I and most of the others took them off and crossed barefoot.  The water was very cold and reached up to our thighs.  Our route went through Falmouth, a small but beautiful village of about thirty to forty houses on the left bank of the Rappahannock, with a German church and two prayerhouses….”[7]

An officer and private in Hessen-Kassel Army's Fusilier Regiment von Knyphausen

An officer (left) and private (right) in the Hessen-Cassel Army’s Fusilier Regiment von Knyphausen in 1783. Credit: Wikipedia

Dohla and his comrades continued to Winchester where they were held as prisoners of war for about two months.[8]  Then, he was transferred to a prison camp in Frederick, Maryland, where he remained for 15 months.[9]  After the war’s end, Dohla’s band of Hessians were marched from Frederick to Long Island, New York, where they finally were released.  They set sail for home on August 1, 1783.[10]

Dohla’s brief visit to Fredericksburg and his story in general fascinated me and is a great example of what I love most about history. Namely, that I get to learn something new every day.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

 

[1] Johann Conrad Dohla, A Hessian Diary of the American Revolution, Translated, edited, and with an introduction by Bruce E. Burgoyne, Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990, 174.

[2] Dohla, x-xi.

[3] Dohla, 182.

[4] Dohla, 185.

[5] Dohla, 185-6.

[6] Dohla, 186-7.

[7] Dohla, 187.

[8] Dohla, 188.

[9] Dohla, 196, 222.

[10] Dohla, 232.

Washington, Smallpox, and the Fight for Independence

Living in Colonial America, disease and illness were defining challenges and perpetual threats of human existence.   At the time, there was no concept of infection or germ-theory, no vaccines, no really effective treatments for infectious disease and few public health measures that could reliably curb epidemics.[1]  For colonial Americans, it was not a matter of “if” you would get sick but rather when and would you be strong enough to survive.

George Washington contracted many of the epidemic diseases like malaria, dysentery, and smallpox that plagued colonists and survived despite limited medical intervention.  As a young man in the prime of his life, standing 6’2”tall and weighing over 200 pounds, his body fought a host of illnesses that killed most.  Still, these diseases had lasting effects on Washington’s body and one of the diseases he suffered led to a controversial decision that may have even saved America in its fight for independence.

Smallpox no longer terrifies humanity because it was eradicated in 1977 through a global program of vaccinations.  The devastation this disease caused through history is unrivaled.  By the 17th century, smallpox surpassed all other pandemic diseases as the swiftest and most deadly.[2]

The earliest conclusive evidence for smallpox dates back to 4th century China. It quickly spread through Asia and reached Europe around the 10th century. By the 18th century, it accounted for an estimated 8 to 20% of all deaths.[3] Upon its arrival in the New World, it decimated the Native American population, which had never faced the horrible and highly contagious disease.

Smallpox spread easily through overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.  Symptoms include fever, intense headaches, pains in the back and legs, vomiting, and eruptions of seeping, smelly pustules on the body.  While left with immunity, survivors face debilitating after-effects like disfiguring scars and blindness.[4]

Smallpox pustules on hand

Smallpox pustules on hand. Credit: Centers for Disease Control

While smallpox was a reoccurring problem for larger coastal cities in British North America, it was less prevalent in more inland rural areas. Virginia experienced only minor outbreaks prior to 1747 when large outbreaks hit Williamsburg and Norfolk County causing panic, public unrest, and eventually public health proclamations.[5]

At the time, many offered advice on how to stave off or even cure the disease.  Recommendations in popular medical manuals, like Domestic Medicine, advocated rest, liquids, and various regimens of blistering, purging, and bleeding but not much more.[6] A particularly interesting remedy Virginian planter William Byrd II advocated included drinking large amounts of water “that had stood two days upon tar”.  These methods perhaps relieved symptoms but did little to prevent one from catching the disease.

Inoculation was the one way available to try and prevent smallpox.  A doctor took a bit of infected matter (i.e. pus from a pustule) from a person suffering from a mild case of smallpox and inserted it under the skin of a healthy patient.[7]  Theoretically, the newly infected patient would then develop a mild case of the infection and after recovery be immune to further breakouts.

Inoculation against smallpox in Paris (1807) by Louis Léopold Boilly

Inoculation against smallpox in Paris (1807) by Louis Léopold Boilly. Credit: Public domain / Wikipedia.

Many physicians supported this new technique but inoculation had serious drawbacks.  One of the biggest was the mild case of smallpox in the newly infected patient could become a full-blown attack.  Additionally, people who were inoculated became carriers of the disease, capable of infecting individuals who had never had smallpox or who had not undergone inoculation.  This became a volatile issue because of a lack of understanding of population immunity and ineffective quarantine protocols.[8]

Anti-inoculation sentiments rose in Virginia after people recently inoculated returned to the community and outbreaks followed.  Full-scale riots and protests were seen in Norfolk County  and Williamsburg which led to petitions to ban inoculation. In 1769, Virginia prohibited inoculation unless specifically approved by the county courts.[9]

But how does smallpox and inoculation relate to George Washington, Virginia’s most famous son, and America’s fight for independence?

The connection began on November 2, 1751 when George Washington landed in Bridgetown, Barbados with his half-brother Lawrence. They had come from Virginia to the tropical island seeking relief for Lawrence’s tuberculosis.  Two weeks later, George wrote in his journal that he “was strongly attacked with the smallpox”.  He was confined to his sickbed for nearly a month being too ill to keep his daily journal.[10]  After his battle with smallpox, however, Washington became a major proponent of inoculation even though his support ran counter to most of his fellow Virginians.

Washington House, Barbados

Home of Captain Croftan where Washington lived during the several months he visited Barbados in 1751. Credit: Wikipedia / Jerry E. and Roy Klotz

With the Revolutionary War, smallpox increasingly became a deadly complication for the new United States in its fight for independence.  Where soldiers go plagues follow and when Washington took command of the Continental Army in summer of 1775 he wrote to the president of the Continental Congress that he had been, “particularly attentive to the least Symptoms of the Smallpox” and he would “continue the utmost Vigilance against this most dangerous enemy”.

Outbreaks were particularly common when there was a large buildup of troops in an area like during the Siege of Boston in 1774 or after the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775.[11]  Epidemics also broke out in Boston and Philadelphia in summer of 1776 and the attempt by American forces to take Quebec was greatly hindered by smallpox among the soldiers.

In the winter of 1777, Washington decided to have all troops and new recruits inoculated.  As stated in his letter to Dr. William Shippen Jr., “finding the Small pox to be spreading much and fearing that no precaution can prevent it from running through the whole of our army, I have determined that the troops shall be inoculated.  This Expedient may be attended with some inconveniences and some disadvantages, but yet I trust in its consequences will have the most happy effects.  Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure, for should the disorder infect the Army in the natural way and rage with it usual virulence we should have more to dread from it than the Sword of the Enemy.”

Washington understood the great risk he was taking in instituting mass inoculation and effectively incapacitating large numbers of soldiers while they recovered.   The operation was kept secret and done during the winter in the hope that his forces would be healthy and ready to fight in the anticipated summer campaign. Despite some setbacks, Washington’s efforts to eliminate smallpox in the army were largely successful.  While the disease continued to affect soldiers, there were no further epidemic outbreaks among the troops.[12]

Reconstructed winter cabins at Morristown NHP

Reconstructed winter cabins at Morristown National Historical Park in Morristown, New Jersey, where the Continental Army quartered for the winter of 1776-77 and where a large portion of Washington’s troops were inoculated. Credit: National Park Service / Steve Santucci

George Washington’s insistence in these preventive health measures and his belief in the effectiveness of inoculation helped the Continental Army conquer smallpox and become a more reliable military force.  Additionally, the success of mass inoculation within the fledgling nation’s military helped encourage the civilian population to use these preventative measures. Inoculation began to gain popularity with Virginians and all of the American people.  So, young Washington’s trip to Barbados when he was nineteen was unsuccessful in helping his brother’s tuberculosis but it did end up giving him a greater appreciation for preventive medicine and the devastating power of epidemic disease.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] “The Perpetual Challenge of Infectious Diseases”, Anthony S. Fauci and David M. Morens, The New England Journal of Medicine, 2 February 2012.

[2]  Kotar, S.L., and J.E. Gessler. Smallpox: A History. McFarland, 2013. pg 11

[3] The Seat of Death and Terror: Urbanization, Stunting, and Smallpox by Deborah Oxley, The Economic History Review, November 2003,  pg 5, 627

[4] Kotar, pg 4; Oxley, 628

[5] Kotar, 41

[6] Domestic Medicine, William Buchan, 1769

[7] Oxley, 629

[8] Kotar, 13

[9] Kotar, 41

[10] Kotar, 40

[11] Kotar, 42

[12] “Smallpox in Washington’s Army: Strategic Implications of the Disease during the American Revolutionary War”, Ann M. Becker, The Journal of Military History, Vol. 68, No 2. (Apr. 2004), pg. 424-430

Henry Mitchell, A Loyalist’s Sacrifice

Editor’s Note: This Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, Historic Kenmore presents its annual production of Twelfth Night at Kenmore (click for event details). This dramatic theatre presentation imagines the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Lewis celebrate in their newly built home. It is not the usual joyous atmosphere, however. The Revolutionary War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family and their friends. Among these friends is Henry Mitchell, whose support for the American cause is being questioned by his neighbors and by Henry himself. Mitchell is a new character for this year’s Twelfth Night but was also a real merchant living in Fredericksburg in the 1700s. To create this character, we researched the real Henry Mitchell. This blog post shares the fascinating story we discovered. 

When we look back over two centuries, victory in the American War of Independence seems inevitable.  Similarly, we often think that all of our ancestors chose the ‘right’ side and supported independence during the Revolution.  Things were far more complex, of course.  A sizable portion of the population — two historians say about 20% — living in British North America opposed revolution and fought against independence.

benjamin-franklins-join-or-die

This political cartoon from the a 1754 edition of The Pennsylvania Gazette and believed to have been created by Benjamin Franklin originally appeared during the French and Indian War but was used again during the American Revolution to encourage the colonies to unite against British rule. Credit: Library of Congress

One such individual in Fredericksburg, Virginia was Henry Mitchell, a merchant born in Scotland who came to America, lived in Fredericksburg for nearly two decades, and worked as the Virginia-based factor (representative) for a trading house in Glasgow.[1]

Henry Mitchell participated in the community and, in the early days of tensions between the colonies and the mother country, took part in the anti-British non-importation movement known as the Virginia Association.  Indeed, Mitchell was named an Associator on October 23, 1770, the same day Fielding Lewis was placed on the committee as noted in the Virginia Gazette.  The Associators made sure the local populace did not purchase boycotted goods. The Association lasted a short-while before collapsing in 1771.[2]

Along with this political activity, Mitchell frequented George Weedon’s tavern and, on December 27, 1773, attended “dinner and club” with Fielding Lewis and several other Fredericksburg luminaries before Masonic services.[3]

Then, a strange incident took place in early 1775.  In nearby Orange County, as reported in the Virginia Gazette, Rev. John Wingate was brought before the local patriot committee to answer for allegedly possessing “pamphlets containing very obnoxious reflections on the Continental Congress and their proceedings.”  He was ordered to produce the pamphlets. Wingate refused, saying “that they belonged to Mr. Henry Mitchell of Fredericksburg” and that he could not show them to the committee without Mitchell’s “express permission.”  The committee tried to persuade Wingate that since Mitchell “was well known to be an associator, and acknowledged by himself to be a hearty friend to the cause” that he would not mind if they looked at the pamphlets.  Then, they noted ominously that “if Mr. Mitchell was not this hearty friend we hoped him to be,” then the committee would demand Mitchell himself come before them and show them the pamphlets.  Wingate finally relented and no further discussion of Mitchell was recorded.

This incident raises all sorts of questions.  Did the pamphlets really belong to Henry Mitchell? Was Wingate telling the truth or attempting to smear Mitchell for some reason? Was Mitchell undergoing some kind of change that had caused or was causing him to shift from supporting the anti-British Virginia Association to embracing loyalism?  Were his earlier patriot leanings an act? If so, to what purpose?  If you’re not careful, you can succumb to all sorts of wild speculation!

Mitchell continued his trade in Fredericksburg throughout 1775. Then, at the end of the year, he placed an ad in the December 8 edition of the Virginia Gazette announcing he would be leaving the colony in the spring and that he wished to settle his accounts before departing. Although loyalists often made their intentions to leave known in this way, Mitchell specifically noted his plans to return.

In July 1776, merchants in Fredericksburg suspected of loyalism were brought before the local committee and direct to either take a loyalty oath as required by the most recent Virginia Convention or, if they would not do so, to give up their arms. Henry Mitchell was among this group of, as the Virginia Gazette put it, “Sundry persons, supposed to be inimical to America” and refused to take the oath.  Having refused to swear allegiance to the American cause, he and other loyalists they were ordered to be sent the governor so they could be expelled from Virginia.[4]

king-george-iii-of-england-by-johann-zoffany-1771

Portrait of George III of the United Kingdom (1771) by Johann Zoffany. Credit: Wikipedia/The Royal Collection.

This expulsion did not happen immediately, however. Mitchell finally placed an ad in the Virginia Gazette on February 21, 1777 announcing his intention “to leave this Country” permanently and notifying those to whom he owed debts and vice versa to settle them up.  He also advertised his houses in Fredericksburg as available for sale or rent.

mobbing-the-tories-from-charles-and-mary-beards-history-of-the-united-states

“Mobbing the Tories” illustration in History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard, New York: McMillan, 1921

Why did Henry Mitchell and vast numbers of colonists choose to remain loyal to the crown instead of supporting independence?  The answer to that question really comes down to each individual loyalist whose motivations were often very personal and unique.  Unfortunately, we do not know Mitchell’s particular reasons.  People who found themselves held under suspicion by their patriot neighbors were often pushed to loyalism by the fear of mob rule or anarchy.  The patriots’ use of loyalty oaths may have actually created many loyalists.  People resented being forced to choose sides.  Meanwhile, merchants and others whose livelihood depended on trade with Britain and the rest of the empire sometimes choose empire over independence for simple but powerful economic motivations.[5]

In 1777, Mitchell finally left Fredericksburg for H.M.S. Phoenix and went to New York, where he lived until 1781 and continued his trading activities.  He then sailed to Scotland in 1781 and found his “partners had misapplied remittances” sent from Virginia.  He was left bankrupt and dependent on relatives.[6]

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] “Mitchell, Henry,” American Loyalist Claims, Washington, DC: National Genealogical Society, 1980, 351; Paula Felder, Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family: A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg, The American History Company, 1998, 238n.

[2] Felder, 193.

[3] Felder, 180.

[4] Felder, 231, 238.

[5] Shannon Duffy, Ph.D., “Loyalists,” The Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington http://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/loyalists/ [accessed December 14, 2016].

[6] American Loyalist Claims, 351; Felder, 240n.