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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Washington Family (late 1790s) by Edward Savage

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

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

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

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Little George’s Grand Tour of Europe [Photos]

A staff member who works at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore vacationed in England, Austria, and Hungary last September and October.  Little George accompanied her and enjoyed seeing new sites and delving into the history of Europe.  As the real George Washington left the shores of North America only once to accompany his ailing brother Lawrence to Barbados, this was a chance for Little George to experience an abbreviated version of the traditional Grand Tour of Europe popular in the 18th century.

The first stop was London, where George’s Revolutionary War nemesis King George III once lived, and where Little George already spent some time last summer.  On this return trip for Little George, we saw the usual sites, such as the Tower of London, Parliament, and Big Ben (which was covered in scaffolding), but also mixed in a little ancient history, iconic pubbing, and English football.

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Little George outside the Stanhope Arms.

Upon arrival, we immediately had to have the nation’s favorite dish, some traditional Fish and Chips! The Stanhope Arms, a pub built in 1853, used to have a private jazz club upstairs and was visited often by the author during her college junior year abroad (1979-1980).

At Chelsea Football Club’s home field of Stamford Bridge, we watched Liverpool Football Club win the match from the nosebleed section of the stadium. Look closely and you can see Little George participating in the opening ceremonies!

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Stamford Bridge, home field of Chelsea Football Club.

On a river cruise we passed beneath the iconic Tower Bridge over the River Thames. Built between 1886 and 1894 in the Gothic style, the bridge stills opens to river traffic.  Little George is waiting in line to enter the exhibition inside the Tower.

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Tower Bridge over the River Thames.

Mudlarking along the Thames’s foreshore can reveal centuries of history hidden among the cobbles on the riverbank. Fragments of medieval and modern pottery, glass and ceramic bottles, tobacco pipe stems, buckles and buttons are all mixed in with 1st century roman roofing tiles, prehistoric tools, World War II shrapnel and spent shells from the Blitz. Little George was very helpful in spying things as he was so close to the ground! During our search of the shore, we found what may have been a Roman roofing tile (below right) from when the Romans ruled Britain between 43 and 410 AD.

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Chocolate with Mozart’s image is in every confectioner’s window in Salzburg.

After London, we headed for the Continent to begin our Grand Tour-inspired travels.  Our first European stop was Salzburg, Austria, the birth place of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a classical pianist and composer who lived from 1756 to 1791.  Mozart and other contemporaries, such as Haydn, were extremely popular and well-known during their lifetimes, and copies of their compositions were present in Washington’s personal musical collection.  Mozart and Washington would never meet, but one can imagine George and his family enjoying Mozart’s music after hosting a dinner party.

A side trip to Festung Hohenwerfen, a medieval castle where the popular 1968 World War II film “Where Eagles Dare” was filmed, included a fascinating falconry exhibition.  We watched as a falcon was released, flew around in a huge arc over the castle valley, and then swooped back to the handler, just missing our heads. Little George would have been easy prey for these hunters so, although always fascinated by anything to do with hunting, he kept his distance.

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A falconer holds aloft a falcon as he prepares to demonstrate how to hunt small prey using the birds.

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Castle Hohenwerfen, where the war movie “Where Eagles Dare”, starring Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton, was filmed in 1968. Credit: Memorator / Wikipedia

After walking the streets and alleys of Salzburg’s old city and crossing the river to stroll through the world famous Mirabell Gardens and Palace, we retired for a late afternoon respite in a local beer hall, the Augustiner Brau. This brewery has been serving beer since 1621 and is Austria’s largest.  We sat in one of several halls inside the brewery and tried our best to have a conversation with a local using high school German and an English-German dictionary.  During the 18th century, whether in the colonies or Europe, beer was drunk daily since water was looked upon as unsafe, which it often was.  As a child, George Washington drank “small beer,” which contained almost no alcohol. In later times, Washington built a whiskey distillery at Mount Vernon. In 1799, his distillery produced almost 11,000 gallons of whiskey.

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Augustiner Brau beer hall in Salzburg.

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Little George enjoying a big mug of beer.

In Halstatt, Austria, we enjoyed walking this picturesque town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and visiting the famous bronze-age salt mine and graveyard in the mountains above the village. The unique preservative qualities of salt and sealed caves allowed the preservation of two thousand-year-old leather goods, such as the sandals pictured below. In contrast, acidic soil conditions at Ferry Farm and Kenmore do not allow the preservation of 200-year-old leather items.

The 19th century excavation of the Halstatt’s bronze-age cemetery and its thousands of funerary goods led to the designation of the epoch from the 8th to the 5th century BC as the “Halstatt Culture.”

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Halstatt, Austria, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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4th Century BC leather shoe found in the salt mines

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Bronze Age Grave goods

 

Of the many sites we visited at our next stop in Vienna, Austria’s capital, our time spent at the world famous Spanish Riding School was perhaps the highlight of Little George’s trip.  Here at the Winter Riding School located in the Hofburg Palace, we watched the famed Lipizzaners and their riders perform their morning exercises to classical Viennese waltzes.  George Washington himself was an excellent horseman and would have appreciated the dedication these riders demonstrated towards learning their lessons.

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Little George enjoying the Lipizzaners at the Hofburg Palace.

On a side trip to Melk Abbey, a Benedictine abbey in the town of Melk overlooking the Danube River, Little George had the pleasure of meeting up with a contemporary of his, Empress Maria Theresa, a member of the Hapsburg dynasty and Queen of Austria and Hungary. Maria Theresa reigned from 1740 to 1780. They had much to talk about, as she was the first and only female Hapsburg ruler, and George was the first American president.

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Little George and Maria Theresa having a private chat at Melk Abbey.

Melk Abbey is noted for its extensive library containing hundreds of medieval manuscripts. George himself did not have the classical education in an English school that his older half-brothers had, but he spent his life reading as much as he could and enjoyed amassing a library of his own at Mount Vernon.

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The library at Melk Abbey.

After a short stay in Sopron, Hungary, our last stop was Budapest, the capital of Hungary.  We spent five days here, exploring and learning about the ancient and modern history of the city, walking around the castle on top of the hill, taking road trips outside the city to visit more castles, and taste testing the new fall Hungarian wines.

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St. Gellert Thermal Bath and Swimming Pools.

One of the last things we did in Budapest was visit the famous St. Gellert Thermal Bath and Swimming Pools.  It is a natural hot spring spa housed in a beautiful building with additional outdoor pools and relaxing spa treatments.  George Washington was certainly no stranger to the healing powers of hot springs, as he visited and enjoyed the warm springs in present-day Berkeley Springs, WV, and eventually purchased property in the town, which in his day was called Bath.

Then it was time to head back home.  Little George had a wonderful time exploring the archaeology and history of our host cities, meeting contemporary persons of fame, relaxing in the spas, cafes, pubs, and restaurants, and trying new foods.

Judy Jobrack
Archaeology Lab Assistant and Co-Field Director

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

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

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

Little George Goes Back to Pittsburgh [Photos]

A staff member who works at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore recently visited Pittsburgh.  Little George accompanied her and visited places related in some fashion to George Washington’s life in the 1700s, the world he lived at that time , or his long legacy as a historic figure national and internationally.  Here is a collection of photos documenting Little George’s travels!

First, on the road to Pittsburgh, Little George stopped a place that does not hold fond memories for him. The battle of Fort Necessity took place in 1754. Washington and a group of Virginia Militiamen were sent to the area to meet with Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, the leader of the French detachment of troops nearby. While there are not clear descriptions of what happened, there was clearly some miscommunication and Jumonville was killed. Within a few months, the French retaliated, attacking Colonial and British forces in this clearing known as Great Meadows. Washington had built Fort Necessity but the design, a circular fort surrounded by tree-lined high ground, led to a swift defeat.

Fort Necessity

A replica of Fort Necessity

A year after the disaster at Fort Necessity, George joined yet another expedition to “the Forks of the Ohio”, this time under the command of renowned British General Edward Braddock. During the march towards modern day Pittsburgh, the British were ambushed and after a three hour bloodbath, Braddock was carried from the field with fatal wounds. A few days later, Braddock was buried about a mile from the old site of Fort Necessity. Several years later, Braddock’s remains were moved to a nearby knoll. Little George decided to stop and pay respects to a man he admired, saying “…Thus died a man, whose good and bad qualities were intimately blended. He was brave even to a fault and in regular Service would have done honor to his profession. His attachments were warm, his enmities were strong, and having no disguise about him, both appeared in full force.”

Braddock 1

Original burial site of General Braddock.

Braddock 2

Current site of General Braddock’s grave.

After a few stops that tugged at Little George’s heartstrings, we decided to continue on into the city. Little George was looking a bit famished so I decided to take him to a place he hadn’t seen on his last trip to Pittsburgh. Little George thought Primanti Brothers was top notch!

Pirmanti

Pirmanti Brothers sandwich shop

Next, Little George thought a trip to the top of Mount Washington would make for a great view of the city. As he began to prepare for a hearty trek up the mountain, I drove us to another modern development. Little George decided that the Duquesne Incline would have been handy in the 1750s!

Duquense Incline

The Duquense Incline up Mount Washington

As we got to the top of Mount Washington, we walked along, admiring the city and came to a spot where the people of Pittsburgh had memorialized George Washington and Guyasuta, a leader of the Seneca people who met and traveled with George Washington in 1753 but ultimately sided with the French during the French and Indian War. Later, he would take the side of the British during the American Revolution thus, making the two men constantly at odds with each other.

George Washington and Guyasuta

Statue of Guyasuta and Washington

Looking down over the confluence of the Alleghany and the Monongahela brought back a lot of memories for Little George. Even with the new buildings and bridges, he recalled his march to Fort Duquesne. However, he did seem very interested in this “football” that modern Americans seem to like so much. After I explained it a bit, he didn’t think he could pick a single team to root for, but thought the field of play here was in a beautiful location.

Three Rivers

Downtown Pittsburgh and the confluence of the Allegheny and, Monongahela Rivers, whose meeting forms the Ohio.

Heinz Field

A view of Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers

After admiring the view from above, I took George down to the site of where Fort Duquesne once stood. He recalled the assault on Fort Duquesne. The battle was fierce, and despite the French victory, they withdrew from the area due to the fact that the British force was more than ten times the size of the French force. Thus, the British rebuilt the remains of Fort Duquesne and reinforced it, calling it Fort Pitt, in honor of the English Prime Minister at the time.

Fort Duquense

Site of Fort Duquense, later renamed Fort Pitt

While down by the water, I convinced Little George to also take a picture next to the River. He was a little nervous getting too close to the Allegheny River and I asked him why. He explained that in 1753, when travelling through the area, he attempted a crossing. At the time, the water was very cold with large chunks of ice flowing through it. George fell into the water and nearly froze to death overnight while waiting on a small island for the river to freeze and he could finally cross safely the next morning.  I told him not to worry as the river wasn’t that cold just yet.

Allegheny

The Allegheny River

Wigle's

Visiting the Wigle Whiskey Distillery

After all the talks of battles and falling in icy rivers, I decided we should warm up a bit. I remembered just down the river was a spot where Little George might also like to reminisce. During his Presidency, George Washington enacted a whiskey tax that led to the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. During this time, he sent representatives to attempt to collect the taxes, and even led organized troops to march against the insurrection. However, the rebels were no match and they folded. Only two of them were convicted of treason: John Mitchell and Philip Wigle. The men were sentenced to hang, but Washington later pardoned the men. In 2011, Wigle Whiskey was reopened to keep Philp Wigle’s legacy alive. Little George enjoyed the visit, noting that he too owned a whiskey distillery at the end of his life. He bragged only slightly to the folks at Wigle about producing 11,000 gallons in 1799. At the time, it was one of the largest distilleries in the country.

How George Ended Up on the $1 Bill

When you hear the name George Washington, what is the first image that pops into your head? For many people, it is the picture of the first president that adorns the U.S. paper dollar, but have you ever wondered how he ended up there? Since today is National Dollar Day commemorating the day in 1786 when United States Congress established the dollar as the official unit of account for the federal government, we thought we’d briefly explore the history of George on the dollar.

Current US $1 bill

The current $1 bill featuring George Washington. Credit: Public domain / Wikipedia

Although paper currency has been around for centuries, the practice was first used in western world around the 17th century. During the colonial era, physical money was quite scarce in the American Colonies; instead, the economy operated on a barter system using goods as payment for services. With the advent of the American Revolution, the Continental Congress began issuing paper money to help fund the war effort but the bills were not worth much and depreciated in value quickly. After the war, when writing the new U.S. Constitution, the form of currency for the new country would prove a priority. In fact, Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution gives only the United States Federal Government the power to coin money for the country and, by 1792, the U.S. Mint was established.

At the same time, states were still allowed to issue their own currency as well but they lacked accountability so many of them were worthless.  Leading up to the Civil War, there were around 10,000 different kinds of paper money in circulation in the United States. Thus, throughout the early years of our country, foreign money and bartering were still widely used.

In fact, it was during the early 19th century that the slang term “buck” began being used. Henry Howe, an American author and traveler, wrote of his time on the Ohio frontier where “a muskrat skin was equal to a quarter of a dollar; a raccoon skin, a third of a dollar; a doe skin, half a dollar, and a buck skin, ‘the almighty dollar’”[1]. Thus, when referring to the price of something, many people referred to it as a “buck”.

During the Civil War, the United States government funded its war effort by printing new forms of currency. It was at this time that the first official paper currency was created. The federal government even printed fractional notes during the time because the metal normally used to make coins was needed for the war. One of the bills created at the time was the official one dollar bill in 1862. This early version of the bill featured then Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase.

The money printed during this time period became known as “greenbacks” because it was not backed by anything. The worth was simply given to it by the government saying it had worth. This meant that the government had to closely control printing and also find a way to prevent counterfeiting.  Today, many people think of the U.S. Secret Service as the people who protect the President but the service was actually formed at this time to deal with counterfeiters.

US $1 1880

An $1 note from 1880 featuring George Washington. Credit: Public domain / Wikipedia

After the Civil War, the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing took over production of U.S. Currency. It was in 1869 that George Washington’s face first appeared on the one dollar bill. The design of the dollar changed quite a bit up until 1963 when the bill we recognize today was first created. Unlike most of the rest of our paper money, the one dollar bill has not been redesigned since then and there are no plans to do so.

Currency is redesigned at intervals to forestall counterfeiting. As recently as 2016, then Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew planned a complete redesign of the twenty dollar bill to replace Andrew Jackson with a picture of Harriet Tubman. Lew planned the design to be released in 2020 but it has been delayed until 2026.

Regardless, Tubman will not be the first woman featured on U.S. currency. We have had women (including Susan B. Anthony, Sacagawea, and Helen Keller) featured on U.S. coins.  In the 1860s, Pocahontas was featured on the twenty dollar note. In the 1880s, Martha Washington was featured on the $1 silver certificate. This bill with the portrait of Martha Washington is the only time a woman has ever been on U.S. paper money as the primary portrait.  Another series released in the 1890s was called the Educational Series and featured Martha next to her husband. Many coin collectors and currency experts consider it to be the most beautiful currency ever created by the United States Government. It was shortly after this that our paper money shifted to what we know it as today with denominations of one, five, ten, twenty, fifty, and one hundred becoming the most commonly used bills.

US $1SC 1886

The $1 silver certificate from 1886 featuring Martha Washington. Credit: Public domain / Wikipedia.

The U.S. Currency Education Program says around twelve billion one dollar bills are in circulation as of 2017. That’s a lot of Georges. Ironically, the portrait appearing on the bill, is one that the man himself was likely not particularly fond of. Painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1796, it is often referred to as The Athenaeum Portrait. Today, the original painting is on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. Despite being the most recognized painting of George, it is an unfinished work. In the painting, George’s cheeks are puffed out and his lips pursed in discomfort. Around the same time he complained about his new set of dentures not fitting him correctly and causing him pain. Due to his constant concern for his appearance and demeanor, he would probably not appreciate our widespread use of this portrait. He probably much preferred the bust created by Jean-Antoine Houdon, something even his family said was the most accurate likeness of him.

Athenaeum Portrait vs One-Dollar Bill

Gilbert Stuart’s “Athenaeum Portrait” (L) vs the $1 bill portrait (R). Credit: Anna Frodesiak / Wikipedia

Houdon's Washington Bust

Bust of George Washington created by Jean-Antoine Houdon and widely considered the most accurate likeness of Washington. Credit: National Portrait Gallery

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

[1] Howe, H. (1851). Historical collections of Ohio. Cincinnati: H. Howe at E. Morgan & co’s.