What Was Old Is New Again: The Return of a Map & Floorcloth to Fielding Lewis’s Office

There were exciting arrivals at Historic Kenmore at the end of March! Two new additions made their debut in Fielding Lewis’s Office – a reproduction map on hanging rollers, and a long-awaited floorcloth.   

Fielding Lewis owned 6 maps, which we assume he stored in his office.  One of those maps may well have been what we know today as the Fry-Jefferson map (first produced in 1755, and titled at the time A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina).  The Fry-Jefferson map was considered the definitive depiction of the Virginia colony throughout the 18th century.  The surveyors and cartographers who created its accurate depiction were Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson’s father).  The George Washington Foundation owns an original copy of the map.

The Fry-Jefferson map on display over the fireplace in Fielding Lewis’s Office.

Over the past several years, we investigated the possibility that Fielding Lewis’s Office had a floorcloth covering its floorboards, much like the Passage.  Floorcloths were popular floorcoverings in colonial American households. They were far more affordable than carpet and durable enough to protect floors in high-traffic areas.  These decoratively painted sheets of sail canvas could be mopped when dirty, re-varnished when they began to wear, and simply repainted with a new design to keep up with changing fashion. 

Evidence shows, however, that floorcloths were sometimes used in less traffic areas of a house, as well.  They are sometimes listed in probate inventories as being in chambers, and private rooms on a house’s second floor.  Even in formal rooms, like the Dining Room, a floorcloth might be put under a dining table to catch food and spilled drinks.  In areas where a floorcloth was seen by more than just family members, it was probably decorated in a more ornate pattern.  Fielding’s office was both a utilitarian, working office and a space in which Fielding might meet with business associates and other gentry who needed to be suitably impressed.  Would it have had a floorcloth?

Kenmore’s most recent restoration in the 2000s provided us with two clues as to the existence of a floorcloth in the Office.  First, a small fragment of painted textile was found wedged under one of the baseboards in the room.  Microscopic analysis of the fragment found that it was composed of hemp with some wool and cotton fibers mixed in.  Although this was not the usual make-up of canvas from the 18th century, historic textile consultants suggested that it could represent the natural fibers of padding placed under floorcloths on occasion.  The paint attached to the fibers represented at least 5 layers of paint and varnish. The textile had been painted, varnished, worn through, repainted and re-varnished multiple times, which is exactly what one would expect to find on such a fragment. Unfortunately, the fragment was so small and degraded that no determination to original color could be made. The existence of the fragment, however, strongly indicates that the Office had a floorcloth at one time.

The second clue found during the restoration was a group of larger floorcloth fragments under the attic floorboards.  These fragments were large enough that we could see a pattern and color scheme.  While obviously from a floorcloth, dating them was a little harder.  Floorcloths were used in American households from the mid-18th century through the mid-19th century.  Was this floorcloth old enough to have been used during the Lewis era at Kenmore? To narrow down the date range, samples from the green painted areas on the fragments were once again put under a microscope.  Prior to 1816, green pigmented paint did not have chrome yellow in its composition.  Analysis confirmed an absence of chrome yellow, meaning the floorcloth dated to before 1816.  While not a conclusive date, it certainly moved the possible date range closer to the Lewis occupation of Kenmore. 

Floorcloth fragments discovered during the restoration at Kenmore.

After this initial analysis of the fragments recovered during Kenmore’s restoration, we progressed under the assumption that the fragments came from a floorcloth in the Office.  The same studio that produced the Passage floorcloth (Black Dog Gallery in Yorktown) undertook the project.  Their first task was to look at the fragments and reconstruct the pattern.  We thought this would be easy, after all the fragments were large and showed a lot of clear decoration. Surely that was enough to piece together the original pattern!

In fact, the specialists working on the project began to doubt whether all of the fragments were from the same floorcloth.  The decorative elements – namely medallions, scalloped shells and “basket weave” cross hatching – simply didn’t line up in any logical way, at least not like any typical floorcloth patterns from the time.  But the paint analysis clearly showed the same generations of paint on all of the fragments, strongly indicating that they were from one floorcloth.  Additionally, the way in which the fragments were found – all on top of each other, as if the floorcloth had been rolled up, then left to sit for a century and eventually cracked and broke at the rolled edges – strongly indicated one original unit, too.

In the end, the specialists turned to the only other pattern source from the period that might provide some clues – wallpaper catalogs.  For some reason, the decorative elements on the fragments made much more sense when compared to 18th century wallpaper patterns. Perhaps the original floorcloth had actually been block printed, the way wallpaper was, with some handpainting done afterwards to highlight certain details.  Perhaps the person who made the original floorcloth was simply more familiar with wallpaper than with floorcloths. Perhaps the Lewises requested a floorcloth inspired by some wallpaper.  We’ll never know, but the wallpaper connection provided the bridge needed to recreate a reasonable pattern from the surviving fragments.

Once the pattern was determined, production began.  The floorcloth was made in the same manner that floorcloths have been for hundreds of years.  A sheet of canvas was cut to size, stretched out on the ground, painted with several base coats, handpainted with a “show layer” (the pattern) and then coated with clear varnish.  It was left to cure for several weeks. Then, the entire thing was rolled up and transported to Kenmore for installation (which was relatively easy, in comparison to the huge floorcloths installed in the Passage years earlier).

Floorcloth for Fielding Lewis’s Office being made.
The new floorcloth on the floor of the Office.

The floorcloth and map have added the final touches to Fielding Lewis’s Office, making the room all the more like it was in 1775.  Purchase your ticket to tour Kenmore now, and see these new additions for yourself!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

The Gardens of Historic Kenmore

Historic Kenmore is known for many things; for being the home of Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis, for its Georgian-style brick architecture, its famous ornate decorative plaster ceilings, and, last but not least, for its beautiful gardens. Unfortunately, today only three out of Kenmore’s nearly 1300 original acres remain but with the help of The Garden Club of Virginia, dedicated volunteers, and generous donors, the remaining landscape surrounding the house was cared for over the last century.

There is a very exciting centennial celebration coming up for Kenmore. The Kenmore Association (presently known as The George Washington Foundation) was established in 1922 to save the historic home from destruction. Kenmore will celebrate its 100th anniversary as a historic house museum next year in 2022.

Similarly, The Garden Club of Virginia was established when eight garden clubs across the Commonwealth of Virginia were invited to attend a conference in Richmond on May 13, 1920. Last year was the club’s 100th anniversary.

Fielding and Betty Lewis, for whom Kenmore was built in the mid-1770s, left no historical records of what gardens they had or where they were located. Even though there is little archival or archaeological evidence of original garden plans or planting, we do know that tobacco, wheat, and corn were grown in Kenmore’s surrounding fields. Furthermore, the terraces on the river side of the house, which are still there today, were hand-built by enslaved laborers. Without precise archival and archaeological data, however, Kenmore’s gardens over the years were based on a general understanding of 18th century gardening styles.

Terrace built by enslaved laborers in the 18th century visible in Kenmore’s gardens.

The creation of the present-day gardens began in 1929 when The Garden Club of Virginia raised funds for their organization’s first project, Kenmore’s gardens. Indeed, as written about previously, Kenmore inspired Historic Garden Week in Virginia, which was held for the first time that same year.

This initial establishment of Kenmore’s gardens was led by landscape architect Charles F. Gillette with contributions by James Greenleaf and Alden Hopkins. Colonial Revival-style gardens were planted with boxwoods around the foundation of the house, along paths, and on the terrace. The west lawn, which faces present-day Washington Avenue, was treated as the “front of house” since carriages entered from that side in the 19th century. This lawn was planted with stately trees. On the east lawn, at the rear of the property facing the Rappahannock River, a four-square garden edged in boxwoods was added.

In 1941, The Garden Club of Virginia brought back Gillette to create what was called Betty Washington’s Flower Garden and to add an enclosing brick wall around the property.

Kenmore’s gardens saw further changes throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, when a decision was made by the Kenmore Association to more accurately demonstrate general 18th century garden styles and ideas as well as to introduce more native plants. The boxwoods were removed from around the house’s foundation and from most paths.

On its 70th anniversary in 1992, The Garden Club of Virginia undertook another extensive redesign of Kenmore’s gardens with landscape architect Rudy Favretti. Included in this replanting was another revamping of what was called Betty Washington’s Garden, the creation of an Herb Demonstration Garden, the addition of the Wilderness Walk, and a refurbishment of the east terrace. A kitchen garden was added in 1993 and a redesign of the parterre was completed in 1994. A parterre, or four-square garden, means “on the ground” and indicates the geometrical arrangement of garden beds. The four-square arrangement is a reflection of the late 18th century move toward simplicity of design.

Come visit the gardens of Historic Kenmore today, Tuesday, April 20 for Garden Day in Fredericksburg, part of Historic Garden Week in Virginia hosted by The Garden Club of Virginia.

Jessica Burger
Manager of Marketing, Communications, and Technology

The Christmastime Escape of Stephen and Guile

“My Dear Brother, I wish you to give Howell some advice how to Proseed in regard to two Negroes that Runaway from me a few days before Christmas…”

With those words in the early spring of 1794, Betty Lewis informed her brother, George Washington, of a difficult situation.  She also provided us with a few clues about the identities of two more members of the enslaved community at Kenmore during the Lewis era, and a larger story of resistance and survival.

Betty wrote the letter quoted above from Kenmore on February 9, 1794.  By that time, Betty’s financial situation was precarious at best.  Her land was not producing a crop that could support her, her debts were mounting, and although all of her grown children were living on their own, she was caring for at least two grandchildren and one niece, all living under her roof.  Her youngest son, Howell (mentioned in the letter) actually lived on his own property in Frederick County, and handled much of his mother’s farming and land affairs on occasional visits to Kenmore.  Betty would only remain at Kenmore for another two years before moving to a small farmhouse outside of town, much to the relief of her children.  Her letter goes on to describe the runaway slaves as “the Principal hands on the Plantation,” and continues, “…the hole Crop I made the last year was thirty Barrils of Corn and a Hundred and tenn Bushels of Wheat, if I am so unfortunate as not to get them (the runaways) again, I have no chance to make any thing the insuing year.”

Who were these two men, and what can we learn about their situation? It turns out that the letter from Betty to George is only the first of several surviving documents connected to this story.  On March 25, 1794 – more than 3 months after the men ran away from Kenmore – Betty placed an ad in the Virginia Gazette, offering a reward for their return.  The ad provides us with their names: Stephen and Guile.  Stephen’s name is not in any of the four original primary documents that began our Enslaved Community Project (click here to read more about these documents and our research into other members of the enslaved community), which tells us he was likely acquired by the Lewis family after Fielding Lewis’s death in 1781, and may have been rather new to the community at the time of his escape.  Guile, on the other hand, was listed in Fielding’s probate inventory as “Guyle” and valued at £50.  The 1782 Divvy List, written by Betty Lewis after her husband’s death to show which enslaved persons were to go to each of her children, shows that Guile was 9 years of age at that time (so he was approximately 21 years old at the time of his escape).  He had most likely been at Kenmore for his entire life. 

As is often the case with runaway slave advertisements, which were incredibly detailed, this document also provides the only physical descriptions that we have of any enslaved person at Kenmore during the Lewis era.  Stephen is said to be a “black fellow,” about 24 years old, around 5’8” tall, and could play the violin very well.  Betty also described him as “very impertinent and talkative.” Guile was said to have a “yellowish complexion,” about six feet tall and “large in proportion.”  He also had a long scar under his right eye Betty added that he had a “down look and very little to say.” Betty summed up her thoughts on the two men by saying Stephen “…is an artful fellow and I am inclined to think he has induced the other fellow Guile to accompany him.”[1]

Newspaper advertisement placed in the Virginia Gazette on March 25, 1794 by Betty Lewis offering a $20 reward for the returned of runaways Stephen and Guile.

Apparently sometime between writing to her brother in February about the escape, and placing the advertisement in March, Betty had learned a bit more about the two men’s plans.  In her letter to George, Betty speculates that they were most likely headed for Philadelphia, where they probably believed they could gain their freedom.  When Pennsylvania enacted The Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in 1780, Philadelphia became a center of abolition and activism as well as a major hub for the Underground Railroad.  Many enslaved persons who made the risky decision to flee the South headed for Philadelphia, so Betty’s speculation was justified.  However, in her newspaper ad, Betty changed her opinion, and stated that she had, “reason to believe that they are on the way to Maryland, if not already there – Stephen was formerly the property of Mr. Sprigg, in the neighborhood of Annapolis, and may now be lurking about his negro quarters.”[2] How Betty came into this information is unknown, but it suggests that Stephen may have had a reason beyond freedom for running away.  By choosing to head for Maryland instead of Philadelphia, Stephen indicated that there might be something at his old home in Annapolis drawing him back, possibly a wife or other family members who he was separated from when he came to Kenmore.  The Mr. Sprigg mentioned in the advertisement was most likely Richard Sprigg of Strawberry Hill, near Annapolis.  He was an associate of George Washington’s and frequently corresponded with him, usually about breeding cocker spaniels and mules, and wildlife for game parks.  No apparent connection has been found between Sprigg and Betty Lewis, but evidently Betty acquired one of his enslaved workers. 

If you’ve been following along with the dates of these documents thus far, you might have noticed that a rather long period of time elapsed between the time the men supposedly ran away, and the time Betty first mentioned taking any action on the matter to her brother.  According to the newspaper ad, Stephen and Guile made their escape just before Christmas on December 20,1793.  Betty didn’t mention it to her brother for more than a month, on February 9.  That seems a long time to wait, when she was supposedly so concerned for the future of her property without the labor of the two men.  What could account for it?

There’s actually a fairly good chance that Betty wasn’t aware of the escape for quite some time after it had happened.  The Christmas season was a popular time among the colonial enslaved population to attempt escapes.  To understand why, we have to take a look at what exactly the Christmas season was like for enslaved communities.  First, it is important to understand that there was no one common practice or tradition for the Christmas season amongst the enslaved population in 18th century America.  Customs and rules varied greatly by region, by town, and even from one plantation to the next.  Generally speaking, most masters gave their workforce some time off during the holiday season.  In most written accounts from the period, it seems the amount of time varied between 1 day and a full week, with the most common allotment being 3 days.[3]  During that time, enslaved people were often granted unusual amounts of personal freedom.  They could sometimes be allowed to travel to visit friends or family members on neighboring farms, they could plan their own gatherings or celebrations, and they could take part in gift-giving and receiving, even with the master’s family.[4] 

However, time off wasn’t equally distributed between members of the same community.  Because of the winter season, field hands and manual laborers got the bulk of free time, as there was simply less for them to do at that time of year.  House slaves, however, saw their workload double and triple with the holiday influx of visitors, household preparations, meals, etc.  This was the case for people like Billy and Charlotte, two enslaved individuals at Kenmore who we’ve met in this post and this post.  As the household butler, Billy’s work was nearly unceasing during the season, overseeing all of the food procurement and preparations, taking care of the needs of any visitors staying in the house, and coordinating all of the arrangements for holiday parties and balls, including the culminating celebration on Twelfth Night.  Charlotte, a seamstress, was most likely inundated with making, remaking and repairing all the Lewis family clothing needed for the season’s many special occasions.  Other enslaved individuals at Kenmore known to us from this post and hired out to other farms or businesses, like the rope makers Abraham, Bob, George and Randolph, could anticipate a return to Kenmore at the Christmas season.  Most of the agreements Betty Lewis and her sons made for the hiring out of their enslaved workers were for up to a year and often terminated at Christmastime.  For those workers, there might have been some joy in the prospect of returning to a familiar home, family and friends.

In Betty Lewis’s letter to her brother George, she refers to Stephen and Guile as the “principal hands” of her farming operation, indicating that they were not house slaves and therefore were probably among those granted more free time during the Christmas holiday of 1793.  Because of this free time, and because owners and overseers were otherwise occupied, Stephen and Guile may have had their best chance during the year to escape.  And because they weren’t expected back on the property or to be performing specific jobs for quite some time, their departure might go unnoticed, giving them a sizeable head start.  It may have been several weeks before Betty knew that she had lost two important assets to her income, and it was obviously several months before she had enough information to place an ad for their return in the newspaper.

So what became of Stephen and Guile? Did they make it to freedom in Philadelphia? Was Stephen reunited with family in Maryland? As it happens there is one more document in the Kenmore archives that may provide a clue as to how their story ends.  On June 4, 1793, about three months after Betty placed her ad in the Virginia Gazette for the return of Stephen and Guile, she entered into an agreement with her step son John Lewis.  According to a fragmented bill of sale written in John’s hand, he agreed to sell Betty two of his slaves – Reuben and Lewis – for the bargain price of £140.[5]

Fragmented bill of sale from John Lewis to Betty Lewis selling two slaves – Reuben and Lewis – for £140.

The two men were among a group of ten enslaved people originally gifted to John Lewis as a wedding present from his father many years earlier.  It is the only documented occasion on which Betty purchased any enslaved person following her husband’s death, and the only time such a purchase was made from one of her children, most likely indicating that it was a rare occurrence, perhaps made necessary by an emergency situation.  The timing of the transaction seems to suggest that John sold Reuben and Lewis to Betty to help her make up for the loss of Stephen and Guile.  Neither of the runaways’ names show up in the list of enslaved people sold at vendu following Betty Lewis’s death, and no further mention of the incident was made in Betty’s correspondence with her brother George.  Taken together, all of this evidence strongly supports the conclusion that Stephen and Guile were never recaptured, and they never returned to Kenmore.  Perhaps their Christmastime escape was a success.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Advertisement, Virginia Gazette, Purdie and Dixon. 25 March 1794.  Copy in Kenmore Manuscript Collection, PH677.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bigham, Shauna, and Robert E. May. “The Time O’ All Times? Masters, Slaves, and Christmas in the Old South.” Journal of the Early Republic 18, no. 2 (1998): 265.

[4] Ibid, 263-88.

[5] Bill of sale, Lewis, John to Betty Lewis, 4 June 1794.  Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 385.

More Than Meets the Eye: What Their Portraits Say About the Lewis Family

On walls of the Historic Kenmore’s drawing room hang two large portraits of a man and a woman.  The man is an older gentleman in a serene outdoor setting, looking quite dignified and sober in a brownish knee-length jacket, knee breeches and long waistcoat. His eyes rest on the portrait viewer, one hand on moss-covered rocks, the other on his hip, and his head turned slightly to his left.  Across the room, the woman sits at a slight profile with her head turned to her left to face the portrait viewer. She wears a billowing blue and white dress and holds two pink roses in her right hand while her left arm casually sits on a marble top table. She is indoors with what appear to be some drapes billowing behind her. The man and woman are Fielding Lewis and Betty Washington Lewis, the owners of Kenmore.

Fielding and Betty’s portraits were commissioned by the couple and painted by prolific colonial artist John Wollaston in the 1750s.  On the surface, these paintings are just two genial portraits that provide us with visual records of the heads of the family. Through the subtle symbolism, however, they also tell a larger story of how Fielding and Betty wished to be portrayed publically to their contemporaries as well as to posterity.

Portraits first became a popular mode of expression for the aristocracy and the wealthy during the Renaissance.  These paintings were usually large scale affairs meant to be displayed and seen by the public.  The paintings depicted people with expensive goods, fine cloth, rare flowers, and exotic pets. Whether the portraits’ subjects actually owned these items was less important than the suggestion including the items made. In fact, these paintings were filled with symbolism–images, objects, or colors representing ideas and that allow the artist to go beyond the obvious to create links between otherwise different concepts.  A color can depict character, a flower personality and a fabric economic status.[1]

Through symbolism, portraits were used to reflect social status, wealth, success, power and cultural refinement.  A portrait’s details were integral to the story of the painting and many factors had to be taken into account.  Aspects such as artist, style, background, color, fabric, and accessories all needed to be discussed to create the portrayal desired by the patron.[2]

Centuries after the Renaissance, the importance of portraiture as a record of status and position in society had not changed and the custom had become more popular outside of the aristocracy as well as outside of Europe.  Even in faraway British North America, the wealth of the gentry, or upper class, desired portraits to show their status and position. Fielding Lewis and Betty Washington Lewis, members of the gentry with a wealthy business in Atlantic World trade, were no exception. Mr. and Mrs. Lewis wanted to portray themselves as socially refined not only to cement their place in the community but to allow for a continued rise in their status.  Accordingly, they sat for portraits by John Wollaston.

Fielding Lewis (c. 1753-1758) by John Wollaston.

The most noticeable thing about Fielding’s portrait is the muted colors used in the background and in his clothing.  One of the most visually striking symbols in portraits was the colors used to represent the subject.  While color may not have inherent meaning, it can be made meaningful through context.  The colors in the background, clothing, and accessories all relate to the overall message or story being told by the artist. The browns, greens, and beiges in Fielding’s portrait create a natural and relaxed atmosphere.  The nature background is a stylized classical bucolic setting that helps strike a balance between Fielding’s muted clothing palette and the landscape setting.  The woodland glen signifies a natural sincerity that, when mixed with the brown and beige of his ensemble, creates the feeling of calmness, reliability, dependability and an earthy richness.  All of these traits are important for a successful merchant.  Fielding was telling visitors to his house that he was a person they could do business with and trust.[3]

Betty Lewis (1750) by John Wollaston. Credit: Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

Betty’s portrait uses color, context, fabric and an accessory to illustrate her own geniality and her family’s affluence, for not only as a Lewis but as a Washington as well.  The background around Betty, who is at the center of the portrait, offers hints of this grandeur with brown walls and a heavy brown billowing curtain creating a frame of luxurious richness.  To add to the opulence, Betty is poised with her arm resting on an ornate Rococo-style marble top table with heavily carved gold legs.  The portrait conveys that she can afford such ornamental comforts.  Next to the table, Betty in her flowy blue and white satin dress with a pair of roses resting on her right knee is the focus.  Blue was a popular color for ladies and was common in many portraits painted by Wollaston. The color gives the sitter not only an air of peace and calmness but also of restraint and intelligence. The satin denotes a luxury and fashion available to only those with means. Meanwhile, the pink rose tells of Betty’s grace, beauty and gentility.  Overall, the portrait depicts a sophisticated and refined 18th century woman, a wife and mother who adds balance and depth to her husband’s trustworthiness and professionalism.[4]

Fielding and Betty did not stop with portraits of themselves.  About twenty years after sitting for John Wollaston, they commissioned famed painter Charles Willson Peale to produce several portraits of their offspring.  There are two in Kenmore’s collection.

John Lewis (c. 1775) by Charles Willson Peale.

One of these Peale portraits depicts John Lewis, the eldest son of Fielding and his first wife, Catharine who sits with one hand on his hip and one hand on a book.  The posture gives John a sense of self-assurance and capability.  Unlike his father’s subdued color palette, John’s jacket and waistcoat are an amazing red with gold detailing.  The red paired with the gold creates warmth but also projects a sense of power, strength and confidence.  The book in his the left hand gives an air of knowledge and awareness.

Fielding Lewis Jr (c. 1775) by Charles Willson Peale.

The second Peale portrait in the collection depcits Fielding Lewis Jr., the eldest son of Fielding and Betty, striking a very traditional pose with a hand tucked in his jacket and a slight tilt of the head.  The pose is welcoming, kind and is the embodiment of a thoughtful young gentleman.  Much like his father he chose a subdued color palette with an earthy reddish-brown jacket and goldish yellow waistcoat, which convey a sense of reliability, stability and affability.  The brown background adds a natural simplicity with soothing warmth.   Additionally, like his brother, there is a well-read book by his side indicating a sense of learning and mindfulness.  This portrait’s symbolism reflects the more aspirational messages in these paintings as Fielding, Jr. struggled with money problems for most of his life and even ended up in debtors’ prison.

Later portraits in Kenmore’s collection contain other fascinating symbolism that tells the stories of the paintings’ subjects. These portraits visually record family history or emphasize familial connections.

Eleanor Rosalie Tucker (1818) by unknown artist.

This 19th century portrait of Eleanor Rosalie Tucker, the great granddaughter of Fielding and Betty, is painted in characteristic neoclassical style with direct lighting, soft features, rosy cheeks and a roundness of the face.  The white muslin gown gives the young girl a purity and serenity beyond her years.  The halo surrounding the sitter represents her delicacy and gives her an otherworldliness. This is appropriate as, sadly, she was painted for this portrait on her deathbed in 1818.

The Wallace Family (c. 1856-1862) by John Adams Elder. A loan courtesy of Mrs. W. Wallace Morton, Jr.

Finally, this portrait of the Wallace family painted in the mid-Victorian period is quite a unique painting in our collection with a fascinating twist to its symbolism.  The portrait has a traditional composition but at the center is a large leashed bird in mid-flight.  This bird is a rebus, a puzzle device used to visually depict words and/or phrases.  They are used extensively in heraldry to hint at the name of the bearer.  This painting’s bird rebus is attached to a young girl named Mary Byrd Wallace, the great, great granddaughter of Fielding and Betty Lewis.

Portraits are sometimes the only visual representation we may have of a historic figure.  These portraits do more than capture a person’s appearance, however.  The wealthy and socially important also used portraits and their symbolism to emphasize their wealth and high status.  Portraits also visually recorded family history or emphasized familial connections.  For the Lewis family, like everything in their house and like their house itself, their portraits revealed how they saw themselves and, perhaps more importantly, how they wanted others to see them whether in the 18th or the 21st centuries.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] “Faces of a New Nation: American Portraits of the 18th and early 19th centuries”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Summer 2003: 11

[2] Crown, Carol. The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Vol. 23, University of North Carolina Press, 2013: 150-151.

[3] Centeno, Carlos. “Lose the Color Symbolism Chart: The Unpredictable Meanings of Color,” July 6 2016. https://medium.com/@carlitocenteno/lose-the-color-symbolism-chart-the-unpredictable-meanings-of-color-edc81db6541e; “Faces of a New Nation,” 13

[4] “British and American Grand Master Portraits of the 1700s”, National Gallery of Art. https://www.nga.gov/features/slideshows/british-and-american-grand-manner-portraits-of-the-1700s.html; Centeno; De la Tour, Charlotte. Le langage des fleurs, 1819: 58; Hooper, Lucy. The Lady’s Book of Flowers and Poetry, 1846: 248.

Billy at the Door

In our ongoing series of investigations into the lives of Historic Kenmore’s enslaved community during the Lewis era, we recently uncovered another full identity behind what was once just a name.  Once again, close examination of long-forgotten documents and analysis of hidden clues revealed this man’s story, and in a rare turn of events, gave us some extra details about his life. 

If you read the previous posts in this series, you know that our hunt for information began with four basic primary documents – 1) Fielding Lewis’s 1781 probate inventory, 2) the 1782 Divvy List written by Betty Lewis, 3) the Vendu (public auction) List compiled in 1798, and 4) the Final Disposition list also written in 1798.  Each provides a list of enslaved persons associated with the Lewis family at key moments in their history (for further discussion of these documents click here).

One of the first quirks we noted in these four documents was that each began with the same name: Billy.  The rest of the names are often in similar, but not quite the same, order from document to document.  But, Billy is always the headliner. What could that mean? Did it really mean anything?

1781 Probate Inventory of Fielding Lewis’s property showing Billy listed from amount the enslaved people.

The obvious assumption is that Billy’s position as the first named indicates importance – the top of any list is usually someone of importance.  However, different people wrote these four documents, and importance may not mean the same thing to all of them. For example, the Divvy List written by Betty Lewis was her account of which enslaved persons were to stay at Kenmore and which were to be divided among her sons following her husband’s death. As the mistress of the house, Betty was aware of  who she felt was most important to the operation of her household and who she preferred to keep.

Conversely, the person conducting a probate inventory might not be familiar with the enslaved people on a property and might not know their comparative significance.  We know the 1781 probate inventory was written to follow the inventory-taker’s path through the house. It starts with the chamber (immediately inside the entrance door), proceeds through the passage into the dining room, then into the drawing room and ends in the office, which is the last room you encounter before leaving the house through the side door.  Perhaps the inventory-taker was listing the people on the property as he encountered them, just as he was doing with the contents of the rooms.  Therefore, perhaps Billy was the first person he came across when entering the house.

On both the Vendu List and the Final Disposition, Billy is listed first and is valued at £99, suggesting he had skills or traits that were valued by auction bidders. While the Vendu List recorded the trade for some people, Billy was shown simply as a “house servant.”  Any of these reasons could explain Billy’s primacy on the documents.

Without further clues, divining why Billy was always listed first was all speculation.  The odd repetition of Billy’s name at the head of every list was noted in his file, and we moved on.

As our project progressed, we found more references to Billy in other documents and fragments in Kenmore’s manuscript collection.  The Billy that is the focus of this particular research was 38 years old in 1782. (There were actually three people named Billy living on the Lewis properties, but we were able to separate the references based on age.  Betty Lewis recorded ages next to every name in the Divvy List.)

One of the earliest references to Billy may indicate how he came to be in the Lewis household.  In 1755, Fielding and Betty Lewis made a land purchase from Fielding’s brother Charles.  In addition to 1,800 acres, the purchase also included 40 enslaved individuals.  The names of those individuals were listed in the land deed, and Billy appears among them.[1]  He was approximately 11 years old.  Because this land purchase was made only a year after Fielding’s father died, it is possible that Billy and the other enslaved people on the property originally belonged to Fielding’s father at Warner Hall in Gloucester, meaning Billy was owned by the Lewis family for his entire life.

Charles Calvert and his Slave (1716) by John Hesselius. This portrait is particularly evocative because it depicts a relationship that might have been similar to Billy and young George Lewis. Credit: Baltimore Museum of Art / Wikipedia

The other reference to Billy occurred during the Lewis era at Kenmore and was on a fragmentary list of textile rations allotted to enslaved individuals.[2]  Bundles of either cotton or linen yardage were distributed to 26 people.  As with the four main enslaved community documents, Billy is again at the top of this list of rations.  He is one of only two people to receive both cotton and linen, and the amount of yardage distributed to him is more than for any other person on the list.  The list is undated, but by process of elimination we have placed it between 1786 and 1797. Billy was between 42 and 53 years old.

Portrait of a Youth in an Embroidered Vest (1785) by Marie-Victoire Lemoine shows a young enslaved man wearing an example of the fancy livery often worn by the house servants n wealthy households like the Lewis one. Credit: Cummer Museum

 Interestingly, all other references to Billy found in Kenmore’s manuscript collection deal with his post-Kenmore life.  The Final Disposition document shows that Billy stayed within the Lewis family after leaving Kenmore. He was sold to George Lewis, Betty and Fielding’s son.  George Lewis owned Marmion plantation in Westmoreland County, and so Billy went to live there, along with the 8 additional people George purchased from his father’s estate at the vendu.  Prior to the vendu sale, perhaps after Betty’s death in March of 1797 but before her estate was settled, it appears that actually Billy was already working in George Lewis’s household.  In that year, George paid for rather expensive shoes to be made for Billy, as well as for two other men he would eventually purchase at vendu.[3]  Billy also appeared to be trusted to handle money and run financial errands for George. In 1797, he delivered payment for George’s debt with merchant Clement Burrass.  Burrass referred to him as “Old Billy” on the receipt.[4]  These references in 1797, prior to the vendu sale, may indicate that George Lewis already had a significant relationship with Billy and knew that he would bring him into his household once his mother’s estate was settled. 

Taken together, these fragments of information found throughout the manuscript collection on Billy seem to indicate that he was a man of significance among the enslaved community at Kenmore.  His name at the head of every list of individuals on the property, his comparatively large textile ration, his high value at vendu, his association with the Lewis family from a very early age, his early and trusted relationship with George Lewis, and the notation that he was a house servant all combine to indicate that Billy was among the enslaved people who lived and worked within the Lewis house itself. In fact, he was probably the head of that enslaved household staff, a position we know today as a butler.  He is now one of only three people positively identified among Kenmore’s house slaves.

But Billy’s story doesn’t end there.  The next references leap ahead to 1803, when shoemaker Jessee Davis requested George Lewis  send payment on his account “by way of Billy.” Apparently, by this time it was accepted practice among local merchants for Billy to act as George Lewis’s representative.[5]  This continued through 1809, when an account ledger from the shop of William Johnston shows cash paid out to “Old Billy” on George’s account.[6]  Unfortunately, no additional references to Billy were found in the manuscript collection until sometime shortly after George Lewis’s death in 1821. That’s when an already interesting story gets even more interesting.

Although George Lewis died in November of 1821, a probate inventory of his home at Marmion was not conducted until 1823.  That inventory, filed with the King George County court, survived and shows “Billy, Old” in the list of enslaved persons on the property. His monetary value is listed as zero, indicating that he is past the age of useful labor.[7]  However, Billy’s name is enclosed in a bracket with three others – Kizzey, Fanny and Bob.  In fact, there are several other groupings of people enclosed with similar brackets in the inventory. All were labelled to indicate the relationship, such as “James and Sylvia’s children,” except for Billy’s bracket.  Luckily, another document explained it. 

Apparently sometime before his death in 1821, George Lewis spent considerable time putting his affairs in order and making lists of various personal assets.  One such list was written on a page from a ledger book, divided into three columns headed “Names,” “To Whom Sold,” and “Price.”  It was a list of enslaved persons at Marmion that were to be sold at vendu.  Although only the first column –“Names” – was filled in, the page provided some crucial information.  The names were divided into lots.  Billy shows up in the 2nd lot as “Old Man Billy”, along with Kizzey, Fanny and Bob.  Billy isn’t listed for sale, however. His name is in a note written under the lot that reads,

“In this lot, Old Man Billy must be attached.  Whoever purchases this lot, Old Man must be supported as he has always been the balance of his life – that is, to be indulged in having one of his grandchildren to wait and attend on him, the old man to be well clothed with one good suit of clothes compleat every year so long as he may live.”[8]

That sentence both confirms Billy’s special status in the Lewis family, and reveals a huge piece of information: evidently, Kizzey, Fanny and Bob are Billy’s grandchildren.

Portions relevant to Billy of an 1821 list of enslaved people drafted by George Lewis.

The revelation that Billy had grandchildren is a rare bit of information not often found when researching the lives of the enslaved.  Among those individuals living on the Kenmore property, references to family relationships are almost always made from mother to child. Fathers and husbands are never noted.  It wasn’t until George Lewis set up his household at Marmion, that he began to occasionally note male family members among the enslaved community there.  Billy was the only holdover from Kenmore to receive such attention.  Of course, if Billy had grandchildren, he must have also had at least one child of his own, and that most likely means that he had a wife, as well.  Who could these missing members of Billy’s family tree be?

Unfortunately, this is probably the end of the documented trail for Billy – anything further we can surmise about his family is complete speculation.  In the 1823 probate inventory of George Lewis’s estate – the one that initially showed Billy’s name in a bracket with Kizzey, Fanny and Bob – there is a couple, Tom Brown and Becky, enclosed in a bracket, listed directly above Billy.  They are the only people on the list that don’t have an identified family relationship.  There is no notation to explain this couple, but it is possible that they are related to Billy and his grandchildren in some manner – possibly their parents?[9]

Another possibility involves the group of people who George Lewis purchased from his father’s estate.  The only female among the group was Nanny, a woman who we know very little about from her time at Kenmore.  We do know that her mother was named Fanny.  Is it possible that Nanny was Billy’s wife, and that his grandchild Fanny carried on a family naming tradition?

In any case, by the time George Lewis was arranging for Billy’s sale at the age of 79, neither his wife nor a child was identified or likely existed among the Marmion enslaved community, indicating that Billy had likely been separated from them at some earlier time.  Although we don’t know when the actual vendu for the George Lewis’s estate took place, or who purchased the individuals on the list, we do know that by 1830 Billy and his grandchildren were gone from the Marmion property.

If you were to visit Kenmore as a guest between the years of 1775 and 1796, the first face you encountered at the door was Billy’s. He was a daily visitor to the bedchamber, where he received the day’s menu and instructions for the household from Mrs. Lewis. He oversaw the setting of the table. He was silently present in the dining room during meals. He served the madeira in the drawing room after dinner. He oversaw the turning back of beds and laying of fires at night.  If you were an overnight guest, Billy might have been the last person you saw before retiring for the night.  Billy had his own life, too – a wife and family living somewhere on the property. Friends and neighbors within his community who also followed his instructions in the house. When running daily errands in town, he was a recognized figure walking on Fredericksburg’s streets.  Eventually, he even had his grandchildren with him, when all others were gone away.  Billy is now one more name and one more life made less mysterious by our ongoing research into Kenmore’s enslaved community.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] “Indenture (Deed of Sale), Charles Lewis to Fielding & Betty Lewis,” October 9, 1755; Spotsylvania County Deed Book E, Pg. 299.  Photocopy from the original, Kenmore Manuscript Collection (PH 707).

[2] “List (fragment),” Kenmore Manuscript Collection (MS 1073).

[3] “Account with Major George Lewis,” October 30, 1794 – January 2, 1797; Kenmore Manuscript Collection (MS 868).

[4] “Account, Major George Lewis in Account with Clement Burrass,” 1797; Kenmore Manuscript Collection (MS 866).

[5] “Account, Major George Lewis to Jessee Davis,” 1803; Kenmore Manuscript Collection (MS 892).

[6] “Account, William Johnston in Account with George Lewis,” 1807 – 1809; Kenmore Manuscript Collection (MS 924).

[7] “Inventory and Appraisement of the Estate of George Lewis, D’sd,” February 7, 1823; King George County Will Book, Pg. 296.  Photocopy from the original, Kenmore Research Files (Wills and Inventories of Lewis Descendants).

[8] “List of Negroes” by George Lewis, ca. 1821; Kenmore Manuscript Collection (MS 1049).

[9] “Inventory and Appraisement of the Estate of George Lewis, D’sd.”

Charlotte and the Mercury Pills

As part of our ongoing effort to research the enslaved communities that once lived and worked at Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we recently came across some very unusual information pertaining to a young enslaved woman named Charlotte who resided at Kenmore.

Charlotte, unfortunately, is a somewhat enigmatic figure. We know only a few things about her. She was about 11 years old in 1781, when Fielding Lewis died – her name appears as “Sharliot” in his probate inventory. She is also listed (along with her age) on a document called the Divvy List created by Betty Lewis shortly after her husband’s death and listing which slaves were to stay with her at Kenmore and which ones would eventually be given to her three youngest sons. Betty chose Charlotte to stay with her at Kenmore. Sixteen years later, Charlotte appears again on a list of slaves from the Lewis properties who were to be sold at vendu (public sale or auction). This document indicates that Charlotte worked as a seamstress in the Lewis household, and that she had both a young son named George, and a baby (although the baby was not identified by name or gender). One final reference to Charlotte in Kenmore’s manuscript collection is a notation that she was among 21 enslaved persons receiving textile rations sometime around 1796 (she received 5 yards of linen).

enslaved seamstress

Enslaved seamstress in the 18th century. Credit: Historical Images

As often happens in this kind of research, we can have very sparse detail about a subject’s life until we find a new document that provides incredible detail about a very specific moment in that person’s life. Such is the case with Charlotte. The new document is a list of charges for medical examinations and treatments “to Charlotte” submitted by an “R. Wellford”, a doctor, to Betty Lewis’s estate sometime after Betty’s death in 1797. It shows that from April through November of 1796, Betty Lewis paid over £10 to treat Charlotte’s unidentified ailment.

ms 850

Transcription of MS 850, Charges for Medical Expenses [1]

The Estate of Mrs. Betty Lewis
Dbt. To R. Wellford

April 15th Examining Charlotte’s throat & advice for do . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.10.0
22nd Visit from the Courthouse to Charlotte . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.10.0
Twelve Mercl. Alt. pills for 12 doses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.12.0
Volatile discutrent Liniment @ 32 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.9.0

May 10th Visit from Frdbg. To Charlotte . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.10.0
Ings. For one Galen of Sudorific decoction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.6.0

July 9th Volatile Linament @3, Charlotte . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.4.6
30th Visit from Fredbg. To Charlotte . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1.0.0
31st Fifteen Alt. Merc. Pills for 15 doses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.15.0

Aug. 2nd Visit to do from Courthouse . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.10.0
Ings. As before for 1 Galen of decoction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.6.0
24th Visit refd. From Fredbg . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1.0.0
Twelve Mercl. Alt. pill as before . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.12.0
Ings. for decoction repeated . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0.6.0
Sugar of lead for 4 discontent poultices . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.3.0
Strong vitriolic astringent gargle @3 or . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0.6.0

Novr. 10th Fifteen Alt. Merc. Pills . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0.15.0


What can this new document tell us about Charlotte’s life? First, we can take a look at the medications prescribed to treat what we assume to be a respiratory ailment…

To begin her treatments, Charlotte was given 12 doses of mercury tablets on April 15, 1796. When ingested mercury causes the body to sweat and salivate and, as was incorrectly believed at that time, to rid itself of excess moisture and any toxins causing the sickness. In reality, mercury is a poison and the sweating, salivating, and intense diarrhea is actually the the body trying to rid itself of the deadly mercury. Mercury can also stimulate the mucous membranes thus increasing congestion and actually making it more difficult for the body to expel the mercury.

In the 18th century, much of medicine was still heavily based on a theory dating back to ancient Greece when it was believed that an imbalance of the body’s liquids or humors (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood) caused illness. While there were many medical voices in the 18th century who questioned the humors theory of illness, the idea persisted deep into the 19th century. Similarly, mercury in a drug called ‘calomel’ was still prescribed by doctors well into the 20th century.

On April 15, Charlotte was also prescribed a ‘Volatile discutrent Liniment’. This was basically ammonia suspended in some kind of oil that was spread on her chest or face to open up her airways. Think of this liniment as a very early form of Vicks VapoRub that smelled of urine. This probably would work pretty well to temporarily ease congestion if you had a nasty cold.

Then, on May 10, Charlotte receives a ‘sudorific decoction’ that, like the mercury tablets, was supposed to make her sweat a lot. If she had a fever, profuse sweating could possibly help bring down her body temperature by spurring the body’s natural cooling process of evaporating sweat from skin. The doctor may have been once again been trying to purge her body of supposed excess moisture. Regardless, with repeated purgings, Charlotte was in real danger of dehydration, a significant problem when you are ill.

On July 9 and 31, Charlotte is given even more ammonia liniment and mercury. By now, you can’t help but wonder if these treatments were making her feel far more terrible than her underlying disease.

Twice more in August, Charlotte is given more heroic amounts of mercury in addition to the ‘decoction’ to purge her system further. She is also given an ammonia gargle, probably for a sore throat, that would have tasted incredibly vile. For the first time, she is given sugar of lead poultices, which were placed on skin to dry up conditions that were ‘weepy’. Charlotte probably had some kind of sore that her doctor was trying to dry up. Perhaps it was a bed sore from being laid up for long periods by her treatments and by what we assume to be a prolonged respiratory condition?

Finally, on November 10, long suffering Charlotte is dosed once again with mercury. Presumably she still has some excess moisture in her respiratory system but as this is the only treatment given on that day and the last of the treatments recorded, she must have been recovering somehow.

Beyond the course of treatment that Charlotte underwent and clues to her what underlying illness may have been, the document also answers a few longstanding questions about the fate of many in Kenmore’s enslaved community at the end of the Lewis era. We have always wondered how many enslaved people Betty Lewis took with her when she left Kenmore and moved to Millbrook, the small farmhouse on the Po River south of town. It’s never been clear whether or not Millbrook was a large enough house to require much labor to keep it running, nor has it ever been clear how much of a farming operation Betty undertook on that land. And yet, the enslaved population that once worked at Kenmore went somewhere in 1795, when Betty left (a document in Kenmore’s collection shows that Betty paid tax on 17 slaves for the year of 1795[2]).

The bill submitted to Betty’s estate by Dr. Wellford answers at least a bit of that question. Charlotte was with Betty at Millbrook, showing that Betty felt she needed the services of a seamstress in her new home, which may indicate that Betty intended to keep up a robust household. Additionally, we know that Betty’s financial situation was precarious by the time she moved to Millbrook. The £10 that she spent on Charlotte’s medical treatment was a sizable sum for her at the time. The willingness to pay out so much money for repeated treatments may indicate that Charlotte held favored status in the household, perhaps because of her particular skilled trade, but also perhaps because she had been in the Lewis household since she was just a small child.

Interestingly, this document also tells us about the doctor prescribing Charlotte’s treatment. The “R. Wellford” shown at the top of the list of charges was almost certainly Dr. Robert Wellford, who was an interesting figure in American history. During the Revolution, Wellford began the war as a doctor in the British army, assigned to the care of American prisoners. Apparently, he was so moved by the plight of these prisoners, that he began advocating for more resources to better their living conditions. When his superiors refused, Wellford more or less “allowed” himself to be captured by the Continental Army. He informed his captors that he would provide intelligence on British movements if they sent him back to the British, which they did. Over the course of a year, Wellford spied for the Americans, smuggling out information to them, before he eventually fled to the American lines after his superiors began to question his loyalties.

Following the war, Wellford chose to stay in America, although as a former British officer he had difficulty in attracting patients to his practice in Philadelphia. George Washington eventually recommended that he move to Fredericksburg, where Washington’s family and friends would be happy to have his services. Washington even wrote a letter of introduction for him to some of the leading citizens of the area. Wellford and his family remained in Fredericksburg for the rest of his life, and he continued to be a family physician to all of the various Lewis and Washington households in the area.

Along with being a well-known physician to some of the most prominent families in Fredericksburg, Wellford seemed to take a special interest in the healthcare of the enslaved community in the area, as well. In addition to making the trip south of town to Millbrook to see Charlotte seven times over the course of his treatments, Wellford kept a diary detailing his treatments of various enslaved persons in Fredericksburg. One such treatment included a cranial surgery performed to relieve pressure on the brain of young man who had suffered a severe fall. [3]

Healthcare for the enslaved in the antebellum south is a complicated topic. While lack of proper nutrition and housing, as well as harsh working conditions, plagued enslaved communities, slave owners often thought of their enslaved workers as significant investments of money, and therefore had a vested interest in keeping them at least healthy enough to work. It was often the plantation mistress who provided the majority of healthcare to the enslaved people on the property. She mixed medicines, provided first aid, birthed babies and directed the re-housing of those affected with contagious disease (outbreaks were a constant worry in the crowded confines of slave quarters). Actual physicians were only brought in when an injury or disease was beyond the mistress’s skill. The receipt for Wellford’s services in treating Charlotte shows us that this was indeed the case on Lewis properties.

Remarkably, Charlotte survived both her ailment and the agonizing treatment for it. Unfortunately, in the 1798 document showing the final disposition of the Lewis family slaves put up for sale, we learn that Charlotte had to face another all-too-common occurrence in the lives of the enslaved. Charlotte was sold to Charles Carter for £103, while her son George was sold to Howell Lewis for £55. Carter resided in present-day Frederick County, Virginia at the time, while Lewis was still a resident of Fredericksburg, meaning that mother and son would probably see very little of each other again, and no mention is made of the listed baby. At the age of only 27, Charlotte had endured far more than horrendous illness and questionable 18th century medical treatments.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Surpervisor

[1] Account, 5 April, 1796 – 10 November, 1796. Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 850.

[2] Receipt, 5 September 1796.  Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 423.

[3] Diary of Robert Wellford (Mss1 W4599 a6), Wellford Family Papers (1794-1940), Virginia Historical Society.

The Unlikely Curator: What a Rodent’s Nest Reveals about Historic Kenmore

Rodents are usually seen as one of a museum’s greatest enemies. They damage valuable artifacts and buildings, leave a mess wherever they go, and frighten unsuspecting visitors. Like most museums, Historic Kenmore does its best to make sure no pests make their home in the 18th century plantation house. But, before it became a museum in the early 20th century, Kenmore was not always rodent-free.

Kenmore's East Portico

The east portico of Historic Kenmore shows some neglect to the house and its surroundings. The Howard family, who lived in Kenmore for a long period following the Civil War and was perhaps living in the house when our rodent of interest built its nest, invested a lot of money in refurbishing the house.

In 1989, archaeologists found a mouse or rat’s nest during an investigation of Kenmore’s walls and floors for architectural artifacts. In a recent video, our archeologists and curators carefully picked apart the nest found so long ago and made a cursory analysis of its parts.  This blog post delves more deeply into the history revealed by this rodent – Kenmore’s unlikely curator – and its nest.

The “indoor excavation” at Kenmore in 1989 provided present-day archaeologists at the Foundation a unique opportunity to study artifacts that rarely survive in the elements. Whatever rodent built this nest was a skilled architect in its own right, tightly weaving together bits of cloth, paper, and miscellaneous fluff from around the house to create a soft, structurally sound home of its own. The material came from dozens of sources, each giving insight to life at Kenmore in the late 1800s and early 1900s.


Patterned fabric from the nest

When it comes to fabrics, both the people living at Kenmore and the rodent had pretty good taste. While most of the cloth from the nest was a neutral white, beige, or brown, several scraps featured patterns popular from the late 19th through the early 20th century, like a red cloth with cream specks, and another with red and yellow flowers. Most of the cloth in the nest probably came from sheets, towels, or rags, but the few patterned scraps may have once been part of a dress or apron. A few threads are woven around a stiff, curved string, perhaps as part of an eyelet or fastener on a piece of clothing.  Other fibers came from webbing used in upholstering furniture. The rest of the threads, yarn, and fibers are too small to tell where they came from, but it’s clear that the resident rodent had plenty of textiles from which to choose.

Newspaper 1

A series of newspaper ads includes a date of September 6, 1877.

Newspaper 2

A scrap of a cartoon features an old man carrying what appears to be a baby.

A few other gnawings in the nest were less comfortable than threads and cloth. A bit of nutshell, wood splinters, tiny rib bones, and even two insect wings were part of the rodent’s eclectic collection. While these finds make up a small portion of the nest, it appears that the rodent had quite a literary bent. Over a hundred tiny scraps of paper lined the nest. About half of them were marked, while the others have print from books and newspapers. Some of the pieces are so small that not even an entire letter can be seen, but a few are large enough to make out some sentences, determine date of publication, or even identify the book from which the scrap came.

Newspaper 3

A section entitled “Recent Inventions” includes a convertible handbag and seat patented in 1915.

Newspaper 4

An advertisement on the opposite side of the newspaper discusses Christmas Savings funds from Farmers and Merchants State Bank.

One newspaper scrap advertises Christmas saving funds from the Farmer’s and Merchant’s State Bank. On the other side under “Recent Inventions,” Katherine Minehart’s “Combined Hand-bag and Seat” from 1915 is described. A much earlier bit of newspaper announces the opening of a store on September 6, 1877. The scrap from a book may be even older. The words on both sides are Christian lyrics, and were compiled into a book called Union Hymns by the American Sunday School Union. The book and several editions were published in 1835, 1845, and 1860.

Given the short lifespan of most rodents (around 1-7 years), it’s most likely that the nest builder lived in the early 20th century, and scampered off with bits and pieces of discarded old paper and fabric. Except for a few newspapers, this rodent tended to use items with a past. The absence of any plastic in the nest indicates that it probably wasn’t built much past the early 1900s.  Indeed, since the latest scrap found in the nest dated from 1915, the nest itself would have been built in that year or thereafter, just a few years before the house began its transformation into a museum focusing on the lives of 18th century patriots Betty and Fielding Lewis.

The stories of those who lived at Kenmore after the Civil War are not as detailed, but thanks to an unlikely curator, we are given a glimpse into the wardrobes and literary tastes of Kenmore’s late Victorian-era inhabitants.

Abby Phelps, UMW Student
Fleming Smith Scholar

An Unlikely Curator: Inside a Historic Rodent’s Nest [Video]

In this video, we pick apart a rodent’s nest discovered by archaeologists investigating Historic Kenmore’s walls and floors for architectural artifacts. Like most museums, we take extensive pest prevention measures today but, back when it was an actual home, Kenmore was not always rodent-free. This nest revealed some fascinating history and told us a bit about Kenmore itself.

(NOTE: The video was filmed long before COVID-19 physical distancing requirements.)