Summer Vacation, 18th Century Style

Despite issues of poor roads, lack of transportation, financial considerations and simply an absence of places to go, colonial Virginians fancied a summer vacation just as much as we do today.  In fact, getting out of the city, or away from hot, steamy climates and hordes of mosquitoes in the summer months was actually necessary for health.  In the late 1760s and right through the Revolution, Fielding Lewis and his brother-in-law George Washington joined a number of other Fredericksburg locals in making regular summer visits to one of the few getaways locales in existence at the time – the warm springs in (at the time) Frederick County.

Now known as Berkeley Springs in present-day West Virginia, the bubbling natural springs and their reputed medicinal powers have attracted visitors since long before Europeans came across them.  Native Americans visited the springs to take advantage of its healing waters, and told settlers about the spot, as well.  The site is labeled as “Medicinal spring” on the famed 1747 Fry-Jefferson map.

A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina, 1747

“A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina”, 1747 (the Fry-Jefferson map) by Joshua Fry & Peter Jefferson. Credit: Library of Congress.

Enlargement of Fry-Jefferson Map showing Medicinal Spring

Enlargement of the Fry-Jefferson map showing the location of the Medicinal Spring frequented by the Washington and Lewis families. Credit: Library of Congress.

Sixteen-year-old George Washington made his first visit the following year, as part of Lord Fairfax’s wilderness surveying crew.  At that very early date, a visit to the springs really was purely for medicinal purposes, as there certainly were no other amenities to attract vacationers, and getting there was a feat in itself, being tucked away in the remote mountains.  To say that conditions were primitive would be an understatement, and young George was…unimpressed. In his diary, which he began on this trip and would continue for nearly the rest of his life, George wrote, “We this day call’d to see y. Fam’d Warm Springs. We camped out in y. field this night. Nothing remarkable happen’d…”[1]

Indeed, early reports about the situation at the “fam’d Warm Springs” conjur some interesting mental images.  Native Americans “took the waters” by simply hollowing out shallow pools in the sandy ground and squatting in them, allowing the natural spring water to bubble up around them.  They also built temporary saunas to steam in, and apparently allowed ailing white visitors to share.  Although, the shallow pits were eventually lined with stones found nearby to make them more or less permanent, one still pictures fully-clothed, wig-wearing colonists sitting miserably in tepid water, hoping their fever, cold or rheumatism would be cured.  As there were no structures built on the site, visitors hauled their own provisions, tents and even household staffs with them in wagons and camped out on the steep hillsides.[2]

And apparently, this state of affairs went on for quite a while, perhaps testifying to the desperation of the sick and injured in the 18th century for some sort of relief.  On a return trip to the springs in August of 1761, George Washington described a similar situation to what he had witnessed more than a decade earlier.  “We found of both sexes about 250 people at this place, full of all manner of diseases and complaints…They are situated very badly on the east side of a steep mountain and enclosed by hills on all sides, so that the afternoon’s sun is hid by 4 o’clock and the fog hangs over us till 9 or 10…I am of the opinion that numbers get more hurt by their manner of lying, than the waters can do them good. Had we not succeeded in getting a tent and marquee from Winchester, we should have been in a most miserable situation here.”[3]

Yet, despite the less than ideal accommodations, George did return to the warm springs.  And so did many other members of the Virginia gentry, including Fielding Lewis.  They did seem to believe that the waters there had a positive effect, and so the trip was worthwhile…but, gee, it sure would be great if they could have a bit more fun while doing it!  And so they set about turning the place into a more comfortable spot, a resort really, where they could not only take the waters but enjoy entertainments, visit with friends, have good food and drink, and generally have a good time for a few weeks every summer.  By all accounts, they succeeded.

George Washington's Bathtub

“George Washington’s Bath Tub”, a monument constructed to represent bathing conditions in Washington’s time in present-day Berkeley Springs State Park. Credit: Warfieldian / Wikipedia

The first effort to civilize the warm springs was by Fredericksburg resident James Mercer, a good friend of both Fielding Lewis and Charles Dick.  He apparently was given permission by Lord Fairfax to build a rather large summer cottage at the site, and it quickly became the center of Fredericksburg’s summer social scene.  The group of Fredericksburg friends, all young men in their 30s and early 40s, along with wives and children, journeyed to Mercer’s cottage for vacation.  In 1769, George Washington brought Martha and Patsy to stay for several weeks, and described the many visitors in and out of the cottage, including Lord Fairfax himself and his family members, and several former military friends from Pennsylvania.[4]

With the building of a new road to the area in 1772, James Mercer got some neighbors.  Inns and taverns sprang up (including Washington’s favorite, Throgmorton’s Sign of the Liberty Pole and Flag) other houses were built (although still mostly cabins and one room shanties) and the influx of vacationers increased.  It was a kind of hodge-podge, though, with no systematic plan for building or improvement.  The Fredericksburg friends (and associated relatives) saw an opportunity, though, and in 1775 they convinced Lord Fairfax to allow the laying out of a proper town, and Samuel and Warner Washington were put in charge of it.  Town lots were quickly bought up, mostly by the Fredericksburg contingent, and the building of cottages commenced.  The group decided to give their new town the rather aspirational name of Bath, after the popular spa resort in England.

The Comforts of Bath

“King Bladud’s Bath” from The Comforts of Bath series (1798) by satirist Thomas Rowlandson. Credit: Wikigallery.

So what was daily life like for a colonial Virginian on summer vacation? By the 1770s, life in Bath had changed drastically from the early days of squatting in shallow pits.  In addition to sampling the local mineral water, vacationers could enjoy public balls that happened twice a week, tavern nightlife, gambling, horse racing, daily teas at 5:00 and a number of options for food and drink.  By 1784, an advertisement in the Maryland Gazette describes the town as having five bathhouses, each with their own dressing rooms, an assembly room, and even a theater, where the travelling performance group The American Company of Comedians was expected to perform that summer.[5]

Noted early Virginia diarist Philip Vickers Fithian wrote of his visit to the springs in 1775, “In our dining Room Companies at Cards, Five & forty, Whist, Alfours, Callico-Betty &c. I walked out among the Bushes here also was—Amusements in all Shapes, & in high Degrees, are constantly taking Place among so promiscuous Company.” Fithian also goes on to describe the gentlemen of the village serenading the ladies from outside their lodgings until 4:00 in the morning, following a large ball.[6]

Fielding’s eldest son, John Lewis, and his cousin Warner Washington, who were in their 20s, were among the young gentry who suddenly found the springs interesting as entertainment opportunities increased.  The cousins eventually bought lots and built cottages, although it’s probably safe to say they weren’t there for the waters.  The little village had become so raucous in the summer months, a Methodist minister referred to it as an “overflowing tide of immorality.”[7]

But the curative properties of the springs were still the primary focus of visitors’ time.  Depending on the ailment that visitors were seeking to cure, they might “take the waters” up to three times a day at one of several actual bathhouses that had been built over the natural springs.  We have some description of these bathhouses from a French traveler, who vacationed at the springs in 1791, “…a plain and large frame structure, divided into eight small rooms made of badly joined boards where the bathers go in the morning. There is a staircase in each small room so that when the bather wishes he can gradually change the water line.”[8]  Both men and women used the bathhouses, but they did so at separate times of day.  At European spas of the day, men generally went swimming in the nude, while women wore bathing gowns, so that was perhaps the convention used at the American Bath, as well.

Fielding Lewis made an annual visit to the springs every August for several weeks, as early as 1772 and possibly much earlier.  When the town lots were laid out, he purchased #45 which fronted on Liberty Street.  His next door neighbor was Charles Dick, and James Mercer’s big cottage was just a few doors down.  Fielding’s mentions of his visits are few.  We don’t know whether the entire Lewis family travelled with him, although due to mentions in Philip Fithian’s journal, we know that in 1775 son George was with his father (George had attended the College of New Jersey with Fithian years earlier and Fithian enjoyed the chance to catch up with an old friend).  Most likely Fielding was among the springs vacationers who was there almost entirely for medicinal reasons, as his health had begun its long decline, and already the stresses of wartime were weighing heavily on him.

So there you have it.  It was cold, muddy and filled with hordes of sick and injured people, but the company was good and the party never ended – it was summer vacation, 18th century style!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

 

[1] “A Journal of my Journey over the Mountains began Fryday the 11th. of March 1747/8,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed June 4, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-01-02-0001-0002.

[2] Mozier, Jeanne. The Early Days of Bath.  Accessed June 4, 2019, http://berkeleysprings.com/history-berkeley-springs/early-days-bath

[3] The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 7, 1 January 1761 – 15 June 1767, ed. W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990, pp. 68–70.

[4] Felder, Paula.  Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family.  The American History Company, 1998, pp. 186.

[5] Flexner, James Thomas.  Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action. Fordham University Press, 1992, pg. 67.

[6] Fithian, Philip Vickers. Journal, 1775-1776: Written on the Virginia-Pennsylvania frontier and in the army around New York. Robert Greenhalgh Albion and Leonidas Dodson, eds. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1934.

[7] Mozier.

[8] Bayard, Ferdinand M. Voyage dans l’intérieur des États-Unis: à Bath, Winchester, dans la vallée de Shenandoah, etc., etc., pendant l’été de 1791. As quoted in Mozier, ibid.

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Lecture – Betty Washington Lewis and Women’s Health [Video]

On Tuesday, May 1, 2018, Dr. Kelly Brennan Arehart, Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services at The George Washington Foundation, presented a lecture titled “Betty Washington Lewis and Women’s Health.” Betty Washington Lewis gave birth to 11 children; a feat almost unheard of today.  Kelly explored Betty’s  journey from childhood to womanhood, from maiden to mother, and medical challenges that 18th century women faced.  A cradle to grave examination of women’s heath tells us of the strength and resilience of Betty Washington Lewis and other women who endured at time without anesthetics or knowledge of germs.

Join us at the library on Tuesday, May 8, 2018 for “Coinage and Credit: The Economy of Colonial Virginia,” a lecture about the business and trade of Fredericksburg merchant Fielding Lewis presented by David Arehart, a site supervisor at Colonial Williamsburg.  Talk begins at 7:00 p.m. The lecture is FREE and hosted at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library at 1201 Caroline Street, Fredericksburg, Virginia. To learn more, visit http://www.kenmore.org or livesandlegaciesblog.org.

The Lewis Ships That Sailed the Atlantic World

B1981.25.623

“An English Sloop Becalmed near the Shore” (mid-18th cent.) by Francis Swaine. Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

George Washington’s Ferry Farm is located on a hill overlooking the Rappahannock River.  That river connects to the Chesapeake Bay and eventually the Atlantic Ocean.  When young George Washington lived at Ferry Farm, the Rappahannock was a gateway to the entire world.  Fredericksburg was a port town on the river’s opposite bank from the farm and small ocean-going sailing vessels traveled up the Chesapeake and into the Rappahannock to dock at the bustling town’s wharves.  Ships like the brigs Stanton and Priscilla as well as the schooners Grampus and Penguin brought goods to buy, news from the rest of the British Empire, and occasionally people to settle and work in the colonies.

Growing up next to the river influenced the young Washington.  He got to experience life at sea first-hand when he left Ferry Farm and sailed to Barbados at the age of 17. Also, for a time, the family debated whether teenage George should pursue a career in the Royal Navy.  Moreover, at Ferry Farm, the Washingtons produced and consumed the goods that ships plied back and forth across the ocean.

George Washington, his family, slaves and neighbors were members of what historians call “The Atlantic World,” a global community of many different peoples taking part in the trade that traveled back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean.  Washington, his brother-in-law Fielding Lewis, and other Fredericksburg residents saw sailing ships on the Rappahannock every day and interacted with the sailors from those ships every day.  They supplied the ships with goods to take to destinations far across the sea and then bought the goods these ships carried when they returned.

In the 1600s and 1700s, tobacco was Virginia’s most important export but, at the same time, many planters along the Rappahannock chose to export things like wheat, foodstuffs, timber, and other raw materials used to manufacture goods.

Broadly speaking, these manufactured goods were made in Europe using the raw materials exported from the Americas.  Europe then sent the manufactured goods to Africa as well as back to the Americas.  In Africa, they were used to buy slaves while, in the Americas, they were used to purchase more raw materials.  This movement of goods has long been referred to as the “Triangular Trade” because of the triangle shape that the goods traveled when traced on a map.  Of course, this is a very simplistic description of a very complex network of trade that really spread across the globe.  Still, a triangle is a useful way to imagine, understand, and remember the basics of the process.

Washington’s brother-in-law Fielding Lewis and the Lewis family built and owned ships that transported goods throughout the Atlantic World. Records of these ships’ voyages help illuminate the Triangular Trade and also how Atlantic trade routes often did not look like a triangle at all.

Map of the Stanton's Voyage

In one of the earliest voyages of a Lewis ship, the 80-ton brig Stanton – owned by Fielding’s father John Lewis and captained by Richard Williams – made a roughly six month voyage in the first half of 1732. The Stanton was bound for Madeira, an island off the coast of Portugal, and then Barbados, an island in the Caribbean Sea, before returning to Virginia. Its voyage is a perfect illustration of the Triangular Trade and we’ve written about it here.

But the Atlantic trade was not always a triangular one.

During the first half of 1737, the Lewis brig Priscilla sailed directly to London and back under the command of Richard Williams and carrying 192 hogsheads of tobacco, six tons of iron, and 5,000 staves.[1] The ship returned to Virginia with “European goods” and, after a brief stop at Madeira, added some wine to its cargo.

'The South East Prospect of London from the Tower to London Bridge' 1746 by John Maurer

“The South East Prospect of London from the Tower to London Bridge” (1746) by John Maurer. Credit: Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The next year, the John Lewis-owned schooner Grampus mastered by John Briggs set sail with 300 staves, 600 bushels of corn, 900 bushels of peas, 180 bushels of wheat, 1 hogshead of wine, and 400 feet of walnut plank bound on a direct voyage to and from “New England.”  It returned with 5 hogsheads and 6 barrels of rum, some molasses, cider, oil, and “New England Ware.”

Finally, about a decade later, we find another John Lewis-owned ship departing Virginia.  The Penguin, a schooner captained by Will Whitterong with a crew of six, set sail for Antigua in the Caribbean on March 1, 1745 carrying 100 barrels of pitch, 303 barrels of tar, 35 barrels of turpentine, 100 bushels of peas, 8 barrels of tallow, and 13,800 shingles.  The Penguin arrived at Antigua on May 17 and returned to Virginia on June 5 with a cargo of 30 hogsheads and 1 tierce[2] of rum, 27 barrels of sugar, and British goods.

Did some of the items these ships brought back from across the Atlantic end up at Ferry Farm to be consumed or used by George Washington and his family (or the Strother family, the farm’s earlier occupants)?  It’s unlikely but not impossible.  Many of the items excavated by archaeologists at Ferry Farm definitely fit the descriptions “European goods,” “New England Ware,” or “British goods.”  Westerwald jugs, Bartmann bottles, white salt-glazed stoneware fruit dishes, and glass wine bottles all journeyed across the Atlantic to be used by Ferry Farm’s residents, then broken, thrown away, and buried, eventually to be recovered by archaeologists. No matter who actually used them, these recovered items represent the people and way of life of the 18th century’s Atlantic World made possible by the ships Stanton, Priscilla, Grampus, and Penguin.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] Staves are the curved lengths of wood used to make barrels, buckets, or, in this case, pipes. Yes, wooden pipes.

[2] Tierce is an archaic measure of wine that roughly equaled 35 gallons. The term was also used as a synonym for cask, which seems what is meant in this case.

Harriot’s Happily Ever After

As we saw in this blog post, Harriot Washington lost both of her parents by the time she was five years old.  Her childhood was spent shuffling from one relative’s household to another.  Finally, she came into the care of her uncle George Washington, who along with aunt Betty Washington Lewis, provided stability and support throughout Harriot’s teenage years.  She lived with Betty for many years at Kenmore.  By the age of 19, Harriot had matured into respectable young woman. Marriage was at hand.

Spring time in the gardens at Kenmore Plantation

Kenmore in Spring

On April 1, 1796, Washington received a letter from Andrew Parks of Fredericksburg.  Andrew had asked Harriot to marry him.  Harriot referred him to Washington for his consent and had told Andrew that she would not marry him unless her uncle approved. Andrew wrote a letter promoting himself, with details on his life in town as a mercantile businessman.  He frankly revealed that his fortune did not “exceed three thousand pounds.”  He believed that he was a hard enough worker to make up for his lack of current money and that he had hopes of improving his situation. He mentioned relations in Baltimore and offered to provide a complete accounting of these family connections, if Washington desired.

Washington replied on April 7.  He noted the proposal was a “serious one” that deserved “serious consideration” and that he would take time to ponder it.  He warned Andrew that, while Harriot had “very little fortune of her own,” fortunes were not the only factors to consider when contemplating marriage.  Harriot’s guardian desired to see her happy and believed only a “gentleman of respectable connexions, and of good dispositions,” who made money, instead of spending it, and who could “support her in the way she has always lived” was an acceptable match.

Portrait of George Washington (1795) by Gilbert Stuart

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

Of course, Betty also contacted Washington to inform him of Andrew’s proposal.  Her letter seems not to have survived but his response, also dated April 7, basically requested more information about Andrew.  Harriot’s uncle acknowledged that “having very little fortune herself,” Harriot had “no right to expect a great one in the man she marry‘s; but if he has not a competency to support her in the way she has lived, in the circle of her friends, she will not find the matrimonial state so comfortable as she may have expected when a family is looking up to her & but scanty means to support it.”  Though a great one was beyond possibility, he still believed Harriot ought to “expect one whose connexions are respectable, & whose relations she could have no objection to associate with.”  What really troubled Washington was “How far this is, or is not the case with Mr Parks.”  He worried,  “I know not for neither his own letter, or yours give any acct of his family nor whether he is a native or a foreigner—& we have his own word only for his possessing any property at all altho’ he estimates his fortune at £3000. A precarious dependance this when applied to a man in Trade.”

Although he had no desire to impede the marriage, Washington indeed was anxious for information, which he immediately endeavored to collect.  Secretary of War James McHenry wrote Thomas McElderry, Andrew’s brother-in-law and business partner, on behalf of the president.  McElderry replied that, after the death of Andrew’s father, he had made Andrew his partner, allowing his brother-in-law to be well set up in business. McElderry also reported that Andrew was a hard worker, gentlemen, and generally well-liked in the community.  McElderry judged him “much more promising than many of the Virginia Gentlemen with their large landed Estate and Negroes.”  One wonders how helpful this final statement might have been in convincing Washington – the first among Virginia’s landed and slaveholding gentlemen – of Andrew’s good connections!

Betty also made inquiries about Andrew and notified Washington that she had “heard nothing to his disadvantage” and that “he is respected by all his acquaintance.”  She revealed that Andrew was “A Constant Visitor here and I believe Harriots Affections are plac’d intirely on him.”  Indeed, Harriot, in Betty’s opinion, was sick with “anxiety for fear of offending and not gaining your consent.”  Betty then admonished her brother that his “long Silence has given her much uneasiness.”

George Lewis, Betty’s son, examined Andrew’s background and concluded the match, at least at the moment, “to be madness in the extreme.”  He suggested waiting until Washington returned to Mount Vernon after his presidency ended, so that he could attend the matter personally and better investigation of Andrew could be made.  Still, he believed Andrew “a young Man of good talents” and noted that none of his initial inquiries revealed major problems.

Betty again wrote George about the matter on July 5, 1796.  She told George that Lawrence Lewis, another of her sons, had made inquiries and seemed “well pleased” while Harriot’s own brother told Betty that he thought the marriage would be a “very happy one.”  Ultimately, Betty herself concluded that Andrew bore “the Best caracter of any young Person that I know” and that Harriot was “Old Enougf now to make choice for her self.”  It was high time she was married and that is exactly what happened.  On July 16, 1796, Harriot Washington, aged 20, married Andrew Parks.

The day after her wedding, Harriot wrote to her uncle, hoping he was “not offend’d at my Union.”  She expressed, with some finality, that “my heart will ever with the liveliest gratitude most gratefully acknowledge and remember your’s & Aunt Washington’s great goodness and attention to me.”[1]

“Far from being displeased at the event,” Uncle Washington responded, “I offer you my congratulations thereon; and sincerely wish it may prove the source of continual happiness to you.”  Washington closed the letter with an invitation for his niece and her new husband to visit Mount Vernon whenever Andrew’s business might allow it.

Harriot replied with this joyful letter:

Fredericksburg Sepber 9th 1796

I need not repeat to my dear & Honord Uncle, the infinite pleasure I experienced on reading his kind, & affectionate letter… Mr. Parks and myself return our most grateful thank’s, to you and Aunt Washington for your congratulations and also polite invitation, to visit you which no circumstance whatever could afford us more satisfaction…

My love to Aunt Washington & Nelly Custis. I am my dear & Honord Uncle Your ever affectionate Neice

Harriot Parks

The newlyweds visited Mount Vernon from September 4 to September 8, 1798.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] Miriam Anne Bourne, First Family: George Washington and His Intimate Relations, New York: W.W. Norton, 1982, 154-5.

Harriot Washington’s “Hard Knock Life”

With one sister and three brothers, George Washington was uncle to numerous nieces and nephews.  One niece was Harriot Washington was born sometime in 1776 to his brother Samuel and Samuel’s fourth wife Ann Steptoe.  Harriot was orphaned by the time she was five years old, when her mother died in 1777 and her father in 1781.  Harriot’s younger years were a hard life of shuffling between relatives’ households.  She gained stability with her aunt Betty Lewis at Kenmore, where she spent her teenage years.  Both George and Betty were constantly concerned about her financial well-being and development into a respectable woman of the gentry class.[1]

HARRIOT AT MOUNT VERNON, Late 1780s-1792

mount-vernon

Mount Vernon. Credit: Wikipedia/Martin Falbisoner

After her parents’ deaths and living in the care of her mother’s relatives for four or five years, Harriot came to live with uncle George at Mount Vernon because, as Washington noted to nephew George Augustine Washington, he knew of “no resource that Harriot has for Supplies but from me.”

When George and Martha departed Mount Vernon for New York City and his presidency, however, Martha’s niece Fanny became Harriot’s de facto guardian.  Washington lamented to Tobias Lear that Fanny was “little fitted” to the task of caring for her, however.  The new president seemed perplexed by Harriot “who is almost grown” but “is not quite a Woman” and wondered, with some exasperation, about what to do with her.  He judged that, while she was by no means too old to attend boarding school, any such school would have to “enforce good rules” since Harriot was “prone to idleness” and had been “under no control.”

Several letters between Harriot and her uncle survive.  The first in the record was written on April 2, 1790.  Harriot was 14-years-old and living at Mount Vernon while Washington was in New York. Harriot asked her uncle to send her a guitar since she wanted to take lessons for “all the young Ladyes are a learning musick.”  Harriot was confident “that five or six lessons would be sufficient for any body to learn.”  The records consulted reveal no response from Washington.

Harriot wrote a brief letter on October 24, 1791 with short comments about the dreadful weather and an illness plaguing Lund Washington. Harriot mentioned that she had waited until the last minute to write the letter before it had to be sent. This seeming laziness displeased Washington and, worried about his niece’s idle behavior, he took the opportunity to provide a lengthy letter of advice beyond admonishing her to not wait until the last moment to begin a task.  He warned Harriot of the…

“delicacy and danger of that period, to which you are now arrived under peculiar circumstances—You are just entering into the state of womanhood without the watchful eye of a Mother to admonish, or the protecting aid of a Father to advise and defend you; you may not be sensible that you are at this moment about to be stamped with that character which will adhere to you through life.”

Washington assured Harriot that her cousins at Mount Vernon were “well qualified to give you advice” and he hoped that she was “disposed to receive it.”  If she was “disobliging—self willed and untowardly,” however, her cousins would not “engage themselves in unpleasant disputes” but would likely leave her to descend into poor character.  Washington encouraged her to “Think then to what dangers a giddy girl of 15 or 16 must be exposed in circumstances like these—To be under but little or no controul may be pleasing to a mind that does not reflect, but this pleasure cannot be of long duration.”  Washington seemed to express concern about those with whom she was associating and that from them she “can derive nothing that is good.”  This warning might have also been a general caution against keeping poor company.  Regardless, he wanted her to “aid to your Cousin in the domestic concerns of the family.”

Harriot replied, “I was very sensible, of your kindness in giving me such good advice, and shall try to profit, by it as much as I can, I know very well, the obligations I am under, to you and I am very thankful for your care and attention to me.”  She duly promised to assist more with the household duties.  On May 28, 1792, Harriot requested a guitar again and this time, Washington bought her one for $17.

HARRIOT AT KENMORE, 1792-1795

Betty Washington Lewis

Portrait of Betty Washington Lewis by John Wollaston, c. 1755.

In the fall of 1792, Washington determined it was necessary for Harriot to go live with his sister Betty Washington Lewis in Fredericksburg.  He and Martha were to return to the new national capital of Philadelphia while Fanny and her ill husband were leaving for New Kent County.  No one was left at Mount Vernon to care for Harriot.

Betty raised no objections to taking in Harriot “if she comes well cloath’d or Provided to get them, that she may appear tolerable.” She wanted to forestall any chance that the young lady “was prevented frequently from appearing in publick.”  Betty reminded George of the Lewis family’s deep financial difficulties and that her grandchildren were living with her too.

Washington assured his sister that Harriot would arrive “very well provided with every thing proper for a girl in her situation.”  He judged Harriot as having “sense enough, but no disposition to industry nor to be careful of her Cloaths.”  He hoped Betty’s example and guidance would end the 16-year-old’s habit of always wearing her best things while also leaving clothing lying all over her room. Fanny had been too lenient with her, Washington suggested, but Betty’s firm hand could still yet “make a fine woman.”

Not long after getting settled in Fredericksburg, however, Harriot requested money from Washington for a dress or dress material so that she could attend the town’s ball celebrating the president’s birthday.  She apologized for again troubling Washington and assured him that any money sent would be kept by Betty.  Harriot promised to “properly care for the new dress.

At the end of January 1793, Betty confirmed receiving money sent by Washington for Harriot.  She noted that living in town was “unfortunate” for Harriot “for many [of her] things that could be wore to the last string in a [country] Place, will not do here, where we see so much Company.”  Betty took the opportunity to praise Harriot as well, noting that she “Payes the strictest regard to the advice I give her and really she is very Ingenious in makeing her Clothes and altering them to the best advantage.”

Time and a few other letters about money passed back and forth until September 1793 when Betty sent a letter to her brother asking when he might send for Harriot so that she could again live at Mount Vernon.  Betty revealed that, while she knew “of none that I would sooner have to live with me,” her own dire financial situation was not conducive to Harriot staying.  Betty expressed dismay over the small amount of her income and the small number of servants she had. To compound matters, she now only owned two horses, which kept her from visiting over any lengthy distance.  All the while, Harriot and two grandchildren lived with her.

Washington perhaps agreed that the time had come for Harriot’s return to his household.  It seems he told Betty that if Philadelphia’s yellow fever epidemic continued, Martha would spend the winter of 1793-94 away from danger at Mount Vernon.  If this were the case, he would send for Harriot and she could stay with Martha.  This plan, however, was not implemented.  Instead, Harriot spent part of the winter of 1793-94 with a relative in Culpeper.

As Kenmore, life for Harriot seemed to settle into something of a routine.  Her letters reveal a growing maturity and an understanding of her situation.  Money was still an ever present matter but one gets the impression that her requests were for real needs.  In 1794, requests for cash went to Washington on May 25, and June 27.  A letter of thanks from Harriot to him is dated July 10.  One further request for money came on January 4, 1795.

Betty and Harriot left Kenmore to live at Millbrook in November 1795.  Harriot turned 19-years-old that year and the focus of her relationship with both her aunt and uncle shifted from an orphan girl who had lived a “hard knock life” to a eligible and mature young woman with a respectable suitor and marriage on the horizon.

To be continued….

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] ; Frank E. Grizzard, Jr., “Washington, Samuel, (1734-1781),” George! A Guide to All Things Washington, Charlottesville, VA: Mariner Publishing, 2005, 337-338; Note accompanying “To George Washington from Harriot Washington, 2 April 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-05-02-0199;  “Samuel Washington,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Washington, [accessed September 8, 2014].

Meet the Lewis Family: John and Fielding Jr.

Fielding Lewis was married twice.  He and Catharine Washington, his first wife, had three children: John, Frances and Warner.  Both Warner and Frances died leaving John as the sole heir from this first marriage.  After Catharine’s death, Fielding married Betty Washington, and not quite a year later Fielding Lewis Jr. was born in 1751.  Although just 4 years younger than his half-brother John, by rights at that time, Fielding Jr. could have supplanted his older brother as Fielding Sr.’s primary heir.  No personal accounts or letters tell us what Fielding Sr. thought about his two eldest sons’ status as heirs to his estate but his actions in the years after their births are telling.

 

In 1775, Fielding Lewis commissioned five portraits by American artist Charles Willson Peale, for his newly completed home at Kenmore.  Only two have been located and they are of Fielding’s two eldest sons.  Peale scholars feel fairly certain that the works were painted as companion portraits, intended to hang side by side with the poses of the two sitters meant to complement one another.  Perhaps Fielding was making a visual statement that his two eldest sons were on equal footing and that neither took precedence.  Indeed, in his final will and testament, Fielding provides for both sons equally, giving his Spotsylvania lands to John and his Frederick County lands to Fielding Jr.  On the surface, it might appear that the two brothers had an amicable relationship, not marred by the usual 18th century family in-fighting over inheritance.  Well, that appearance might not tell the whole story.  The half-brothers couldn’t have been more different.

As early as 1769, Fielding Sr. worried about Fielding Jr’s management of his finances.  The 18-year-old had recently married Nancy Alexander, the daughter of a prominent household in Alexandria, Virginia.  Nancy apparently came to the marriage with a sizeable fortune and Fielding Jr. immediately set about spending it.  In September, both Fieldings wrote to George Washington, to ask his assistance with the Alexander money.  Fielding Jr. wrote his uncle, “Inclos’d you have an Order on Mr. Robart [sic] Alexander for the Balance remaining…of my Wifes Fortune which I shall be Oblig’d to you to receive for me, and purchase Slaves to the amount thereof…” His letter is enclosed in one written by his father, in which we learn a little more about Fielding Jr.’s request to his uncle.

fielding-lewis-sr-1750s-by-john-wollaston

Fielding Lewis, Sr. (c. 1750s) by John Wollaston

Fielding Sr. revealed that Mr. Alexander was concerned at the rate with which Fielding Jr. was spending the money, and has asked Fielding Sr. to take the remainder and use it for something that would help the couple in the long run.  Fielding Sr. went on to say, “I am allmost [sic] certain that he will in a year or Two spend every Shillg as I cannot perceive the least amendment since his Marriage, nor has he the least regard to any advice I give him.” This statement seems to indicate that Fielding Jr.’s spendthrift ways existed prior to marriage and worsened with the influx of his wife’s money.

Unfortunately, Fielding’s prediction would prove true.  Over the next decade, Fielding Sr. paid his son’s debts time and again, while Fielding Jr. continued to make significant purchases on credit.  Eventually, Fielding Sr.’s burden would be passed to John Lewis.

Fielding Lewis passed away in 1781.  John Lewis remained in the Fredericksburg area, acting as executor of his father’s estate, and seeing to its myriad debts and complicated business transactions.  He oversaw operations on the lands left to him, and assisted his step-mother, Betty Lewis, in maintaining Kenmore, which would become his upon her death.  He wrote on several occasions of tight finance, and frustrations with his father’s estate but managed to hold it all together.

His brother Fielding (who dropped the “junior” from his signature following his father’s death), was not managing so well.  He, his wife, and their three children were living on the Frederick County property that he inherited.  His debts were so severe that, by 1784, he was in debtors’ prison and again turned to his famous uncle for help.  In order to bolster his case for being worthy of Washington’s assistance, he sent a collection of letters from his father prior to his death that outlined his plan to save his son from the debt of his “youthfull Folley [sic].”  Fielding wrote, “Since which it has pleased God to take him out of this transetorey [sic] life, before he had Completed his Intention, tharefore [sic] I have taken the Freedom and liberty, of beging you to Assist me…for what Evor Sum or Sums you will be Able to lend me…as Nothing I think in this life So disagreeable as to be drag’ed About by the Sherrifs [sic]…Which Situation I am in at present…”

george-washington-c-1779-by-charles-willson-peale

George Washington (c. 1779) by Charles Willson Peale

Washington gently rebuffed his wayward nephew, replying that he had his own debts and there was little money to spare.  He made a pointed statement at the end of his short letter, perhaps indicating that he didn’t fully believe Fielding was the victim of his own youthful folly. He wrote, “There was a great space between…when you were called upon by your Father for a specific list of your Debts and his death: How happened it, that in all that time you did not comply with his request?” Indeed, receipts in our archives show that Fielding commissioned a new carriage to be made for him in August of 1784, just one month before he was sent to prison.  He would not pay for the carriage until a suit was filed against him two years later.[1]

As Fielding was seeking help from his uncle, John was planning one of many trips to “the Westward” as he called it – the Western frontier, and Kentucky in particular.  His first expedition to the Kentucky territory was on behalf of his father, before the Revolution, when Fielding Sr. was considering a land purchase there.  Apparently, John fell in love with the country, and returned many times in the coming years, making several land purchases of his own.  His uncle George asked him to act as his agent on several of these trips, to assess the state of Washington’s own property near Pittsburgh.

While Washington was placing increasing trust in John, he had apparently lost faith in Fielding Jr.  By 1786, Fielding had been released from prison but had lost all of his inherited land in Frederick County.  He and his family were living on a lot in Fauquier County and were attempting to build a house.  Once again, Fielding asked for assistance.  Washington’s response was not as gentle this time, replying, “Altho’ your disrespectful conduct towards me, in coming into this country & spending weeks therein without ever coming near me, entitles you to very little notice or favor from me; yet I consent that you may get timber from off my Land in Fauquier County to build a house on your Lott…”  Despite his sharp words, he still agreed to help.

Fielding’s improved situation was short-lived.  His wife Nancy died in 1788.  Fielding remarried to Elizabeth Dade, who apparently did not bring a fortune to the union, and so the 1790s would be a rough decade for Fielding.  He was returned to debtor’s prison in 1790, and found that there was no one in a financial situation to save him, with the exception of his brother John.  John, however, was not willing to give him money outright.  Instead, he required that Fielding mortgage everything – slaves, housewares, livestock – in exchange for £1200.[2]  One senses the family losing patience with Fielding.

In 1792, Fielding was again incarcerated for debt, and this time there was no home for his wife and children, who went to live with Betty Lewis at Kenmore.  Betty wrote to her brother George about the situation, “I am sorry it will not be in my Power to advance any, haveing at this time three of my Grandchildren to support, and god knows from every Account but I may expect as many more shortly, Fielding is so distrest that his Children would go naked if it was not for the assistance I give him…”

After this disastrous turn of events, Fielding’s whereabouts for the rest of his life become murky.  He never again owns property, and most likely stayed with various family members, including John.  His children remained with Betty at Kenmore.  There may have been little contact between Fielding and his children, as indicated in a letter written to him by his brother George informing him of Betty’s death in 1797. George wrote, “You will no doubt be anxious to know what is to be done with poor little Nancy (Fielding’s daughter), she is in good health, and at present with sister Carter…”[3] It is unknown where Fielding was when George sent him this letter.

After Betty’s death, John moved quickly to sell Kenmore.  Although it would take several years, he did eventually save enough money to move his family to his land in Kentucky, where he spent the rest of his life.  Perhaps the family obligations and strain of his father’s estate made Kentucky a more appealing home than Fredericksburg.  While Fielding Lewis Sr. wanted very much for his two eldest sons to be seen and treated as equals, their lives played out in very different ways, and that’s the real story behind the portraits.

[1] Fielding Lewis Jr. to Richard Simcock, 15 January 1786.  The George Washington Foundation Manuscript Collection.

[2] Indenture Between Fielding Lewis Jr. and John Lewis, 20 March 1790. The George Washington Foundation Manuscript Collection.

[9] George Lewis to Fielding Lewis Jr., 31 March 1797. The George Washington Foundation Manuscript Collection.