Where Are the Human Remains?: Fielding and Betty Lewis

You might remember the discovery of Richard III’s grave under a Leicester parking lot back in 2012 and how shocking it was that a former King of England’s gravesite had been lost. For archaeologists, missing gravesites aren’t that uncommon.

When put into perspective, it’s not surprising that we can’t locate the graves of many famous Virginians, including some members of the Washington and Lewis families. In Fredericksburg fires, flooding, war, and neglect have all contributed to the loss of historic graves and other important sites during our nearly 300 year history.

Professional and amateur researchers alike have dedicated years of their lives to gathering the lost history of Fredericksburg, including lost graves of famous Virginians. Thanks to this dedication, we have saved possible sites for the future. This includes George Washington’s Ferry Farm itself. Can you believe there was almost a Walmart built directly on top of the Washington house cellar before it was discovered?!

In the Washington edition of “Where Are the Human Remains?” we talked about Mildred Washington, George’s youngest sister who died before the age of 2.  She is the only known family member to be buried somewhere at Ferry Farm. In this edition, we will discuss the remains and burial locations of Fielding and Betty Lewis.

The approximate location of Betty Lewis’s grave is actually known.[1] She struggled financially after Fielding’s death in late 1781 and, following the Revolutionary War, it was especially difficult for Betty to keep Kenmore afloat. Eventually, she went to live on small farm outside Fredericksburg called Millbrook where she spent the rest of her life. Betty passed away, however, while visiting her daughter, Betty Carter in 1797.  She was buried at her daughter’s home, Western View Plantation in Culpeper County, Virginia. The gravestone in the photograph was added later, so the exact location of the Betty’s burial site isn’t known for sure, but it is somewhere on the property.

Portrait of Betty Washington Lewis by John Wollaston, c. 1755. Credit: Mount Vernon Ladies Association
Betty Washington Lewis’s grave stone. Credit: Trice Glancy / FindaGrave.com
Burial site of Betty Washington Lewis. Credit: Marvin Sport / FindaGrave.com

So, what about Fielding Lewis? The short answer, again, is that we aren’t sure. We have an idea but it may not be what you think or may have heard! Local lore mentions St. Georges Church as the location of Fielding’s grave, as he was a vestryman there. However, he is most likely NOT buried in this location.

Portrait of Fielding Lewis by John Wollaston, c. 1755.

St. Georges Episcopal Church in downtown Fredericksburg is a local icon, seen in several paintings as one of the tallest buildings in our town’s skyline. The church’s first structure was built in 1730, and the Lewis family would attend services in this wooden structure. Then, with the major fire in Fredericksburg in 1807, the replacement of the original church building with a more substantial brick building in 1815, and further alterations to the layout of the church over the years, it’s understandable that burial sites and other features around the church were lost.

St. George’s Episcopal Church. Credit: Virginia Department of Historic Resources

Furthermore, if you have taken any local ghost tours of Fredericksburg, you may have heard the story of Fielding and three of his grandchildren being buried “under the church steps”. This particular tale came from a book called The Ghosts of Fredericksburg… and nearby environs by L. B. Taylor, Jr.  Over 30 years ago, this book was used to create the script for Fredericksburg’s annual Ghostwalk sponsored by the University of Mary Washington Historic Preservation Club. While it’s clear that the author spent a great deal of time collecting stories about ghostly Virginia locations, it should be noted that there aren’t any sources or citations listed in the book.  Taylor was a storyteller, and his main focus was ghostly tales, not historical facts. As a result, we now have this chilling, but likely untrue information, intertwined with the Lewis family history.

In reality, like wife Betty, Fielding died far away from Fredericksburg on a property he owned located in what is Frederick County around Winchester, Virginia today. In a letter written by one of his children, Robert, to his sister Betty Carter, Robert tried to convince his sister to move to the area, stating; “You would be in the neighborhood where the venerated remains of our dear decd. Father lie.”[2] While this indicates Fielding’s burial is in Fredrick County, the exact location was never recorded.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Co-Field Director / Archaeology Lab Technician


[1] Find a Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 26 May 2020), memorial page for Elizabeth “Betty” Washington Lewis (20 Jun 1733–31 Mar 1797), Find a Grave Memorial no. 22154, citing Western View Plantation, Culpeper, Culpeper County, Virginia, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave.

[2] Letter from Robert Lewis to Betty Lewis Carter, 1826 quoted in Paula Felder, Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family: A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg, American History Company, 1999: 300n10

George Washington’s “Last Act of Personal Duty”

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

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

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

Washington's Last Interview with his Mother

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

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

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

Mary Washington House

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

Mary Washington Monument

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

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

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

Siblings Strained by Revolution: George and Betty’s Wartime Letters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis (1820) by John Trumbull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

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.

Lecture – Drinking with the Washingtons: Archaeological Evidence of Colonial Imbibing at Ferry Farm [Video]

On Tuesday, May 7, 2019, Archaeologist Mara Kaktins, Ceramics & Glass Specialist at The George Washington Foundation, presented a lecture titled “Drinking with the Washingtons: Archaeological Evidence of Colonial Imbibing at Ferry Farm.” Mara explored a wide variety of beverage-related artifacts from teawares to punch bowls and discussed how cups and glasses reflected efforts by Mary Washington to demonstrate the family’s economic status and refinement.

Join us on Tuesday, May 14, 2019 for “Food in the Eighteenth Century” when Deborah Lawton, Park Ranger at George Washington Birthplace National Monument, will explore the new dishes and changing tastes that marked the foodways of the eighteenth century. Talk begins at 7:00 p.m. The lecture is FREE and hosted at the Fredericksburg branch of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library at 1201 Caroline Street, Fredericksburg, Virginia. To learn more, visit http://www.kenmore.org.

The Legend of Mary Washington and the Deadly Lightning Strike

Lightning striking the Washington Monument, July 1, 2005.

Lightning striking the Washington Monument on July 1, 2005. Credit: Kevin Ambrose

Originally, this post was going to explore colonial America’s fear and fascination with lightning and the practical tools created to help prevent destructive lightning damage.  During my research, however, I encountered a tale about Mary Ball Washington and a close encounter with lightning that supposedly traumatized her for the rest of her life.  If true, this story would be a fabulous illustration of the destructiveness of lightning as well as of the anxiety colonial Americans felt about these random bolts from the sky.

According to the story, one summer evening, Mary was having supper with friends when a bolt of lightning struck the house, traveled down the chimney, and instantly killed the woman sitting next to Mary.  This alleged event was said to be so traumatizing for Mary that it affected every facet of her life from then on.  She trembled at the approach of thunderstorms, she never traveled far from home, she discouraged her children from taking risks, and her nervousness had a negative effect on her relationships with her family.  If true, this story is indeed disturbing and would definitely have been a seminal moment in the life of Mary.

I began researching the story to try and establish its legitimacy and accuracy.  This began a deep descent down the rabbit hole of historical myth versus truth.  All of which had absolutely nothing to do with lightning.  So I set Benjamin Franklin and his lightning rod to one side in a quest to prove or disprove this tale about Mary.

My goal was to find primary source documentation that would support this story.  I wanted direct or firsthand evidence about the event from documents like newspaper articles, journal or diary entries, letters or other accounts of the incident from the time.  If I was unable to find primary sources that recorded the incident, then my secondary objective was to trace the story to its point of origin.

The most recent reiteration of the story comes from a biography first published in 1997.  The author writes, “When [Mary] was pregnant with George Washington, she experienced a shock that may have shaped her relationship with the large child taking shape in her womb.  One summer Sunday afternoon, while the family was having dinner with guests from church, a thunderstorm rolled in.  A bolt of lightning struck the house and traveled down the chimney and hit a young girl . . . .  The electric current was so strong it fused the knife and fork she was using to cut her meat.  She died instantly.  The lightning hit with such force that it severely jolted the pregnant Mary Washington, who was sitting only a few feet away.”  The author theorizes that “Mary Ball Washington never recovered fully from the shock she had seen and felt.  She rarely traveled any farther than church on Sunday and her timorousness touched off a number of dashes with her family, especially her son, who she discouraged from taking any risks . . . she could not understand; in fact she resented [George’s] desire to stray from her side and leave the safety of the farm to go off to war.”[1]

I was quite excited to find such a detailed account of the event so I flipped to the book’s bibliography to find the author’s source but there was none listed.

Disappointed, I continued my work to trace the story to its origin.  Eventually, I found six different accounts of Mary’s traumatic lightning story with the earliest appearing in 1850.  Margaret Conkling was the first to recount the tale in Memoirs of the mother and wife of Washington stating that Mary’s “almost constitutional timidity, was occasioned by a singularly distressing incident of her youth – the instant death, from the effects of lightning, of a young friend, who was at the moment when the accident occurred, sitting close beside her.”[2]

This account has none of the details of the 1997 account and makes no mention of Mary being pregnant with George at the time and instead states the lightning strike occurred in “her youth”.  Subsequent accounts from 1852 to 1892 recount the tale but none of them provide a primary source.[3]

And that is where my search ended.  There are no primary sources or references about Mary and the lightning incident before 1850, nearly 120 year after the incident supposedly took place.

This must lead us to ask if the story is even true and, if it isn’t, why would writers continue to use it as a pivotal and personality molding event in Mary’s history?

We do not know much about Mary Ball Washington’s youth.  We know that by the time she was twelve both her parents had died and she became the legal ward of her uncle.  In 1731, she was introduced to recently widowed Augustine Washington and the two married and moved to Pope’s Creek, Virginia.[4]  Mary left relatively few written records and many letters from various family members at the time barely reference her, let alone give us detailed stories from her life.

Mary’s enigmatic past has led to many different interpretations of her personality over the years.  In the different lightning stories I found, it seems that each writer was trying to use the story to explain their own ideas of who Mary was as a person. The earlier versions use the story to illustrate a woman of courage and intelligence who, despite being strong, still had flaws. The later version uses the story to show a nervous, harsh woman who tried to hinder her son’s greatness due to her own fears.  While traumatic for Mary, this alleged lightning event also serves as a kind of prophecy or superhero origin story for her future son, turning George into a demigod worthy of becoming the father of a nation.  Each writer used the story as an illustration to fit their own narrative but none of them provide evidence that the event really happened.  The temptation to include a story as dramatic and potentially consequential as a fatal lightning strike and, for Mary, a near death experience is indeed hard to resist.

This is not to say these authors knowingly falsified the story. They simply are relying more on legend than on fact.  Mary’s reputation and, for that matter, Washington family history has always been steeped in much legend.   So was Mary present when one of her friends was struck and killed by lightning while eating supper?  It’s not impossible but it is highly improbable the event ever took place.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Randall, Willard Sterne. George Washington: A Life. Galahad Books, 2006.

[2] Conkling, Margaret Cockburn. Memoirs of the mother and wife of Washington. Derby, Miller and company, 1850.

[3] Hervy, Nathaniel. The memory of Washington. Boston, J. Munroe, 1852; Custis, George Washington. Recollections and Private Memoir of Washington. J.W. Bradley, 1859; Lossing, John Benson. Mary and Martha, the mother and the wife of George Washington, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1886; Walter, James. Memorials of Washington and of Mary, his mother, and Martha, his wife. New York, C. Scribner’s Sons, 1887; Harland, Marion. The Story of Mary Washington. New York, Houghton, Mifflin & Co, 1892.

[4] “Mary Ball Washington.” George Washington Digital Encyclopedia. George Washington’s Mount Vernon, 2019, www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/mary-ball-washington/ [accessed March 22, 2019].

George’s First Job

When visitors come to George Washington’s Ferry Farm, they can stand in what were once the fields of the Washington family’s farm, where they grew tobacco and other crops. While living here, Augustine Washington, George’s father, taught his sons – George, Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles – to see opportunity in land.

Ferry Farm Aerial View

Aerial view of the present-day Washington house replica, work yard, hen yard, and archaeological digs at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Credit: Joe Brooks, EagleOne Photography

Growing up at Ferry Farm, George Washington learned that land was wealth. He learned how to run a plantation and to manage the enslaved workers who lived and toiled on his family’s farms. He learned what crops to grow and livestock to raise, how to care for them, and how to put them to use.  George Washington was many things at different points in his life – diplomat, politician, general, president –  but, throughout his sixty plus years, he was always a farmer.

To George and the other Europeans who settled in British North America in the 1700s, land and its natural resources were privately owned commodities or raw materials to be bought or sold. Land was used to create goods for market or was sold for profit.  In other words, land was valuable and owning a lot of land made you wealthy.

Before growing anything on a farm, Washington and his fellow colonial-era farmers had to own land and the land they owned had to be defined legally. It had to have boundaries, so they and other people knew it belong to them.  If land was wealth, it was vitally important to know how much land you owned.

Creating these boundaries was the job of a surveyor and being a surveyor was, after his lifelong work as a farmer, George Washington’s first job.

Young George Washington, Surveyor

An ink sketch from 1956 imaging a young George Washington surveying. Credit: National Park Service / Wikipedia

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines surveying as “determining the area of any portion of the earth’s surface.”

Today, surveyors use the Global Positioning System (GPS), satellite imagery, lasers, and other advanced digital equipment to do their work more quickly and more accurately. When George Washington was a surveyor, he used simple tools compared to today but, 200-years-ago, these simple tools were as advanced technologically speaking as today’s surveying equipment.  Indeed, in the 1700s, surveying was relatively brand new.  The word itself first appeared only in 1682.

Although a relatively new science, young George Washington was probably familiar with surveying from an early age.  His father Augustine owned “1 Set Surveyors Instruments,” according to the probate inventory made of Augustine’s property after his death in 1743.

The state-of-the-art instruments of a surveyor in the 1700s included a surveying compass on a tripod used to figure out the bearing and direction of a proposed boundary line.  A surveying compass included “sighting vanes” used to point “the compass by peering through the slit in one of the vanes and lining up the horsehair or wire in the oval of the other vane with a target or object” along boundary line.  These targets were often just trees (sometimes marked in some fashion with a hatchet), boulders, steams, or any other landmarks.

Surveyor's Compass

Surveyor’s compass by David Rittenhouse, believed to be given to George Washington in 1782. Credit: National Museum of American History / Daderot / Wikipedia

Measuring the distance between these targets set the property’s boundaries as well as its acreage. These distances were measured using chains carried by the surveyor’s assistants known as chainmen.  A full surveyor’s chain was 66 feet long and 100 links and eighty of these chains equaled one mile. “Dragging a sixty-six-foot chain through the brush of colonial Virginia’s forests was impractical.” These long chains snagged on trees and other vegetation so surveyors in the colonies used a chain that was only 33 feet long with 50 links.

Surveying Chain

Surveyor’s chain, c1830. Credit: National Museum of American History / Daderot / Wikipedia

George Washington began a survey by choosing a starting landmark as well as a landmark to travel towards.  He recorded the direction of the line using his surveying compass.  Then, to measure the distance, the rear chainman held one end of the chain at the starting point while the lead chainman walked a straight line toward the ending target.  As the surveyor, George constantly checked the compass to make sure the chainmen followed his line.  Keeping the line straight sometimes meant the lead chainman hacked his way straight through brush and undergrowth.  Once the he reached the end of the chain, the lead chainman pinned it to the ground and the rear chainman brought up the other end. They then repeated the process until the ending point of the line was reached. The rear chainman picked up the pins as they walked.

Fifteen-year-old George Washington made one of his first surveys on February 27, 1747 when he measured out his older half-brother Lawrence’s turnip field at Mount Vernon. According to Ledger Book Zero, Washington bought a Gunter scale, essentially a two-foot long ruler specifically designed to solve the trigonometry problems common to surveying, from his cousin Baily on September 20, 1747.

Thirteen months later, on March 11, 1748, George accompanied George William Fairfax and James Genn, the Surveyor of Prince William County, on a month-long trip across the Blue Ridge Mountains and into Virginia’s frontier to survey land for Thomas, Lord Fairfax.  Young Washington kept a journal of his experiences.

In 1749, at age 17, George was commissioned the surveyor of the new county of Culpeper by the College of William & Mary, which appointed all county surveyors in Virginia This was unusual for someone this young to be appointed.  A year later, he began a two-year period of off-and-on trips throughout Virginia’s Frederick County, which at the time encompassed a vast swath of frontier land that today makes up nine separate counties in two states“By 1752, Washington completed nearly 200 surveys totaling more than 60,000 acres.”

In the later 1750s, George began to focus his work life more on soldiering (the French and Indian War) and farming. He never completely stopped surveying or acquiring land, however. In 1771, he surveyed Ferry Farm in preparation to sell the property and he surveyed for the last time in 1799, the year he died.

In the colonial age, land was wealth and was how many colonials, including George Washington, made their living.  As such, early Americans wanted to know what land they owned as well as how much they owned.  Surveyors, like George Washington, measured the land and created boundaries so ownership would be clear.  “At one time, Washington owned nearly 70,000 acres between the Potomac and Ohio Rivers.”  Surveying was Washington’s first job and allowed him to begin to build vast amounts of land holdings and thus wealth. This wealth, in part, propelled him to the heights of colonial American society and politics.  He began this journey as a surveyor while living at Ferry Farm.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs