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.

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,

[2] Mozier, Jeanne. The Early Days of Bath.  Accessed June 4, 2019,

[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.

The President’s Cough

“The day being Rainy & Stormy – myself much disordered by a cold and inflammation in the left eye, I was prevented from visiting Lexington (where the first blood in the dispute with Great Britain) was drawn.” – George Washington, October 26, 1789

The sounds of sniffling, hacking, and sneezing, are everywhere, whether at a social events, shopping, or dining out. Here in the midst of our current cold and flu season, I thought readers might enjoy hearing about a historic, 1789-1790 respiratory malady that plagued many Americans and was referred to by contemporaries as “Washington’s influenza” or “the President’s Cough.[1]” So how did this widespread illness become associated with our first president? Read on!

In the fall of 1789 President Washington took advantage of a Congressional recess to embark on a tour of the nation over which he now presided. Capitalizing on his widespread popularity, Washington journeyed to diverse parts of the Atlantic states, in order to assess its industries, its potential, and to gauge the temperament of its diverse citizenry. In part an effort to validate the fragile new administration, Washington hoped the sojourn might demonstrate to Americans everywhere the promise of their new representative government: one in which all voters could participate.* The new administration was untested, and Washington realized its success could not be taken for granted. He appreciated that his own popularity would significantly contribute to its initial success and long term stability.

This particular trip focused upon the New England states. Everywhere that Washington traveled, he was greeted by throngs of enthusiastic well-wishers, and he quickly found crowds craved the opportunity to cheer their victorious general. Americans were especially exuberant when they witnessed the president, not in a suit (the attire of a politician), but rather in his splendid, buff-and-blue Revolutionary War general’s uniform. Washington exuded confidence in this familiar regalia, but his role as a political leader of a democratic republic was less familiar and did not ‘fit’ as well.

Washington's inauguration at philadelphia

“Washington’s Inauguration at Philadelphia” by J.L.G. Ferris from a postcard published by The Foundation Press, Inc. in 1932, which itself was a reproduction of oil painting from the series: “The Pageant of a Nation.” This scene imagines George Washington arriving to be inaugurated at Congress Hall in Philadelphia on March 4, 1793. Credit: Library of Congress

From a young age, Washington was sensitive to the fact that his appropriate attire, deportment, expressions, and manners made good impressions that paved the way toward success. Elegant appearance and grace were personified by the self-conscious Washington, who first practiced these talents under his parent’s roof. Throughout this trip, if Washington was not in uniform, he often elected to wear black velvet mourning clothes, worn in honor of his late mother, who had recently passed away, losing her battle with breast cancer on August 25, 1789.

While Washington and the crowds who met him throughout his journey presented a stirring spectacle to the eye, the laudatory ceremonies were peppered by the sounds of wheezing and constant hacking from attending throngs and orators alike. The widespread disorder afflicting the new Americans originated in the southern states and Middle Atlantic region. In November, the American Mercury newspaper of Hartford, Connecticut reported that symptoms included “great languor, lowness, …anxiety, frequent sighing, sickness, and violent headache,” muscle aches and difficulty breathing (American Mercury November 9 1789:2). Children and the elderly appeared to escape the worst of the illness. The widespread illness was noted in letters and diaries across the nation. Newspapers recorded the spread of the pervasive illness.

Mere respiratory distress did not dissuade the hacking citizenry from catching a glimpse of their new president and showing their support for their republican government, however. Americans greeted Washington with pageantry and elaborate ceremonies. While well-intended, such rites made the first president – and many Americans – uncomfortable, as these formalities were too similar to the monarchical adulation from which the newly-established nation sought to distance itself. Adoring citizens cheers were interrupted by fits of coughing. Washington referred to it as an “epidemical cold.” The illness, sometimes referred to by contemporaries as an “epidemic catarrh”[2] proved fatal to a few of those so afflicted, which was especially vicious to those in the prime of life.

As he traveled, Washington maintained his correspondence. In a mid-October letter to his beloved – and only – sister Betty Lewis, George noted that he had thus far escaped falling victim to the highly contagious flu that gripped the nation. Two weeks after he wrote this letter, Washington admitted in his October 26 diary entry that he, too, suffered from the popular contagion. Despite the physical discomfort that his illness brought to him, Washington maintained his schedule, allowing each community through which his procession entered, to honor him with various events and dinners.

Despite the hardship of his illness, Washington’s exertions during his travels were an important contributor to the unification of a diverse assembly of states experimenting with democracy.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst


Further Reading

Breen, T. H.
2016 George Washington’s Journey: The President Forges a New Nation. Simon & Schuster, New York.

Twohig, Dorothy (editor)
1999 George Washington’s Diaries: An Abridgment. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville.


[1] Dorothy Twohig, editor, 1999 George Washington’s Diaries, An Abridgement, p. 351.

* Voting rights varied by state and were generally restricted to free men who owned land.

[2] American Mercury 9 November 1789:2, Pennsylvania Packet 18 November 1789:2

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 or

The Fly …uh, Snail… in the Ointment …Pot

It’s flu season again.  And for most of us who get sick that means a trip to the doctor, perhaps some prescribed medicines, and lots of rest.  But what did George Washington do when he got sick?  Although most of us likely think of our first president as perpetually healthy and strong, he was actually stricken by quite a few serious illnesses in his lifetime, many of which occurred while he was growing up at Ferry Farm.

Mary, George’s mother, had a few options when caring for her sick children but a hospital was not one. They did not exist yet.  The most expensive solution was to call a doctor (Back then, they came to you. You do not go to them).  Most people could not afford a doctor’s visit, however, and many distrusted doctors as being worse than the diseases they cured.  This fear of doctors was somewhat justified given that George ultimately died of an illness he could well have survived had he not been bled to death by his doctors.

An ill man who is being bled by his doctor. Coloured etching by J. Sneyd, 1804, after J. Gillray

“An ill man who is being bled by his doctor. Coloured etching by J. Sneyd, 1804, after J. Gillray.” by James Gillray. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Option number two was to visit a pharmacy.  Now, we’re not talking Walgreens.  Think smaller and jars full of leeches.  Anyone could visit an 18th century pharmacy without any kind of prescription or referral. If you had the money, you could purchase whatever ‘cure’ you wanted.  The pharmacist was not necessarily a medical professional and may or may not have been good at diagnosing whatever illness you had. That didn’t mean you couldn’t walk out of a pharmacy with any and all manner of odd concoctions that cured you or did not cure you.  For instance, folks were awfully fond of self-treating with mercury tinctures until well into the 19th century, which we now know to be a colossally terrible idea.

Michel Schuppach in his pharmacy examining a young woman's urine who is seated opposite him awaiting the result. Line engraving by B. Hübner, 1775, after G. Locher, 1774

‘Michel Schuppach in his pharmacy examining a young woman’s urine who is seated opposite him awaiting the result. Line engraving by B. Hübner, 1775, after G. Locher, 1774.’ by Gottfried Locher. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Another popular option was to make your own medicines at home.  Recipes for cures were passed down through word of mouth and many households had herb gardens containing medicinal plants, many brought with colonists from Europe.  There were also a number of books available that divulged the secrets of pharmacopoeia.  Many of the medicines described in these books sound like things a storybook witch might brew up.  One such tome available to Mary Washington was Thomas Fuller’s Pharmacopeia Extemporanea, published in 1710. It contains remedies such as ‘Pectoral Snail Water’, said to be good for “Erratic scorbutic Fevers, Flushings, flying Pains of the Joynts, hectic wasting of Flesh, and Night-sweats”.  The delicious-sounding ingredients were as follows:

“Snails beaten to mash with their Shells 3 pound
Crumb of white Bread new bak’d 12 ounces
Nutmeg 6 drams
Ground-Ivy 6 handfuls
Whey 3 quarts; distil it in a cold Still, without burning
One half pint brandy”

One can only assume that the last ingredient was to help the mashed snails go down.

We do have evidence showing the use of home medicines at Ferry Farm in the form of numerous ointment pots.  At least half a dozen have been identified thus far.  Ointment pots were used for holding various medical or cosmetic unguents likely made at home.  Generally, such pots were fairly plain with a rolled or flared lip used to secure a textile, hide, or paper lid with a string.

Judging by their lack of use wear, the pots recovered at Ferry Farm were used for storage, not for actually manufacturing medicines.  The act of stirring or grinding substances in the pots would have resulted in microscopic striations or scratches in the glaze and these are absent in the Washington family ointment pots.  However, they do indicate the storage of medicines at Ferry Farm.  Given the nature of home remedies in the 1700s, one’s imagination can run wild thinking of all the interesting concoctions that they may have held!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Further Reading

Fuller, Thomas. Pharmacopoeia extemporanea : or, a body of prescripts. In which forms of select remedies, accommodated to most intentions of cure, are propos’d. London. 1710.

Hume, Ivor Noel.  A Guide to the Artifacts of Colonial America.  University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.  2001.

Hume, Ivor Noel.  Early English Delftware from London and Virginia.  Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Virginia.  1977.

Mellor, Maureen.  Pots and People that Have Shaped the Heritage of Medieval and Later England.  Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.  2000.

Skerry, Janine E. and Suzanne Findlen Hood.  Stalt-Glazed Stoneware in Early America.  University Press of New England, Hanover and London.  2009



Washington, Smallpox, and the Fight for Independence

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

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

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

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

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

Smallpox pustules on hand

Smallpox pustules on hand. Credit: Centers for Disease Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Washington House, Barbados

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

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

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

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

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

Reconstructed winter cabins at Morristown NHP

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

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

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

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

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

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

[4] Kotar, pg 4; Oxley, 628

[5] Kotar, 41

[6] Domestic Medicine, William Buchan, 1769

[7] Oxley, 629

[8] Kotar, 13

[9] Kotar, 41

[10] Kotar, 40

[11] Kotar, 42

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

In Memory of Mother Washington


The Mary Washington Monument on Washington Avenue in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Today, August 25th, marks the 227th anniversary of the death of George Washington’s mother, Mary.   Mary lived to be 82 years old, and suffered from breast cancer during her final years.

Few biographers have been neutral in their treatment of Mother Washington, a woman of great significance in George’s life.  Some writers have offered overly sentimental descriptions of this matron, whereas others have been critical, and even harsh in their evaluation of her role as George’s mother.

Mary Ball married Augustine Washington on March 6, 1731.  Their marriage produced six children: George, Betty, Samuel, John Augustine, Charles, and Mildred.  When Augustine died twelve years later, a significant portion of the family’s property went to Augustine’s two oldest sons from his first marriage.  Mary raised their five surviving children at their Ferry Farm home, keeping the family together.  In 1772, at the insistence of her children, an aging Mary Washington moved into the town of Fredericksburg where she could be closer to her daughter, Betty.

In the summer of 1789, Mother Washington’s health was rapidly deteriorating.  Betty wrote to her older brother George,

“I am sorry to inform you my mother’s breast still continues bad.  …she is sensible of it and is perfectly resigned…  …the doctors think if they could get some hemlock it would be of service to her breast.”

Hemlock in Köhler's Medizinal Pflanzen

19th-century illustration of hemlock or Conium maculatum (from Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen). Public domain. Courtesy: Wikipedia

Hemlock, an extremely poisonous plant that “affects the transmission of nerve impulses to muscle and causes death through respiratory failure,” was a traditional treatment for breast cancer in the early 1700s. Although doctors in England had largely abandoned this treatment by the late 1780s, when Mary Washington was suffering from this disease, it is evident that local doctors were not up-to-date on the most recent treatments.

It seems likely that hemlock was indeed administered to Mary.  Burgess Ball wrote to George on the 25th of August, 1789:

“The Cause of her dissolution (I believe) was the Cancer on her breast, but for about 15 days she has been deprived of her speech and for the five last days she has remained in a sleep.”

These symptoms that Mary experienced in her final days, such as loss of speech and prolonged unconsciousness, seem consistent with hemlock poisoning, which attacks the nervous system and can cause comas.  Side effects include loss of speech (Steger 1972:71;

George publically recognized his mother’s role in his life at a 1784 event where he addressed the citizens of Fredericksburg, when he referred to her, “…by whose Maternal hand (early deprived of a Father) I was led to Manhood”.

After his mother’s death, himself recovering from surgery to his left thigh (Abbot et al. 1992b, pp. 75-77), George consoled his grieving sister Betty Washington Lewis in a letter dated September 13, 1789:

“Awful, and affecting as the death of a Parent is, there is consolation in knowing that Heaven has spared ours to an age, beyond which few attain, and favored her with the full enjoyment of her mental faculties, and as much bodily strength as usually falls to the lot of four score.  Under these considerations and a hope that she is translated to a happier place, it is the duty of her relatives to yield due submission to the decrees of the Creator….” 

On August 28th, Betty Lewis and her children buried Mary Washington near a rock outcropping known today as “meditation rock” (Hetzel 1903:5).  The letter conveying the news of her death had still not reached her son George (Hetzel 1903:1), preventing him from attending the ceremony (cf. Rejai and Phillips 2000:15).  The burial site was part of the Lewis family’s Fredericksburg plantation.  This was a favorite spot of Mary’s, to sit, read the Bible, and spend time with her grandchildren.

For some time, Mary’s grave had no permanent marker.  An attempt to move her remains to Mount Vernon stirred concerned local residents into action (NRHP 2002 Section 8, p. 21) and an effort was begun to place a marker on Mary’s final resting place in 1826.  While a cornerstone for a marker was laid in 1833, construction failed to materialize a suitable memorial before 1893 when the Mary Washington Memorial Association brought this effort to fruition (NRHP 2002 Section 7 p. 16, Section 8, pp. 22, 27).  In 1894 President Grover Cleveland, as well as his Vice President, the Governor of Virginia, the Mayor of Fredericksburg, a senator from Virginia, and thousands of citizens attended the dedication of the completed memorial (NRHP 2002 Section 8, p. 28).

1903MaryWashingtonMonument copy

The Mary Washington Monument as it appeared in 1903. Library of Congress photo.

This Saturday, August 27th, you can commemorate Mary Washington’s death with the Washington Heritage Museums at the grave of Mary Washington.  A reception (cost $10) at the Mary Washington House on Charles Street follows.  For event details, visit

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

Further Reading

Abbot, W. W., Dorothy Twohig, Philander D. Chase, Beverly H. Runge, Beverly S. Kirsch, and Debra B. Kessler
1992  The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series Volume 1.  University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville.

Hetzel, Susan Riviere
1903  The Building of a Monument Press of Wickersham Company, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

2002  National Register of Historic Places Form, Washington Avenue Historic District, (accessed August 11, 2016).

Rejai, Mostafa and Kay Phillips
2000  The Young George Washington in Phychobiographical Perspective.  The Edwin Mellon Press, Lewiston, New York.

Steger, Robert E.
1972  Native Plants Poisonous to Humans.  Journal of Range Management 25(1):71-72.