Introducing Caty: More Than “Merry Laugh…and Lively Wit”

Editor’s Note: At George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we are always interested in reexaminations of accepted history.  Archaeology is creating new and more complete understandings of George’s Washington’s youth as well as of Mary Washington as a person.  Mary has been both revered and reviled by history but archaeological discoveries at Ferry Farm are painting a more complex picture of her as an independent and intelligent woman facing the world on her own after her husband’s death. Inspired by Mary, Lives & Legacies asked Carin Bloom, Museums Program Associate at Middleton Place Foundation in Charleston, South Carolina and a friend of the blog, to re-examine another independent, intelligent woman in the Washington family’s orbit: Catharine “Caty” Greene.

George Washington is considered the Father of the United States of America, but long before he and his wife Martha became the parents of the nation, they were parents, both real and surrogate, to several prominent patriots and revolutionaries. For example, much is known of the relationship between General Washington and his Aide de Camp, the Marquis de Lafayette – the affection of a father and son are clear in their communications, both during and after the American War for Independence.

Nathanael Greene

Nathanael Greene (1783) by Charles Willson Peale

The Marquis was not the only one to enjoy the mentorship, tutelage, and friendly affection of the great General Washington. So too did the only other man to hold the rank of General for the duration of the American Revolution: Nathanael Greene. Promoted from the rank of Private in the Kentish Guards, a militia unit raised in his home county in Rhode Island Colony, Greene became the Brigadier General of all three Rhode Island regiments of the Continental Army in the spring of 1775. He quickly became (in turns) a close friend, advisor, and student of General Washington. The two commanders’ relationship is perhaps less well-known outside of academic circles, but it is still well-documented.

Those relationships aren’t what this blog post is about.

This blog post began in very much the way that stories from the past often begin – with the great men of the Age and what they did, or how they interacted. Their wives are secondary (if mentioned at all) and are supporting characters in a drama of great ideals and noble causes. In reality, these women were so much more, and their stories are important. While Women’s History and Women’s Studies programs in academia became prominent around the time of the nation’s Bicentennial, there has been relatively little advance or innovation in the study of feminine experiences of historic eras. Now, however, modern social and political climates are bringing women’s stories into focus again, allowing the women of the past to be re-examined once more. Conspicuous among the women of the Revolutionary era being re-examined are the same names we’ve all heard since elementary school – Abigail Adams, Peggy Shippen, the fictional Molly Pitcher, and of course, Martha Washington.

Incomplete Portrait of Martha Washington (1796) by Gilbert Stuart

An unfinished portrait of Martha Washington begun in 1796 by Gilbert Stuart.

Martha and George Washington are revered for many reasons, but little is spoken about their personal nurturing and encouragement of young patriots, the men and women with whom they were surrounded. In fact, they occupied the parental pedestals for both Nathanael and his wife Catharine Greene – but perhaps especially for “Caty”. Orphaned at a young age and raised by a somewhat eccentric aunt, Caty was 19 and newly married when the Revolution broke out. She was tutored and educated in the 18th century society that befit her station, but it seems she wasn’t ready to be a General’s wife. For tutelage she looked to Lady Washington.

Their mother-daughter relationship blossomed quickly, and Catharine seemed to flourish under Martha’s indulgence. Caty is most often described in terms of her appearance and temperament, “She was a small brunette with high color, a vivacious expression, and a snapping pair of dark eyes.”[1] Her biographer adds, “To men her appeal, like that of her Aunt Catharine, was not simply a matter of flirtation that fed their masculine vanities; deep emotions were touched as well.”[2]

Carin Bloom as Caty Greene (3)

The blog post’s author Carin Bloom portraying Caty Green reading from Joe Miller’s Jests, or the Wit’s Vade-Mecum (1739) in the Washington house at Ferry Farm.

With a description like that, I started to wonder, why don’t we know more about the young Catharine Greene? She was called Kitty as a girl, was known to her husband’s equals and subordinates as Lady Greene, and to her devoted husband as Caty – and no matter what she was called, she became a force to be reckoned with. Her biographers make careful note that she would have grown up in the cradle of the Revolution, listening to the great minds gathering in her uncle’s library discussing politics, self-governance, and eventually open rebellion. An enigma equal to her fighting Quaker husband for her indifference to religious leanings, she is described as a balm of good morale for dour officers and aides: “she laughed, danced, sipped Madeira wine and played cards and parlor games. She engaged in repartee…with perhaps a burst of unladylike glee at a slip of the tongue or double entendre that would have horrified her female counterparts but delighted their husbands.”[3]

Many of these attributes came naturally to Caty or were self-taught, but her refinement as a true lady of the 18th century came from her time spent with her equals and betters. Specifically, she was looked after by Lady Washington; when other young officers’ wives felt threatened by Caty’s beauty, and exuberance, “Martha was secure in her place in her husband’s heart. Although she knew that the general looked at the beautiful Caty with deep male appreciation, she found no cause for disapproval. Caty was like a daughter to them both. She was accepted for what she was…”[4]

Carin Bloom as Caty Greene (2)

Caty Greene (Carin Bloom) pens a letter to husband Nathanael on the escritoire desk in the Hall of the Washington house.

From the his occasional service as a personal courier for Caty and Nathanael’s letters to one another, to his own assurance of her safe arrival in camp during the Siege of Charleston early in 1782, General Washington’s own words and actions belied his affections not just for his best General, but for Caty as well. Likewise, Martha Washington opened her home at Mount Vernon to Caty, as well as to both Ladies Stirling, Lucy Knox, and a few other officers’ wives, when they could not be with their husbands. It was at these gatherings, presumably around a copious amount of tea, that Caty would have come to understand feminine refinement that would have served her well into old age, and long after Lady Washington was gone.

Though only one nonfiction biography of the remarkable Catharine Greene has been written, she comes to life with alarming effervescence in its pages. Her abilities to both navigate her world as a cog in the wheel of 18th century society, as well as to stand apart from it and maintain utterly her own identity, were enough to cause me to delve into her world for over a year. As a young woman she was the subject of much gossip; everything from accusations of turning her husband from his Quaker faith in disgrace, to extramarital affairs with his subordinates – none of it managed to stick to her. In her later life Caty was a financier (and now suspected to have been a partner in design) of Eli Whitney and his Cotton Gin, as well as a property-holding single woman until she chose of her own accord to remarry.

Catharine Littlefield Greene

Catharine Greene (1809) attributed to James Frothingham

All in all, this was a woman whose life could be the stuff of Hollywood legend, and yet, in every living history scenario that manages to feature a woman, she is always a Martha Washington, or an Abigail Adams, or a Molly Pitcher – and always in a vacuum. Surely Martha did not spend her days with only her husband and his men, or alone by herself? The past is populated with scores of women, and yet, we rarely see the majority of them come to life. That is my aim in portraying Catharine Greene – to use her life as a vehicle for an immersive experience of a multifaceted past, so much more complex than what we currently understand. George and Martha Washington, Nathanael and Catharine Greene, they weren’t so different from us; as we understand their stories, both individually and as participants in a community, a nation, and a world, we may find new enrichment in our own lives.

Carin Bloom
Museums Program Associate
Middleton Place Foundation

Trained as an archaeologist specializing in the American Revolution, Carin plans and executes programs at Middleton Place National Historic Landmark in Charleston, South Carolina. She holds a BA (University of Delaware) and two MAs (University of Pennsylvania and Temple University), all in Anthropology with a concentration in Historical Archaeology, and has been working at non-profit historic sites for over a decade.  She has studied Catharine Littlefield Greene extensively and enjoys bringing Caty to life at living history events up and down the east coast, as well as working in classroom settings with school programs and summer camps.

Carin Bloom as Caty Greene (4)

[1] 1871 – Greene, George Washington. The Life of Nathanael Greene, 3 vols, Cambridge. Vol 1, pg. 72.

[2] 1977 – Stegeman, John F. and Janet A. Stegeman. Caty: A Biography of Catharine Littlefield Greene, pg. 8, University of Georgia Press.

[3] 1977 – Stegeman, John F. and Janet A. Stegeman. Caty: A Biography of Catharine Littlefield Greene, pg. 26, University of Georgia Press.

[4] 1977 – Stegeman, John F. and Janet A. Stegeman. Caty: A Biography of Catharine Littlefield Greene, pg. 58, University of Georgia Press.

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

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

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

History’s Paper Trail: What Handwriting & Spelling Reveal about Early America

One of the aspects of a historian’s job is dealing with primary sources, the paper trail of history.  The archives here at The George Washington Foundation contain primary sources that include letters, wills, land grants, court orders, military orders, bills and receipts.  These hand-written documents are largely related to the Fielding and Betty Lewis family and provide us with a wealth of information on all facets of their lives from how much rum they bought to how much they paid in yearly taxes.  At the same time, they and other written historical records provide a glimpse into some fascinating dynamics of early American society and culture.

However, sometimes these documents can be difficult to read because, in the 18th century, writing style and spelling were still not completely standardized.

Students in early America usually learned to write by copying different styles of writing known as ‘hands’ in a copybook that showed alphabets and phrases in the ‘hand’ to be learned.  Students copied the alphabets and phrases exactly, for practice and for reference, and business forms.  For example, while attending school in Fredericksburg, young George Washington copied The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior to learn handwriting as well as proper behavior in polite society.

Above: Examples of ‘hands’ (Flourishing Alphabet, Italian Hand, German Text, Round Hand) from The Instructor, or American Young Man’s Best Companion Containing Spelling, Reading, Writing, and Arithmetick by George Fisher and published by Isaiah Thomas, Worcester, 1786

In the 1700s, writing was a skill reserved for select groups of people, mainly professionals and upper class males.  Women, artisans, lower classes, and the enslaved were not formally taught handwriting because it was viewed as unnecessary to their everyday life.  A lack of formal education did not stop people from writing.  Instead, they just developed their own system of penmanship and style.

Spelling

Colonial-era writers could choose from a number of dictionaries to assist with spelling.  Many of these books, however, focused only on difficult, obscure, or archaic words.  It wasn’t until 1755 that Samuel Johnson published the influential A Dictionary of the English Language, which offered a more comprehensive lexicon of contemporary English of the time.  By the colonial period, much English spelling was recognizably modern due to the beginning movements of standardization in education and print. Dictionaries also assisted in the development of a more uniform writing style.

What if you had not been to school or had never seen a dictionary?  Well, you simply spelled a word the best you could by sounding it out phonetically.  So, ‘school’ became ‘skool’ or ‘laugh’ became ‘laff.’ A word might be spelled a dozen different ways by a dozen different people.  When read aloud, these words sound fine but, when silently reading a primary source document, the written phonetic spelling can take a few seconds to process.

An account statement from 1766 between James Winn and Fielding Lewis that includes two examples of phonetic spelling: “brest” buckle and “soop” spoon.

The Long ‘s’

The long ‘s’ was a style of spelling that generally fell out of use in print by the end of the 18th century.  It persisted in handwriting until the mid-19th century.  The long ‘s’ was an elongated version of a lowercase ‘s’.  It was often seen at the beginning of a word, in the middle of a word, and in words containing a double ‘s’.   A notable example is the spelling of Congress in the Bill of Rights.

Understandably, when we read primary sources today, the long ‘s’ is often mistaken for an ‘f’ or ‘p’ and it takes some practice to get the context of what is being said.

The word ‘Witnes’ in this document includes an excellent example of the long ‘s’ in the word and it’s close resemblance to an ‘f.’  This is a bond dated 14 September 1747 that requires George Lewis, who lives in Frederick County, to pay 3 pounds of Pennsylvania Currency to Charles Dunnahie by 1 May 1749.

Abbreviations/Subscript

Abbreviations and subscript often come up in colonial-era handwritten documents, particularly on bills, invoices and receipts. Shortening words or phrases like can’t for cannot or asap for as soon as possible is something we are familiar with today.  Commonly, abbreviations in the 18th century were indicated by beginning the word in regular-sized letters and ending with superscript letters like Recd for received.  Superscript or subscript letters are most frequently seen today in chemical compounds (H₂O) or in mathematical expressions.

This receipt, dated 25 September 1780, from Henry Rutter to George Lewis for 48 1/2 bushels of tax oats and 40 Bushels of Rye from George Lewis per Thomas Smither.  The “Recd” at the beginning of the receipt is an excellent example of both an abbreviation and superscript.

All the quirks in 18th century writing present many challenges for the historian.  Creating a system of deciphering can take time and plenty of practice.  At times, it can be more than a little frustrating.  Once the documents’ particular meanings are deciphered, the writing itself can reveal many different dynamics about early American society and culture.

One of the biggest of these dynamics is that very few people received enough education to develop a professional level of literacy.  Professional level of literacy, at the time, would mean having enough skill to conduct business.  Such a level was reserved, usually, for white middle to upper class males.

Selective education provided a powerful form of social control and a framework for society to judge and instantly understand a person’s social status, education, and occupation.  At this time, it was not thought important for women, slaves, or the lower classes to know how to write.  Some even thought that teaching these groups to write would encourage them to aspire above their allotted station in life.  Writing gives people the freedom to express themselves and their ideas in a concrete way which can easily be transmitted to others, an uncomfortable prospect for a society based on a selective hierarchy.

Though a woman, George Washington’s mother Mary Ball Washington could write.  Her spelling was extremely phonetic as seen in this letter transcription and reflects a lack of formal schooling but not necessarily a lack of intelligence as some historians have argued.  Indeed, primary sources like Mary’s letters supported by “new archaeological data has yielded a decidedly more complex picture of this influential matron than is possible using the historical record alone.” Laura Galke, an archaeologist here at The George Washington Foundation, argues (PDF) that artifacts discovered at George Washington’s boyhood home at Ferry Farm demonstrate that Mary “enjoyed the personal agency that widowhood allowed her; she was responsible for the management decisions of the Washington household and the surrounding farm. Mary’s choices reflect an ambitious woman determined to participate in the genteel society her family had enjoyed before Augustine’s death.”  This required much intelligence.

Interestingly, Mary’s daughter Betty Washington Lewis also knew how to write.  Mary ensured Betty knew how to run a household and keep in touch with family, which numerous letters written by Betty show she did effectively.

Betty Washington Lewis

Portrait of Betty Washington Lewis painted by John Wollaston in the 1750s

Her phonetic spelling in this letter transcription is an improvement over her mother’s.  The improvement in Betty’s spelling when compared to Mary’s further illustrates the increasing standardization during the 18th century and can also be seen as an example of changing beliefs in education for women at the end of the 1700s.  A movement was growing late in the century to teach writing to women.  This movement, however, did not come from a revolutionary drive for equality but, rather, from an expanded idea regarding the duties of Motherhood.  If women could not read and write, it was thought, how would they teach their sons, the future generation of leaders, to do the same?

Though difficult, at times, to decipher, the simple act of writing gives us a glimpse into the minds of people who thought about and experienced a life quite different from ours.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager