Summer Vacation, 18th Century Style

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

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

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

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

Enlargement of Fry-Jefferson Map showing Medicinal Spring

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

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

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

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

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

George Washington's Bathtub

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

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

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

The Comforts of Bath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] Mozier.

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

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Meet the Lewis Family: George Lewis

George Washington Lewis was Fielding and Betty Lewis’s fourth son, being born on March 14, 1757.  His birth came within months of the deaths of two of his older brothers – Augustine and Warner, ages 4 and 1 – and was a bright spot in dark days for his parents.  He was named for his uncle George, who would have great influence on his nephew later in life.  Young George would also become a favorite of his uncle’s, too.

Bed and Desk

No known images of George Lewis exist. This photograph shows a bed and the desk he inherited from his parents and that both currently reside in the Bed Chamber at Historic Kenmore.

The earliest mentions of George in the Lewis family records concern his education.  In 1771, he and his younger brother Charles were sent away to school in New Jersey.  Thirteen-year-old George attended the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton), while ten-year-old Charles went to a nearby grammar school.  The Lewis boys would be enrolled in New Jersey for the next three years, coming home to Fredericksburg on occasional school breaks.[1]  Whether it was his family relationship to the man who would lead the Continental Army during the Revolution or the strict anti-Anglican education he received in New Jersey, George Lewis would become the most militarily-involved of all of the Lewis children.

In November of 1775, George Washington asked that his wife, Martha, leave Mount Vernon and spend the winter with him at his encampment in Cambridge.  He was well aware that his nephew George (now eighteen years old) was interested in joining the cause, but Washington was reluctant to give any family members appointments in his army for fear of the appearance of favoritism.  In an attempt to give his eager nephew something to do, he asked the young man to accompany his wife on what would be a very arduous winter journey from Virginia to the encampment.  When George left his childhood home for Mount Vernon, he carried with him a letter from his father to General Washington, in which Fielding gave his blessing for his son to join the military, but hoped that the General could find some “little post that will bear his expenses”[2] for him, safely away from the fighting.  No doubt, this is what Washington originally hoped for, as well.  The reality of George Lewis’s military career would be far different.

Initially, George did serve as a secretary for his uncle after his arrival in Cambridge.  He must have proved himself trustworthy and capable, though, because in the spring his uncle suddenly reversed his position on commissioning relatives and made his nephew a First Lieutenant on March 12th, 1776, just two days before his 19th birthday.  Lt. Lewis was made second in command of a new cavalry unit, the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard.  In addition to performing as Washington’s personal couriers and escorts, the Guard was also responsible for his protection during battle.  Lt. Lewis would be in the vanguard of the surprise attack on Trenton, and later in the attack on his former stomping grounds at Princeton.  During the battle of Princeton, fellow Fredericksburger General Hugh Mercer was mortally wounded, and captured by the British.  Washington sent his nephew George under a flag of truce and carrying a letter to General Cornwallis, asking that the young man be allowed to tend to General Mercer in his final days.  Cornwallis relented, and Lt. Lewis spent the next few days providing comfort to the dying man.[3]

In 1777, Lt. Lewis was promoted to Captain in the Third Continental Dragoons.  He participated in the Philadelphia Campaign, wintered with the army at Valley Forge, and survived an encounter with the British 17th Light Dragoons at the disastrous Baylor’s Massacre, when most of the Third Dragoons were ambushed in a barn and slaughtered.[4]

“Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge” by John Ward Dunsmore, 1907. Library of Congress photo.

During the rebuilding of the Third Dragoons, the few officers who remained were assigned to Washington’s headquarters, where Capt. Lewis returned to the rather mundane activities of being Washington’s courier.  At some point during 1779, George met Colonel William Daingerfield, Commander of the Seventh Virginia Regiment of the Continental line, and his daughter Catherine.  George and Catherine fell in love, and apparently the relationship became a huge distraction for the young Captain, who was increasingly absent from camp.  General Washington wrote his nephew an angry rebuke in February, saying that his behavior reflected badly not only on himself but on Washington, too.[5]  Although George returned to his duties immediately after receiving the letter from his uncle, he would resign by September and marry Catherine.

George and Catherine settled near Berryville, Virginia, on land owned by Fielding Lewis that would eventually be George’s inheritance.  Although he became a planter, his military career wasn’t quite over.  In 1794, the Whiskey Rebellion in southwestern Pennsylvania broke out, and President Washington called on his trusted nephew to supplement the tiny standing army.  George raised a cavalry unit that he called the Fredericksburg Troop of Volunteers.  George was made a Major Commandant and his unit was deployed to Fort Pitt.

Finally, with the end of the Whiskey Rebellion, George Lewis took up a quiet life.  He and Catherine had three children, and eventually purchased the plantation Marmion, on Virginia’s Northern Neck outside of Fredericksburg.  Many of the original furnishings from Kenmore would be left to George, and would descend through his family at Marmion.  George continued to maintain a close friendship with Washington, who often asked for his advice on family and business matters.  When Washington died, he left his nephew a handsome inheritance, as well as his pick of Washington’s swords.

Marmion

Marmion, the home of George Lewis and family, as it appeared in the mid-20th century. Library of Congress photo.

George Lewis died in 1821.  He and Catherine are thought to be buried at Willis Hill in Fredericksburg, the home of their son-in-law, Byrd Willis.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Felder, Paula S. Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family, 1998. Pgs. 163-164.

[2] Fielding Lewis to George Washington, November 14th, 1775.  Pennsylvania Historical Society.

[3] Lossing, Benson J., ed. Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, 1859. Pgs. 180-184.

[4] Moran, Donald L. The Men of the Commander in Chief Guard, The Liberty Tree Newsletter, 2006; Demarest, Thomas. The Baylor Massacre, Bergen County History Annual, 1971.

[5] George Washington to George Lewis, February 13th, 1779.