Family Leaders Guiding a Younger Generation: George and Betty’s 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 only way to gauge George and Betty’s relationship is through two dozen letters they wrote to each other between 1779 and 1796.  As we saw in our first post about the two letters Betty wrote to George during the Revolutionary War, theirs was a complex relationship of sibling love and camaraderie strained by intermittent conflict.  The wartime letters revealed a sadness over extended absences and stress from the tensions and difficulties of George’s wartime position as the new nation’s leader.

This second post in our multi-part examination of George and Betty’s sibling relationship deals with their roles as leaders of the Washington and Lewis families.  They were the eldest of the Washington siblings and, after 1781, Betty was the widowed matriarch of the Lewises.  In these roles, Betty and George both cared for and guided a brood of children, grandchildren, step-children, nieces, and nephews.  In fact, of their twenty-four surviving letters, thirteen of them deal substantially with the life of some younger member of the extended Washington-Lewis families.  Most of these 13 letters focused on niece Harriot Washington, whose saga we’ve previously written about here and here.  The others dealt with Robert and Howell Lewis, both sons of Betty and nephews of George, who each became his secretaries for a time.

Robert Lewis was 20-years-old when Uncle Washington was inaugurated president on April 30, 1789.  Robert saw opportunity in George’s position and apparently requested, through Betty, that he might work for the new president.  Uncle Washington replied to Betty with an offer for Robert to be one of his secretaries, writing “I have thought it probable that I may have occasion for a young person in my family of a good disposition, who writes a good hand, and who can confine himself a certain reasonable number of hours in the 24 to the recording of letters in books.”  George warned that Robert’s pay “cannot be great as there are hundreds [of others] who would be glad to come in)” but, if he was okay with a relatively small salary, George would “be very glad to give him the preference.”  In fact, Robert was paid $300 per year, the smallest amount among Washington’s secretaries.  Since Robert was family, however, he could reside with the Washingtons in New York “at no expence (except in the article of clothing) as he will be one of the family and live as we do.”  George desired to know immediately if Robert would accept the offer and, if so, would his nephew accompany Martha “(and at her expence, as she will want somebody to accompany her) when I send my horses back [to Virginia] after I am fixed in New York.”  Robert himself enthusiastically replied to this offer, writing “I shall ever consider myself under a thousand obligations for the proffered post, and think the confinement you speak off rather a pleasure, and hope from my assiduous attention to merit that station.”  Robert Lewis worked as secretary for George until early 1791, when he returned home to get married.

Roughly a year and a half later Robert’s younger brother Howell Lewis, who was at that time also age 20, was offered a secretarial position by President Washington.  George wrote to Betty on April 8, 1792, proposing…

If your Son Howell is living with you, and not usefully employed in your own Affairs; and should incline to spend a few months with me, as a writer in my Office (if he is fit for it) I will allow him at the rate of Three hundred dollars a year, provided he is diligent in discharging the duties of it from breakfast until dinner—Sundays excepted.

This sum will be punctually paid him and I am particular in declaring beforehand what I require, and what he may expect, that there may be no disappointment, or false expectations on either side. He will live in the family in the same manner his brother Robert did. If the offer is acceptable he must hold himself in readiness to come on immediately upon my giving him notice.

I take it for granted that he writes a fair & legible hand, otherwise he would not answer my purpose; as it is for recording letters, and other papers I want him. That I may be enabled to judge of his fitness let him acknowledge the receipt of this letter with his own hand, and say whether he will accept the offer here made him, or not. If he does, & I find him qualified from the specimen he gives in his letter I will immediately desire him to come on which he must do without a moments delay, or I shall be obliged to provide another instead of him.

Betty replied to George, reporting that Howell was away at the time but that she had dispatched George’s offer to him and expected an answer in two weeks’ time.  She worried that Howell’s “very Slender Education” and “his Fathers Death at so Early a Period has been a great disadvantage to him” for he was “left without any Person of Age and Judgement” to guide him.  Howell, Betty said, had to rely on only himself to improve his lot in life and was “not very well informd.”  She closed by praising her son’s “exceeding Good disposition,” felt that “the employment you have design’d for him not difficult,” and he could serve George satisfactorily.

Howell accepted the position, writing to his Uncle Washington that “I consider myself extremely favour’d by your proposal of a birth in your family & shall chearfully accept it provided my probation is deemed satisfactory—I lament that I have not been more attentive to the improvement of my writing tho hope that I shall soon be qualified to do the business for which you mean to enploy me.”

Howell soon set out to join the President in Philadelphia, the national capital since late 1790, carrying another letter from Betty for George with him.  She wrote

You will receive this by Howell, who seems Very happy In the thought of becoming One of your family,1 I sincerely wish he may be Equal to the task you desire for him, he has Promis’d me to Indeaver to Please, and by Close application to improve him self, it is with Infinite Pleasure to my self that he has a Prospect of geting in a Place where he may receive so much advantage to him self, his Fortune being very small there is little Prospect of happiness in this world without thay Can get into Busness of some sort.

In a letter to Charles Carter of Ludlow, Washington revealed that, in actuality, he had “no real want . . . of Howell Lewis” but had offered him the work because “he was spending his time rather idly” and was very slenderly provided for by his father.”  George thought that “by taking him under my care, I might impress him with ideas, and give him a turn to some pursuit or other that might be serviceable to him hereafter.”  Howell worked as secretary until July 1793, when his uncle tapped him to be manager at Mount Vernon.

So, as might be expected between the eldest siblings of a family, much of the correspondence and relationship between Betty and George Washington focused on their respective and extended families’ offspring.  George and Betty were the family leaders and propriety dictated that they work together when necessary to provide for and guide these children, grandchildren, stepchildren, nieces, and nephews to success in life.  As we have seen, earlier with Harriot, and now with Robert and Howell, nearly half of Betty and George’s surviving letters and thus their relationship dealt in some fashion with matters concerning the Washington and Lewis families’ younger generations.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Harriot’s Happily Ever After

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

Spring time in the gardens at Kenmore Plantation

Kenmore in Spring

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

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

Portrait of George Washington (1795) by Gilbert Stuart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harriot replied with this joyful letter:

Fredericksburg Sepber 9th 1796

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

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

Harriot Parks

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

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

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

Harriot Washington’s “Hard Knock Life”

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

HARRIOT AT MOUNT VERNON, Late 1780s-1792

mount-vernon

Mount Vernon. Credit: Wikipedia/Martin Falbisoner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HARRIOT AT KENMORE, 1792-1795

Betty Washington Lewis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued….

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

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