Kenmore’s Holy Grail

“The drawing-room walls are covered with pictures, some very fine, from the ancient masters, but most of them portraits of our most distinguished men, six or eight by Stewart. The mantelpiece, tables in each corner and in fact wherever one could be fixed, were filled with busts, and groups of figures in plaster, so that this apartment had more the appearance of a museum of the arts than of a drawing room.” Those are the words of Margaret Bayard Smith upon entering the drawing room at James Madison’s Montpelier in 1828.  Smith was a noted journalist and socialite in 19th century Washington, DC, and a good friend of Thomas Jefferson, in addition to James and Dolley Madison.  She is best remembered for her detailed diary entries, recounting her lengthy visits to the homes of well-known figures in American society at the time.  Her record is a treasure trove of information for the curators trying to piece together the original appearance of some of those great houses.  And she was not alone! Many a traveler in the 18th and 19th century wrote down their observations of daily life at Montpelier, Monticello, Mount Vernon and similar places in letters, diaries, journals, and even occasionally in newspaper columns.  Altogether, these contemporary descriptions of times long past are some of the best resources we have for creating a picture of what a house looked like once upon a time.

M-108, Courtesy of the Montpelier Foundation

The Drawing Room at James Madison’s Montpelier. Courtesy of Montpelier, a National Trust Historic Site.

Margaret Bayard Smith

Portrait of Margaret Bayard Smith by Charles Bird King (c. 1829). Credit: Smithsonian Institution

Alas, Mrs. Smith never made it to Kenmore.  Nor, apparently, did any of the other wonderfully prolific travel writers of her day.  Amazingly, not a single contemporary description of Kenmore, either its interior or exterior, has ever surfaced.  It would seem that not one visitor to the Lewis home was moved to write down any impressions of the awe-inspiring plasterwork ceilings that quite literally defied imagination.  The English carpets on the floors inspired no comment.  No one ever reported the gossip of an evening’s entertainment at Kenmore to a friend.  None of the Lewis family members themselves ever described a family dinner.  This lack of description is baffling, and it has been a frustrating problem for those of us working on Kenmore’s restoration and refurnishing over the last 15 years.  But more than bafflement and frustration, it’s become an intriguing mystery.  In short, a description of Kenmore from the 18th century has become our Holy Grail.

Let’s begin with the premise that it is highly unlikely that NO ONE ever wrote anything about Kenmore during the Lewis era.  Someone, somewhere, surely put pen to paper and wrote about their surroundings in the Lewis house.  It is simply that we haven’t found these accounts yet.  They exist, but they’re hidden away somewhere.  So the real question is why haven’t any of them come to light yet? There are several possible reasons.

First, history has not remembered Fielding Lewis the way it has George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.  Although his role in early American history was a rather important one, it didn’t make headlines at the time, and it doesn’t show up in many history books today.  Documents related to Fielding and his family were not given the same status and protection by later generations as those related to the Founders and early presidents.  Ironically, most of the existing letters written by Fielding Lewis survive only because he was writing to George Washington, and therefore they are held in the same repositories that hold the Washington Papers (Mount Vernon, the Library of Congress, etc.).  In our own lives, we often discard quite a bit of correspondence and other paperwork because it seems trivial, or because it doesn’t have anything to do with an important person or event.  Many original documents related to Kenmore may simply did not survived.

Lewis Papers

While there are some Lewis family documents in our collection, there is no description of Kenmore during the Lewises time among the family’s papers.

Another possible explanation for the lack of descriptive accounts is difficulty that many historic sites have to deal with: The Civil War.  In almost any effort to trace the historical roots of, well, anything, in the United States, there tends to be this deep, black abyss when you reach the years of the Civil War.  Repositories for legal documents, like courthouses and libraries, were ransacked and destroyed all over the South (and in parts of the North, as well).  Newspaper printing offices were wrecked.  Family records, stored in attics and Father’s desk, were destroyed in fires and bombardments.  Correspondence was disrupted, and what made it through rarely described beautiful houses, but rather focused on the horrors of war.  Fredericksburg, which saw one of the earliest examples of urban warfare rage through its streets in 1862, was particularly hard hit.  If documents describing Kenmore existed prior to the War, it is entirely possible that they did not survive it.

The third possibility has something to do with Kenmore’s name.  As those who have been on tour know, the house was not called “Kenmore” when the Lewis family lived in it.  In fact, the Lewis family did not give the house a name at all.  It wasn’t until 1819, when the Gordons owned the property, that the name “Kenmore” appears in court records (the Gordons named the house in honor of the ancestral home in Scotland, Kenmuir).

So, any documents describing Kenmore from the Lewis era would not have used the word “Kenmore.” It is entirely possible that researchers have in fact come across descriptions of Kenmore, but they didn’t know what they were looking at because the house described was not identified as Kenmore.  It’s also possible that descriptions of Kenmore do survive in repositories that have no connection to the Lewises, the Washingtons or even Virginia, in which case they would have no idea what they were looking at, without the word “Kenmore” to Google.  It seems like a trivial issue, but it’s actually a real problem!

There you have it.  Could it be that one of the most beautiful houses in colonial America was seemingly ignored by correspondents of the day? It seems unlikely, and so our search for own Holy Grail continues.  If any of our readers happen to be combing through obscure 18th century documents in the future, we would appreciate you keeping an eye out for us!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

 

 

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Between the Lines: Teasing out Tame’s Story

In this day and age, it is easy to discover the particulars of someone’s life simply with the click of a button.  Phone number, age, home address, professional resume and more can easily be obtained by searching through public records on the Internet or at the library. A treasure trove of current primary and secondary resources awaits the present-day researcher trying to uncover the facts of someone’s life in the 21st century.

But what do you do when the person lived over 250 years ago? What public and private historical records are available that will tell us who a person was, how they lived, when they died, and who their family was? Time, circumstances, and the natural decay of paper all take a toll on the sources we use to study the history of the people who came before us.  But the amount and quality of available information about a person also depends on the status and role they played in their own time.

In 1750, an enslaved person living at George Washington’s boyhood home, now called “Ferry Farm,” was murdered.  His name was Tame and he was killed by Harry, another enslaved man owned by the Washington family.  These bare facts were recorded at a King George County Court of Oyer and Terminer, with no further explanations given of the crime or of the motives involved.[1]

What led to Tame’s death? For that matter, who was Tame? How old was he? Where did he come from? How long was he with the Washington family and how does his fateful story figure into the daily operations of the farm and household? Answers to these kinds of questions are hard to come by because the stories of the enslaved population in the historical record are limited, in many cases, to just a few documents spanning their lifetime.

Excavated by archaeologist at Ferry Farm, this broad hoe, also known as a “weed hoe,” was used sometime in the mid-1700s by enslaved people to remove weeds and loosen soil around crops. Older slave children joined adults in the fields to do this difficult task.

Discovering Tame’s story begins with finding him in the written records.  Augustine Washington, George’s father, died on April 12, 1743, seven years before Tame’s murder.  His will, written a day before his death, lists by name some of the slaves that belonged to him and to whom he gave them. Tame is not among those mentioned.[2]  The subsequent July 1, 1743 probate inventory of Augustine’s estate details the property and personal items he owned and their value, including a list of the enslaved population, but Tame, again, is not listed.[3]

Since he was not mentioned in either of these two historical documents relating to Augustine’s property, it’s possible that Tame was acquired after Augustine died,  either by his estate, his heirs, or by his wife Mary and sometime between 1743 and 1750.

There is another scenario to consider, however.  Perhaps Tame does not show up in the court documents surrounding Augustine’s death because Tame was actually the property of Mary, Augustine’s wife, instead.

To burn efficiently and ensure a clean flame, the cotton wicks of candles needed to be trimmed frequently. This tool, known as a wick trimmer (above and below), was used for this purpose. Due to the mundane and constant nature of the task, household slaves were often charged with maintaining candle wicks.

To burn efficiently and ensure a clean flame, the cotton wicks of candles needed to be trimmed frequently. These tools, known as wick trimmers (above and below), were used for this purpose and discovered during excavations at Ferry Farm. Due to the mundane and constant nature of the task, household slaves were often charged with maintaining candle wicks.

FF20-325-1-2590-Wick Trimmer

Mary Ball, who married Augustine Washington in 1731, was born to Mary Johnson and Joseph Ball in 1708 in Lancaster County, Virginia.  When her father Joseph died in 1711, he willed to her a young slave:   ”Item: I give to my daughter Mary my negro boy Tame…” (Lancaster County Will Book 10:88). Since Tame is described as a “boy” in the document, he could be roughly any age between 5 and 16 years.

Is this boy, willed to Mary when she was but three years old, the same person who was murdered 39 years later in 1750 at Ferry Farm? As Mary’s property, the boy Tame would have been part of her household wherever she lived: with her mother in Northumberland County following her father’s death, with her as Augustine’s wife at Pope’s Creek, Westmoreland County, and then, finally, at Ferry Farm, where she lived mostly as a widow.  As Mary’s property, Tame would not have appeared in the will or probate lists of her husband.  What is also interesting is that both Tame and the man accused of murdering him were described in the 1750 court proceedings as “belonging to Mary Washington of this county widow.”

Exactly what role Tame played on the Washington farm and within their enslaved community is unknown. If Tame is the same boy Mary received when she was 3, he would be in his 40s or 50s when at Ferry Farm, and thus someone Mary had known well her whole life. Did he work in or around the main household for the family or as a field laborer?  Did his age and long term relationship with Mary relate in any way to his unfortunate murder in 1750? What was his status within the slave community? Even Tame’s name adds an interesting aspect to his story that separates him from the other Washington slaves on the farm. “Tame” is a name of West African origin and is unlike the usual Anglicized names of contemporary Washington slaves, such as Jack, Ned, Tim, Steven and Adam, as recorded in Augustine’s will and probate inventory.

Recent research shows cowry shells were used as currency as part of the slave trade. The modifications to our cowries facilitate stringing them into groups of 40. These shells, originally from the east Indian Ocean, traveled to Virginia with their enslaved owners. Evoking memories of their African homeland and heritage, such familiar emblems helped comfort those who remembered a life of freedom and helped them to maintain elements of their culture.

Recent research shows cowry shells like this one were used as currency as part of the slave trade. The modifications to cowries discovered at Ferry Farm facilitated stringing them into groups of 40. These shells, originally from the east Indian Ocean, traveled to Virginia with their enslaved owners. Evoking memories of their African homeland and heritage, such familiar emblems helped comfort those who remembered a life of freedom and helped them to maintain elements of their culture.

Tame’s existence in the historical documents is brief and mysterious. It may always remain a mystery but further research may yet illuminate this man’s story and his long association with Mary Washington. History is indeed an unending journey.

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Lab Supervisor

[1] King George County Order Book 2, p. 670

[2] King George County Order Book 2, Part 1, p. 333

[3] King George County Inventory Book, 1721-1744, p. 285

 

Ledger Book Zero

Daily ledgers, journals, cash account books, letters, invoices – these are the kinds of documents an 18th-century plantation owner and businessman needed to manage his land and property successfully.   Tracking everyday expenses and the purchasing of items that couldn’t be produced on one’s farm was a necessary routine in daily life.  Dry good items such as clothing, dishes, and food stuffs, building materials, and medicines as well as doctor visits, cash loans to friends, tavern expenses, and money repaid for loans or for goods delivered were just a few examples of the financial transactions recorded in a daily ledger.

George Washington was a meticulous record keeper throughout his entire lifetime.  Surviving financial papers detailed daily accounts, both public and private, from when he served as paymaster of the Virginia Regiment, during the Revolutionary War, as president of the new United States, and as the long-time owner of Mount Vernon. Washington’s published record books start with Ledger Book 1, when he was 18 years old, and continue on until his death in 1799.

But George’s first effort at recording his expenses actually dates to 1747, when he was only fifteen years old and living at Ferry Farm.  “Ledger Book Zero,” our name for this document, is a personal cash account ledger in which George listed his credits and debits with family, close friends, and clients between the years of 1747 and 1750. (1)  It is organized in the double-entry accounting style, with debits listed on the left hand page and credits on the right hand page.  All of the cash monetary units are in pounds, shillings and pence.

Ledger 1

His first entry (pictured above) was Mr. Bailey Washington, a cousin.  On September 10, 1747, George purchased 3 books (debit) from Bailey for the combined price of 4 shillings 12 pence.  One of the books is listed as “Scomberg,” a reference to the 17th century German  Protestant soldier of fortune , Duke Frederick Herman von Schomberg, who fought under the flags of France, Germany, Portugal, and England and died at the Battle of the Boyne fighting for William of Orange.  Schomberg wrote about his adventures which would have been of great interest and fascination to a young man of fifteen.

Ten days later, George listed on the credit side of Bailey’s account “a two foot Gunter” with a value of 1 shilling 3 pence.  George’s purchase of a gunter, a metal chain used to measure distance in land surveying, is an intimation of his early interest in training to become a surveyor.

Ledger Book Zero sheds light on many other interests and activities young George pursued in his teen years.  He won and lost money playing the card games of whist and loo with his half-brother Lawrence and sister-in-law Ann.  George also won 1 shilling 3 pence playing billiards with a Mr. Thomas Turner of King George County in June of 1748.  Earlier that same year, he lent money to his good friend George Fairfax while on an expedition to the South Branch of the Potomac.

In addition to lending and winning cash from friends and family, George regularly purchased personal items such silk stockings, shirt buttons, knee bands and shoes, as well as food and liquor, such as limes, a bowl of fruit punch, and a “bottle of Rhenish” wine.

Ledger 2

In July 1748, George purchased ribbons from a Mr. Mitchell (see above), as well as a glass ring costing but 3 ¾ pence.  He also paid 3 shillings 9 pence to a “Musick Master for my entrance” in September of the same year.  We are unsure if this music teacher taught only music or, perhaps, dancing. Both were important skills for Washington to learn if he wanted to participate in the social life of Virginia’s gentry.

What is interesting about these last three purchases is that they were all made on his mother Mary’s account, which means George paid for them but his mother later reimbursed him.  Mary repaid George in dubloon’s and pistole’s which were English slang words for different types of money.

George’s blossoming profession as a surveyor is also represented in this ledger.  On July 23, 1749, he charged Mr. Richard Barnes of Richmond 2 pounds 3 shillings for surveying 400 acres of land in Culpeper County.  On September 26 of the same year, Mr. John West paid him 12 shillings for “copying 4 deeds out of the Proprietors’ [book]”, a preliminary clerical step to surveying land.

Washington even practiced writing out an index for his ledger at the end of the book, listing all those people whose last name began with “W” and on what page their account appeared.  Handwriting samples and sums of numbers show up throughout the book, as George evidently used some individual pages as notepaper.  He later reused some of the ledger in the 1760s while residing at Mount Vernon.

As a youth, George spent many hours copying lessons on such subjects as mathematical formulas, legal documents, geography, and codes of conduct.  These were subjects that would prove useful to him as he became a soldier, surveyor, landowner and politician.  Maintaining accurate and detailed financial records, a skill necessary for any successful gentleman, was one more habit a young man with aspirations needed to accomplish and master.

As we study the contents of Ledger Book Zero, we expect to gain more insights into George’s relationships with family members, boyhood friends, and business contacts. By examining this earliest ledger, we will understand the activities Washington was pursuing during his passage to adulthood and gain a glimpse at what life was like for a young George growing up at Ferry Farm during the 1740s.

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Lab Supervisor

A copy of the ledger was obtained from the Morristown National Historic Park, Morristown, NJ., Lloyd W. Smith Archives, Microfilm Reel #63.

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