The Marriage of Mary Ball and Augustine Washington

March 6, 2017 was the 286th wedding anniversary of Augustine and Mary Ball Washington, George Washington’s amazing parents.  In addition to calling to mind how grateful we are for their role in raising the boy who would become our courageous General and first president, this anniversary also provides us with an opportunity to discuss the circumstances of Augustine and Mary’s marriage, their family, and their eventful lives here in Stafford and Spotsylvania Counties.

It was not Augustine Washington’s first time to the altar. His earlier marriage to Jane Butler in 1715 produced four children. Jane was likely 16 when she gave birth to their first son, Butler, who died in infancy. Butler was followed by Lawrence (b. 1718), Augustine Jr. (b. 1719 or 1720), and Jane (b. 1722). Their mother tragically passed away in 1729 just shy of her thirtieth birthday. This left young Lawrence (about 11 years old), Augustine Jr. (around ten), and Jane (about seven) without a mother. Their devoted father immediately began a judicious search for a proper wife for himself, a nurturing mother for his children, and an experienced household manager.

He discovered such a gem in the Northern Neck’s attractive and highly eligible maiden, Mary Ball. Mary’s family had thrived in the Virginia Colony’s tidewater region for generations. Mary gained valuable experience managing property from her mother, Mary Johnson Ball who oversaw the family’s substantial resources after the death of Mary’s father Joseph Ball when Mary was only three years old. Mary’s mother again wed, and was soon widowed with additional resources to manage, thanks to the generosity of her devoted husband. When Mary was only 13, her mother passed away, and Mary joined the household of her older, half-sister Elizabeth Johnson. Thereafter, childbirth and childrearing became second nature to Mary who, as a loving aunt, gained valuable experience helping to nurture her sister’s children and perfecting the lessons in household management first learned under her mother’s tutelage.

When it came to matrimony, anxious parents typically steered their children toward appropriate choices, especially among established and propertied clans as the Washington and Ball families. But death had robbed both Augustine and Mary of their respective parents and their wisdom. Some claim that Colonel George Eskridge, a prominent Northern Neck Lawyer and family friend, helped bring this destined pair together. While a parent’s concerns provided some guidance for young lovers, it was only one of several considerations for eager suitors. Ideally, the opportunity for social advancement, acquiring property (both land and enslaved labor), financial security, and – of course – affection were also carefully weighed.

Mistress Mary Ball rang all of these “bells:” She was experienced with children. She had been tutored in plantation management and household skills by her experienced mother. Mary Ball’s generous and enviable dowry had accumulated to include 1000 acres of Virginia land, enslaved laborers, horses, cattle, and sundry personal belongings. Notably, the majority of her acreage bordered Augustine Washington’s iron mine in Accokeek, just one of Mary’s assets that Augustine found irresistible.

On March 6, 1731, the pair joined. Mary was about 23 and her new husband Augustine was 37. Of Augustine’s three living children from his first marriage, Lawrence, Augustine Jr., and Jane, it was Jane who remained a daily part of their Westmoreland Plantation home. Mary continued the household training that young Jane started learning from her own mother. Lawrence and Augustine Jr. continued their education at the Appleby Grammar school in England where their father had attended school.

Before their first wedding anniversary, Mary and Augustine welcomed their first son, George, into the world. He was born on February 11, 1731 (Old Style) in Westmoreland County. In all, their happy marriage produced six children: George (1732), Betty (1733), Samuel (1734), John Augustine (1736), Charles (1738), and Mildred (1740). All but little Mildred survived to adulthood.

Just twelve years after their wedding, Augustine Washington passed away around the age of 48. Mary remained a widow throughout her long life, focused upon raising their children, and later playing an active and cherished role in the rearing and education of her grandchildren. Mary moved into the town of Fredericksburg in the spring of 1772, within easy walking distance of her daughter Betty’s household, headed by Fielding Lewis and known today as Kenmore. She was remembered fondly by her grandchildren and, at her request, was buried near Meditation Rock in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

In Memory of Mother Washington

2016MaryWashingtonMounment

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; http://www.webmd.com/).

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 washingtonheritagemuseums.org.

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.

NRHP
2002  National Register of Historic Places Form, Washington Avenue Historic District,
http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/registers/Cities/Fredericksburg/1115262_Washington_Avenue_HD_2002_Final_Nomination.pdf (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.