Meet the Lewis Family: John and Fielding Jr.

Fielding Lewis was married twice.  He and Catharine Washington, his first wife, had three children: John, Frances and Warner.  Both Warner and Frances died leaving John as the sole heir from this first marriage.  After Catharine’s death, Fielding married Betty Washington, and not quite a year later Fielding Lewis Jr. was born in 1751.  Although just 4 years younger than his half-brother John, by rights at that time, Fielding Jr. could have supplanted his older brother as Fielding Sr.’s primary heir.  No personal accounts or letters tell us what Fielding Sr. thought about his two eldest sons’ status as heirs to his estate but his actions in the years after their births are telling.

 

In 1775, Fielding Lewis commissioned five portraits by American artist Charles Willson Peale, for his newly completed home at Kenmore.  Only two have been located and they are of Fielding’s two eldest sons.  Peale scholars feel fairly certain that the works were painted as companion portraits, intended to hang side by side with the poses of the two sitters meant to complement one another.  Perhaps Fielding was making a visual statement that his two eldest sons were on equal footing and that neither took precedence.  Indeed, in his final will and testament, Fielding provides for both sons equally, giving his Spotsylvania lands to John and his Frederick County lands to Fielding Jr.  On the surface, it might appear that the two brothers had an amicable relationship, not marred by the usual 18th century family in-fighting over inheritance.  Well, that appearance might not tell the whole story.  The half-brothers couldn’t have been more different.

As early as 1769, Fielding Sr. worried about Fielding Jr’s management of his finances.  The 18-year-old had recently married Nancy Alexander, the daughter of a prominent household in Alexandria, Virginia.  Nancy apparently came to the marriage with a sizeable fortune and Fielding Jr. immediately set about spending it.  In September, both Fieldings wrote to George Washington, to ask his assistance with the Alexander money.  Fielding Jr. wrote his uncle, “Inclos’d you have an Order on Mr. Robart [sic] Alexander for the Balance remaining…of my Wifes Fortune which I shall be Oblig’d to you to receive for me, and purchase Slaves to the amount thereof…” His letter is enclosed in one written by his father, in which we learn a little more about Fielding Jr.’s request to his uncle.

fielding-lewis-sr-1750s-by-john-wollaston

Fielding Lewis, Sr. (c. 1750s) by John Wollaston

Fielding Sr. revealed that Mr. Alexander was concerned at the rate with which Fielding Jr. was spending the money, and has asked Fielding Sr. to take the remainder and use it for something that would help the couple in the long run.  Fielding Sr. went on to say, “I am allmost [sic] certain that he will in a year or Two spend every Shillg as I cannot perceive the least amendment since his Marriage, nor has he the least regard to any advice I give him.” This statement seems to indicate that Fielding Jr.’s spendthrift ways existed prior to marriage and worsened with the influx of his wife’s money.

Unfortunately, Fielding’s prediction would prove true.  Over the next decade, Fielding Sr. paid his son’s debts time and again, while Fielding Jr. continued to make significant purchases on credit.  Eventually, Fielding Sr.’s burden would be passed to John Lewis.

Fielding Lewis passed away in 1781.  John Lewis remained in the Fredericksburg area, acting as executor of his father’s estate, and seeing to its myriad debts and complicated business transactions.  He oversaw operations on the lands left to him, and assisted his step-mother, Betty Lewis, in maintaining Kenmore, which would become his upon her death.  He wrote on several occasions of tight finance, and frustrations with his father’s estate but managed to hold it all together.

His brother Fielding (who dropped the “junior” from his signature following his father’s death), was not managing so well.  He, his wife, and their three children were living on the Frederick County property that he inherited.  His debts were so severe that, by 1784, he was in debtors’ prison and again turned to his famous uncle for help.  In order to bolster his case for being worthy of Washington’s assistance, he sent a collection of letters from his father prior to his death that outlined his plan to save his son from the debt of his “youthfull Folley [sic].”  Fielding wrote, “Since which it has pleased God to take him out of this transetorey [sic] life, before he had Completed his Intention, tharefore [sic] I have taken the Freedom and liberty, of beging you to Assist me…for what Evor Sum or Sums you will be Able to lend me…as Nothing I think in this life So disagreeable as to be drag’ed About by the Sherrifs [sic]…Which Situation I am in at present…”

george-washington-c-1779-by-charles-willson-peale

George Washington (c. 1779) by Charles Willson Peale

Washington gently rebuffed his wayward nephew, replying that he had his own debts and there was little money to spare.  He made a pointed statement at the end of his short letter, perhaps indicating that he didn’t fully believe Fielding was the victim of his own youthful folly. He wrote, “There was a great space between…when you were called upon by your Father for a specific list of your Debts and his death: How happened it, that in all that time you did not comply with his request?” Indeed, receipts in our archives show that Fielding commissioned a new carriage to be made for him in August of 1784, just one month before he was sent to prison.  He would not pay for the carriage until a suit was filed against him two years later.[1]

As Fielding was seeking help from his uncle, John was planning one of many trips to “the Westward” as he called it – the Western frontier, and Kentucky in particular.  His first expedition to the Kentucky territory was on behalf of his father, before the Revolution, when Fielding Sr. was considering a land purchase there.  Apparently, John fell in love with the country, and returned many times in the coming years, making several land purchases of his own.  His uncle George asked him to act as his agent on several of these trips, to assess the state of Washington’s own property near Pittsburgh.

While Washington was placing increasing trust in John, he had apparently lost faith in Fielding Jr.  By 1786, Fielding had been released from prison but had lost all of his inherited land in Frederick County.  He and his family were living on a lot in Fauquier County and were attempting to build a house.  Once again, Fielding asked for assistance.  Washington’s response was not as gentle this time, replying, “Altho’ your disrespectful conduct towards me, in coming into this country & spending weeks therein without ever coming near me, entitles you to very little notice or favor from me; yet I consent that you may get timber from off my Land in Fauquier County to build a house on your Lott…”  Despite his sharp words, he still agreed to help.

Fielding’s improved situation was short-lived.  His wife Nancy died in 1788.  Fielding remarried to Elizabeth Dade, who apparently did not bring a fortune to the union, and so the 1790s would be a rough decade for Fielding.  He was returned to debtor’s prison in 1790, and found that there was no one in a financial situation to save him, with the exception of his brother John.  John, however, was not willing to give him money outright.  Instead, he required that Fielding mortgage everything – slaves, housewares, livestock – in exchange for £1200.[2]  One senses the family losing patience with Fielding.

In 1792, Fielding was again incarcerated for debt, and this time there was no home for his wife and children, who went to live with Betty Lewis at Kenmore.  Betty wrote to her brother George about the situation, “I am sorry it will not be in my Power to advance any, haveing at this time three of my Grandchildren to support, and god knows from every Account but I may expect as many more shortly, Fielding is so distrest that his Children would go naked if it was not for the assistance I give him…”

After this disastrous turn of events, Fielding’s whereabouts for the rest of his life become murky.  He never again owns property, and most likely stayed with various family members, including John.  His children remained with Betty at Kenmore.  There may have been little contact between Fielding and his children, as indicated in a letter written to him by his brother George informing him of Betty’s death in 1797. George wrote, “You will no doubt be anxious to know what is to be done with poor little Nancy (Fielding’s daughter), she is in good health, and at present with sister Carter…”[3] It is unknown where Fielding was when George sent him this letter.

After Betty’s death, John moved quickly to sell Kenmore.  Although it would take several years, he did eventually save enough money to move his family to his land in Kentucky, where he spent the rest of his life.  Perhaps the family obligations and strain of his father’s estate made Kentucky a more appealing home than Fredericksburg.  While Fielding Lewis Sr. wanted very much for his two eldest sons to be seen and treated as equals, their lives played out in very different ways, and that’s the real story behind the portraits.

[1] Fielding Lewis Jr. to Richard Simcock, 15 January 1786.  The George Washington Foundation Manuscript Collection.

[2] Indenture Between Fielding Lewis Jr. and John Lewis, 20 March 1790. The George Washington Foundation Manuscript Collection.

[9] George Lewis to Fielding Lewis Jr., 31 March 1797. The George Washington Foundation Manuscript Collection.

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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.

Meet the Lewis Family: Lawrence Lewis

Lawrence Lewis

Lawrence Lewis was born on April 4, 1767, the ninth child of Fielding and Betty Lewis and nephew of George Washington.  His birth was noted by Fielding in the Lewis family bible,

“Our Ninth a Son named Lawrence born the 4th of April 1767.  Mr. Chas Washington & Mr. Francis Thornton Godfather & Mrs. Mary Dick Godmother”[1]

Just as the American Revolution started, Lawrence moved into Kenmore with his parents and siblings when he was eight years old.  Sadly, the move to the new house began a devastating chapter for the family that saw the loss of their financial security and, ultimately, of their patriarch.  Lawrence witnessed the toll that financing and supporting the War for Independence exacted on his father.  For the Patriot cause, Fielding provided much needed supplies to the army, bought and built ships for the navy, and funded a musket factory with his own money.  After all these sacrifices, Fielding died in 1781 when Lawrence was fourteen.

Fielding bequeathed his ninth child “one thousand acres of land in the County of Frederick [this land was near Bath, Virginia, which is now Berkeley Springs, West Vriginia] on which my overseer Butler now lives as surveyed by Mr. Berry with the one sixth part of all my negroes.”

Instead of going west, however, Lawrence struck out east.  By 1790, the twenty-three year old was living in Essex County and awaiting the birth of his first child with his wife Susannah Edmonton.  Sadly, Susannah and the child died in labor.  After this devastating death, Lawrence disappears from the historic records until four years later.

In 1794, Lawrence volunteered for military service and served as aide-de-camp to General Daniel Morgan in western Pennsylvania during the Whiskey Rebellion. [2]  This rebellion was led by western farmers in response to the tax on all domestically-produced distilled spirits.  This was the first time the newly formed government, under the leadership of Lawrence’s Uncle Washington, who was now President of the United States, imposed a tax on a domestic product.  A destructive uprising was avoided and the tax was eventually repealed under Thomas Jefferson but the event led to the formation of America’s first political parties. [3][4][5]

WhiskeyRebellion

President George Washington reviews troops near Fort Cumberland, Maryland, before their march to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. Unknown, attributed to Frederick Kemmelmeyer – Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public domain.

After Washington retired from the presidency, he began looking for a personal secretary and offered the position to Lawrence.

“I require some person (fit & Proper) to ease me of the trouble of entertaining company…and for a little time only, to come, an hour in the day, now and then, devoted to the recording of some Papers which time would not allow me to complete before I left Philadelphia.”[6]

Lawrence became part of the Washington household at Mount Vernon assisting his uncle with his entertaining, correspondence, and day-to-day activities. Also residing at Mount Vernon was Eleanor “Nelly” Parke Custis, the granddaughter of Martha.  Eleanor and her brother George had been informally adopted by the Washingtons after the death of their father. Two years after arriving at his uncle’s house, Lawrence and Eleanor married on February 22, 1799.

Obviously fond of his nephew and step-granddaughter, Washington enjoyed having them near Mount Vernon.  Shortly before his death, he offered Lawrence and Nelly a large tract of land.  Washington made it known that he wanted them to start enjoying the property immediately and not wait for his death.

“But, as it has been understood from expressions occasionally dropped from your wife, that it is the wish of you both to settle in the neighborhood…I shall inform you, that in the will which I have by me …that part of my Mount Vernon tract…is bequeathed to you and her jointly, if you incline to build on it.”[7]

Sadly, George died a few months after he made the offer of land to the couple and never got to enjoy his nephew’s family living so near.

Lawrence and Eleanor started building their home, now known as Woodlawn, in 1800. The house was completed five years later and designed by William Thornton, the same architect who designed the U.S. Capitol.  Owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Alexandria, Virginia, you can visit Woodlawn as well as the 20th century Pope-Leighey House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  The two houses provide a great juxtaposition between a classical Federal house of straight lines and proportion and a modern Usonian home that exudes simplicity and nature.[8]  Lawrence and Nelly raised their eight children and lived peacefully at Woodlawn until 1830.

Woodlawn. Photo Courtesy of the National Trust for Historic Preservation – Gordon Beall Photography

PLH

Pope-Leighey House. Photo Courtesy of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Lawrence Lewis died on November 20, 1839 at the age of 72 and was buried close to George and Martha in the vault at Mount Vernon.  His wife Eleanor passed away in 1852 and was placed next to her husband and much loved adopted grandparents.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Felder, Paula. “Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family”, The American History Company, Fredericksburg, 1998, pg 73

[2] http://www.mountvernon.org/research-collections/digital-encyclopedia/article/lawrence-lewis/

[3] Holt, Wythe. “The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794: A Democratic Working-Class Insurrection”.

[4] http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/27341

[5] http://www.mountvernon.org/research-collections/digital-encyclopedia/article/whiskey-rebellion/

[6] “From George Washington to Lawrence Lewis, 4 August 1797,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-01-02-0245 [last update: 2015-03-20]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, vol. 1, 4 March 1797 – 30 December 1797, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998, pp. 288–289.

[7] “From George Washington to Lawrence Lewis, 20 September 1799,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-04-02-0263-0001 [last update: 2015-03-20]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, vol. 4, 20 April 1799 – 13 December 1799, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999, pp. 311–315.

[8] http://www.woodlawnpopeleighey.org/pope-leighey-house