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

Siblings Strained by Revolution: George and Betty’s Wartime 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 best and, frankly, only gauge of George and Betty’s relationship are the letters they wrote to one another later in their lives.  Twenty-four letters written between 1779 and 1796 have survived. They wrote more than just these two dozen but many have not been found.  The 24 that have survived depict a complex relationship of sibling love and camaraderie tempered by occasional conflict.  Let’s begin, on this National Siblings Day, a multi-post examination of George and Betty’s letters and what they may indicate about the relationship of this historically consequential brother and sister.

In our first post, we look at the letters George and Betty wrote to one another during the Revolutionary War.  There are only two, both from the hand of Betty, but they are profoundly interesting, nonetheless.

The first surviving letter comes in 1779 while George was away commanding the Continental Army.  He had been commander-in-chief for four years by that time and, during the second half of 1779, his service found him headquartered at the highly-fortified and strategically important West Point, New York overlooking the Hudson River.  On September 21, Betty wrote her brother there to thank him for “the miniature Picture—for which I am much Indetted”.  The miniature was painted by Charles Willson Peale and was a small version of his portrait of Washington commemorating the American victories at Trenton on December 26, 1776 and Princeton on January 3, 1777. Peale painted s miniature copy of the portrait specifically for Betty indicating that either George wanted to share his likeness with his sister or that Betty had requested a likeness of her brother that she could have while he was away fighting.

George Washington at the Battle of Princeton (1779) by Charles Willson Peale

“George Washington at the Battle of Princeton” (1779) by Charles Willson Peale. Credit: Yale University Art Gallery

Indeed, this letter shows that Betty cleared missed George.  In sharing that she, her husband Fielding, and their daughter also named Betty had recently visited George’s wife Martha, Betty noted her wish that she could have found George there upon their arrival at Mount Vernon. Doing so, she wrote, “would of Compleat’d My Happiness.”  It had been at least four long years since Betty had laid eyes on George.  Closing the letter, she wistfully expressed her longing for the war’s end, writing, “O when will that Day Come that we Shall meet again[?]—I trust in the Lord soon, till when you have the sincere Prayr’s and Good wishes for your helth [sic] and happiness.”

The only other surviving wartime letter written between George and Betty comes towards the end of the Revolutionary War and reveals a bit more conflict in the sibling relationship than the first.  It is dated August 25, 1783 and is quite a confusing and unclear letter at times.

Betty begins by congratulating George on “the happy Change in our Affairs” because she hoped “it will be the meanes of our Seeing you Soon”.  Betty may simply be congratulating George on the looming end of the war but, at the same time, throughout her letter she refers to more than one event that happened back at the end of 1781.  Indeed, much in the letter seems to indicate that their correspondence had lapsed for a substantial amount of time and that this is may be a catching up letter. If so, then perhaps her good wishes are for George’s victory at Yorktown and the surrender of General Lord Cornwallis back on October 19, 1781?

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis (1820) by John Trumbull

“Surrender of Lord Cornwallis” (1820) by John Trumbull. Credit: Architect of the Capitol

Regardless, Betty is quite upset that she has not heard from George in an extraordinarily long time.  She starkly admonishes him for not writing, saying “I have been at a loss how to account for your long silence,[.] the multiplicity of Business you have on your mind is the only One I Can find that flatters me [that] I am not quite forgot[ten.]”  While acknowledging the pressures on his time as the army’s commander, Betty scolds her “Dear Brother” for not finding “one half [h]Our you Could Spare to write a few lines to an only Sister whoe [sic] was lab[o]ring under so mutch [sic] Affliction both of Body and mind.”

The affliction faced by Betty was the deaths of both her brother Samuel and her husband Fielding, which she says took place within three weeks of one another.  Samuel died on September 26, 1781.  Fielding’s death did not actually take place until sometime between December 10, 1781, when he swore out a codicil to his will, and January 17, 1782, when his will and codicil were presented in court.  Perhaps Betty mistakenly wrote the word “weeks” when she actually meant “months”?  Perhaps time and grief caused her to misremember the length of the interval between the two deaths?  Perhaps she was attempting to make George feel guilty for his long silence?  Regardless, save for the Yorktown victory, late 1781 was indeed a grim time for Betty and it seemed to affect her physical health, if not also her mental health.  She told George that “the uneasiness of mind it Caus’d me to get in an Ill state of helth and I expect’d Shortly to follow them”.  She feared joining Samuel and Fielding.

Betty writes that her illness “happen’d at a time when every thing Contributed to ad[d] to my uneasiness” including a failure to see George when he apparently passed directly through or close to Fredericksburg on his way north after Yorktown.  We’re not entirely sure George actually went through his hometown on this trip.  Betty’s opaque phrasing — “your being in Fredericksburg the only Chance we had of seeing you from the Commencement of the War” — is not terribly helpful in figuring it out.  She is upset because she missed seeing him during his visit or because this was his only visit since the war started or because he passed close to town without stopping at all.

There is evidence, however, that George did travel directly through Fredericksburg but that Betty and his family were not in town at that moment and so did not see him.  In a letter written to George on March 13, 1782, Mary, his mother, laments not being at home “when you went through fredirecksburg [sic].”  She indicates that she was “over the Mountains”, perhaps meaning present-day Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, where the Lewis and Washington families often traveled to use the hot springs for pleasure and medicinal reasons.  Indeed, fearing targeted abduction by the British during the fighting in Virginia in the fall of 1781, Fielding took Mary and Betty and fled to a Lewis property probably in or near today’s Berkeley Springs.  With Fielding in exceedingly poor health, it is thought that this is where he ultimately died, which would put the family there until at least December 1781.  George passed through or near to Fredericksburg sometime in November.

After her scolding and laments, Betty did end her letter to George with a bit of hope and expresses again how much she missed him.  She tells him that she is “Recovering my helth fast and Please my self with thoughts of Shortly Seeing you once more with us.”  But, in a postscript, she gives one more scolding to her beloved brother, saying “I Wrote you three Letters when you was in Virginia but never heard if you got One of them.”

These two wartime letters written by Betty Lewis to her brother George Washington reveal a complex relationship between the two siblings.  It was a relationship characterized by love and by the deep sadness of absence.  It was also a relationship strained by the tensions and difficulties of war and by George’s all-consuming responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs