Happily Ever After at Happy Retreat

At George Washington’s Ferry Farm, most of our thinking, research, and writing is focused on the best known and most significant of all Americans, George Washington.  But George was not the only Washington to live at Ferry Farm nor was he even the only Washington boy to grow up on this land along the Rappahannock River.  Indeed, three other sons of Augustine and Mary Washington called Ferry Farm their boyhood home.  They were Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles.

West Virginia state coat of arms illustrated in 1876 by Henry Mitchell

West Virginia state coat of arms illustrated in 1876 by Henry Mitchell. Public domain.

As two native West Virginians transplanted to Virginia, we feel a special affinity for Charles Washington.  Charles Town, a present-day city in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle, bears his name.  Charles’s life is admittedly less documented than older brother George’s but it is no less interesting, even with several frustrating gaps in his story.  Being that it is the season for June weddings as well as the very day West Virginia declared its statehood 155 years ago, we thought it fitting to briefly examine one of the more interesting (and better documented) incidents in the life of young Charles Washington.

In 1757, 19-year-old Charles Washington and 18-year-old Mildred Thornton wanted to marry.  Charles, however, was underage from a financial standpoint.  He could not receive the inheritance promised to him by his late father Augustine until he turned 21-years old.

Frances Thornton, Mildred’s widowed mother, apparently expressed concerns to Mary Washington that if Charles died before he turned 21 then his property as well as any property that Mildred brought into the marriage as part of her dowry would all go to George Washington and leave Mildred with nothing.

In a letter that has not been found, Mary wrote to George about Mrs. Thornton’s worries.  On September 30, 1757, George replied “that if there is no other objection than the one you mention, it may soon be removed.”  He seemed hurt that Mrs Thornton apparently believed him “capable of taking these ungenrous [sic] advantages.” He scathingly criticized her as knowing “little of the principles which govern my conduct.”  In the next sentence, however, he granted that Mildred’s mother was probably “actuated by prudent Motives.”  In the end, George told Mary that if Mrs. Thornton, “will get any Instrument of writing drawn I will sign it provided it does not effect me in other respects than her Daughters Fortune, if my Brother dies under Age.”  In other words, even though offended, he promised to observe Mildred’s rights as a widow.

It’s not clear why but it seems that George’s resentful and reluctant promise did not actually settle the matter.  Perhaps he was unhappy with the ‘instrument of writing’ presented to him and refused to sign?  Perhaps Mildred Thornton was not satisfied with his begrudging promise?  Regardless, a couple of weeks later, Charles’ uncle Fielding Lewis and Mildred’s uncle John Thornton appeared in court to be named guardians of their nephew and niece respectively.  Each man posted a bond of £2,000 as a measure of security for the couple (Paula Felder, Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family: A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg, The American History Company, 1998: 132-33).

Mildred and Charles finally married, and in 1760, they moved into a house in Fredericksburg on what is now Caroline Street. They had four children, George Augustine, Frances Ann, Samuel and Mildred.

Ultimately, in 1780, Charles moved his family to western Virginia, where he built a home called Happy Retreat.  The town that bears his name was founded on his land in 1786 and it was there he died of unknown causes in September 1799 at the age of 61.  While not as well-known as George, Charles left behind an important legacy in the form of Charles Town and Happy Retreat.

HappyRetreat_CharlesTownWV

“Happy Retreat,” the home of Charles Washington, as seen in present-day Charles Town, West Virginia. Public domain.

Happy Retreat was privately owned by a descendant of the Washington family for a number of years. However, it was recently sold to the City of Charles Town and a board of citizens was created to oversee the preservation and restoration of the property and to plan and present programs and events at the site. Among the sitting board members is Washington family descendant Walter Washington. Some of the rooms within Happy Retreat have been restored and an archaeological dig is currently underway to discover more information about the family and land. In the near future, Happy Retreat will be a gathering place used for education and special events in the community of Charles Town and surrounding areas.

Allison Burns
Museum Educator

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

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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

A Colonial Wedding

An imagining of the “Wedding of George Washington and Martha Custis.” Lithograph from Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Paris: Lemercier, c1853.

A wedding is one of the most monumental moments in a person’s life.  The celebrations that accompany the ceremony might range from simple to lavish but they are always highly anticipated and joyous.  In this enthusiasm for weddings, we share much with our early American ancestors.  Although there are extremely important differences between past and present, many wedding traditions of the 18th century would be quite familiar to 21st century Americans.  What did a colonial-era wedding look like?

Today’s weddings can take place in any imaginable location – a church, dedicated wedding venue, cruise ship, beach resort, park, city hall, and on and on – but, in the 1700s, the large distances people often lived from an actual church building meant that the vast majority of weddings occurred at the brides’ home.[1]

In another inverse of modern preferences for spring, summer, and fall weddings, many colonial-era marriage celebrations took place in the winter months when there was less to do on the farm or plantation agriculturally.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t weddings outside the winter season.  Indeed, Fielding and Betty married on May 7, 1750.  We have no definitive evidence to say that their wedding occurred at the Washington family home on the land we now refer to as Ferry Farm.  Since Fielding and Betty lived relatively close to St. George’s Church in Fredericksburg, it is certainly possible that the ceremony took place there, though it would have been fairly unusual.

If the ceremony did occur at the Washington home, an Anglican minister, perhaps from St. George’s, would have still read the marriage ceremony from the Book of Common Prayer.  An edition published in 1750 contains language that remains immensely familiar even today.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this Congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony…”

“Wilt thou have this Man to thy wedded Husband, to live together after God’s Ordinance, in the holy Estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou obey him, serve him, love, honour and keep him in sickness and in health, and forsaking all other, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?”

“With this Ring, I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow…”

Along with these familiar words came familiar acts as well.  The father gave his daughter away, the couple exchanged vows, and the groom gave the bride a ring.  The bride, however, did not present a ring to the groom.

Just as it does today, a party began after the ceremony.  This celebration also took place at the home of the bride’s family.  “The family might decorate a table with white paper chains and lay out white foods for a collation. It included two white cakes. The guests consumed the groom’s cake, and sometimes left the bride’s cake untouched for the couple to save (in a tin of alcohol) to eat on each wedding anniversary.”[2]

There was much food, drink, and toasting along with games and plenty of dancing.  For Virginia’s gentry the party’s scale and length could be extremely lavish with the festivities continuing for days!

If you want to learn more about colonial-era weddings, you can witness a re-creation of the marriage ceremony of Fielding Lewis to Betty Washington on either Saturday, October 10 or Sunday, October 11 during Fielding’s Story: A Gentleman’s Sacrifice, a dramatic theater production taking place at both George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore.  Fielding’s Story recounts important moments and milestones in Fielding’s life as a member of Virginia’s gentry, a wealthy merchant and leading citizen of Fredericksburg, the builder of Kenmore, a supporter of the American Revolution, and the husband of Betty.  Reservations are required. Please call 540-340-0732 ext 24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org.

[1] Jane Carson, Colonial Virginians at Play, Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1989: 5-9.

[2] Elizabeth Maurer, “Courtship and Marriage in the Eighteen Century,” http://www.history.org/history/teaching/enewsletter/volume7/mar09/courtship.cfm