Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Meeting Notes: March 28, 2018

"Mary Ball Washington, the Mother of George Washington," Michelle L. Hamilton

During an age when most young widows either remarried or moved into a home with family members, the mother of George Washington chose a much more independent lifestyle of living on her own for approximately 46 years until her death.

“Mary Ball Washington decides not to remarry at age 35 in order to protect her assets,” said historian Michelle L. Hamilton at the March 28, 2018 meeting of the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond. “She becomes the head of household and collects the rent for her children on the property that they inherit from their father.”

Hamilton is the author of the recently published book entitled Mary Ball Washington: The Mother of George Washington. Hamilton also serves as the manager of the Mary Washington House Museum in Fredericksburg, VA.

When Augustine Washington (Mary’s husband) died on April 12, 1743, he left her with five children under the age of 12. In addition she lost approximately 60% of her income upon Augustine’s death when his two sons from a previous marriage inherited their father’s two largest properties.

By not remarrying, Mary prevented her family assets and those of her five children (including George) from coming under the control of a future husband. Instead of remarrying she acted as trustee for all of her young children until they became old enough to inherit property.

Mary Ball Washington had a history of independent living long before the death of her husband Augustine. She was the only child of Joseph Ball and Mary Johnson Ball, a widow with two children from a previous marriage. Mary was born in 1708 and just three years later her father died, leaving her an inheritance of slaves, cattle and 400 acres.

Mary’s mother remarried shortly thereafter and then her stepfather died, leaving 600 acres to Mary’s half-brother John Johnson and a plantation in Northumberland County called Cherry Point to her half-sister Elizabeth Johnson. When Mary was 13 years old, both her mother and her half-brother died, leaving the 600 acres to Mary. She then went to live with her half-sister Elizabeth at Cherry Point. Thus as a young teenage orphan, Mary Ball owned slaves, cattle and a total of 1,000 acres from two inheritances.

George Eskridge, a lawyer and close friend of the family, served as Mary’s legal guardian and managed her land holdings. In a few years he would also introduce Mary to his good friend named Augustine Washington, who had recently become a widower. The two of them married on March 6, 1731. She was age 23 and he was 36 years old.

Augustine and Mary made their home on his plantation at Pope’s Creek in Westmoreland County. On February 22, 1732 Mary gave birth to their first child named George. One year later she gave birth to a daughter named Betty, and the following year to a son named Samuel.

In 1735 Augustine and Mary moved their growing family to his plantation at Little Hunting Creek, which would later be renamed Mount Vernon. The family lived there for three years, where Mary gave birth in 1736 to a son named John Augustine and in 1738 to a son named Charles. Later in 1738 the family moved once again to a plantation called Ferry Farm, across from Fredericksburg.

In 1739 Mary gave birth to her last child named Mildred who died from a childhood disease 16 months later. Tragedy continued for Mary at Ferry Farm when in 1743 her husband Augustine died from a stomach disease after a very short illness.

“When her husband died, Mary got back the 1,000 acres of her property that she brought into the marriage,” said Hamilton. “Her sons and daughters got everything else.”

Mary and her young children continued to live at Ferry Farm. She struggled financially to rear her children and as a result, she couldn’t afford to send George and his younger brothers to school in England as Augustine had done for his two sons from his first marriage. Instead George and his younger brothers were tutored by the Reverend James Marye in Fredericksburg.

After all of her children reached adulthood and moved away, Mary continued to exercise her dower rights and remained at Ferry Farm. In fact she continued to live on the plantation until the early 1770s when she was in her 60s. However during the Winter of 1771 she became very ill with influenza during horrible weather,  and became virtually isolated from her family, doctors and close friends who lived across the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg.

She recovered but the isolation during her serious illness convinced her to accept her family’s pleas to move across the river into Fredericksburg. In 1772 her son George sold Ferry Farm and used some of the proceeds to purchase a 1 1/2-story cottage for Mary which was adjacent to the Kenmore plantation where Mary’s daughter Betty and her son-in-law Fielding Lewis lived.

After the American Revolution began in April 1775, Mary’s son George became the commander of the Continental Army and left Virginia. Mary and George didn’t see each other between 1775-1784, and exchanged very few letters.

“Communication between George Washington and his family in Fredericksburg was very difficult during the war,” said Hamilton.

The war created hardships for Mary and the rest of her Fredericksburg family. A smallpox epidemic resulted in a very poor harvest in 1778, which caused both a food and cash shortage for Mary. This forced her to write the man serving as George’s overseer at Mount Vernon for assistance. In 1780 the government requisitioned a large quantity of Mary’s bacon in order to feed Continental soldiers.

During April 1781, the Marquis de Lafayette visited Mary in Fredericksburg while he was passing through for military purposes. They had a very pleasant visit, and for years afterward Lafayette made it a point in letters he wrote to Washington to extend his best wishes to Mary.

When General Charles Cornwallis moved his British army into Central Virginia and fairly close to Fredericksburg, the local militia commander ordered Mary and the rest of the Washington family to evacuate to a safer locality. Mary, her daughter Betty and son-in-law Fielding Lewis moved to the Lewis’ home in Frederick County, VA (near Winchester).

Fielding Lewis was terminally ill with a lung disease, and the family’s financial conditions sharply worsened. As a result, Mary attempted to receive additional income by applying to the Virginia legislature for a military pension because her late husband Augustine had served in the Virginia militia.

“Mary’s pension application didn’t sit well with her son George,” said Hamilton. “It looked as if her son couldn’t take care of his mother.”

Washington responded by writing a lengthy letter to legislator Benjamin Harrison, asking the General Assembly to stop or to deny Mary’s request for a pension.

When Washington and his army marched through Fredericksburg in September 1781 on their way to Yorktown, Mary was still living in the Winchester area and therefore missed seeing her oldest son. In 1782 Mary returned to her cottage in Fredericksburg. Washington returned to Mount Vernon in 1784, and the two of them saw each other for several years on a regular basis.

However by the late 1780s Mary’s health steadily declined as a result of breast cancer. On March 8, 1789 Washington visited his mother for the last time. In a few weeks he would travel to New York City to become the first president of the United States.

On August 25, 1789 Mary Ball Washington lost her battle with breast cancer and died at her cottage in Fredericksburg.

Michelle L. Hamilton is the author or editor of three books in addition to Mary Ball Washington: The Mother of George Washington. They are as follows:

1. I Would Still Be Drowned In Tears: Spiritualism In Abraham Lincoln’s White House

2. My Heart Is In The Cause: The Civil War Diary Of James Meyers---Hospital Steward 45th Pennsylvania 1863-1865

3. Manners During The Civil War: American Etiquette Or Customs Adopted By The Polite Society Throughout The United States

Prior to the speaker’s presentation ARRT-Richmond President Bill Welsch asked the audience to start thinking about nominations for ARRT-Richmond’s 2018 Preservation Partner. Each member may submit nominations via email to President Welsch or may do so in person at the May 16 membership meeting.

--Bill Seward

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