George Washington’s First Visit to Colonial Williamsburg

by Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
April 14, 2017

While Virginia was still a British colony, its capital, Williamsburg, presented a variety of amusements. Residents and visitors alike could enjoy a pint at the tavern after an evening of dancing, noise and excitement in the streets during a town fair, or the debut of a popular play at the local theatre. Modern Virginia residents and history buffs may find these pastimes familiar. While modern-day Colonial Williamsburg offers visitors a recreated past, George Washington experienced the original colonial city.

George Washington’s first recorded visit to Williamsburg came on the heels of his return from Barbados at the end of January, 1752 (according to the Julian or New Style calendar). Upon his ship’s landing at Yorktown, he traveled to Williamsburg to meet Virginia governor Robert Dinwiddie.

A print of the Bodleian Plate, which depicts features of colonial Williamsburg, particularly architectural style. Courtesy of Cornell University Library.

In 1752, the capital of Virginia boasted fewer than 1,000 residents. The new capitol building was under construction after a 1747 fire, and well-known landmarks still recognizable to the twenty-first century eye were already standing: Bruton Parish church, the College of William & Mary, and the main street.

After what was likely his first theater experience in Barbados, George may have chosen to attend a performance in Williamsburg. A new theatre had been built in the Virginia capital just a few months before George’s visit. In an advertisement in the Aug. 29, 1751, Virginia Gazette, subscribers were asked to support building a playhouse for the Company of Comedians. And so the second theatre ever in Williamsburg was erected, with shows offered to the public by the middle of October 1751.

George arrived at an unusually quiet time in Williamsburg, as neither the courts nor the colonial assembly was in session. Court sessions, known as Public Times, were held in April, June, October, and December.1 During these months, the capital swarmed with visitors, doubling and possibly tripling the number of inhabitants. Virginians from all corners of the colony came together to enjoy amusements such as fairs with “a Side-play of Puppet shows, Contests in Beauty, Fiddling, and Dancing, with Foot Races from the College to the Capitol, Cudgellings, and Chases for Pigs to be caught by the Tails (which were soaped).”2 Taverns and inns were filled, merchants debuted fashions from London, and personal business was transacted. Slave auctions were also held.3

General Assembly meetings also increased the population of the capital and encouraged additional social events to entertain the visitors. A March 5, 1752, advertisement in the Virginia Gazette, for example, invited ladies and gentlemen to purchase tickets to a ball held at Henry Wetherburn’s every Tuesday while the General Assembly was in session.

While George missed these times of visitors and thus many of the associated popular amusements of Williamsburg in 1752, his meeting with Governor Dinwiddie resulted in a career gain that more than made up for the loss of recreation. In July 1752, the death of George’s brother Lawrence left several militia vacancies in Virginia. Perhaps owing to an encouraging meeting in Williamsburg, George requested a commission from Dinwiddie. He received that commission as major and adjutant of the militia, horse and foot, for the Southern District of Virginia, in December of that year. And thus George Washington’s military career began.



  1. James H. Soltow, “The Role of Williamsburg in the Virginia Economy, 1750-1775,” The William and Mary Quarterly 15, no. 4 (1958), 469.
  2. Rutherfoord Goodwin, A Brief and True Report for the Traveller Concerning Williamsburg in Virginia (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg, Inc., 1936), 49.
  3. Ibid, 48-52.

Connections to Local History: A Short Biography of Robert Forsyth

by Katie Lebert, Communications Specialist
April 10, 2017

I grew up in Forsyth County, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta. Although I left Forsyth some time ago, I will always be interested in my home county’s history. So, it is a happy circumstance for me that my work here at The Washington Papers occasionally affords an opportunity to indulge that interest.

Recently, while researching the Judicial Act of 1789 through our project’s digital edition, I happened upon George Washington’s appointments for the positions created by the act. At the time, I was interested specifically in one appointee, John Jay. But since I had the document already pulled up, I thought I would go ahead and browse the list of appointees for the state of Georgia. One name in particular caught my eye: Robert Forsyth. Might this be the man who put the Forsyth in Forsyth County?

A simple search said no. He was, however, the father of John Forsyth, the man for whom my home county would be named. Curious, I dug a little deeper. And, boy, did the stories surrounding Robert Forsyth make it worth the effort!

Born in Scotland in 1754, Robert Forsyth relocated to Fredericksburg, Va., a few years before the outbreak of the American Revolution.1 During the war, he served in a variety of positions, including deputy quartermaster general, as well as captain and later major in Major Henry Lee’s Partisan Corps.2 He eventually settled into a position as deputy commissary of purchases for Virginia.3 The new role prompted Washington to write to Forsyth:

I am always sorry to lose a good officer or when the circumstances of his affairs render his resignation necessary—I feel myself however in this instance pleased that we are not to be deprived of your services, but that we are still to enjoy their usefulness in another line of the army—Under this idea I the more willingly at this time acquiesce in your resignation.4

(<a href="">U.S. Marshals Service).</a>

After the Revolutionary War, Forsyth moved to Georgia with his wife, the former Fanny Johnson Houston, and their two children, Robert (b. 1778) and John (b. 1780).5 In 1789, Washington appointed Forsyth marshal for the state of Georgia—an appointment that would prove fateful.6

On Jan. 11, 1794, Forsyth tried to serve civil papers, “from a principle of decency,” to a man named Beverly Allen, “a methodist preacher whose character is as vile as it is possible.”7 Unsurprisingly, Allen did not welcome Forsyth’s arrival. Barricading himself in a locked room, Allen threatened to shoot if Forsyth did not leave. With a loaded gun aimed at the still-closed door, the preacher followed through on his promise. Beverly Allen shot and killed Major Robert Forsyth.8

Soon after being apprehended for killing Forsyth, Allen escaped jail and took refuge in the home of his brother. Thirty men surrounded the home and threatened to set it ablaze. Only after the house was engulfed in flames did Allen apparently emerge. The “allaccomplished [sic] villain” supposedly escaped jail once more, never to be apprehended again.9

And so, without justice, Forsyth’s family was left “to mourn his unhappy fate.”10 Robert Forsyth’s elder son would die just a few years later, but his younger son, John, would lead an auspicious life of his own account. His long political career included stints as a Georgia congressman and governor, U.S. minister to Spain, and secretary of state to presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren.11

Robert Forsyth’s legacy may not loom as large as that of his son, but his name still commands respect. He is remembered as the first U.S. marshal killed in the line of duty and was clearly beloved.12 A letter published in a newspaper following his death declared that Forsyth was so “highly revered” and such a “useful and pleasant member of society” that his “removal from this scene of things affords a most striking and instructive lesson of mortality.”13 Similarly, the stone on his grave informs all future visitors that Forsyth “left [an] impression on his Country and friends more durably engraved than this Monument.”14

Words of praise for Forsyth also reached George Washington as eager applicants lauded the man they hoped to replace through presidential appointment. One applicant for Forsyth’s vacant post went so far as to offer his potential earnings to a fund for the Forsyth family.15  Congress soon made a similar gesture when, on June 7, 1794, in “an act to make provision for the widow and orphan children of Robert Forsyth,” it granted $2,000 to Mrs. Forsyth “for the use of herself and the children.”16

Robert Forsyth is still recognized today. In 1981, the U.S. Marshals Service created an award in his honor, which commemorates “a U.S. Marshals Service employee who has demonstrated unusual courage, good judgment, and competence in hostile circumstances, or who has performed an act or service which saved the life of another person while endangering his/her own life.”17



  1. Forsyth de Fronsac, Memorial of the Family. Forsyth de Fronsac, Frédéric Gregory. Memorial of the Family of Forsyth de Fronsac. Boston, 1903, p. 35; Jeffries, History of the Family.    Jeffries, Jennie Forsyth. A History of the Forsyth Family. Indianapolis, 1920, pp. 49-50.
  2. “General Orders, 23 July 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017,; “To George Washington from Major Henry Lee, Jr., 22 August 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017,; Forsyth de Fronsac, Memorial of the Family, 35; Jeffries, History of the Family, 49.
  3. Greene Papers. Richard K. Showman et al., eds. The Papers of General Nathanael Greene, 13 vols. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1976-2005, 4:362, 460.
  4. “From George Washington to Captain Robert Forsyth, 5 September 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017,
  5. Forsyth de Fronsac, Memorial of the Family, 35-6.
  6. “From George Washington to the United States Senate, 24 September 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017,
  7. “Augusta, January 18,” The Augusta Chronicle and Gazette of the State (Augusta, Ga.), Jan. 18, 1794; “Extract of a Letter from Savannah, Jan. 29,” Columbian Gazetteer (New York), Feb. 13, 1794.
  8. Ibid.
  9. “Georgia. Augusta, June 19,” The Medley or Newbedford Marine Journal (New Bedford, Mass.), Aug. 4, 1794; Ernst, Robert R., and George R. Stumpf.Deadly affrays: the violent deaths of the United States Marshals. Edited by Sharon A. Cunningham and Mark Boardman. Avon, Ind., 2006, pp. 93-4.
  10. “Extract of a Letter,” Columbian Gazetteer, Feb. 13, 1794.
  11. Forsyth de Fronsac, Memorial of the Family, 35-6; Jeffries, History of the Family, 50.
  12. “Northern District of Georgia History.” U.S. Marshals Service. Accessed April 5, 2017.
  13. “Augusta, January 18,” The Augusta Chronicle, Jan. 18, 1794.
  14. “Northern District of Georgia History.” U.S. Marshals Service.
  15. “To George Washington from William Thompson, 22 January 1794,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017,
    More humorously, another applicant digressed to share his opinions of Citizen Genet: “I need not attempt to give your Excellency the news of our Country as no doubt you have it Officially, I shall only observe the disquietude I am under to see a parcell of Blockheads around us with Cockades in their Hats.” (“To George Washington from James Hendricks, 15 January 1794,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017,
  16. Stat. Richard Peters, ed. The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, from the Organization of Government in 1789, to March 3, 1845. . . . 8 vols. Boston, 1845-67, 6:17.
  17. “Northern District of Georgia History.” U.S. Marshals Service.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants (III): Louise Phelps Kellogg (1862-1942)

by William M. Ferraro, Managing Editor
March 31, 2017

No former editor has eased my research burdens more than Louise Phelps Kellogg, who built a remarkable career as a historian during the first decades of the twentieth century. Her work informs some of the most consistently challenging letters sent to George Washington: those from Colonel Daniel Brodhead, who commanded the western department from Fort Pitt during the Revolutionary War’s middle years. What makes Brodhead’s missives so problematic is that they cover a vast swath of frontier that ranges west across present-day Ohio to the upper Mississippi River Valley, north to Detroit, and east to the Appalachians, extending south into what is now West Virginia. Kellogg’s annotations in four documentary volumes cover an astounding percentage of obscure geographic and event references in Brodhead’s correspondence.1

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Correcting the Record: George Washington and the Hartford Conference, September 22, 1780

by Jeffrey Zvengrowski, Assistant Editor
March 24, 2017

At a strategy conference in Hartford on September 22, 1780, with General Rochambeau and Admiral Ternay, George Washington replied to a question from the French commanders:

la Situation de l’amerique Rend absolument Necessaire que Ses allies lui pretent un Secours vigoureuse, et qu’a tant d’autres obligations, a tant d’autres preuves de Son genereux interest, Sa Majeste tres Chretienne ajoute celle s’aider les etats Unis en envoyant <encore> des vaisseaux, des hommes et de l’argennt.

Washington was requesting additional French reinforcements following Patriot defeats in the Southern states. He and the French commanders agreed to a strategy by which to win the war at Hartford.  Historians, however, have overlooked the Hartford conference because Benedict Arnold’s treason came to light a few days after it, and the few scholars who did study the conference misconstrued its principal document.

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Testing the Financial Papers Website

by Erica Cavanaugh, Research Editor
March 17, 2017

One of the primary goals of the George Washington Financial Papers Project (GWFPP) has been to make Washington’s financial records freely accessible. The GWFPP team has worked tirelessly to provide accurate transcriptions as well as to build and illustrate relationships among people, places, and themes. However, what would be the point of all this if no one could use the website? In order to make sure the GWFPP site is accessible, efficient, navigable, and meaningful, we conducted usability testing in December 2016. Using the University of Virginia’s Scholars’ Lab, we invited students and some faculty members to explore the site and assess its navigability and accessibility.

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Washington’s First Defeat

by Benjamin L. Huggins, Associate Editor
March 7, 2017

“Inclination as well as duty would have Induced me to give Congress the earliest Information of my removal and that of the Troops from Long Island & Its dependencies to this City the night before last, But the extreme fatigue whic<h> myself and Family have undergone as much from the Weather since the Engagement on the 27th rendered me & them entirely unfit to take pen in hand—Since Monday scarce any of us have been out of the Lines till our passage across the East River was effected Yesterday morning & for Forty Eight Hours preceding that I had hardly been of[f] my Horse and never closed my Eyes so that I was quite unfit to write or dictate till this Morning.

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“[T]he life of a Husbandman”1: Visualizing Agricultural Data from George Washington’s Financial Papers

by Prajeeth Kumar Koyada
February 24, 2017

As a student analyst for The Washington Papers, I have the opportunity to work on a variety of interesting tasks. One of these tasks includes figuring out how to make George Washington’s documents more accessible to the public.

For Washington’s financial records, this is especially important. While the records detail Washington’s purchases, and thus his belongings, it is difficult to gain deeper meaning from the records in their raw form. We could look at each document line-by-line—discovering that Washington bought twenty bushels of corn one day in 1790 and then sold four pounds of beef the next—but we do not gain any broad historical insight from such information. In order to see meaningful patterns and trends, we must look at the data as a whole.

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Complicating the Enemy: Samuel Roukin on Turn: Washington’s Spies

By Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
February 10, 2017


Samuel Roukin is used to strangers coming up to him and saying, “I hate you.” And he loves it. Roukin has portrayed the villainous John Graves Simcoe on the AMC television series Turn: Washington’s Spies for three seasons, and the British officer is a character fans love to hate. “My job is to humanize,” says Roukin. “That means it’s working.”

Roukin studied history in his native England before moving to the United States a year prior to joining the cast of Turn. Unsurprisingly, the American Revolution was not a part of his curriculum. “In England, as a kid, you don’t get taught about the Revolution,” he says. “It didn’t have the same impact.” So, upon earning the role of Captain Simcoe, the actor sought to gain a deeper understanding of the era. As events appeared in the script, Roukin would delve into them using secondary and primary sources. He examined documents about the war and asked questions about everyday life of the era. “The Washington Papers was a source where I could pull out directly relevant documents,” he notes. In December 2016, he visited The Washington Papers offices for further insights into the documents. But on Turn, his job is to make the past come alive again, and research is only one part of making that connection. Once the cameras began rolling, the history books were set aside, and Roukin began creating a real person for the audience.

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The Simplicities and Intricacies of Indexing

By William M. Ferraro, Managing Editor
February 2, 2017

Bill's blog postDocumentary editors strive to make their products as accessible as possible. Systematic transcription facilitates reading by converting handwritten manuscripts into printed pages. Numbered notes explain obscure references or allusions in the texts. Introductions and editorial essays draw larger connections or present rich background information. The index, however, arguably stands as the most important feature of a documentary work as far as providing access. Even users with no interest in the principal historical figure easily can find new, potentially useful items on people, places, and subjects.

But something like the modern book index appeared only in the late seventeenth century, and it was not until the later nineteenth century that an alphabetical index became a customary addition to any substantial publication.1 As with so much else over the past few decades, technology has eased the process of creating an index. Gone are boxes of cards and painful hours hunched over while recording, sorting, and alphabetizing the entries. Inputting data remains a tedious task, but the purely clerical dimensions of the endeavor now take seconds rather than days or weeks.

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More Than Meets the Eye

By Sarah Tran, Undergraduate Worker
January 24, 2017

The common adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is often adapted into tale, the most popular of which is “Beauty and the Beast.” The timeless story opens on an old beggar woman seeking shelter from the storm at a prince’s castle. The prince, though noble and handsome, is also cruel and unkind. He dismisses the ugly old beggar woman, unaware she is a powerful sorceress. The sorceress transforms into her beautiful self and warns the prince not to be deceived by outer appearance. To instill this lesson, she turns the prince into a horrific beast, placing a curse upon his castle that can only be broken when he finds someone who will reciprocate his love despite his beastly appearance. Following a period of prolonged self-reflection and caring for others, the prince finally breaks the curse. This tale has engaged audiences across the world, blossoming into a beloved romance and children’s bedtime story. But the theatricality of “Beauty and the Beast” might divert the audience from its moral.

While searching for newspaper articles about Martha Washington, I came across a similar story in the Alexandria Gazette.

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