No one knew better than Martha that life was fragile. And so, nothing was more important to her than investing in her family and in her religion. In the eighteenth century, Bibles physically united religion and family. Families passed them down for generations, writing births, deaths, and marriages into their pages. Martha, who gave her life to serving God, family, and country, would have cherished her Bible. In fact, nineteenth- and twentieth-century newspaper articles imply that Martha owned more than one.
Martha, sitting at the foot of her partner’s bed, saw George’s quiet become quieter. “Is he gone?” she asked. George’s secretary (and Martha’s friend) Tobias Lear couldn’t speak. He held up his hand in assent. Martha said simply, “‘Tis well. All is now over I shall soon follow him! I have no more trials to pass through!” She was wrong.
Sometimes I’ll go stand in front of our shelves of Martha Washington documents and give them a calculating look-over. Each decade has its own shelf, from the 1750s to the 1800s. The 1790s and 1800s bulge with the most envelopes, and get a contented nod. The 1750s get a narrow look because we don’t yet have anything earlier than 1757. That’s 27 years of Martha’s life that have escaped, for the most part, from the documentary record.
For the past few months, I’ve been searching for Martha Washington documents that have been printed or referred to in newspapers. So far as I have seen, only once in the years between her life and the present day has there been a press furor over Martha. The key players included a Civil War brigadier general, finance giant J. P. Morgan, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), the state of Virginia, and the United States Supreme Court. The time frame: the Civil War and World War I.
The object of contention? Martha’s will.
Martha Washington’s “Great Cake” recipe is a sweet document, written in a careful hand by her granddaughter on a piece of folded scrap paper. Its instructions are incredible to the 21st century eye. It asks for forty eggs, four pounds each of sugar and butter, five pounds of fruit and flour, a pint of wine, an ounce of nutmeg and mace, and plenty of French brandy.
We recently produced a series of short, educational videos called “George’s Farm Animals,” which directly feature GW’s documents. Even though the videos focused in turn on his cattle, sheep, hogs, and mules, the documents concerning these animals also show his daily life at Mount Vernon, the importance of agriculture in the United States, his network of foreign connections, and even a glimpse of his elusive personal side. We hoped that educators would find them useful in classrooms, and that kids would enjoy learning about George and his monumental achievements from the perspective of his daily home life.
By Caitlin Conley March 10, 2015 Caitlin is a Research Assistant for the Bibliography Project and is part of the Papers of George Washington social media team. We’re excited to bring you the fourth episode of “George’s Farm Animals!” This video features the remarkable story of Royal Gift, a prized Spanish […]
By Caitlin Conley February 21, 2015 Caitlin is a Research Assistant for the Bibliography Project and is part of the Papers of George Washington social media team. You may have heard about the exciting new project that began at The Papers of George Washington just this year. Associate Editor William […]
By Caitlin Conley February 17, 2015 Caitlin is a Research Assistant for the Bibliography Project and is part of the Papers of George Washington social media team. Welcome to Part III of our series “George’s Farm Animals!” This video features GW’s hogs. Most of the references to his hogs in the […]
By Caitlin Conley February 9, 2015 Caitlin is a Research Assistant for the Bibliography Project and is part of the Papers of George Washington social media team. Welcome to Part II of our video series “George’s Farm Animals.” This time we explore how GW cared for his sheep, which were […]