Martha Washington shared the more personal facets of her life in letters to only a handful of close family members—often in one long run-on sentence. In 1794, Martha had no surviving children and corresponded with her niece Frances “Fanny” Bassett Washington often with news, advice, demands (disguised as advice), and opinions. These letters between Martha and Fanny are a treasure trove of historical tidbits, perfect for additional research.
This summer, the University of Virginia Press published George Washington’s Barbados Diary, an edition of the journal and ship log kept by Washington during his only trip abroad. Publication of the diary concludes more than two years of work conducted by assistant editors Lynn A. Price and Alicia K. Anderson. It is also the first complete edition of the obscure text in 126 years.
Martha Washington died on Saturday, May 22, 1802. She outlived two husbands, her four biological children, several siblings, her favorite niece, and many friends. Unsurprisingly, the editors of the forthcoming volume of Martha’s correspondence have discovered one theme that has continually appeared—concern for loved ones’ health and her subsequent advice. Martha was never far-removed from loss.
On December 4, 1783, an emotional George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental army, stood before his officers in the Long Room of Fraunces Tavern in New York. “With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you,” Washington toasted, as his eyes scanned the room. “I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable. I cannot come to each of you but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.”
On Wednesday, April 24, 1793, George and Martha Washington responded to an invitation from Samuel and Elizabeth Powel. Their letter read, “Mrs Washington is so much indisposed with a cold as to make her fear encreasing it by going to the Circus this afternoon. The President & rest of the family propose to be Spectators at the exhibition of Mr Rickets.” Martha’s indisposition, however, came at an unfortunate time, as it prevented her from attending a key moment in American entertainment history—the introduction of the modern circus.
Is Hamilton an academic, perfectly accurate historical interpretation? Of course not. But what it does do is use catchy tunes—and primary sources—to make history accessible and entertaining to a new generation of Americans. And after recently attending a performance of the show, these documentary editors wholeheartedly agree.
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.
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.”
It may have started with a headache and a fever, or just a general feeling of malaise. It could have struck after a night’s rest, when his morning routine of rising from bed was painfully curtailed by a severe backache unlike any he’d experienced before. A chill running throughout his body—abnormal in the extreme heat of the tropical climate of Barbados—could have been the first signal that something wasn’t right. However the illness chose to first present itself, within a few days a rash appeared on his skin. Less than two days from their emergence, the eruptions grew and spread, covering his entire body.1 George Washington was only 19 years old. He was on an adventure in the West Indies, and he had smallpox.
Ian Kahn knows George Washington. For three seasons, he has played the General on the AMC television series Turn: Washington’s Spies. An accomplished stage actor, Kahn has also appeared on Dawson’s Creek and Sex and the City. Washington Papers editors Kim Curtis and Lynn Price recently spoke with Kahn about his work on Turn, what this season holds in store, and what George Washington means to him.