Topic: Mary Wigge

The Heartbreaker

By Mary Wigge, Research Editor
June 21, 2016

Letters reveal a great deal about the sender and recipient—their relationship, their opinions on particular matters—as well as overall historical context. Condolence letters do that and more. George Washington’s death resulted in a deluge of condolences to Martha, from family members, friends, organizations, acquaintances, and even strangers. Sending their regrets, these letters vary from brief notes to lengthy passages. As a research editor, it’s eye-opening to see the spectrum of emotions conveyed.

I first read these condolence letters in 2014 as research on the papers of Martha Washington. Sitting in Mount Vernon’s special collections room with one of my colleagues, I found myself robotically skimming through one condolence letter to Martha after another. I was unfazed. That may sound insensitive, but most of the letters followed a formulaic pattern: regret for Martha’s loss and hope for a swift recovery. The end. A light touch of sympathy with a dash of suggested solace—there was no effusive heart-pouring nor anguished despair. It was not until Lafayette’s letter that I truly felt loss for the “beloved General” Washington.

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Indian Corn: Growing Pains

By Mary Wigge
April 14, 2015

Mary Wigge is a Research Editor at the Papers of George Washington.  

Over the centuries, corn has evolved into an important agricultural commodity in the United States. From food production to making ethanol, corn plays a featured role in multiple aspects of today’s world. For Washington, however, corn, specifically Indian corn, became emblematic of the wasteful practices of early American farmers.

Washington had a keen interest in the state of his farms, especially upon his return to Mount Vernon in 1784 following the Revolutionary War. Beginning as a tobacco planter, Washington soon realized that growing solely one crop exhausted the fertility of his soil. In a letter to Arthur Young, an English agriculturalist, dated 1 November 1787, Washington described the general practice of farming in America:

The cultivation of Tobacco has been almost the sole object with men of landed property, and consequently a regular course of Crops have never been in view. The general custom has been, first to raise a Crop of Indian Corn (maize), which, according to the mode of cultivation, is a good preparation for wheat; then a crop of wheat, after which the ground is respited (except from weeds, & every trash that can contribute to its foulness) for about eighteen months; and so on, alternately, with out any dressing; till the land is exhausted; when it is turned out without being sown with grass seeds, or any method taken to restore it; and another piece is ruined in the same manner.

This three-crop rotation, on a naturally thin topsoil and clay foundation, proved harmful to the state of his fields. Tobacco had damaging effects on the soil, and corn’s natural absorption and depletion of nitrogen from the soil also placed a great strain on it. To restore the soil nutrients and improve his crop yields, Washington began experimenting and relying on the guidance and insight of others, including Young and other British agricultural reformers, as well as Thomas Jefferson.tri color corn

In his 28 June 1793 letter to Washington, Jefferson states that “good husbandry with us consists in abandoning Indian corn, & tobacco, tending small grain, some red clover & endeavoring to have, while the lands are at rest, a spontaneous cover of white clover.” Washington’s letter to Alexander Spotswood, 13 Feb. 1788, notes how his “Experience has proved that every soil will sink under the growth of [Indian corn]; whether from the luxuriancy and exhausting quality of it, or the manner of tillage”; he meant to “introduce other plants” and rely on variation so “that not one sort, more than another, may have the advantage of Soil”. In the same letter, and in his letter to George William Fairfax from 30 June 1785, Washington emphasized that he decreased the growth of tobacco and intended “to raise as little Indian corn as may be” in order to find a more sustainable crop. Washington believed that the “course of Husbandry in this Country, & more especially in this State, is not only exceedingly unprofitable, but so destructive to our Lands, that it is my earnest wish to adopt a better” (30 June 1785). His crop variation and change in planting location and method, as seen in his 4 October 1795 letter to Jefferson and his lease terms for Mount Vernon farm properties, highlighted his overall intent to find more suitable crops to the soil and climate.

Fertilizer was also necessary for re-nourishment of the soil, especially to feed corn’s high demand for nitrogen. Washington experimented with different forms, primarily manure, which he compared to gold in his 30 June 1785 letter to Fairfax. Young also noted the importance of manure, stating that Washington’s “expression concerning manure being the <f>irst transmutation towards gold, is good, and shews that you may be as great a farmer as a general” (7 January 1786). Washington also turned to John Spurrier’s 1793 publication of The Practical Farmer for ideas on the rotation of crops and the best uses of manure and other matter.

By the end of his life, Washington was practicing a seven-year crop rotation and continuing his experimentation, principally with buckwheat, potatoes, and clover. Although wheat became his principal crop, he never completely stopped growing Indian corn because he thought it was better quality food for his enslaved workers, useful feed for his livestock, and because he utilized it himself (see GW to Spotswood, 13 Feb. 1788). Washington likely used the Indian corn variety known as Virginia Gourdseed (see Diary entry 12 May 1760). This variety was a blend between dent corn and flint corn, producing a starchy but softer white kernel. Several letters and documents, including an observation from his granddaughter, Nelly Custis, reveal Washington’s enjoyment of hoecakes, eating “three small mush cakes (Indian meal) swimming in butter and honey” (see Nelly Custis Lewis to Elizabeth Bordley Gibson, 23 December 1823 [typescript, ViMtvL]).

As a farmer, Washington wished to find the most effective, productive crops that would provide high yields and maintain soil sustenance. From a larger perspective, Washington wanted to find alternative and better modes of agriculture that would benefit farmers in Virginia and the country overall. Considering his troubles with Indian corn, it’s curious to wonder how Washington would have responded to the fate and transformation of this particular crop over time.


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Mapping a Spanish Donkey’s Long Journey

By Mary Wigge
January 29, 2015

Mary is a Research Editor with the Financial Papers Project.

It’s not every day that you sit at your office desk, contemplating the journey of a Spanish donkey, even if it did belong to George Washington. But last week found me hunkered down looking at various maps, trying to identify and pinpoint cities and towns through which this prominent creature journeyed. It’s this type of research that brightens my work-day, actually seeing and applying small pieces of history – locations, people, and, in this case, animals – to a physical map.

At the request of an individual who wished to learn more of Royal Gift, GW’s Spanish jack, we began investigating the letters and financial documents that referenced this noteworthy animal. Many of these documents have already been transcribed and published by the Papers, but we wished to dig deeper, especially relating to the southern tour that the noble donkey embarked on.

This particular Spanish donkey was a gift to GW from the Spanish King Charles III. GW had desired to breed mules in Virginia – he considered them superior as draft animals to horses or oxen. Mules could live longer than horses, did more work with less feeding, and withstood the potentially harsh handling of farmers’ hands.

mule etching 1700

Mule etching from 1700. Image courtesy of mule historian Deb Kidwell.

At the time, one required the permission of the Spanish king to acquire and import the high-bred stock from Spain. However, upon hearing of GW’s request, the Spanish king accommodated and sent him two jacks: one was lost at sea and the other, Royal Gift, arrived safely to Mount Vernon in 1785.

Reading some of GW’s letters that discuss or reference Royal Gift reveal a side to Washington – his enjoyment in animal husbandry and a lightened sense of humor – that’s uncommonly seen. Though often serious in voicing his concerns and directing attention to the maintenance of the jack, GW at times displayed a comic tone when discussing Royal Gift’s performance (or lack thereof) in breeding mules (see GW to Bushrod Washington, 13 Apr. 1786 or GW to William Fitzhugh, Jr., 15 May 1786). Over time, however, Royal Gift became a reliable stud that bred with jennies (female donkeys) and mares to create donkeys and mules. GW advertised Royal Gift for further breeding purposes and to generate interest in mules amongst farmers. In 1791, GW agreed to send Royal Gift on a southern tour to South Carolina where he would reside at John Freazer’s plantation for breeding, under the official care of William Washington, GW’s second cousin. Washington, who lived in Sandy Hills, South Carolina, hired James Allen to transport Royal Gift to South Carolina; Allen and Royal Gift began traveling southward in the early fall of 1791.

Acct & Papers.Royal G.pg1

Accounts and Misc. Papers Relating to Royal Gift, 1792-1795, photocopy, Mount Vernon.

It’s this journey that we chose to focus on and detail. By using the financial documents (from the Chicago Historical Society) that detailed payments Allen spent, we found numerous towns and locations mentioned. This information provided a window into their journey and gave us the means to map out where they went and stayed. Starting at Mount Vernon, for example, Allen had  “expences @ Colchester,” rested shortly at Dumfries and Stafford Courthouse, and stayed “2 Nights at frederigsburg.” Moving on, he stays in Bowling Green and Hanover Courthouse, followed by “5 Nights & 4 days at Richmand”. He later stays at “Mr olifers”, then “Mr kings”, and “Mr Slauters.” In such cases when only names are given, the path grows foggy, and it requires more digging to determine who these individuals are and where they live. Once found, we plan to map these locations and the overall route on a web-based visualization for viewers and researchers to study and explore.

These financial documents literally create a road map that offers greater understanding and visual clarity of a unique, fascinating past event. And, digital tools grant us the chance to display this imagery. Not to mention, it’s exciting to unravel and piece together a trip that occurred over two centuries ago! We look forward to unfolding and sharing Royal Gift’s journey with you soon.

30 Jan. 2015: As an addition, we wish to mention that Royal Gift was advertised to stud as early as 1786. You can find more information and resources on Royal Gift here. It includes links to letters and documents, published works, and newspaper articles referencing the prized jack.