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.
Identifying individuals mentioned in George Washington’s correspondence often poses an exciting challenge for the editors at The Washington Papers. When the only clue you have is a title or occupation (e.g., “quartermaster,” “painter”), it can prove even more challenging.
After growing up in Forsyth County, Ga., I was intrigued when I found a reference to Robert Forsyth in the Papers of George Washington. I had to dig deeper. And, boy, did the stories surrounding Robert Forsyth make it worth the effort!
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.
This fall, I returned to UVA, beginning my second year in the College of Arts and Sciences and at the Washington Papers. Usually, my job around the office is determined on a day-to-day basis: some days I’m combing through newspaper databases, other days researching people on Ancestry.com. This year, however, I had a more substantial project awaiting me.
If Harry Potter’s Hogwarts had been seeking a wizard of history rather than an instructor for the history of wizardry, the school probably would have been pleased with Dawson. He loved to probe arcane and forgotten sources—the more, the better—in his relentless search for truth, and his endeavors led him to accumulate an impressive collection of historical materials.
John Custis IV of Williamsburg has a reputation among historians of Colonial Virginia for his irascibility, stinginess, and business savvy. So, it was only natural that Custis viewed anyone who wanted to marry into his family as a potential “gold-digger.” The fact that Martha Dandridge (later Martha Custis, finally Martha Washington) was able to talk her way into the Custis family is something of a miracle.
It appears that, even at the tender age of 19, George Washington was ready to take on the world. He had been under the wing of his paternalistic brother Lawrence for years, and it was clear (from the latter’s health) that he would not be for much longer. George had journeyed to Barbados that autumn under his brother’s watchful eye and had even finished a course of study of navigation by shadowing the captain and crew of the outbound vessel (which still remains unidentified, despite prior claims). His travel diary offers an impressive glimpse into the voyage through a detailed sea log, complete with latitudes and longitudes determined by observation and dead reckoning. Interestingly, it is George’s very curiosity and insight into the art of navigation that reveal a closer tie between the brothers than previously assumed.
For me, history is the study of people, and I have “met” quite a few interesting folks while working on George Washington’s Barbados diary. Due to a lack of sources, most of these people will become vague acquaintances at best. However, one of those individuals has captured my imagination—Gedney Clarke.
My last blog post about slavery at Mount Vernon received a boost in readership when it came out around the same time a children’s book about slavery at Mount Vernon was pulled by its publisher. The book was about Hercules, George Washington’s enslaved chef.
With controversy surrounding the book, I thought it would be useful to provide some documentation from the papers of George Washington about Hercules, his life with Washington, and his escape.