Topic: Short bio

“Poore Billy”: Apprenticeships in Late 18th-Century Virginia

By Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
August 17, 2018

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.

Continue reading

Who’s That Guy?: Identifying an Unnamed Individual from Washington’s Correspondence

by Adrina Garbooshian-Huggins, Assistant Editor
May 17, 2017

An engraving of Ezra Lee (1916), from The Story of the Submarine by Farnham Bishop.

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. I came across an example of this when coediting the forthcoming volume 26 of The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, with Washington Papers associate editor Benjamin Huggins.

On May 13, 1780, Washington wrote to Jedediah Huntington (1743-1818),1 a Norwich, Conn., merchant who had been serving since May 1777 as a Continental brigadier general. In the letter, Washington advised that Brigadier General William Maxwell’s New Jersey brigade would soon relieve Huntington’s command. In addition, upon Maxwell’s arrival, Huntington was to march his Connecticut brigade, which had been on the army’s outpost lines since February 1780, to the army’s winter encampment at Jockey Hollow, southwest of Morristown, New Jersey. Washington further directed Huntington to “send up” his “Quarter Master” to prepare huts in the encampment for the reception of Huntington’s brigade.

In an effort to fully understand the document, I sought to identify the “Quarter Master” of Huntington’s brigade. I examined the muster rolls for the 1st Connecticut Regiment (which was part of Huntington’s brigade), and discovered that in the summer and fall of 1779, Ezra Lee (1749-1821), a lieutenant in that regiment, was listed on muster rolls as “Q.M.B.” and “B.Q.M.,” common abbreviations for brigade quartermaster.2 Lee’s position as brigade quartermaster also appeared on muster rolls for the entire year of 1780, indicating that he held the position when Washington penned his May 13, 1780, letter to Huntington.

When regimental and brigade quartermasters were on furlough, other officers sometimes would temporarily fulfill their duties. Due to such temporary reassignments, editors sometimes omit from annotation the identification of brigade majors and regimental quartermasters.

Prior to being named brigade quartermaster, Lee had been contributing to the war effort through military service since 1775. A native of Lyme, Conn., Lee served in Lieutenant Lee Lay’s company of Connecticut state troops in 1775 and entered the Continental ranks as a sergeant in January 1776. In the summer of that year, Brigadier General Samuel Holden Parsons chose Lee to operate David Bushnell’s famous submarine Turtle, aboard which Lee conducted tests and made an attempt against enemy vessels off Governors Island, New York.3 Lee later served as an ensign and then lieutenant in the 1st Connecticut Regiment, and in November 1778 was appointed that regiment’s quartermaster.  He transferred to the 5th Connecticut Regiment in 1781 and served as its paymaster before retiring from the army in June 1782.4


1. Draft, in Robert Hanson Harrison’s writing, Library of Congress, George Washington’s Papers.

2. National Archives: Record Group 93, Compiled Revolutionary War Military Service Records, 1775–1783.

3. William Bell Clark et al., eds. Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 11 vols. to date (Washington, D.C., 1964–), 6:736, 1499, 1507-11; The New-York Evening Post, Nov. 16, 1821.

4. GW to John Jay, Sept. 19-20, 1779, in The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 22:458-59; Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register of Officers of the Continental Army during the War of the Revolution, April, 1775, to December, 1783, Rev. ed. (Washington, D.C., 1914), 345.



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

Continue reading

A Discovery in the Library: My Treasure Hunt through the George Washington Papers Shelf List

by Elizabeth Higdon, Undergraduate Worker
October 31, 2016

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 This year, however, I had a more substantial project awaiting me. I was to review the shelf list, take inventory, and organize all of the books belonging to the GW Papers. It seems like a straightforward task, and it is, for the most part, but when you take into account that the shelves in these five rooms hold more than 3000 books (and more every day), it becomes slightly daunting.

I started with history publications, autobiographies, and letters, everything you would expect an eighteenth/nineteenth century documentary editing project to have on hand. Then, I moved on to more obscure materials: museum guides, orderly books, and assorted pamphlets made illegible by cramped writing. I found books on woodworking, textiles, and freemasonry. One full shelf was dedicated to less prominent eyewitness accounts of the American Revolution. There was an entire cabinet filled with rolls of microfilm. It was at this point in my project that things got interesting.

Continue reading

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, Part II: Henry Barton Dawson (1821-1889)

By William M. Ferraro, Managing Editor
July 15, 2016

Title page of the catalogue.

Title page of the catalogue.

Award-winning journalist and World War II historian Rick Atkinson visited the Washington Papers near the start of his research for a trilogy examining the Revolutionary War. He sought insights into Washington from the editors and obscure sources that might shed light on overlooked or shadowy aspects of the conflict. The editors shared plenty of thoughts and anecdotes, and Atkinson nosed around our extensive holdings of microfilm and reference works. What I enjoyed most, however, was bringing to his attention an item from my personal collection: the auction catalogue for dispersing Henry B. Dawson’s library produced by the New York City house Bangs and Co. and titled Catalogue of the Large Historical Library of the Late Henry B. Dawson, LL.D., an Extensive and Valuable Collections of Books, Pamphlets and Periodicals . . . . I told Atkinson that if he were starting a major Revolutionary War work in the later nineteenth century and sought insights and obscure sources, he would have visited Dawson rather than a documentary editing project like the Washington Papers.

Continue reading

John Custis vs. Martha Dandridge

By Kathryn Gehred, Research Specialist
June 16, 2016

I would go to Law the whole Course of my Life; spend the last penny I have in the world rather than I will pay one farthing of your unjust and unreasonable demand; […] you may give me some trouble; and put me to some Charge; but depend on it; where you put me to one penny worth you will put your self to a pound…1

John Custis IV of Williamsburg, the man who wrote that sentence in the mid-1720s, has a reputation among historians of Colonial Virginia for his irascibility, stinginess, and business savvy. (Once, in an attempt to keep his tobacco price up, he argued that the white mold covering it was “a good sign and that Tobacco will keep.”2) 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.

Continue reading

The “Epitome of Navigation”: How Lawrence Washington Steered His Brother George

By Alicia K. Anderson, Research Editor
May 27, 2016

Composite image created with Microsoft PowerPoint templates by Alicia K. Anderson. The original portraits of Lawrence (left) and George Washington (right) are courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.

Composite image created with Microsoft PowerPoint templates by Alicia K. Anderson. The original portraits of Lawrence (left) and George Washington (right) are courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

Lawrence, George Washington’s elder half-brother by their father’s first marriage, stayed in Barbados that December of 1751. His condition, presumably tuberculosis, was none improved from their seven-week stay on the island, and he was determined to get better—if not in Barbados, then in Bermuda.1 George, his travel companion, had to get home. A new year’s surveying season was about to begin.2 He also had an important acquaintance to meet: the newly arrived governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, who, within the year (just months following Lawrence’s death in July 1752), would appoint George adjutant for the colony’s southern district with the rank of major.3

Continue reading

The Rise and Fall of a Barbados Merchant

By Lynn Price, Assistant Editor
May 19, 2016

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. Because of his status of power in Barbados and elsewhere, he hasn’t quite faded into the shadows of an unknown past. Many aspects of his life, nevertheless, still remain a mystery.

Continue reading

An Enslaved Chef in a “Free” City

By Kathryn Gehred, Research Assistant
April 7, 2016

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.

Continue reading