Topic: Women’s history

Friends in Grief: Martha Washington and Elizabeth Willing Powel

by Alicia K. Anderson, Assistant Editor
July 5, 2017

Mourning embroidery, 1827. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

Martha Washington knew loss.

As Martha Dandridge Custis (1731–1802), she lost her first child, a son, in 1754, only four years into her marriage. Daniel Parke Custis, her husband, died in 1757, leaving her a widow with a large estate to settle. That same year, their second child, a daughter, died. Martha married George Washington in 1759, but no new children would be born to them. Her remaining two children by Custis, barely adults, would predecease her in 1773 and 1781. The deaths of her parents and several Dandridge siblings were intermittent.

One of Martha’s longest correspondences was with Elizabeth Willing Powel (1743–1830), the keen Philadelphia intellectual who was well-read, politically engaged, and a conversationalist par excellence. She would not be considered a natural pairing with the more modest, less educated Martha, but the experiences of marriage and motherhood bound them. From their first known surviving letter in 1780 to Elizabeth’s letter of grief on George Washington’s death in 1799, the two women maintained a friendship for at least two decades. They shared in common a sad reality: death had taken, and would continue to take, their closest family members one by one.

Bereavement was nothing new to Elizabeth. Between 1771 and 1775, her only children—two sons, both Samuels in honor of their father—died within a year of birth or less, cutting short the longed-for experience of motherhood. If she could find any comfort at all, it was in the hope of their heavenly reunion and the thought that her sons would never experience the suffering of this world, as she herself had. Elizabeth wrote of her firstborn, whose lock of hair she kept near,

From all the Chequer’d Ills below

Sammy secure shall sleep;

His little Heart no Pain shall know,

His Eyes no more shall weep.1

Nonetheless, the boys’ loss echoes throughout her correspondence, perhaps reflected in the depressions that plagued her over the years. To Ann Randolph Fitzhugh in 1783, she lamented,

Ah my dear Friend there are no Roses without Thorns. You wish me to be again a Mother, you know not what you wish. Indeed I am no longer what you once knew me Those fine Spirits, that I used to flatter myself wou’d never be broken, have at length yeilded to the too severe Trials that have assailed me. My Mind, habituated to Mortification & Disappointment, is become weaker, &, unfortunately, my Sensibilities stronger. A thousand Circumstances that formerly were Sources of Pleasure to me have now lost their Charm. Time does not lessen real Griefs. In some Instances it augments them by removing to a greater distance the Objects on which our Happiness depends. I fear I am doomed never to be happy in this World . . .

Elizabeth begged Mrs. Fitzhugh and her family to come visit her in Philadelphia. The Powel House, though the center of frequent entertaining, still felt empty: “I will most chearfully assign you my Chamber & the adjoining Nursery formerly the Habbitation of my beloved Angels.”2

Not only death occasioned the separation of loved ones, but also distance. Her favorite sister, Mary Willing Byrd, had removed from Philadelphia with her husband, Colonel William Byrd, to a James River plantation in Virginia. The sisters’ reunions were seldom, but when they did see each other, it seemed to elicit more pain than joy. On visiting Mary, now a widow, in Virginia in late 1787, Elizabeth and her husband Samuel took the opportunity to stay with their friends at Mount Vernon. On her return to Philadelphia, Elizabeth had to apologize to Martha for being such poor company:

I should have been happy to have prolonged our Visit had I not been sensible that the Depression of Spirits, under wh[ich] I then was, render’d me a totally unfit Companion for the chearfull & happy. My recent Separation from my favorite Sister, & her Family, with the probability of never seeing her again, & the Reflection of having left her encircled with Difficulties almost too great for a Man to cope with, unconnected & unprotected by any Friend, able or willing, to serve her, almost broke my Heart.3

Family sickness was another emotional battle. George Washington’s nephew, George Augustine Washington (1758–1793), was ill with tuberculosis. Martha was a relation not only through her marriage to George but also through her own niece Frances “Fanny” Bassett (1767–1796), who had married George Augustine in 1785. By 1792, Elizabeth Powel wrote to Martha and George with concern, enclosing an article about a possible medicinal treatment for the invalid nephew. She then went on to reflect on the freedom of Heaven:

But what is this Life that we should be so over studious to prolong the Respiration of that Breath which may with so much Ease be all breathed out at once as by so many successive Millions of Moments? For surely there are more exquisite Pains than Pleasures in Life, and it seems to me that it would be a greater Happiness at once to be freed forever from the former than by such an irksome Composition to protract the Enjoyment of the latter. We must all die, and, I believe there is no Terror in Death but what is created by the Magic of Opinion, nor probably any greater Pain than attended our Birth. As I suppose at our Dissolution every Particle of which we are compounded returns to its proper original Element and that which is divine in us returns to that which is divine in the Universe.4

George Augustine held out for another year, passing away at the beginning of February 1793. On Feb. 21, George and Martha wrote Elizabeth from Philadelphia that they were unable to attend her party that evening because of the “late event which has happened in [our] family.”5 The sadness of that event would only be compounded when, three years later, Martha’s dear niece Fanny died, as well.

Elizabeth’s own life was about to be turned upside-down. As yellow fever snuck into Philadelphia in the summer of 1793, she was resigned to loss though unaware of how personal a toll it would take. “Death has robbed me of many Friends,” she wrote to her confidant, George Washington, at the beginning of September, who on leaving the city had invited her to join him and Martha to Mount Vernon, an escape from the contagion. Samuel Powel did not believe flight necessary, and she would not leave him behind. In only three weeks, however, it was Elizabeth who would be left behind: the epidemic claimed her husband in a bitter blow. Their silver wedding anniversary was less than a year away.6

Perhaps the greatest loss that bound Martha and Elizabeth together was the death of “the General” on Dec. 14, 1799. Ten days after the “late melancholy Event,” Elizabeth assured his grieving widow that “tho’ the Season is far advanced, and the Roads bad, I would most certainly pay a Visit to your House of Mourning, could I afford to you the smallest consolation under this seemingly hard dispensation of Pro[v]idence; but I too well know that no Consolation can be effected by human Agency.” She concluded her letter soberly, “I have lost a much valued Friend.”7 Here the documentary record ends. It is unknown whether the women’s correspondence continued up until Martha’s death in 1802. Elizabeth, in turn, would go on to outlive her by another three decades, dying at the ripe age of eighty-six.

 

Notes

1. Quoted in David W. Maxey, “A Portrait of Elizabeth Willing Powel (1743–1830),” in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, new ser., 96.4 (2006): 24.

2. Elizabeth Willing Powel to Ann Randolph Fitzhugh, Dec. 24, 1783, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union.

3. Elizabeth Willing Powel to Martha Washington, Nov. 30, 1787, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union.

4. “To George Washington from Elizabeth Willing Powel, 9 January, 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-09-02-0248. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series 9:419–20.

5. “George and Martha Washington to Elizabeth Willing Powel, 21 February 1793,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-12-02-0142. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series 12:198.

6. See “To George Washington from Elizabeth Willing Powel, 9 September 1793,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-14-02-0041. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series 14:54–55.

7. Elizabeth Willing Powel to Martha Washington, Dec. 24, 1799, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union.

“My method of behaviour to my domesticks”: Christianity and Slavery in Elizabeth Foote Washington’s Diary

by Kathryn Gehred, Research Specialist
May 11, 2017

Elizabeth Foote began to keep a diary in 1779, soon after she became engaged to Lund Washingon, George Washington’s cousin. She decided to keep a diary so “that I may remember what was my thoughts at the time of my changing my state.” After her marriage, she used the diary to record a manual of advice on housekeeping, which she intended to leave for her daughters. It survives as a compelling insight into the thoughts and feelings of an 18th-century woman slaveholder.1

Her guidelines for the management of slaves are particularly interesting to a 20th-century reader. Elizabeth Foote Washington and her husband lived together at Mount Vernon for the first four years of their marriage, but in 1784, as they prepared to move into their newly built home,2 she decided to “lay down rules how I would conduct myself in my family—by treating my domesticks with all the friendly kindness that is possible for me to do . . .”

Elizabeth Foote Washington’s diary, as photographed by author. Original manuscript located at the Library of Congress.

Her first rule for managing slaves was to “never find fault of a servant before their master.” She believed if her slaves thought of her as an ally “they may be brought to endeavor to please me—& feel some gratitude towards me for hiding their faults as they will think—I dare say I shall hide many of their faults—”

Next, she determined “If I should have children I will avoid if possible ever finding fault of a servant before them.” This was in order to keep her household “in great peace & quietness” because she was sure that that was “Mr. Washington’s desire,—& that alone would make me endeavour after—if I did not feel a principle of religion in me that causes me to desire it.”

In 1789, nearly five years after writing her guidelines on how to work with slaves, Elizabeth Foote Washington updated her journal with the results of these measures. She determined that “no one could have put the foregoing resolutions more in practice then I have, or taken more pains then I have to perswaid my servants to do their business through a principal of religion—I have frequently told them that it was my most earnest desire that they should do their duty as a servant for their Saviours sake—not for mine.”

This argument did not prove to be the motivating influence that Mrs. Washington hoped it would. While she was proud to report that “our visitors think we have the best of servants, & that I have no trouble,” she confided in her diary, “If our visitors knew how little my servants did they would not think them good—nay there is few would put up with their servants doing so little as mine.” She found it frustrating “to consider how mine has ever been treated they are not such servants as a person would expect—for surely they ought to be the best of servants,—which is not the case.”

Elizabeth Foote Washington imagined that her slaves would be grateful to her for abstaining from “scolding & whipping” and would repay her with obedience. Forced to labor without pay, living under the constant threat of separation from their families, and aware that they were not seen as fully human in the eyes of the law or of white society, the slaves were not grateful for being enslaved.

Three years later, Mrs. Washington wrote in her diary that her slaves “is got so Baptistical in their notions” that they “think they commit a crime to join with me in prayer.” This bothered her, as she considered being a religious guide to her slaves an essential part of her role as housekeeper. Ultimately, she was unable to convince her slaves to return to her church, as they would “go out of the way at the time they are going to be calld to Prayer—it is impossible for them to have it,—& then if they are made to come—they appear quite angry.”

By attempting to coerce her slaves into practicing her faith, Mrs. Washington intruded into one of the few areas of their lives where they had some control: their spirituality.

In January 1796, Elizabeth Foote Washington wrote to “anyone come a cross this Book” that “I strongly suspect my female servants will take every manuscript Book they can lay their hands on, & many of my other religious Books—tho’ it is my intention, if I am in my senses when on my death bed & I should have a friend with me—to warn them of my servants.” She prayed that the Lord “influence the hearts of my servants & cause them to treat me with respect.”

It is rare to find a historic document that gives such an honest and personal description of the relationship between a plantation mistress and the enslaved people under her authority. Mrs. Washington’s paternalistic view of her slaves blinded her to their motivations for rebelling. While severely constrained by their status as possessions, her slaves still managed to maintain control over some aspects of their lives, such as their pace of work and choice of religion. Elizabeth Foote Washington’s diary provides insight into the mindset of a Christian woman slaveowner, and strategies enslaved people used to survive.

Notes

1. Diary of Elizabeth Foote Washington, 1779-1796, Washington Family Collection, Library of Congress.

2. “From George Washington to William Gordon, 20 December 1784,” n.3, Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series 2: 196.

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

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Faith and Family: Martha Washington’s Bibles

by Caitlin Conley, Research Editor
November 17, 2016

“Thank god we are all tolerable well,” Martha Washington wrote in missive after missive. She worried in nearly every letter—was anyone ill? How were her friends doing? When were they going to come and visit?

Martha persistently asked about her loved ones because she kept losing them, one by one. Her son, Jacky, wrote to her after his little sister died: “I am confident she enjoys that Bliss prepar’d only for the Good & virtuous, let these considerations, My dear Mother have their due weight with you…”1 Martha heard variations on this sentiment her entire life. She heard it when her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, died; when each of her children passed away; and the times when she lost her parents and siblings. Hundreds of mourners wrote her after she watched George go to the grave.

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.2

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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 Ancestry.com. 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.

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Photo taken by Caitlin Conley.

Impressions of Martha Washington: A Visit to New Kent County

By Caitlin Conley, Research Editor
May 12, 2016

Photo taken by Caitlin Conley.

Historical marker for New Kent County, Virginia.

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.

I yearn to know more about her younger life, about her relationship with her first husband, about her family, about her home, about what her favorite dresses were, even.1 Who was this girl, Patsy Dandridge, before she became the wealthy Martha Custis, before she was thrown into the spotlight as Martha Washington? Alas, I’m forced to settle for getting only glimpses of her, when I can get them.

So I was excited to visit New Kent County, Virginia, with our Martha team. I wanted to walk the land she grew up on, to see her Pamunkey River, and to wander about the foundations of her family homes.

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“I am determined to lower her Spirit or Skin her Back”

01-15 KG 'I am determined....' - Seamstress [Public Domain - NYPL]

A photograph of a seamstress, circa 1910. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

By Kathryn Gehred, Research Assistant
January 15, 2016

While transcribing one of Martha Washington’s letters, I was struck by a reference Martha made to an enslaved seamstress named Charlotte.

“she is so indolent that she will doe nothing but what she is told […] if you suffer them to goe on so idele they will in a little time doe nothing but work for them selves[.]”1

Those familiar with the history of slavery will probably know that not working, or working slowly, was a way enslaved people resisted their master’s control. Slaveholders tended to describe that behavior as laziness, and that description has left a stubborn, racist legacy.

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