Since George Washington made lists of the people enslaved at Mount Vernon for his own benefit (and not for the benefit of future historians), he only recorded the information he needed to know. Still, historians can glean valuable information from these materials. With some effort, researchers can use a detached and dehumanizing resource such as a slave list to tell a human story. I recently learned this lesson while annotating a legal document (likely created in 1802) that divided Martha Washington’s slaves amongst her four heirs. I wanted to identify the people named in that list by more than just a first name and price, so I read through George Washington’s slave lists to learn as much as I could.
The U.S. Department of the Treasury sparked controversy in 2016 when it announced plans to place Harriet Tubman on the front of the twenty-dollar bill in 2020. Earlier this summer, the department postponed the bill’s release to 2028.1 When the redesign finally takes place, Tubman will be the first woman on U.S. paper currency since 1886, when Martha Washington appeared on the one-dollar silver certificate. As an editor of the papers of Martha Washington, I was curious about the history of the Martha Washington dollar. Did her image inspire as much debate as Tubman’s?
If it were not for Martha’s handwritten statement of medical costs for the summer of 1757, we would know little about the state of her household leading up to and immediately following her first husband’s death. Financial papers—that general term for documents such as bills and pay orders, receipts and receipted bills, invoices and inventories, statements of account, bills of lading and exchange, accounts of sales, memoranda, and estate settlement papers—are rich with detailed information. Almost one-third of the 600 Martha Washington documents that The Washington Family Papers project has assembled since its inception in 2015 are financial in nature, whether authored by, addressed to, or written about her.
One of [Martha’s] responsibilities as manager of the Mount Vernon estate was acting as primary caregiver to family members as well as to enslaved and non-enslaved workers. This emphasis on the physical wellbeing of herself and of those around her influenced Martha’s everyday decisions and interactions.
I hear a lot of myths surrounding the Washingtons since I have the honor of portraying Martha Washington for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the opportunity to bring her story to life every day through first-person interpretation. It’s a job I cherish, partly because it has led me to meet many wonderful people who are dedicated to telling the Washingtons’ story with truth and passion like the good people at The Washington Papers.
The Adams Papers editorial project at the Massachusetts Historical Society began in 1954, and from its inception, the Washingtons have played key roles in the volumes we have published. The very first volume of Adams Family Correspondence includes a letter written by John Adams in 1775 from the Continental Congress to his wife Abigail Adams at home in Braintree, Massachusetts. In the letter, John introduced the new commander in chief.
Wealth bought Patsy many luxuries: fine clothes and jewelry, a harpsicord and dancing lessons, excursions to Williamsburg, a pet parrot, and other pleasant things. It could not buy her good health, however. From a very early age, Patsy was afflicted with epilepsy. As she entered adolescence, the disease began to grow ominously worse, much to the distress of her family.
Established in 2015 and funded by Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the Martha Washington Papers and Washington Family Papers projects present a more inclusive view than what’s often shown in history textbooks. My fellow project editors and I hope we can contribute to the study of women’s history and of 18th- and 19th-century history in general.
Last month, my family and I took a day trip to Virginia Beach. On the way home, we stopped by the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. This visit to the museum (our first) was particularly special: we had the privilege of receiving a tour from Dr. Thomas E. Davidson, a senior curator, who retired from the museum at the end of July.
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.