The Washington Family Papers Project
Funded by a grant from George Washington’s Mount Vernon, The Washington Family Papers project (WFPP) aims to collect, transcribe, and annotate selected letters written to and from members of the Washington family. Family members will include George Washington’s parents, those of his siblings who lived past childhood, his stepchildren, his step-grandchildren, and his nephew Bushrod Washington. Work on the Washington Family Papers is now underway.
George Washington was careful to cultivate a sterling public image. It’s often difficult to see below this surface, even after studying the extensive correspondence published in the Papers of George Washington volumes.
One might turn to his wife, Martha Washington, for more insight. They were true partners and sustained a loving relationship through the greatest difficulties. The upcoming edition of Martha’s papers will reveal more than ever before about her life, her relationship with her husband, and her own historical importance. However, much will remain hidden because of gaps in her documentary record.
Integral to George’s daily concerns, as well as to Martha’s, were his family members: his parents, siblings, stepchildren, and step-grandchildren. While letters to and from his family are published in the Papers of George Washington volumes, many more documents are yet to be discovered and made accessible. Some Washington family correspondence does appear in other print sources published since the nineteenth century, but it is sporadic and not authenticated.
As the first edition to publish the Washington family correspondence with consistent focus and methods, the WFPP will offer a new entryway into George Washington’s world. These family members also stand on their own as fascinating historical figures with their individual triumphs and losses:
George Washington’s Parents:
- Augustine Washington (1693-1743)
- Mary Ball Washington (1708-1789)
George’s parents have appeared more in myths and rumors than in actual fact. Augustine Washington had a small part in his famous son’s life, dying when George was just eleven. Augustine had nine children: four with his first wife, Jane Butler Washington, and six with George’s mother, Mary Ball Washington.
Mary Ball Washington prevented George from joining the British Navy in his youth and later struggled with him over his financial support of her. Because of this tumultuous relationship, she is a controversial historical figure, receiving equal parts admiration and scorn.
George Washington’s Half-Siblings:
- Lawrence Washington (1718-1743)
- Augustine Washington (1720-1762)
George had two older half-siblings who survived to adulthood: Lawrence and Augustine. Lawrence acted as a substitute father to George. He was an officer in the Virginia regiments and politically active in Fairfax County. Lawrence introduced George to the Fairfax family and took him on what ended up being George’s only trip outside of the country. George’s diary from their trip to Barbados will be its own separate edition. Lawrence died at just 34 years old. After Lawrence’s wife subsequently passed away, George inherited Mount Vernon. George kept a portrait of his older half-brother in his study to the end of his days.
George was not as close to Augustine, though they did have a business relationship and visited each other regularly. After attending school in England, Augustine settled at Pope’s Creek, where George was raised.
George Washington’s Full Siblings:
- Elizabeth (Betty) Washington (1733-1797)
- Samuel Washington (1734-1781)
- John Augustine Washington (1736-1787)
- Charles Washington (1738-1799)
George was the eldest of his full siblings, four of whom lived to adulthood: Elizabeth, Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles.
George’s only surviving sister, Elizabeth (Betty), married the widower Fielding Lewis in 1750 and had eleven children. She was always supportive of her older brother, fulfilling his requests and supporting his causes.
On the other hand, his younger brother, Samuel, led a turbulent life, marrying five times, struggling with poor health, and ending up deeply in debt. After his death, George was left to handle his complex estate.
George was perhaps closest to his third-youngest sibling, John Augustine, whom he called “Jack.” John Augustine helped manage Mount Vernon for him during the French and Indian War. He was politically active in Westmoreland County, Virginia during the Revolution and later became a founding trustee of Charles Town, Virginia. His eldest son, Bushrod, would eventually inherit Mount Vernon.
Charles had a less happy relationship with George. He married Mildred Thornton in 1757. Charles was a leading citizen of Fredericksburg until he moved to live on the land he had inherited in the Shenandoah Valley. He was mostly responsible for administering his brother Samuel’s complicated estate, though not to George’s satisfaction.
George Washington’s Stepchildren:
- John (Jacky) Parke Custis (1754-1781)
- Martha (Patsy) Parke Custis (1756-1773)
Jacky Custis gave his stepfather many difficulties. Though he was dedicated to his mother’s happiness, he was also spoiled and more interested in fox hunting than his studies. Against George’s wishes, he married Eleanor Calvert before he finished his schooling. They had four children together. As Jacky had outlived all of his siblings, Martha was extremely protective of him. Nevertheless, she could not prevent him from travelling with George to Yorktown, where Jacky would serve as a civilian aide. She was devastated when Jacky caught camp fever and passed away.
His younger sister, Patsy Custis, led a short and difficult life. She was the youngest daughter of Martha Washington and her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. She suffered from seizures much of her life, leading historians to speculate that she had a form of epilepsy. George and Martha loved her dearly and tried everything contemporary medicine could offer. In spite of all their efforts, they couldn’t find a cure. She died with George and Martha by her bedside when she was just seventeen.
George Washington’s Step-Grandchildren:
- Elizabeth (Eliza) Parke Custis Law (1776-1832)
- Martha (Patty) Parke Custis Peter (1777-1854)
- Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis Lewis (1779-1852)
- George (Washy) Washington Parke Custis (1781-1857)
When Jacky Custis died in 1781, Martha and George became the guardians of two of his children: Nelly and Washy. The eldest two daughters, Eliza and Patty, continued living with their mother, while Nelly and Washy moved to Mount Vernon.
Eliza, the eldest, had a warm relationship with George. She married Thomas Law, who was involved with planning the new Federal City. However, a couple of years after her grandparents died, Eliza and Thomas Law divorced. She led a hard, wandering life afterwards, though she made it her mission to protect the Washington family legacy.
Patty, perhaps, was not as close to her step-grandfather as Eliza. She married Thomas Peter, a prominent Georgetown merchant. The couple had a congenial relationship with George and Martha.
Nelly is the best-known of the sisters. She is also the only family member to have a documentary edition of her letters: Patricia Brady published a volume of her correspondence to Elizabeth Bordley Gibson in 1991. Vivacious and beautiful, Nelly was beloved by both her grandparents. She married Lawrence Lewis in 1799 and had eight children, though only three lived to adulthood. She spent much of her later life keeping alive her grandparents’ legacy.
Washy was a colorful character, who gave George many of the same problems that his father, Jacky, did. Martha, however, was deeply attached to him and had trouble letting him out of her sight. After his grandparents’ deaths, Washy tended his plantation, wrote plays and articles, and achieved some renown as an orator. His only surviving daughter, Mary Custis, married Robert E. Lee. Mary Custis Lee put together her father’s articles into a memoir titled Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington. While problematic, the book offers unique information on home life at Mount Vernon.
George Washington’s Nephew, Bushrod Washington (1762-1829)
Bushrod was the eldest son of John Augustine, who was perhaps George’s closest sibling. Bushrod was serious and studious, winning George’s approval; George had struggled mightily to get his stepson and step-grandson to take such interest in their educations. Bushrod attended the College of William and Mary and eventually opened a law practice. He became a United States Supreme Court Justice in 1798, just one year before his uncle died. George left a large part of the Mount Vernon estate to Bushrod and entrusted him with all of his papers.