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George Washington's heritage

March 26, 2005 1:08 am

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This is the second of two articles on a consideration of the legacy--in character and culture--that George Washington may have received from his parents, who lived in the Fredericksburg area in Colonial times. The first article, on George's mother, Mary Ball Washington, appeared in Town & County on March 12. Today's article deals with his father, Augustine Washington.

WHEN THE FORMAL settlement of Vir- ginia began in 1607, the colony's lower rivers were the early destination for thousands of mostly poor immigrants who fled on ships from London and Bristol to escape the overpopulation, depression and periodic plague in England.

Then in the middle years of the century, the overthrow and beheading of Charles I and the suppression of the aristocracy by Oliver Cromwell and his Commonwealth led to an exodus by the middle and upper classes.

The tidewater peninsulas above the York River became the Colonies' first frontier, rapidly receiving immigrants from all walks of life.

Although there continued to be a preponderance of indentured servants, the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck received also the first Carters, Lees, Pages, Washingtons, Warners and Corbins, who established large estates and became leaders in the newly created counties.

And their descendants became powerful players in Virginia's 18th-century history.

John Washington (1631-1671) arrived in the Northern Neck in the middle of the 17th century to escape the fate of King Charles' supporters in Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth. He became a prominent leader in the new county of Westmoreland; one of the first parishes was named after him.

By means of the ships sailing out of Bristol and London and also by visitation, Washington and his landed neighbors on the Potomac River continued in their former lifestyle and customs as much as possible.

John Washington's son Lawrence (1659-1698) followed in his father's footsteps, serving as a justice on the court, sheriff and a burgess for Westmoreland County in the Assembly at Jamestown. He received his education in England, and he represented some English merchants in the county court.

About 1692, Lawrence married Mildred Warner, one of the three heiress daughters of the wealthy and powerful Augustine Warner of Gloucester County, who had no surviving male heirs. It was a prestigious marriage, in any case. Her father was speaker of the House of Burgesses and a member of the Governor's Council. The marriage was brief, for Lawrence died in 1698. The three children from the marriage were John, Augustine and Mildred.

It was about this time--in the closing decades of the 17th century--that the small port town of Whitehaven in northwestern England began sending ships to Virginia. Whitehaven had coal mines, and it had developed a shipbuilding capability to serve its markets in Scotland and Ireland.

When the town's merchant families began to sail their ships across the Atlantic, their route was north around Ireland, then on toward Virginia's upper rivers.

Among the Whitehaven merchant-mariners who were doing business on the Rappahannock River by 1700 were members of the prominent Gale family. One of them, George Gale, was in Virginia as the company agent.

In 1700, Gale married Lawrence Washington's widow, Mildred, who with her three young children accompanied her new husband to his home.

Ill and pregnant, Mildred Gale died in childbirth in January 1701 shortly after arriving in Whitehaven. Her will was witnessed by the Rev. Francis Yates, the rector of St. Nicholas Church (whose son Charles Yates would become a prominent Fredericksburg merchant half a century later). She was buried in St. Nicholas churchyard.

Mildred Gale's will cited a contract executed at the time of her marriage between Lawrence's executor (his cousin John Washington, living on Chotank Creek in present-day King George County) and her new husband. It empowered her to "devise by will the estate and legacys" of her late husband on behalf of their children. She used her authority to appoint George Gale her children's guardian, in charge of their education and inheritance.

Gale enrolled the two boys, John and Augustine, as boarders at Appleby near Whitehaven, the leading school in northern England. They remained there for three years while he traveled to Virginia to contest the custodial claim now being made by John Washington, Lawrence's executor.

In 1702, Gale was represented before the Westmoreland County court by George Eskridge, a rising lawyer who would become a leading figure in the Northern Neck. The court ruled in favor of George Gale. But Lawrence's cousin appealed the decision at the General Court in Jamestown, and the county court's ruling was reversed. The children were returned to Virginia in 1704, where they grew up in the home of their cousin.

In hindsight, Gale's case seems legally sound, and its reversal was probably not in the best interest of the children in any case. The Gales were the leading merchant family in Whitehaven, wealthy and well established. The Washington boys were receiving a superior education, and they would undoubtedly have found career opportunities in the family's extensive activities, which included mining as well as trade and shipbuilding.

It is a distinct possibility, in the light of Augustine's subsequent interests, that he might have been happier to remain in England with his stepfather's family. George Eskridge, who almost made it happen, became his mentor in his Westmoreland years.

The children's Washington guardian did not have equal credentials and was not an efficient caretaker of their inheritance. As soon as the eldest (John) turned 21, he applied to the court for his inheritance, and his brother and sister immediately applied to have him appointed their guardian. It took many months for an appointed committee of Westmoreland justices to elicit a statement of the estate account.

As the eldest son, John inherited his father's home estate on Bridges Creek, but he elected to settle instead on Warner lands in Gloucester County. He sold his Westmoreland inheritance to his younger brother.

Their sister Mildred accompanied John. In 1726, as her marriages had produced only daughters, Mildred conveyed a 2,500-acre legacy from their father on Hunting Creek to her brother Augustine, who was producing sons. (It eventually became the principal bequest by Augustine to his eldest son, Lawrence, who named it Mount Vernon.)

In 1734, Mildred, a widow made wealthy by two marriages, took as her third husband Col. Henry Willis, who was carving out a career in the frontier commerce of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County. In 1740, widowed once again, she built a home on a prominent hill outside Fredericksburg to house their several offspring. As Willis Hill, the estate remained in the family until 1825.

At 21, Augustine (who came to be called "Gus") occupied his father's estate, and with George Eskridge as a sponsor, began the traditional activities of the gentry.

In 1715, Augustine married 16-year-old Jane Butler (from a neighbor family with ties to earlier generations of Washingtons), began a family and held the customary county and church offices. But about 1725, he became interested in a new mining venture in Stafford County, and his participation on the county court lapsed.

As his involvement and interest in the mine venture deepened, George Eskridge took the precaution of placing Jane Washington's inherited properties in a trust for their two small sons.

In the fall of 1729, Augustine sailed for England to negotiate a contract with the owners of the Accokeek mine. He also took his elder son, Lawrence, with him and enrolled him at Appleby, where he would remain for nine years. On his return in the spring of 1730, Washington was devastated to learn that his wife had died soon after his departure. Distraught with grief, he neglected his new responsibilities at the mine, to the great concern of the owners in England.

George Eskridge and his second wife undoubtedly served as caregivers to the Washington children during Augustine's absence and were concerned with helping the widower put his life back together.

From the beginning of Augustine's involvement in the Accokeek mine, Eskridge had undoubtedly foreseen the opportunity afforded by Mary Ball's inherited property, of which he was the administrator.

That he had already intended for Washington to acquire her 600 acres adjoining the mine by purchase when she came of age seems inescapable. His widowerhood at this very time presented an obvious opportunity.

For both parties, it was a desirable marriage. She would join one of the leading families of the county, and he would have a wife with an asset that would make a valuable contribution to his career and who was, besides, experienced in managing a home and rearing children.

Augustine Washington and Mary Ball were married on March 6, 1731, and she joined him in the home he had built on Popes Creek. There, George Washington (1732), his sister Betty (1733) and brother Samuel (1734) were born.

In 1735, after the death of his daughter Jane and with his second son, Augustine Jr., also at Appleby, Washington moved his second family to the large tract on Hunting Creek that he had purchased from his sister Mildred.

But then he was off to England again, late in the summer of 1736, to negotiate an increase in his share in the mine works. He returned by midsummer the following year, and his son Lawrence followed him home in the spring of 1738. These few months at Hunting Creek afforded Lawrence, now 20, his first acquaintance with his stepmother and his small siblings.

At the end of the year, Washington moved his family again, this time to a farm on the Rappahannock River opposite the new town of Fredericksburg, where he was reunited with his sister Mildred.

When Augustine Washington brought his family to their new home on the bank of the Rappahannock in December 1738, a surprise awaited him. The Gale family had purchased Lot 2, next to the ferry and public wharf in Fredericksburg, and opened a store. It was managed by Matthias Gale, a brother of Augustine's stepfather.

Both Augustine and his sister Mildred certainly had memories of the Gale family from their childhood years. (Their stepfather was now deceased, but he had remained in America, settling in Maryland, where he founded a village called Whitehaven.)

In their years at Appleby, Washington's sons were well received in the close-knit Whitehaven com- munity, where he himself was remembered and his mother was buried in the churchyard at St. Nicholas.

His son Lawrence developed a lasting friendship with the brilliant young headmaster at Appleby, Richard Yates, which continued after his return to Virginia. His second son, Augustine Jr. (called Austin), attended the school for nearly a decade, returning to Virginia in 1742, no doubt on the Gale ship that arrived in the Rappahannock that June.

Washington surely intended for one or more of the sons of his second marriage to attend Appleby, but his death in 1743 eliminated that possibility, as George Washington himself later commented.

"Gus" Washington seemed more settled during his Fredericksburg years. Both he and his son Lawrence bought lots in Fredericksburg. Lawrence wrote from his military duty in Jamaica in 1741, "I hope my lots are secured; which if I return shall make use of as my dwelling." (The Hunting Creek tract had not yet been specified as Lawrence's inheritance. That bequest came later, in Augustine's will hastily drawn on his deathbed.)

In 1740, Washington aided his sister Mildred in devising a plan to protect her assets from her husband's creditors by a legal conveyance to her 6-year-old son. Later that year, the family endured the loss of the infant Mildred, then Henry Willis' death, and finally a December fire that destroyed their home.

In 1742, Augustine was elected by the trustees of Fredericksburg to fill a vacancy in their number. Not a full-fledged government, the trustees officiated at lot sales and were responsible for street maintenance. Although he was not a resident of the town, Augustine and Lawrence owned five of the 64 lots, which made them major investors.

Augustine Washington's death in the spring of 1743, at the age of 49, was sudden, from an attack that barely gave him time to dictate a will. It made scant reference to Mary, though he assigned her valuable slaves by name, as well as a one-fourth share of the residual estate, which, of course, was of unknown value. But he knew that her dower rights would be legally protected.

It is noteworthy, however, that although Augustine willed Lawrence his share of "the title and interest" in the ironworks, he did not mention the 600 acres called Washington's Ore Bank as his property, thus respecting his wife's ownership.

His will was barely coherent, but he knew it was imperative to make some provision for the four young sons of his second marriage; at least for George, now 11, he could provide the Rappahannock farm.

But he really had very little to leave his three youngest sons. Fortunately, Lawrence Washington, who died less than a decade after his father, generously bequeathed to them some of the western land he had acquired. And in this way, Samuel and Charles--and later the grandsons of John Augustine--came to settle in what is today Jefferson County, W.Va.

More than his brother-in-law, Henry Willis, or his first cousin, John Lewis (Fielding's father), Augustine Washington departed from the role of the Colonial gentry. Willis and Lewis were entrepreneurial spirits for their time, but they also served as leaders in parish and county life. A permanent base, and the resulting seniority, were requisites for advancement in Colonial Virginia. Augustine Washington seemingly detached himself from these priorities.

His son did not. George Washington had established wealth and position in the Colonial tradition before he was 30, through inheritance, marriage and personal achievement. And by the age of 45, he was one of the most important figures in the movement toward the new nation's independence.

PAULA S. FELDER of Fredericksburg is a historian and author specializing in the area's 18th-century past. She has continued her interest in the Washington family. Marian McCabe assisted in the research for these articles. Contact Felder by mail in care of Gwen Woolf, The Free Lance-Star, 616 Amelia St., Fredericksburg, Va. 22401, or by e-mail to gwoolf@freelancestar.com.





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