I believe Mary Ball Washington's legacy needs exonerating. I came to that conclusion after meeting Laura Galke, artifact analyst at Ferry Farm, George Washington's boyhood home. Mary lived at Ferry Farm beginning in 1738, a few years after marrying the widower Augustine Washington.
I heard Galke speak during the Virginia Press Women's summer conference in Fredericksburg, just a few miles from Ferry Farm. Having lived as a widow for 20 years, I was fascinated with Mary Washington's story. Widowed in 1743 at the age of 35, she was left with five children under the age of 12. The eldest would become our nation's first president.
Augustine Washington's death threw his widow into a Catch-22 situation. Two sons from his previous marriage each inherited a farm, immediately cutting their stepmother's income by more than half. As a widow, though she lived in a time when women couldn't own property or vote, Mary retained the right to manage the remaining four farms and keep the profits. If she remarried, her new husband would have automatically gained control of the farms and the profits. So Mary Ball Washington chose widowhood.
Ultimately, George inherited Ferry Farm, where his mother lived until 1772, when she moved into a home in Fredericksburg. In that home, now maintained as the Mary Washington House, George received her blessing prior to becoming president. Breast cancer claimed her life shortly thereafter at the age of 81, a rare age to attain then.
In a peer-reviewed article accepted for the fall 2011 issue of Northeast Historical Archaeology, Galke makes her case for Mary Washington's legacy, claiming that her reputation has been marred by several inaccuracies over the years.
"Nineteenth-century biographers tended to depict this matron as the epitome of American motherhood," Galke explains, "but with few exceptions, 20th-century biographers have been decidedly less sympathetic toward her, and a number of them have been highly critical of her influence on George."
Galke admits she knew little of Mary Washington when she came to Ferry Farm in 2008. Since then, she has provided new information through archaeological finds, allowing a fresh perspective on the president's mother.
Galke points out that 99 wig curlers have been found at the actual homeplace. These instruments were used to care for wigs worn by young men in genteel society. The discovery of fragments of tea sets and pewter teaspoons engraved with her daughter's initials indicate that all five children learned the proper way to serve and take tea. Both discoveries suggest that etiquette was stressed in the home, which surely contributed to George marrying Martha Dandridge Curtis, one of the most eligible widows of the time.
"This picture is in stark contrast to the self-absorbed, austere and tormented mother of our first president popular in many 20th-century narratives," Galke adds.
Galke agrees with historian Martha Saxton, who argues that widows such as Mrs. Washington offended men by trying to live a financially independent life. It reminds me of the many times I've been questioned about not remarrying after my husband's death, as if remaining single was unthinkable. Maybe Mary discovered, as I have, that men of a certain age bring more baggage than good sense to a relationship.
Today, Ferry Farm is run by the nonprofit George Washington Foundation. A visitor's center, museum and nature trail on site allow visitors to wander and enjoy exhibits of artifacts. "We hope that continued archaeological investigations will help us re-create the 18th-century landscape of Ferry Farm, since this is a little-known era of the Washington family," Galke adds.
Aug. 25 marks the 222nd anniversary of Mary Ball Washington's death. It's about time we got her legacy right.
©Nancy Wright Beasley 2011. All rights reserved.