A Chapter Wholly Away From Mount Vernon

THERE is only one account of that significant day in the life of Washington and the future mistress of Mount Vernon. It is handed down by the grandson of “the charming widow”:

“The colonel was introduced to various guests (for when was a Virginian domicil of the olden time without guests?), and above all, to the charming widow. Tradition relates that they were mutually pleased on this their first interview, nor is it remarkable; they were of an age when impressions are strongest. The lady was fair to behold, of fascinating manners, and splendidly endowed with worldly benefits. The hero, fresh from his early fields, redolent of fame, and with a form on which ‘every god did seem to set his seal, to give the world assurance of a man.’ The morning passed pleasantly away. Evening came, with Bishop, true to his orders and firm at his post, holding his favorite charger with one hand, while the other was waiting to offer the ready stirrup. The sun sank in the horizon, and yet the colonel appeared not. And then the old soldier marvelled at his chief’s delay for he was the most punctual of all men. Meantime, the host enjoyed the scene of the veteran at the gate, while the colonel was so agreably employed in the parlor; and proclaiming that no guest ever left his house after sunset, his military visitor was, without much dif­ficulty, persuaded to order Bishop to put up the horses for the night. The sun rode high in the heavens the ensuing day, when the enamored soldier pressed with his spur his charger’s side, and speeded on his way to the seat of government.”

The remarkable lady whose attractions captivated the marvel of punctuality and caused his servant a vain vigil was Mrs. Martha Dandridge Custis. Though this is represented as her “first interview” with Washington, it is hardly to be believed that they were unknown to each other. Her town and country houses were respectively in and near Williamsburg. Washington was in the capital at least twice every year between October, 1753, and November, 1756, in all on six different occasions. His growing fame and the official nature of his visits to Williamsburg made him a conspicuous figure even now in his twenty-sixth year. In this instance introduction was a shallow formality.

Martha Custis was one of the most admired young matrons in lower tidewater. She was Washington’s junior by a few months. Her girlhood home was in New Kent at the head of the York River. The social life of the young women of that time began at an age al-most inconceivable now, so it is small wonder to read that, when according to modern ideas she should have been in the nursery, or at most in the school-room, she was “presented” in Williamsburg “during the admin­istration of Governor Gooch.” There’s a whole panorama in the phrase, for in the picturesqueness of brocade and laces, jewels and small swords, powdered coiffures and tie-back wigs, indeed in all the formality of manner and observance, the Royal Governors in the Colony of Virginia held a veritable court.

When sixteen Martha Dandridge engaged the attentions of Daniel Parke Custis, in point of antecedents and personal character one of the most desirable bache­lors in their neighborhood, in the large sense of the far-flung neighborhood of those days. At seventeen she became his bride. They were married one June day in 1749, at St. Peter’s Church, near the White House, their home in New Kent. Vaughan Kester, in “The Prodigal Judge,” hints amusingly at the tradition that the titles of the old-time Southern planters might be read in the number of chimneys on their houses. If, as his Yancy said they did, two chimneys breveted a man colonel and four raised him to the rank of general, what shall be said of the magnificent rank of a man whose house stood supported by six chimneys? The Williamsburg house of the Custises was known as the Six-chimney House. Between the two homes they spent the eight years of their married life. Two children, John Parke and Martha, survived their father. Their mother, widowed at the age of twenty-five, was in her own right one of the rich women of the colony.

The day after her first meeting with Washington he rode gayly forward to the Capital and represented “the fortunes of our officers at Winchester” with all possible speed, for there was a strong lure in his heart and he hastened his return overland to the White House on the Pamunkey for his second meeting with pretty Mrs. Custis. His entire stay in the East was brief; not more than a fortnight, it is said. But when he turned his horse’s head westward early in June and began his journey back to the mountains, he took with him the promise which insured Mount Vernon a mistress as soon as he could conclude his military service and come and bear her away to his home at the head of tidewater Potomac.

The mails in those days were irregular and uncertain, even over the well-travelled coastwise highways. The carriage of letters to and from the frontier, as anything beyond the Shenandoah Valley was called at that time, must have been quite irresponsible enough to try the two lovers’ souls. Yet what messages passed between them then or afterward was made a secret forever when later Martha destroyed the letters she had from George. By some chance at least one escaped and is preserved. It is of this period of their engagement, and was sent her as he was putting added miles of uncertain wilderness between them. Self-possession was characteristic of Washington, as boy and as man, but there is a gravity in this letter which, coupled with its tenderness, indicates apprehension for his issue from this military expedition:

“We have begun our march for the Ohio. A courier is starting for Williamsburg, and I embrace the opportunity to send a few words to one whose life is now inseparable from mine. Since that happy hour when we made our pledges to each other, my thoughts have been continually going to you as another Self. That an all-powerful Providence may keep us both in safety is the prayer of your ever faithful and affectionate friend.”

An entire other mood is reflected in the letter written James Wood about the same time, when Washington heard that he was elected to the House of Burgesses:

“If thanks flowing from a heart replete with joy and Gratitude can in any Measure compensate for the fatigue, anxiety and Pain you had at my Election, be assured you have them; ’tis a poor, but I am convinced, welcome tribute to a generous Mind. Such, I believe yours to be. How shall I thank Mrs. Wood for her favorable Wishes, and how acknowledge my sense of obligations to the People in general for their choice of me, I am at a loss to resolve on. But why? Can I do it more effectually than by making their Interest (as it really is) my own, and doing everything that lyes in my little Power for the Honor and welfare of the Country? I think not; and my best endeavors they may always command. I promise this now, when promises may be regarded, before they might pass as words of course.”

Washington’s great-grandfather, John the Emi­grant, his own father and his half-brother Lawrence, sat in the lower house of the Assembly at Williamsburg.

It has been seen how three years before he wrote his brother John at Mount Vernon of his willingness to put his name up for election to represent his home county of Fairfax, if his chances were “tolerably good.” When the call did come it was not from Fairfax but from Frederick, his headquarters during many months of his military service on the frontier. From this time he held his seat as Burgess consecutively for nearly fifteen years. Until 1765 he represented Frederick County, and after that until the outbreak of the Rev­olution he was returned by Fairfax County.

One of Washington’s first thoughts after the happy conclusion of his sentimental errand to the White House was of the future home of the bride. Mount Vernon in 1758 was substantially as when built except that it was the worse for fifteen or more years of wear. Though absent on the frontier, Washington wrote directions for a thorough renovation of the villa, as it was called at the time.

His brother John had moved from the estate. The house was empty. Reports of the progress of the improvements sent him from Mount Vernon show that Humphrey Knight was in charge of the farms, William Poole operated the mill when there was water in the branch to turn the wheel, and the rebuilding of the house was pushed forward by John Patterson. From time to time George William Fairfax came over from Belvoir, overlooked the work of Patterson and the carpenters, supplied hewed and sawed lumber from his stock when Washington’s was delayed in coming from other directions, and wrote him frequent neighborly letters about the details of the rebuilding project.

The house seems not to have been enlarged at this time, but it was thoroughly rebuilt, inside and out. Fifteen thousand bricks were burned on the place, the house was raised on its foundations and new founda­tions were placed under it. New weather-boarding, newly painted, freshened up the outside; the windows were all reglazed; and new sheathing and shingles went on to the roof. Inside there was a deal of ripping out of old plaster and laying on of new, closets were built in, and the floors upstairs and the stairway into the attic gave Colonel Fairfax and Patterson much concern.

“For with regard to the Garrett Stairs,” wrote Col. Fairfax, “I am at a loss unless I know whether you intend that for Lodging Apartments for Servts. If not the Stairs may be carried from the left hand room, which you design for Lumber, without making it publick.” Considering the dilemma of whether to plane down the old floors or to lay new ones, Patterson wrote with an indication of honesty: “Its just ye Nail holes of ye latter, looks but indifferent, but ye Joynts makes amends for that; & in me would be base to take it up, when I am confident, its not in my power to lay a better one, ye Stuff of it being dry, & when playnd over will have much a better look.” But in spite of this Colonel Fairfax decided on new floors and the planks were sent over from Belvoir.

Two new small houses were built at this time. In the absence of any written evidence of where they stood, it is easy to locate them by regular and identical submerged foundations, below the present turf, at equal distances from the west front, and equidistant from the front door. The little houses were razed when later the additions were made to the villa and the curved colonnades were flung out at either end. The submerged foundations define the little houses of this time as having stood just west of the extreme ends of the present enlarged mansion. They were probably connected with the villa by some architectural device—wall, lattice, or colonnade.

No doubt when winter closed in and the villa and its complementary little houses were completed they presented a neat and comfortable appearance. In whatever he did Washington’s taste did not err at either end of parsimony or extravagance.

There were letters from others at Mount Vernon, one in particular which the Colonel must have passed about for the amusement of his staff. Those were days of irresponsible spelling and use of capital letters. But William Poole the miller in addressing his “honourabel Cornai,” disclosed real imagination in the use of these tools of expression. Punctuation he ignored altogether. Here is Poole’s phonetic masterpiece:

“Most honourabel Carnal this with Great Sub­mishon and i hope with out a fens and i hope your honour is in good health, i have hear made Bold to let you no the Qualatys of your mill i have in gande now gaind 604 Barels of Corn and Sixteen Barels of wheat and have in gaind a Great Deal of Custum from meariland as well as heare and now She fails for want of water By reason of a good Deel of Dry weather which makes me Sorry that I cant grind faster for your Custumers and by havein so Cloes in ploy with the mill the fore part of the year it has hind ard me from tendin the ground which i was to have and by Mr. John Washingtons Desiers I throd up the ground to humphry Knight and Mr. John washington told me he would be bound your honour would Sattis fy me for it in which i make no Dout of your honours goodness as i am reaDy to obay and have in a Large famalea to maintane I must in Deaver for a maintenance for them in which i hope youre honour wont tak it amiss and that you will bepleast to let me no in time if i am to minde the mill agane and upon what tirms as I Can maintane my famalea i be in very willin to sery your honour with out hurtin my Self the hors which your Brother put here Dyd with a Distemper which is a great Dis a point ment to the meariland Custumars and now Sur i must begg a line ar to from your honour that i ma no what i have to Doo up on which i Shall rely. and so to Conclud from your humbel Servant at Command

WILLIAM POOLE miller July ye 9 : 1758

To

The Honourabel Curnal George Washington — att Win Chester or Elsewheare

This.

The end of the campaign in the West terminated the frontier troubles with the French, and Washington was free to fulfil with honor his earlier purpose to resign his commission. This he did on his return to Williamsburg in December, 1758. He did not again take up his sword until the Colonies called him from his retirement at Mount Vernon, nearly seventeen years later, to lead their army in the War of Independence.

The termination of the war with the French meant more to Washington than merely his return to civil life. It brought the consummation of those promises exchanged the previous spring. He and Martha Custis were married in January, 1759.

There is so little that is definite and authentic about this event, so important in this story, that it is not easy to reconstruct a detailed picture of the interesting oc­casion. The Rev. Mr. Mosson, rector of St. Peter’s, performed the ceremony. The exact date was lost for nearly a hundred years, when it was picked out of a letter written by Mrs. Bache to her father, Benjamin Franklin, and dated January, 1779. She wrote : “I have lately been several times invited abroad with the general and Mrs. Washington. He always inquires after you, in a most affectionate manner, and speaks of you highly. We danced at Mrs. Powell’s on your birthday, or night, I should say, in company together, and he told me it was the anniversary of his marriage; it was just twenty years that night.”

Dr. Franklin was born on the seventeenth of January by the new calendar in vogue at the date of his daughter’s letter. Washington was married when the old calendar was still generally in vogue which fixes his wedding day on the sixth of January.

The place where they were married is still undetermined. Washington Irving, Bishop Meade, and Benson J. Lossing say at Mrs. Custis’ residence, the White House on the Pamunkey. Worthington Ford and Henry Cabot Lodge say at Saint Peter’s Church. The bride’s own grandson avoided the controversy. As all the accounts of the festivities at the White House that day are based on tradition, his recital is apt to be as dependable as any. And much had he heard of that marriage, he said, “from gray-haired domestics who waited at the board where love made the feast and Washington was the guest. And rare and high was the revelry, at that palmy period of Virginia’s festal age; for many were gathered to that marriage, of the good, the great, the gifted, and the gay, while Virginia, with joyous acclamation, hailed in her youthful hero a prosperous and happy bridegroom. ‘And so you remember when Colonel Washington came a courting of your mistress?’ said the biographer to old Cully, in his hundredth year. `Ay, master, that I do,’ replied the ancient family servant, who had lived to see five generations; ‘great times, sir, great times ! Shall never see the like again!’ ‘And Washington looked something like a man, a proper man; hey, Cully?’ ‘Never seed the like, sir; never the likes of him, tho’ I have seen many in my day; so tall, so straight ! and then he sat a horse and rode with such an air! Ah, sir; he was like no one else! Many of the grandest gentlemen in their gold lace were at the wedding, but none looked like the man himself ! ‘

Mrs. Pryor, in her life of the mother of Washington, says Martha’s wedding gown “was thus described by one of the guests : a white satin quilt, over which a heavy white silk, interwoven with threads of silver, was looped back with white satin ribbons, richly brocaded in a leaf pat-tern. Her bodice was of plain satin, and the brocade was fastened on the bust with a stiff butterfly bow of the ribbon. Delicate lace finished the low, square neck.

There were close elbow sleeves revealing a puff and frill of lace. Strings of pearls were woven in and out of her powdered hair. Her high-heeled slippers were of white satin, with brilliant buckles.”

There is at Mount Vernon one surviving link between that event and what can be conjectured of it. It is pre-served at this writing in the cabinet in one of the upper chambers, known as the Green Room, a quaint old pin-cushion made of a piece of Martha Custis’ wedding dress, and from it may be confirmed at least that portion of the anonymous guest’s description which says that it was brocaded satin and was white and was threaded with silver.

The honeymoon was spent in Williamsburg. Today the old town is a diminishing echo of the sprightly capital of the middle of the eighteenth century. The venerable buildings of William and Mary rise in proud consciousness that it is the second oldest college in the country. The Raleigh Tavern, where the “dissolved” Burgesses met in defiance of their Royal Governor, still stands and nearby is old Bruton Church shepherding its yard of colonial notables. But gone is the House of Burgesses where Washington sat a part of every one of fifteen consecutive years. Gone is the Governor’s palace, scene of so much viceregal splendor, social and official. Gone are the old mansions where the worthies lived and made the capital so gay; among them Martha Custis’ Six-chimney House. Near the place where it was stands a yew tree, and the visitor is told that it was planted by her own hand. In the days of this story the Six-chimney House stood bravely forth one of the handsome mansions of the little capital. Here the young couple spent the first months of their honeymoon. Martha had never been to Mount Vernon, and keen as was her curi­osity to see her new home it had to wait on the readjustment of her affairs and her husband’s attendance upon his first session of the House as a Burgess.

Already a man of extended land possessions, Wash­ington, by his marriage, found himself a well-provided man in other respects. Besides Mount Vernon’s twenty-five hundred acres, he owned the paternal farm on the Rappahannock and thousands of acres beyond the mountains, part of the bounty land which the colony paid its soldiers. His wife’s estate was described by her lawyer as “large and very extensive,” and he had urged her to engage a steward, but “none except a very able man though he should require very large wages.” Her grandson estimated that, “independently of extensive and valuable landed estates,” she received fifteen thousand pounds from Mr. Custis. Elsewhere the widow’s third is described as equalling “fifteen thou-sand acres of land, a good part of it adjoining the city of Williamsburg; several lots in the said city; between two and three hundred negroes; and about eight or ten thousand pounds upon bond.”

If he found the partnership of material advantage, so did she. He was one of the ablest administrators of his time, and how devoted he was as husband to her and as father to her children and grandchildren will be seen.

Not less engrossing than the Colonel’s readjustment of her business affairs were Mrs. Washington’s prepara­tions in closing one and opening another domestic period in her life. The old houses were to be abandoned, and she was preparing to settle her family in a new and distant home. Those were the days of water travel. The boats were loaded at the landing near the mansion with the furniture and bulkier baggage, and sailed out of the York and up the Potomac. No such leisurely conveyance for the master and mistress. Time was valuable to them. Only the speediest form of travel would satisfy. As soon as the Burgesses rose, the Colonel, his bride, and her two children, with their attendants and light luggage, flew across country in their own coach, behind four galloping thoroughbreds, whips cracking and dust clouds rolling, faster and faster, but not so fast as their eagerness to reach the house of his promise and her hope.

Mount Vernon and its neighborhood were on their part in a high state of expectancy. First the engagement and then the wedding had supplanted every other topic and curiosity fed on the dire poverty of informa­tion about the bride. To those on the estate she was an entire stranger whom they were nevertheless eager to welcome on their trust in the master’s choice. It was long before the day when a photograph might have satisfied the curious. Even Daguerre was fifty years in the future with his sensitized silver plates. The only acquaintance they had with her was built from bits out of letters of varying dates to numerous people. She was “plump,” of “medium height,” with “hazel eyes and brown hair,” “hot tempered,” “over-fond, pos­sessed of many amiable beauties of disposition.”

When the wedding day was announced it was believed at Mount Vernon that they would come there at once. But when the Assembly was pleaded for a delay in the South, it was seen to be fortunate that she was not to have her first homecoming over the bottom-less clay of January roads, and arrive amid the desolation of leafless, shivering winter into an unwomaned house. Expectation was willingly transferred to May, when the birds, the blossoms, and the balmy days and nights of spring would create a more fitting atmosphere for the bride.

That was the incomparable month when Martha first knew Mount Vernon. Advance riders with the small luggage brought word that the great coach was on the way. Another courier hurried ahead from Fredericksburg with the detailed directions for every trifle of preparation, as was Washington’s wont, while he remained long enough to rest the bride at Sister Betty’s Kenmore House in the centre of town and then take her across the Rappahan­nock to his mother’s farm that she might know her new daughter. On the last lap of the trip Belle Aire invited a stop with a welcome from the Ewells and Graysons. Then forward again, across the head of Belmont Bay on Colchester Ferry, over the highlands past the old parish church, down Michael Reagen’s hill, through another valley with two or three branches to ford, up the long hill at the west end of Colonel Fairfax’s lands, and, as the road descends again, with the Potomac in sight at the right, an interminable valley on the left, its long reach lost in the purple haze of the distant hills, and before them the glistening white villa on the high hori­zon three miles to the east, they came on to their own domain. They were home again, and for forty years neither knew any other place by that hallowed name except Mount Vernon.