Description

    [George Washington] Washington Family Archive, dated from 1662 to 1835. This vast archive contains numerous letters, land deeds, wills, plats, and various other items, documenting much of the property of George Washington's estate following his death. It also documents much of the life of Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, the nephew of George Washington, as well as other Washington family members, including their slaves.

    Physically unlike his uncle George Washington, Bushrod was a short, unassuming figure, but he did resemble his famous uncle in his devotion to family and country. Following a short stint as a Revolutionary War soldier, Bushrod Washington (1762-1829) studied law in Philadelphia. Afterward, he served in Virginia's General Assembly at the time when the state ratified the U.S. Constitution. In 1798, President John Adams, appointed the Virginian, then only thirty-six-years old, to the Supreme Court, making him one of the youngest justices ever appointed. His service of thirty-one years on the court, which ended with his death in 1829, is one of the longest in American history. He was also active in social affairs, taking leadership roles in the American Colonization Society, the American Bible Society, and the Bunker Hill Monument Association (all documented in this archive). Bushrod's father, John Augustine Washington, was George's younger brother. In his will, George Washington, who died in 1799, bequeathed Mount Vernon to his nephew and made him an executor of his will.

    In 1890, Bushrod C. Washington (1839-1919), a great-great nephew of Judge Bushrod Washington, discovered a trunk which had belonged to the judge. Though many of the items within the trunk were sold at auction the next year, the papers offered in this archive were held back and have remained in the Washington family until now; particularly, these papers have remained with the family line of the judge's nephew Bushrod Corbin Washington, who was the executor of Judge Washington's will and the next recipient of Mount Vernon.

    This archive consists of three boxes and one folder of oversized items. By far, most items are handwritten and have been well cared for. All papers have been painstakingly organized and transcribed by the John D. Rockefeller Library. Many of the letters and documents have been reinforced with rice paper. A few, however, are missing text because of vermin or other reasons. Some are very fragile; occasional dampstaining occurs.

    Box 1

    The box marked "Box 1" contains twenty-nine folders of correspondence dated between 1782 and 1835 and mostly written to Judge Bushrod Washington by his brother Corban. Many letters were written by Bushrod Corbin Washington, the nephew of the judge, and his wife, Anna Marie, to their son Thomas Washington. Following are some highlights from Box 1.

    Jared Sparks was a historian who published the Life of George Washington (two volumes, 1839, not included in this archive) and the Life and Writings of George Washington (twelve volumes, 1842, not included). As an elderly man, the judge loaned eighty volumes of books, as well as numerous letters of George Washington, to the historian in 1827. The books are recorded by the judge in a "Memorandum of Papers taken by Jared Sparks from Mount Vernon May, 1827." Bushrod uses the memorandum to notify Sparks that he had "put on board the schooner Alexandria for Boston a large box containing . . . the letters to Genl Washington." In a letter dated January 1835, Sparks informs Bushrod of his progress "in the publication of Washington's Papers": "The work will consist of twelve volumes. . . . If no accident intervenes, the whole will be completed & delivered to the public within two years from this time."

    Elizabeth Hamilton, the widow of Alexander Hamilton, writes two missives - both are signed - to Bushrod requesting the return of letters written by her husband to George Washington.

    The Washington family slaves are mentioned often in the correspondence, especially information on the sales and health of various slaves. When George Washington died in 1799, he freed the slaves that he had owned, but the slaves that Martha Washington owned were not freed and continued in bondage after the ownership of Mount Vernon transferred to the judge. Interestingly, Bushrod Washington was the first president of the American Colonization Society, an organization formed in 1816 to eliminate American slavery by relocating American slaves to Africa. Despite this, in 1821 he sold fifty-four of his ninety slaves to Louisiana plantation owners, rather than relocate them in Africa. This soon became national news that was followed by an outcry from abolitionists. In this collection is a letter written in 1822 by an abolitionist and signed "Urbain Babier," who, in an interesting mix of French and English, denounces Bushrod for selling his slaves. "Je have heard of vo-tre Character in Louisiana, Where vous sent vo-tre Slaves. Me understand vous got very bon-ne price for leurs bodies. . . . how strange to see a wretch who sells his fellow Mortals pretend to administer Justice. Vous suppose you are great because named Washington. you image you may commit crimes with impunitee. 'Wretched being le time is comeing when vous have to answer for vo-tre base crimes.' . . . La Spanish Pirate is better than vous. . . . your brains ought to be blown out. vous stinken Cur."

    Joseph Story, a friend and fellow Supreme Court associate justice, also read the newspaper articles and in a letter dated December 21, 1821, tried to console Bushrod. "I read the attack upon you in the Southern newspapers respecting the sale of your slaves last summer, I was extremely disgusted both with the matter & the manner. . . . Though in New England we are practically opposed to slavery, yet it is a temperate opposition & readily admit the difficulties." (Two autograph letters signed by Story are included.)

    Two years later, two slaves fled Mount Vernon. The judge's nephew, Bushrod C. Washington, tracked them, and on April 12, 1823, he wrote his uncle from Norristown, Pennsylvania, "They are not far from this place concealed, & that it will require some little management to come at them; they have distinctly understood from some Quakers that they have been been recently passing about in this neighbourhood & are unwilling to give any information about them untill informed that they (the negroes) were guilty of horse stealing; upon which they said they were willing to afford protection to runaways, but no disposed to render any assistance to disonesty."

    Returning fugitive slaves to their owners was on the mind of Richard Peters, the reporter of decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, when he wrote Bushrod in 1828, "We have had a Kickup among our Ultra Abolitionists, on the subject of fugitive slaves. I have long wished Congress would give the power, cumulative not exclusive to the Judges of the U.S. to issue warrants on the application of the Masters or Owners of Slaves, or their agents, for the apprehension of Fugitives. This would deter Mobs & Ultras from interfering, as they do when Slaves are carrying before a Judge by those who seized them without warrant. . . . Some of our Assembly men, & many of our abolitionists, say that their Consciences warrant every obstruction to the recovery of Slaves by their sinful owners." (Two autograph letters signed by Peters are included.)

    The judge still had hopes of freeing American slaves one day. In an undated letter to an unknown recipient, Bushrod wrote about his hopes - and fears - about "arranging such a scheme. . . . I have no hesitation in declaring that I can concur in all the sentiments you express as to the policy of giving freedom to our slaves under such modifications as may insure their happiness and promote the well being of our country. . . . This unfortunate class of society constitute the great mass of labour employed in the agriculture of the southern states. To . . . [illegible] it prematurely before it is ready to be supplied by an equally efficient white population would be attended by the most disastrous consequences." Bushrod continues by noting some possibilities on how to arrange the "scheme", such as giving "compensation to the owners from the national treasury."

    In the meantime, slaves were an important part of Mount Vernon. Following a visit from an elderly slave called "Old Charles," Anna Maria Washington, wife to Bushrod Corbin Washington, writes to her fifteen-year-old son Thomas B. Washington in 1827 concerning the treatment of slaves. "I pity old servants who in youth have been accustomed to ease & comparative luxury left in old age without what have become to them almost necessaries of life. I hope My Darling you will be the Friend of the poor Black People and if you ever become a Master will strive to 'give unto your servants that which is just and equal' and do unto them as you could reasonable wish them to do to you if your relative situations were reversed." Two years after the judge's death, financial difficulties caused Bushrod Corbin Washington to sell more slaves. "I have sold Dawson and family to Captn Mat Ransom and hope to sell Levinia and family in the neighbourhood; I hope then to get on without selling any more of my negroes here." He had, though, swapped his "old Brickmaker . . . for his little Boy Armstis[?] (the Brother of Randall Junr) I have him in the house, to train up as a house servant; my carpenter Randall I expect to sell, to be with his wife, in the lower part of Virginia."

    The Supreme Court is the subject of two letters from Box 1 written by Associate Justice Joseph Story, the youngest judge to be appointed to the Supreme Court. He asks Bushrod in a letter dated November 1816, "what has been the practice, if any, in the District or Circuit Courts of Pennsylvania & New Jersey upon the Summary applications to repeal patents under the 10th Sect. of the Patent act 1793." In a second letter dated December 1821, Story writes seven pages in reply to some "very interesting cases" which Bushrod had previously sent him. Story names each of the legal cases, which include Phillips v. McCall, U.S. v. Frederickton, and Martin v. Bank of U.S., and writes his own comments about each. "I do not know that there is a single point, in which, if I understand you rightly, I disagree with you; & in all the important points I am entirely ex animo with you." The associate justice then gives Bushrod his own "List of decisions for the last circuit, which closed out a few days since." Lengthy explanations by Story follow each legal case, many dealing with maritime matters, but Story discusses the illegal slave trade when he writes about United States v. [the schooner] La Jeune Eugenie. "Libel. 1. for being engaged in the slave trade against our Act of Congress. 2. as against the laws of nations generally. By the evidence it appeared that the vessel was documented as French - was American built & owned until within 2 years - sailed from Guadaloupe & was taken by one of our public ships on the coast of Africa. . . . The cause was most elaborately argued on several points. 1. That this was an American vessel. . . . 2. That the slave trade to Africa was against the Laws of Nations & the Laws of America & France. . . . I took time to deliberate & pronounced a very long opinion, tres recherche. It is now in press & I shall send it to you as soon as published. I held . . . That the African Slave Trade was theoretically repugnant to the Laws of Nation. . . . I dare say you will think me a bold judge. Be it so, but I must ask your patience to read before you condemn me. I have Sir W[alter] Scott against me; but I have Sir W[illiam] Grant in my favour. . . . I have not meddled at all with the question of the right of slavery in general."

    Box 2

    Box 2 contains thirty-one folders of more correspondence and legal documents which have been organized into Estate Matters, Financial Agreements, Land Disputes, Plats, and Wills, all dated between 1697 and 1829. Following are some highlights.

    George Washington is the subject of many letters. On April 4, 1783, John Augustine Washington wrote his son Bushrod concerning the unrest among General Washington's unpaid officers, an episode known as the Newburgh Conspiracy. "I had the happiness to receive your letter by Genl [Horatio] Gates the first Inst. and am much obliged to you for the trouble you have taken in sending me the extracts from the proceedings of the Officers, it is a melancholly reflection that Congress should hesitate to do common Justice to a set of Men that deserve everything at our hands . . . I doubt not Congress will see there folly and redress the Grievances of the Army and that a happy conclusion will be put to that business. . . . I am very anxious to hear how the dispute with the Army is settled, and the Genl opinion when trade will begin to flourish, an authentic copy of the treaty of peace between the United States & G. Britain I shall be glad to get as soon as it comes to hand."

    Many letters and documents are concerned with the estate left by "the General," as George Washington was known to the family. Some include deposit amounts from "the Estate of Genl Washington." Several letters written in the 1820s document Bushrod's continued attempts to settle the general's past accounts. One legal document - a "True Copy taken by William Grayson" - contains information about 450 acres sold to George Washington; others record disputed land in "the City of Washington."

    Box 2 contains nine plats:

    1. "Plat of Bath" [Berkley Springs, West Virginia], 16" x 13", showing lots owned by "Genl. Washington." (Washington was just sixteen years old when he first surveyed the area around Bath. He became one of the town's first landowners.)
    2. Plat of land owned by several Washington family members, 17" x 13.5".
    3. "Plats of three Tenements of Lands" surveyed in 1789, 13" x 16".
    4. "Plat of John Aug. Washingtons several Tracts of Land in Frederick," 14.5" x 12".
    5. "Mr. John A. Washington Plat of 66 acres," surveyed in 1815, 7" x 11.5".
    6. "Sundry Plots own Worthington, Jr." surveyed in 1734, 18.25" x 23.5".
    7. Plat addressed "To Maj Washington, Frederick Land Papers," 6" x 8".
    8. "Plat of the late Genl. Geo. Washington's Lands in Jefferson County. Note another survey was made about July 1805," 10" x 15.75".
    9. A 1736 survey of Virginia land along Nomony Creek.

    Box 2 also contains several wills of seemingly three generations of Bushrod-family men, dated 1697, 1720 and 1760, bequeathing, among many other things, slaves to family members. (Bushrod was the maiden name of Hannah Washington, the wife of John Augustine Washington.) Also of note are three documents signed by Henry "Light-Horse" Lee, all dated in the late 1790s, and three autograph letters signed by George Wythe (all signed "G. Wythe"), a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

    Box 3

    Box 3 contains nineteen folders of wills and other documents, dated between 1759 and 1830. Following are some highlights.

    Wills, providing information on the Washington family's possessions, include, among others, those of John Augustine Washington, Hannah Washington (John's wife), and a contemporary "Copy of Judge [Bushrod] Washington's Will," sixteen-pages dated 1828 in which the judge bequeathed to his wife "the whole of my Mount Vernon Land . . . and also all the rest of my negroes . . . [and] my share in the Dismal Land Company. . . . It is my Will that as soon and as fast as the debts to me are collected, their amount including whatever I may be entitled to receive from the estate of my deceased Uncle General George Washington in my own right . . . may be invested by my Executors in publick or other safe stocks, and the interest whereof which may accrue during the life of my wife, I give to her." The will further states that after the death of his wife, the "Mount Vernon Land" was to be given to his nephew, John A. Washington, whose 1833 will (also included) directs that Mount Vernon be sold "to the government of the United States." (The government, however, was not interested in purchasing the plantation.) Also included is a five-page list of "Property Sold at Selby and Valuation of Negroes Jany 12, 1813," which contains the names of several slaves and their values at Selby, the home of Corbin Washington in Fairfax County. Included among the wills is a March 1828 letter signed by Harvard's President J. T. Kirkland notifying Bushrod that "The Corporation of Harvard University" had conferred upon him "the Degree of Doctor of Laws." Also of interest is an undated recipe for cement, addressed to the "President of the United States Mount Vernon" and docketed "Cement" in George Washington's hand.

    Oversized Items

    Consisting of over fifteen documents, all dated between 1662 and 1830. Most of the documents are indenture notices (land deeds) related to the Washington and Bushrod families specifying land amounts, prices, and locations. (Several of the documents are damaged, resulting in the loss of some text.) Included is an "Inventory and Appraisement of the personal Estate of Bushrod Washington Sen[ior]. Decd. of Mount Vernon," ca. 1830, which lists the names and appraisal values of thirty-five Mount Vernon slaves, including "Olliver [Smith]" and his family. (Oliver Smith served as the venerable Mount Vernon guide in the 1830s, often deceiving visitors by telling them that he was with General Washington when he died.) The eighteen-page inventory also lists farm implements, animals, books, pamphlets, household items from various rooms, works of art (including "Bust of Genl. Washington"), bottles of wine and whiskey, General Washington's sword and pistols, and the "Key of Bastile [sic]" (a gift from Lafayette to George Washington). All items in the inventory total $21,512.78. Page sixteen lists sixteen other slaves that were "left Bushd Washington Jun. . . . at Mt. Zephyr." ("Bushrod Jr." was Bushrod Corbin Washington).


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