Books and Beyond
“The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington,” by Martha Saxton, c 2019, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, paints a thorough picture of what it was like to live in Virginia in the 1700s. The first English colony in North American was Virginia, established in 1607.
Mary Ball Washington was born in 1708 or 1709 and died in August 1789, four months after her oldest son became our first president.
Her parents were Colonel Joseph Ball and Mary Johnson Ball, who had probably come to America as an indentured servant. Joseph Ball was prosperous as a planter of tobacco. These planters had “dispossessed the Indians of their territory in northeast Virginia” (p. 5). Mary’s father died when Mary was 3 years old, and his will left her slaves and land.
Young Mary learned to read and write, and she could play with slave children. She rode horses well, and she could dance. Mothers were usually busy taking care of household needs.
Her mother dies when Mary is 11 years old. At this age, George Washington’s mother has lost her father, her mother, her stepfather (Captain Richard Hughes), and half-brother.
Here’s a phrase that describes the family changes people had due to deaths of spouses: “… deaths and remarriages rotated the kaleidoscope of relationships…” (p. 77).
Mary was the second wife of Augustine Washington, who became George Washington’s father. Mary was stepmother to his three children — Lawrence, Augustine, and Jane. George was born Feb. 22, 1732, and then Mary gave birth to two sisters and three brothers for George: Elizabeth, b 1733, Samuel, b 1734, John Augustine, b 1736, Charles, b 1738. The last child was Mildred, born in 1739. She died at age 16 months. (At that time 50 percent of children died before the age of 10.)
Mary’s best friend was her half-sister Elizabeth. When she was pregnant with her first child, Mary would ride on her horse from Ferry Farm, where she now lived, to Cherry Point to see Elizabeth.
Mary Ball Washington was sturdy for her children, and she set an example of taking care of daily needs for others, including slaves. She soon went through two more sad times: Her close friend, half-sister Elizabeth, died in 1742. Mary’s husband Augustine died a year later. At this time, George is 11, Elizabeth (she was called Betty), 10, Samuel 8, John Augustine 7, and Charles 4. As George was growing up, he had three brothers and a sister to be an example for.
The Washington children learned proper social behavior in part by their mother’s ability to set a beautiful “tea table.” She also liked working outdoors in her garden.
Mary Ball Washington did not remarry, and this was unusual for a widow. Mary was a strong woman, and she did have relatives who helped her solve issues, in particular her son George and her daughter Betty.
One of the ways she learned to stay on top of troubles was to read devotional books. Chapter 5 is titled Mary Ball, Augustine Washington, and Matthew Hale. Matthew Hale is the author of the book “Contemplations, Moral and Divine.” Augustine gave the book to Mary. (It was his first wife’s book.) The theme of the book is that Christians can bear burdens with strength and learn to focus on doing the work they are called on to do with family and friends. Eternity will bring you closer to God. In the next chapter we read “adopt a cheerful submission to adversity” (p. 155).
These are the teachings George grew up with, and there were morning and evening prayers said in the household. In his later years, he was given Matthew Hale’s book.
When George became the surveyor of Culpeper County, he was 17 years old. His half-brother, Lawrence, had wanted him to join the British Navy, but George’s mother was not in favor of this for George, and it shows how strong she was that the idea was put to rest.
During the Revolutionary War, Mary did not see her son George for five years. A visitor she had two times was the Marquis de Lafayette. He came to America in 1777, and was in the war.
Mary finally saw her son George in February 1784. There was a local celebration for him in Fredericksburg, where she now lived, and when he spoke about his mother, he painted a good picture. In the evening, Mary stayed briefly for the ball, and then her son George walked her home. This is my favorite scene in the book.
In the fall of that year, Lafayette visited her again. She was in her garden in a plain dress for working outdoors. She apologized for not putting on a better garment. (At times George expresses unhappiness at the way his mother dresses. The author uses the word disabille to describe her dress. It’s a French noun that means sloppily dressed.)
Mary Ball Washington died of breast cancer on Aug. 25, 1789. Her son George Washington had become the first president of the United States of America on April 30, 1789. At the time she passed, she was 80 or 81 years old. “Only 5 percent of the population in colonial American lived beyond sixty” (p. 287). The book tells how her will distributed her property, household goods, and slaves. She left her son George the land she had been willed by her father when she was a child.
In 1826 a cornerstone was laid in Fredericksburg to begin a memorial for Mary Washington. President Andrew Jackson was involved. For years historical organizations had different ideas about what should be done. During the Civil War the cornerstone was lying on its side in the grass. The monument was finally completed in 1890, and President Grover Cleveland gave the dedication in 1894.
You can read more about the Washingtons and other presidential families at your Marshall-Lyon County Library. Hours are Monday-Thursday, 9:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.; Friday, 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. and Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.