Betty Washington Lewis was more than just the only sister of George Washington to survive to adulthood; she was also a patriot. Lewis and her husband, Fielding, contributed a considerable amount of their personal wealth and time toward the American Revolution. Their devotion and loyalty to the wartime effort and to its leader, George Washington, inadvertently led them to financial hardship.
Born on June 20, 1733, Betty Washington was the second child and only surviving daughter of Augustine and Mary Ball Washington. Christened as Elizabeth, Betty was most likely named after her mother’s beloved half-sister, Elizabeth Johnson Bonhum. Along with her eventually famous older brother George, Betty had three other brothers, Samuel, John (Jack), and Charles, and a sister, Mildred, who died in infancy. From her father’s first marriage, she also had three half-brothers, Butler, Lawrence, and Augustine, only two (Lawrence and Augustine) of whom survived to adulthood, and a half-sister, Jane, who died when a child.1
Betty Washington was born at the family estate on Pope’s Creek in Westmoreland County. In 1735, the Washingtons moved to a property on the Upper Potomac, known at the time as Little Hunting Creek but eventually renamed Mount Vernon. In 1740, the family moved to Ferry Farm, overlooking the Rappahannock River, across from the town of Fredericksburg.2
Like many Virginia girls among the gentry, young Betty Washington no doubt received some practical and ornamental education. She learned to ride a horse at an early age and most likely became an expert horsewoman. Like all young Virginians, she must have learned to dance. Her mother taught her the domestic arts, such as sewing, knitting, and embroidery. Along with her four brothers, Betty attended a school taught by Reverend James Marye, a scholarly Huguenot. Betty and her family regularly attended Falmouth Church in Brunswick Parish, which contributed to her lasting faith and regular attendance at services in St. George’s Parish in the latter part of her life.3
Betty Washington was sixteen when she married the widower Fielding Lewis, who was eight years her senior, on May 7, 1750. The couple not only shared the same acquaintances and circulated in the same social circles, they were also second cousins through their maternal grandmothers, who were sisters. Marriage between kin was common in eighteenth-century Virginia. Fielding Lewis’ first wife, Catharine Washington, was also a cousin. Betty Washington’s marriage settlement of £400 and two female slaves, left to her in her father’s will, along with Fielding Lewis’ wealth, enabled the newly married couple to live comfortably.4
In 1752, Fielding Lewis purchased 1,300 acres on the outskirts of Fredericksburg and asked his brother-in-law, George Washington, to survey the 861-acre portion that would be the site of Kenmore, the Lewises’ exquisite house.5 Together, Betty and Fielding Lewis had a total of eleven children, six of whom survived to adulthood. Betty Lewis also had two stepchildren, from Fielding's first marriage. It was at Kenmore where Betty and Fielding Lewis resided and raised their family during their thirty-one years of married life.6
Kenmore was a Georgian-style two story home that consisted of eight rooms, a full cellar, twelve-foot high ceilings, and 4,000 square feet of living space.7 Many people lived and worked at Kenmore, including eighty slaves, whose quarters were among the many outbuildings on the estate. Records indicate it took several years to build the house, in part because the disruption of trade during the imperial crisis prevented the Lewsises from obtaining necessary supplies from England. Decorative plasterwork on the ceilings and mantles were added as late as 1775.8
Fielding Lewis was often away from Kenmore due to his involvement in public life. He was a vestryman of St. George’s Church, a colonel in the Spotsylvania County militia, and from 1760 to 1768 served as a member of the House of Burgesses. In 1773, he joined Virginia’s pre-revolutionary Committee of Correspondence.9 Fielding’s absence left Betty in charge of running and maintaining their estate. Although she had many slaves to do manual tasks, like other plantation mistresses, she supervised their work. She also oversaw the management of her gardens, spent much of her time attending to her children, offered hospitality to guests, and hosted various social gatherings. Betty’s brother George was one of Kenmore's many frequent visitors.10
Betty and Fielding Lewis were strong supporters of the Revolution, and their loyalty to the cause cost them financially. The Lewises owned a store, which originally belonged to Fielding’s father. During the war, Fielding supplied salt, flour, bacon, and clothing to patriot forces. Herbs and other produce from Betty’s gardens became teas and ointments that Fielding also supplied to the army. In July 1775, the Virginia assembly passed an ordinance providing for a “Manufactory of Small Arms in Fredericksburg, Va.” and named Fielding Lewis and four other men as its Commissioners. Appropriations of £25,000 were distributed and land was secured near Hunter’s Forge for the construction and operation of the gunnery. However, the appropriations ran out, and Betty and Fielding Lewis used £7,000 from their personal accounts to maintain the gunnery. They later borrowed between £30,000 and £40,000 to provide saltpeter, sulfur, gunpowder, and lead for the manufacture of ammunition during the war. Kenmore was heavily mortgaged to meet the costs of these patriotic endeavors.11
Betty Lewis handled family affairs for her brother George, while Fielding managed many of his financial concerns. Fielding collected outstanding debts for George, and he also handled several land transactions for his brother-in-law.12 Meanwhile, when George and Betty’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, died in 1789, shortly after he had left for New York to assume the presidency, George asked his sister to take care of their mother’s estate, providing her with detailed instructions, which she followed.13 In 1790, at George’s request, Betty cared for their niece Harriot Washington, the daughter of their deceased brother Samuel. Harriot resided at Mount Vernon, and her uncle George was her guardian. Beginning in October 1792, due to the responsibilities of the presidency in Philadelphia, there were no women living at Mount Vernon to watch over her, so George Washington instructed Betty Lewis to move Harriot to Kenmore, which she did.14
When Fielding Lewis died December 1781, just two months after the American victory at Yorktown, the Commonwealth of Virginia still owed the Lewises some £7,000. In widowhood at age 49, Betty struggled financially and sometimes hired out her slaves to raise money. She also tried running a small boarding school at Kenmore, though she had to sell land in order to keep the school and Kenmore afloat.15 Betty Lewis remained at Kenmore fourteen years before she went to live with her daughter, Betty Carter, in Culpepper County. On March 31, 1797, she died at her daughter’s home, Western View, and was buried on the property.16 Eighteen days after she died, Kenmore and its contents were sold. The Lewis descendants were never compensated for Betty and Fielding Lewis’ enormous expenditures in support of the revolutionary cause.
Rebecca A. Johnson
George Mason University
2. Charles Moore, The Family Life of George Washington (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1926), Internet Archive, 12-13; Duke, Kenmore and the Lewises, 19.
3. Duke, Kenmore and the Lewises, 20-21, 37-38; Moore, The Family Life of George Washington, 206-7.
4. Fielding Lewis, “Genealogical notes of the Fielding Lewis family,” Fred W. Smith National Library, Mount Vernon, General Collection; Eugene Scheel, “Kenmore House One of the Finest Examples of American Colonial Architecture;” “Augustine Washington, April 11, 1743, Will,” American Memory, The Library of Congress, Source: George Washington Papers 1741-1799, Series 4, General Correspondence, 1697-1799, Library of Congress, Manuscripts Division; “Augustine Washington’s Will,”
5. “To George Washington from Fielding Lewis, 23 April 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 10, 21 March 1774?–?15 June 1775, ed. W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 343–344; Vivian Minor Fleming, The Story of Kenmore (Fredericksburg, VA: Kenmore Association, 1927), 6.
7. Though Kenmore is the more commonly known name of the home of Colonel Fielding Lewis and Betty Washington Lewis, it was first called “Millbrook.” The name was changed to Kenmore by Samuel Gordon who purchased Kenmore in 1819. According to tradition, the Gordons named the house "Kenmore" after their ancestral Scottish home of Kenmuir.
9. William Pitt Palmer, and Sherwin McRae, eds., Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Other Manuscripts, 1652-1781, vol. 1 (Richmond: R. F. Walker, Superintendent of Public Printing, 1875), Internet Archive, 406; Scheel, “Kenmore House;” Duke, Kenmore and the Lewises, 62-65.
10. Duke, Kenmore and the Lewises, 50; Felder, Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family, 164-165; Moore, Family Life of George Washington, 12-13.
11. “Fielding Lewis Store: The Oldest Retail Building in America?,” Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, 2005; “Fielding Lewis;” Palmer, and McRae, eds. Calendar of Virginia State Papers, 456, 502-3; Duke, Kenmore and the Lewises, 94-96; Fleming, Story of Kenmore, 9; “To George Washington from Fielding Lewis, 14 November 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 2, 16 September 1775?–?31 December 1775, ed. Philander D. Chase (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987), 371–373.
12. “From George Washington to Fielding Lewis, 20 April 1773,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 9, 8 January 1772?–?18 March 1774, ed. W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994), 221–224; “To George Washington from Fielding Lewis, 8–9 May 1773,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: ibid., 229–230. “To George Washington from Fielding Lewis, 24 May 1773,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: ibid., 235.
13. “From George Washington to Betty Washington Lewis, 13 September 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4, 8 September 1789?–?15 January 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993), 32–36.
14. “To George Washington from Harriot Washington, 2 April 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 5, 16 January 1790?–?30 June 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig, Mark A. Mastromarino, and Jack D. Warren (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996), 310–311; “To George Washington from Betty Washington Lewis, 25 September 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 11, 16 August 1792?–?15 January 1793, ed. Christine Sternberg Patrick (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002), 155–156; “From George Washington to Betty Washington Lewis, 7 October 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: ibid., 201-202.
15. “To George Washington from Betty Washington Lewis, 24 September 1793,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 14, 1 September–31 December 1793, ed. David R. Hoth (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2008), 131–132.
16. Moncure Daniel Conway, ed. George Washington and Mount Vernon: A Collection of Washington’s Unpublished Agricultural and Personal Letters, vol. 4. (Brooklyn: Long Island Historical Society, 1889), lix; Fleming, Story of Kenmore, 10-11.
Duke, Jane Taylor. Kenmore and the Lewises. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1949.
Felder, Paula S. Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family: A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg. Fredericksburg, VA: American History Company, 1998.
Fleming, Vivian Minor. The Story of Kenmore. Fredericksburg, VA: Kenmore Association, 1927.
Kierner, Cynthia A. Beyond the Household: Women’s Place in the Early South, 1700-1835. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.
Moore, Charles. The Family Life of George Washington. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1926. Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/familylifeofgeor008680mbp
Norton, Mary Beth. Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800. Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 1980.