Spurious portrait of Mary Ball Washington - Mary Ball Washington at the Age of About Four-score, by Robert Edge Pine, Photomechanical Print copy ca. 1916. [LC-USZC4-7247]. Courtesy United States Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.Mary Ball Washington (b. approximately 1707 – d. 1789) is primarily known as the mother of George Washington. Limited information about Mary and her personal life has survived, although the historical record shows that she shared a complex and oftentimes strained relationship with her son. Mary has garnered a type of “mythos” over time, venerated as “The Mother of Washington” by groups in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and vilified by some historians in more recent years. Despite her many mythologies, Mary, as George Washington's sole surviving parent, was an undeniably influential figure in the life of the first president. 

Mary was born between 1707 and 1709 at Epping Forest, the Tidewater Virginia home of her father, Joseph Ball, and her mother, Mary Johnson.1 Mary’s father died when she was an infant and although her mother remarried, she also died by the time Mary was twelve. Mary became the legal ward of her uncle, Colonel George Eskeridge, the Burgess of Westmoreland.2 In 1731, Eskeridge introduced Mary to Augustine Washington, his recently widowed brother-in-law. The pair married shortly afterwards and moved to the Washington family home at Pope’s Creek, Virginia.3

George Washington, their firstborn son, was born on February 22, 1732, and was most likely named for Colonel Eskeridge. In 1738 the Washingtons moved to Ferry Farm, an estate situated on the Rappahannock River across from Fredericksburg, Virginia. Here, Mary gave birth to five more children: Betty, Samuel, John Augustine, Charles, and Mildred, who died in infancy. Augustine Washington died in April 1743, leaving Mary in charge of her family and Ferry Farm. She remained single for the rest of her life, and carried Ferry Farm through periods of significant economic depression.4

The most commonly repeated story about Mary Washington details her refusal to allow George to join the Royal Navy in 1746, despite the encouragement of Lord Fairfax and George’s older half-brother Lawrence. Mary came to this conclusion after writing to her brother Joseph Ball, who lived in London. Joseph argued that life in the Navy would be laborious and unprofitable for George, as “a planter that has three or four hundred acres of land and three or four slaves, if he be industrious, may live more comfortably.”5 Washington, resigned to his mother’s decision, pursued a career as a land surveyor instead.

In 1771 Mary moved into a house next door to the Fredericksburg home of her daughter Betty, and her husband, Fielding Lewis. Despite the fact that George purchased the home for his mother, Mary frequently complained in both public and private that she lacked resources and regularly asked her son for money.6 Mary was an avid gardener, and popular legend claims that she frequently spent time in prayer on her favorite “high-perched rock” in the garden.7

Mary Washington's house in Fredericksburg, V.A. - Mary Washington House, Courtesy Preservation Virginia.

The most uncomfortable moment in George and Mary’s relationship came in 1781 when Mary requested a paid pension from the Virginia House of Delegates, claiming that she was unable to support herself. Virginia Speaker of the House Benjamin Harrison quelled the potentially embarrassing situation for Washington, and Washington responded with a detailed letter in which he defended his continued care for his mother: “Before, I left Virginia, I answered all her calls for money; and since that period, have directed my Steward to do the same . . . she has not a child that would not divide the last sixpence to relieve her from real stress.”8 

In 1787 George wrote his mother a long letter addressing her continued requests for financial support. He urged her to move in with “one of her children,” writing, “It is, I am convinced, the only means by which you can be happy.”9  She refused, and continued to live alone in her house in Fredericksburg until her death. In April 1789, with Mary on her deathbed, Washington visited his mother for what he knew would be the last time. The visit, to which he referred as his “last Act of personal duty” to her, took place at the beginning of his trip from Mount Vernon to assume the presidency in New York.10

Mary died of breast cancer in Fredericksburg on August 25, 1789.11 George wrote of his mother’s death in a letter to his sister, which opens: “Awful, and affecting as the death of a Parent is, there is consolation in knowing that Heaven has spread ours to an age, beyond which few attain.”12 While the letter also reveals George’s continued frustration at his mother’s consistent requests for financial support, high-ranking members of the newly formed government in New York entered a five week period of official mourning, and Washington himself donned a black badge for five months following Mary’s death.13 However, Washington did not lay a gravestone for his mother, and one was not placed on the site until 1833, when the then-President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, spoke at the dedication ceremony.14

A localized movement to erect a monument to Mary extended through much of the nineteenth century and culminated in the construction of the Mary Washington Monument in Fredericksburg in the 1890s.15 Her legacy is reflected by several institutions that carry her name, the most prominent among them the University of Mary Washington. Today, visitors can also visit Mary Ball Washington’s Fredericksburg home.

 

Taylor Soja

George Washington University

 

Notes:

1. Nancy Byrd Turner, The Mother of Washington (Hartford: Edwin Valentine Mitchell, 1930), 31.

2. Phillip Levy, Where the Cherry Tree Grew: The Story of Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Boyhood Home (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013), 37.

3. Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington: Vol. 1 Young Washington (New York: Scribner’s, 1948), 44.

4. Levy, Where the Cherry Tree Grew, 40, 54, 60.

5. Joseph Ball to Mary Ball Washington, May 19, 1747. Quoted in Freeman, Young Washington, 195.

6. For example, see Mary Washington to Lund Washington, December 9, 1778, and December 25, 1778. The Digital Papers of George Washington. Also Mary Ball Washington to Joseph Ball, July 26, 1759, and Mary Ball Washington to John Augustine Washington at Bushfield, no date. Fred W. Smith National Library.

7. Turner, The Mother of Washington, 264.

8. George Washington to Benjamin Harrison, March 21, 1781. The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources 1745-1799. Edited by John C. Fitzpatrick.

9. George Washington to Mary Ball Washington, February 15, 1787. The Digital Papers of George Washington.

10. George Washington to Richard Conway, 6 March 1789. The Digital Papers of George Washington.

11. Burgess Ball to George Washington, 25 August 1789. The Digital Papers of George Washington.

12. George Washington to Betty Washington Lewis, 13 September 1789. The Digital Papers of George Washington.

13. Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (New York: Penguin Press, 2010), 589.

14. Margaret C. Conkling, Mary and Martha Washington: Memoirs of the Mother and Wife of Washington (Auburn: Derby & Miller, 1853), 73-74.

15. “Mary Washington Monument,” Virginia Historical Society, last modified March 15, 2011.

Bibliography:

Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin Press, 2010.

Conkling, Margaret C. Mary and Martha Washington: Memoirs of the Mother and Wife of Washington. Auburn: Derby & Miller, 1853.

Levy, Phillip. Where the Cherry Tree Grew: The Story of Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Boyhood Home. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013.

Southall Freeman, Douglas. George Washington: Vol. 1 Young Washington. New York: Scribner’s, 1948.

Turner, Nancy Byrd. The Mother of Washington. Hartford: Edwin Valentine Mitchell, 1930. 

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