Fielding Lewis, born on July 7, 1725, was a colonel in the American Revolution and the brother-in-law and second cousin of George Washington through their common great-grandfather, Augustine Warner II. The Lewis family was well known and respected as merchants in Virginia society, owning extensive tracts of land in and around Fredericksburg. Lewis built the mansion on his property that is known today as Kenmore. He is remembered for his dedication to the patriotic cause as well as his close personal ties to George Washington.
Lewis’s first wife was Catherine Washington, his second cousin and George Washington’s aunt. Catherine passed away in February 1750 after the couple had three children. On May 7, 1750, Lewis married Betty Washington, the only surviving sister of George Washington. The couple had eleven children together, with seven living to adulthood. One of their sons, Lawrence Lewis, would marry Eleanor Parke Custis, the granddaughter of Martha Washington.
George Washington and Fielding Lewis were both major shareholders in the Dismal Swamp Land Company, founded in November 1763 to drain a heavily vegetated area in southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina and convert it into suitable agricultural land.1 The swamp is unique because water drains from it, rather than to it like most swamps. The company hoped to collect lumber from the area while draining it, but the venture failed, not turning a profit until after both Washington and Lewis had passed away.2
Lewis was an ardent supporter of the American revolutionary cause. During the early portion of the Revolution, he and Washington corresponded on a frequent basis about building an American army and political loyalties in their home state of Virginia. In March 1776, Lewis informed Washington that the cause for independence was growing in Virginia, due in large part to the popularity of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense.3
Lewis most likely would have fought as a soldier in the Revolutionary War, but he suffered from a serious respiratory disease. Instead, he devoted a large portion of his personal fortune to operate a gun manufacturing company during the war. Early in the conflict, Washington and Lewis corresponded about the gun operation, with Lewis describing a bleak scene in Virginia due to the lack of arms and overall supplies needed to sustain the revolutionary effort. Lewis aimed to make about twelve guns a day.4 He further supported the revolutionary cause by purchasing and building ships for the defense of the Rappahannock River and providing American troops with supplies directly from his store. Despite requesting funding from Congress, Lewis was forced to put a great deal of his own fortune into his gunnery and was never reimbursed.
Lewis was plagued by tuberculosis for most of the Revolutionary War and succumbed to the illness on December 7, 1781, just six weeks after the British surrender at Yorktown. In his will, Lewis listed his shares in the Dismal Swamp Land Company and land in Nansemond County, Virginia, which were both purchased in partnership with George Washington. After Lewis’s death, these properties would have to be sold for the family to make payments on his debts. Washington supported selling the lands mentioned in the will so long as they were sold for a good price to avoid losing money on his investments.5
Betty Washington outlived her husband by sixteen years, dying on March 31, 1797, while visiting her daughter in Culpeper, Virginia. Largely due to Fielding Lewis’s debts at his time of death, Betty struggled financially during the later stages of her life. Kenmore, named by later owners of the Lewis family mansion, is now open to the public as a museum owned by the George Washington Foundation.
George Washington University
1. Dismal Swamp Land Company Articles of Agreement, 3 November 1763, The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition.
2. “To the Great Dismal Swamp” Papers of George Washington. 15 October 1763 The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition.
3. From Fielding Lewis 6 March 1776, The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition
4. From Fielding Lewis, 14th November 1775, The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition
5. “To John Lewis” 17 April 1782 The Writings of George Washington.
Duke, Jane Taylor. Kenmore and the Lewises; Foreword by Harry Flood Byrd. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1949.
“Fielding Lewis,” The George Washington Foundation, accessed March 17, 2015, http://www.kenmore.org/genealogy/lewis/fielding_lewis.html.
“Lewis Family Ancestors and Descendants,” The George Washington Foundation, accessed April 7, 2015, http://www.kenmore.org/genealogy/lewis/lewis_descendants.html.
Royster, Charles. Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company : A Story of George Washington's Times. New York: Borzoi Books, 1999.
The George Washington Foundation's Kenmore Plantation