Charles Alexander Simpson's 1855 portrait of Charles Washington is a copy of the original, which burned in an early 20th century house fire. MVLA.Charles Washington (1738-1799) was George Washington’s youngest brother. Born at Little Hunting Creek, which his elder half-brother Lawrence would later rename Mount Vernon, Charles was still an infant when the family moved to Ferry Farm outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia. After they arrived at their new home, Charles and his family welcomed a baby sister, Mildred, only to bury her sixteen months later.

Charles was only five years old when his father, Augustine Washington, passed away, leaving the small child an inheritance that made him both a landowner and a slaveholder. His father left Ferry Farm to George Washington, which meant that Charles spent most of his formative years in a house owned by his brother. In practice, however, his mother, Mary Ball Washington, continued to run the plantation until George Washington came of age.

When Charles was nineteen, he declared his wish to marry Mildred Thornton, his cousin, and a member of the wealthy Thornton family. Since Charles would not receive his full inheritance until the age of twenty one, members of the bride’s family raised concerns that, should he die before coming of age, his elder brother George Washington would receive the young man’s property and leave Mildred Thornton with nothing.1 This forced an annoyed George Washington to write to his mother that he would never take such “ungenerous advantages” should his brother die young.2 Ultimately, the families reached a compromise in which Fielding Lewis, Charles' uncle, agreed to become his guardian and posted a bound of £2000 for his nephew. John Thornton, Mildred’s uncle, became her guardian and posted a similar bond. With the financial matter settled, Charles married Mildred Thornton in 1757.  The couple had four children who survived to adulthood, Augustine, Samuel, Frances, and Mildred.

Charles and Mildred continued to make Fredericksburg their home, and Charles became very involved in public life.  From 1765 to 1773, Charles served as a magistrate in Spotsylvania County. He also served as a vestryman and warden at St. George’s Episcopal Church and as a trustee of Fredericksburg. Charles purchased several lots in Fredericksburg itself, and ordered the construction of the building that would one day become the Rising Sun Tavern.

In addition to his farms, Charles pursued other sources of revenue including a butchering business in partnership with Fredericksburg businessmen George Weedon. Charles also assisted George Washington in purchasing western properties. To avoid limits on how much could be purchased by a single individual, he often bought land in his own name before transferring the property to his elder brother.  A strong supporter of his older brother’s political ambitions, Charles was one of the first to cast his vote him when George ran for reelection as a delegate in the House of Burgesses.

As tensions between the American colonies and Great Britain began to arise in the 1760s, Charles joined in the protests against British taxation efforts. He, along with his brothers John Augustine and Samuel, signed the Leedstown Resolves that condemned the Stamp Act of 1765.  Together with the other signers, Charles affirmed his obedience to King George III, while vowing to fight against the new tax and convince those who favored the law that “immediate danger and disgrace” would befall them if they failed to support the resolves.3 In 1774, he won election to the Spotsylvania Committee of Safety and worked to coordinate aid to British-occupied Boston, while increasing local preparedness in anticipation of war with Great Britain. During the American Revolution, his son, George Augustine Washington, served as an aide to the Marquis de Lafayette.

Around 1780, Charles and Mildred departed their home in Fredericksburg and moved to Berkeley County, Virginia (today Jefferson County, West Virginia). There, on land he had inherited from his half-brother Lawrence, Charles ordered the construction of his new plantation, Happy Retreat. The home was four miles away from his brother Samuel’s plantation at Harewood.  Unfortunately, Samuel passed away shortly after Charles resettled in the area. He named his surviving brothers as executors of his estate, but the task fell to Charles alone as George was still commanding the Continental Army against British forces and John Augustine lived too far away to provide much assistance.   

Charles and George Washington corresponded throughout their lives, and Charles frequently visited his older brother at Mount Vernon in the years prior to the American Revolution. When the war concluded, Charles wrote to his elder brother to congratulate him on his retirement to private life.4 In 1784, George visited Charles at Happy Retreat while on a journey west to investigate ways to improve navigation of the Potomac River. In 1785, his son, George Augustine Washington married Martha Washington’s niece, Frances “Fanny” Bassett.

 In 1786, the Virginia General Assembly, anxious to spur greater settlement and economic activity in the western region of the state, granted Charles’ request to establish a town on his land.  The legislature declared “eighty acres of land, the property of Charles Washington, lying in the county of Berkeley, be laid on in such as manner as he may judge best, into lots of half an acre each, with convenient streets, which shall be, and is hereby established a town, by the name of Charlestown.” 5 Named “Charles Town” after him, many of the streets are named after his family, including George Street, Lawrence Street, Samuel Street, and Mildred Street. He also donated four lots in the center of the town for the construction of public buildings. In 1859, the jail and courthouse built on the donated lots hosted the trial of abolitionist John Brown and his allies after their unsuccessful raid on the United States Armory and Arsenal at Harpers Ferry.

Records about life at Happy Retreat are scarce, but surviving correspondence indicates that Charles and his family spent the last decade of his life in severe financial distress. The estate had acquired numerous debts by the time Charles turned over most of the land and the enslaved people there to his son, Samuel, in the 1790s. Despite his son’s efforts, the debts continued to mount, forcing Charles’s wife, Mildred to write to George Washington for money. 6 In her letter, she discussed the poor crop yields and noted the death of several enslaved people.7 Based on the letter, it is not possible to determine whether they died from illness, old age, or from neglect and lack of adequate provisions. George Washington responded by reluctantly offering to buy $1000 worth of land, supplies, and enslaved people for the family.8 He also made it clear that this was to help them regain some financial stability, and he would not make a similar offer if they ran into future financial troubles. It is unknown if Mildred and Charles Washington agreed to his offer.

By 1799, Charles was George’s only surviving sibling. Anticipating that his younger brother would outlive him, George bequeathed him Benjamin Franklin’s old walking cane in his will.9 Franklin had previously bequeathed the cane to General Washington when he died nine years earlier. Today the object is part of the Washington Collection in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Charles, however, had already begun making plans for his own passing. Struggling financially and in poor health, he wrote out his will.  “Being sick and weak in body but of perfect sound mind and member,” he divided his remaining property amongst his surviving relatives, and deeded several enslaved individuals, Fortune, Manuel, Winney, Will, and Nancy, to his wife.10

Charles Washington passed away on September 16, 1799. Upon hearing the news, George Washington sadly wrote, “I was the first, and am now the last, of my father’s children by the second marriage who remain…When I shall be called upon to follow them is known only to the giver of life.”11 George followed his younger brother in death barely three months later. Today, the Friends of Happy Retreat, a nonprofit organization that includes several descendants of the Washington family, is working with the City of Charles Town to acquire and preserve Happy Retreat, Charles Washington’s old home, in order to restore it and keep it open to the public.

 

Scott Vierick
George Washington's Mount Vernon

Notes:

1. George Washington to Mary Ball Washington, 30 September 1757, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-04-02-0275.

2. Ibid.

3. “The Leedstown Resolves” February 27, 1766, https://edspace.american.edu/menokin/wp-content/uploads/sites/125/2015/04/Leedstown-Resolves.pdf.

4. George Washington to Charles Washington, 28 February 1784 Founders Online, accessed September 29, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/04-01-02-0122.

5. The Statutes at Large: Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the year 1619 ed. by William Waller Hening (Richmond: George Cochran, 1823), 12:370-371.

6. Mildred Washington to George Washington, October 13, 1798, Friends of Happy Retreat, accessed November 18, 2019, https://www.happyretreat.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/56858_FriendsHappyRetreat_TheRisingSun_Sep-17_p1.pdf.

7. Ibid.

8. George Washington to Mildred Thornton Washington, 18 October 1798, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-03-02-0077

9. George Washington, The Last Will and Testament of George Washington, (Mount Vernon Ladies Association, 1798/2003), 17, 34.

10.  Maral S. Kalbian and Dennis J. Pogue, “Phase 1 of a Historic Structure Report Happy Retreat Charles Town, West Virginia,” Friends of Happy Retreat, March 2017, http://www.happyretreat.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/FINALHSR.pdf.

11. George Washington to Burgess Ball, 22 September 1799, Founders Online, National Archives, accessed September 29, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-04-02-0266.

Further Reading:

Kracen, Emilie. “Historic Structure Report: Rising Sun Tavern Second Story Interior and Exterior,” (University of Mary Washington, 2010). https://cas.umw.edu/hisp/files/2011/06/Emilie-Kracen-Rising-Sun-Tavern-HSR.pdf.

“History in Brief,” The City of Charles Town, http://www.charlestownwv.us/index.asp?SEC=34C2969E-6CBC-4119-8C59-B78A2D0EBB77&Type=B_BASIC

Achenbach, Joel. The Grand Idea: George Washington’s Potomac and the Race to the West, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004).

Wayland, John W. The Washingtons and Their Homes (Berryville: Virginia Book Company, 1944).

Felder, Paula S. Felder. Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family (The American History Company, 1998).

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

Chernow, Ron. George Washington: A Life (New York: Penguin Books, 2010).

Theriault, William D. "Charles Washington." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 09 December 2015. https://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/891.

 

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