They did not know much about the documents except that some of them had the name "Washington" on them. Reluctant to throw the old papers away but uncertain what to do with them, the family kept them through several decades and residences until they found and contacted the library at the suggestion of the Papers of George Washington.
The documents vary widely, and most of them appear to date from the 19th century. A few, however, clearly date from the 18th century and are definitely related to an important Washington—Mary Ball Washington, George's mother. One of them, titled "A Memorandum of effects not mentioned in Mrs. Washingtons Will," includes a list of furnishings and other items, most with the initials "BL," "GL," "LL," and "BB" written next to them. These initials likely represent George Washington's sister, Betty Washington Lewis, his nephews George Lewis and Lawrence Lewis, and Burgess Ball, who was married to George's niece Frances Washington, and signify the division of Mary Washington's property among her heirs.
George Washington's correspondence with his sister and nephews following his mother's death in August 1789 provides clues to the origin of this document. Mary Washington's estate, although not large, was not insignificant. It included fourteen enslaved laborers, crops, livestock, "plantation utensils," buildings, lots in the city of Fredericksburg, home furnishings, and other personal property. George, who was in New York City serving his first term as president, advised his sister to sell as much of the estate as possible "for ready money" in order to pay debts owed and simplify the estate's division among the heirs, except the enslaved people, whose ownership was divided among the heirs outright. Proceeds of the sale of crops and livestock proved sufficient to cover the estate's outstanding debts and rather than sell personal items that were not likely to fetch high prices, the heirs divided the items among themselves.
Why do the initials "GW" not appear on the memorandum of effects? George told his sister he would forgo his share of the estate, except for one enslaved man, "a fellow belonging to that estate now at my house, who never stayed elsewhere...and because he has a family," and "specific legacies which are given to me by the Will [which] are meant, and ought to be considered and received as mementos of parental affection."
Quotes not from "A Memorandum of effects not mentioned in Mrs. Washingtons Will," are from George Washington to Betty Lewis Washington, 13 Sept. 1789.
By Dana Stefanelli, Assistant Editor, The Washington Papers