Skip to main content

Founder and First Regent (1855-1874)

Ann Pamela Cunningham was born on August 15, 1816, near Laurens, South Carolina, the daughter of Captain Robert Cunningham and Louisa Dalton Bird. She was educated first by a governess and then at a boarding school in Columbia, South Carolina. Although an accomplished equestrian, she sustained a severe spinal injury after being thrown from a horse and was left a permanent invalid. She suffered chronic pain and spent much time under the care of physicians in Philadelphia.

Miss Cunningham’s passion for rescuing Mount Vernon was sparked by a letter her mother wrote in 1853. Louisa Cunningham was appalled at the condition of George Washington’s home and stirred her daughter to act. Despite her physical limitations, Ann Pamela determinedly set about to raise funds to purchase Mount Vernon from the former president’s reluctant great-great nephew, John Augustine Washington III.

Learn More About John Augustine Washington III

Founding the MVLA

She began by founding the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, establishing herself as Regent and enlisting 22 prominent, well-connected Vice Regents to carry out the Association’s work in their respective states. Their mission struck a responsive chord in Americans nationwide, enabling the Association to gather and deliver the owner’s formidable asking price of $200,000 within just two years. Miss Cunningham took possession of the Mansion keys on February 22, 1860.

Ann Pamela Cunningham with the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association in 1870. MVLA.

Saving Washington's Home

The campaign Miss Cunningham initiated sowed the first seeds of America’s historic-preservation movement. What began with Mount Vernon would, in time, lead to the rescue and restoration of countless historic structures and districts, gardens, waterways, and archaeological sites. In addition, her initiative made path-breaking activists of a group of women who transcended the confines of polite Victorian society to enter the territories of politics and law as well as fund-raising.

Addressing the pressing problem of Mount Vernon’s decaying buildings, she made the crucial decision that the Association would preserve every structure that had been on the estate during George Washington’s lifetime. She spent the Civil War years at her family’s Rosemont Plantation but came back to Mount Vernon in 1866 and remained deeply involved in the work there until retiring as Regent in 1874. Miss Cunningham returned to Rosemont, where she died on May 1, 1875. Her remains were interred at the First Presbyterian Churchyard in Columbia. 

Ann Pamela Cunningham: The Woman Who Saved Washington's Home

This is the story of Ann Pamela Cunningham, a woman who spent her life preserving George Washington's home and legacy.