Mary Ball Washington, The Mother of the Father of our Country
By Michael Aubrecht (Patriots of the American Revolution July/August 2010)
There is an old adage that goes “Behind every great man is a great woman.” Throughout the course of American history this maxim has proven true in the lives of remarkable ladies, whose legacies are equally as memorable as their male counterparts. Many of these female protagonists made their mark as the spouses of celebrated gentlemen, while others followed in the footsteps of their remarkable fathers. Some women simply gave birth to their sons and then raised them for greatness. This is perhaps the noblest feat of all. One woman who nurtured perhaps our nation’s greatest citizen, soldier, and politician was Mrs. Mary Ball Washington.
In Stafford County Virginia, on the bank of the Rappahannock River sits Ferry Farm, the childhood home of our country’s first president. A short distance away in the small town of Fredericksburg stands the Mary Washington House. Both of these sites host thousands of tourists each and every year, yet the woman who lived at them both for the longest time is often forgotten in favor of her offspring. This is understandable as her son is held in the highest of venerations of any historical figure, but the story of Mary Ball Washington is one of a remarkably independent lady.
Today this Virginia farm woman is remembered as a citizen of great virtue and tenacity. According to the memoirs of her friends and family she was truly beloved, and equally infuriating. She was a splendid wife who was prematurely widowed and a stubborn mother who struggled in her relationship with her children. She was also a practicing Christian, who was said to have spent a great deal of time in meditation, seeking guidance and finding strength in her own faith. Hers is a legacy of independence and fortitude, passed down from mother to child.
Mary Ball was born in Lancaster County Virginia in 1708 and was one of many siblings in a combined family. Her father was a gentleman named Joseph Ball and her mother was the widow Mary Johnson. The first Ball family home was located at Epping Forest where her grandfather, William Ball, had immigrated from England to the Old Dominion around the year 1650. Unfortunately, as it often happened in this period, Mary’s parents fell sick and prematurely succumbed to their maladies, leaving her fatherless at age three and motherless at age twelve or thirteen.
As an orphan Mary was placed, in accordance with the terms of her mother’s will, under the guardianship of Mr. George Eskridge, who was a local attorney and friend of the Ball family. For the next decade, she lived with the Eskridge family, along with her married half-sister Elizabeth Bonum. Although there are not many records on this part of her life, it is apparent that Mary was well cared for. She was educated, an avid reader and a skilled equestrian.
This quality of upbringing for an orphan during colonial times was a blessing indeed, as many children without parents or relatives ended up on the streets or in unloving homes. Often they were abused and considered a source of labor. Mary had been very fortunate to be placed in the care of an established lawyer who had a comfortable income and a way of nurturing her. Because of this, she was given the opportunity to grow into what was considered to be a well-bred young woman.
By 1731, Mary had reached the age of twenty-three, which was considered old-maid status by Colonial standards. Once again good fortune favored her as she met a strapping entrepreneur named Augustine Washington. Augustine’s family, much like Mary’s had been in the colonies since the mid-1600s. He too was educated and had been schooled in England. Augustine was a well-established widower, fourteen years her senior, with three children, Lawrence, Augustine, and Jane.
Obviously there are no photographs of Mary Ball Washington, but there are several documented impressions of her as a young lady. She was considered to be tall for a female and later said to resemble her eldest son. Her cousins found her to have a very kind expression and two surviving portraits depict her as a typical young maiden. Beauty however appears to be in the eye of the beholder as Lafayette is said to have likened her to a Roman matron, while Eleanor Parke Custis, the wife of Betty Lewis’ son Lawrence, described her as “remarkably plain in her dress.”
After a brief courtship, the practicality of their relationship led to matrimony between the twenty-three year-old Mary and her thirty-seven year-old suitor. Augustine filled the much-needed role of provider while Mary became a nurturer for his children. At the onset of their marriage, the Washington’s were not extravagantly wealthy, but they would grow in net worth as Augustine’s success grew at a regional level. The following February Mary gave birth to a son, the first of six children. They named him “George” after George Eskridge, Mary’s adopted father.
The Washington family lived on a beautiful plantation called Pope’s Creek, which was later called Wakefield. There they prospered and the family grew. In the end Mary and Augustine had six children altogether: George, Betty, Samuel, John Augustine, Charles, and Mildred. Remarkably, most of the entire Washington-Ball clan found success in their adult lives. Betty married Fielding Lewis and built the Kenmore Estate. Samuel served as a justice of the peace and a lawman in Stafford County. John Augustine founded the Mississippi Land Company. Charles helped to establish Charles Town in West Virginia. Mildred unfortunately died at the age of sixteen months.
The Washingtons moved to Hunting Creek in 1736, which was later christened Mount Vernon. In 1738 Augustine purchased a farm (which was later known as Ferry Farm) to be closer to his iron business. It was then that the family moved and settled in Fredericksburg. Here is where the tall tales that would become ingrained in Washington’s legacy originated; whether it was George confessing to chopping down a cherry tree, or skipping a silver dollar across the river. After settling at the new homestead in central Virginia, Mary kept busy with overseeing the day-to-day operations of the farm and tending to her children. Augustine focused his energies on his business interests.
In 1743 tragedy repeated itself in the life of Mary Ball Washington, as her husband passed away unexpectedly at the age of forty-nine. Mary, who had been orphaned in her early teens, was now widowed at the tender age of thirty-five, with five children. George was only eleven years old at the time of his father’s death. In accordance with Augustine’s will, Mt. Vernon was left to George’s half-brother Lawrence, and the 600-acre family farm in Fredericksburg was left to George. Provision was made for Mary to receive the benefit of the crops for five years and possession of the property until George came of age. Various portions of other land holdings and personal property were divided among the all of the siblings. This included slaves.
Although there were tumultuous years that followed, Mary was said to have remained a vigilant parent. Historians over the years have traced George’s epic honesty and fortitude to the influence of his parents and some have even credited his mother alone with his rise to greatness. According to the publication Archiving Early America:
“To Mary Ball Washington we owe the precepts and example that governed her son throughout his life. The moral and religious maxims found in her favorite manual — ‘Sir Matthew Hale’s Contemplations’ — made an indelible impression on George’s memory and on his heart, as she read them aloud to her children. That small volume, with his mother’s autograph inscribed, was among the cherished treasures of George Washington’s library as long as he lived. When George was 14 years old, his half-brother Lawrence obtained a midshipman’s warrant for him in the English naval service. George made plans to embark on-board a man-of-war, then in the Potomac. His baggage was already on the ship. But at the last minute his mother refused to give her consent, preventing her son from a life that would have cut him off from the great career he would eventually pursue. A noted biographer described her action as the debt owed by mankind to the mother of Washington.” (It was rumored that Mary gave George a beautiful pen-knife as a consolation gift, and playfully had it engraved “Always Obey your Superiors.”)
Mary remained in mourning and lived in Fredericksburg for more than forty-five years after the death of her husband. She never remarried, which could be viewed as a testament to her constitution and strong will. She was, by all accounts, a self-supportive woman, although she was obliged, once George came of age, to rely on his generosity for financial support. As George’s military and political career prospered, his mother continued to be a meager farmer who maintained the land that her husband had purchased.
Years passed and the relationship between Mary and George deteriorated. Although she was by no means poor, she regularly complained to outsiders that she was destitute and neglected by her children, much to George’s embarrassment. This led to an animosity between mother and son that persisted. Despite the strain on their relationship, George remained in contact with his mother and made it a point to send her correspondence while deployed on military affairs. One preserved letter, dated 1755, followed a military engagement early on in his career and was meant to reassure Mary of his safety. George concluded his letter with the phrase “Your most dutiful son.”
At the age of 64, Mary became too old to run the farm. In 1772, her eldest son purchased a home for her in downtown Fredericksburg, where she lived for the remaining seventeen years of her life. When the War for Independence began, General George Washington took command of the Continental Army in June of 1775 and did not see his mother again for nearly ten years. During this time Mary remained in town and rarely visited the family farm.
It was recorded that Mary’s stubbornness began to rear its ugly head. She requested that the Virginia House of Delegates (formally the House of Burgesses) provide her with an allowance, since she was, after all, the mother of the army’s supreme commander. She then petitioned for a state pension and also to have her taxes lowered. None of her requests were granted.
Despite their rift, Mary’s proudest moment may have come during a visit by her son to Fredericksburg in February of 1784. After being awarded the honors of the town, George accepted and responded with a declaration honoring “My reverend mother by whose maternal hand, early deprived of a father, I was led to manhood.”
George continued to pay Mary’s rent for the livestock and slaves at Ferry Farm and in 1787 he strongly urged her to move from the house and live with one of her children. It was thought that she might move in with her son John, however John died before she ever moved and she never agreed to go elsewhere.
Two years later, President-elect George Washington, en route to New York for his inauguration, paid his last visit to his mother at the house in Fredericksburg in April of 1789, four months before she died. It was reported that the two were reunited and repaired their relationship. George Washington Parke Custis, the president’s adopted son, gave a moving account of Mary Ball Washington’s last meeting with her son. He recalled:
“Immediately after the organization of the present Government, the Chief Magistrate [Washington] repaired to Fredericksburg to pay his humble duty to his mother, preparatory to his departure for New York. An affecting scene ensued. He told her I have come to bid you an affectionate farewell. So soon as the weight of public business which must necessarily attend the outset of a new Government can be disposed of, I shall hasten to Virginia, and— Here the matron interrupted with, “And you will see me nomore; my great age, and the disease which is fast approaching my vitals, warn me that I shall not be long in this world; I trust in God that I may be somewhat prepared for a better. But go, George, fulfill the high destinies which Heaven appears to have intended for you; go, my son, and may that Heaven’s and a mother’s blessing be with you always.”
He added, “The President was deeply affected. His head rested upon the shoulder of his parent, whose aged arm feebly, yet fondly, encircled his neck. That brow on which fame had wreathed the purest laurel virtue ever gave to created man relaxed from its lofty bearing. That look which could have awed a Roman Senate in its Fabrician day was bent in filial tenderness upon the time-worn features of the aged matron. He wept. A thousand recollections crowded upon his mind, as memory, retracing scenes long passed, carried him back to the maternal mansion and the days of youth, where he beheld that mother, whose care, education and discipline caused him to reach the topmost height of laudable ambition. Yet, how were his glories forgotten while he gazed upon her whom, wasted by time and malady, he should part with to meet no more! Her predictions were but too true. The disease which so long had preyed upon her frame, completed its triumph, and she expired at the age of eighty-five [actually eighty-one], rejoicing in the consciousness of a life well spent, and confiding in the belief of a blessed immortality.”
President Washington went on to serve his country once again, as Mary Ball Washington died at the age of eighty-one from cancer during his first year in office. She was buried at Kenmore on the Lewis plantation, a few steps from “Meditation Rock.” This location was her favorite retreat for reading, prayer and meditation. It somehow seemed fitting that a woman who was so connected to the area’s land, would be returned to it upon her death. The plaque at the base of the rocks reads: “Here Mary Ball Washington prayed for the safety of her son and country during the dark days of the revolution.”
Mary’s impact on the region remained and, in the 1830s, the women of Fredericksburg banded together to raise funds for a monument dedicated to her memory. The following year, the prominent Silas Burrows of New York offered to pay for it himself. In laying the cornerstone, Andrew Jackson said this about her:
“Mary Washington acquired and maintained a wonderful ascendancy over those around her. This true characteristic of genius attended her through life, and she conferred upon her son that power of self-command which was one of the remarkable traits of her character. She conducted herself through this life with virtue and prudence worthy of the mother of the greatest hero that ever adorned the annals of history.”
Unfortunately Mary’s first marker was destroyed during the Civil War, but another one was placed in 1893. It was formally dedicated by President Cleveland in May of 1894 and featured an inscription that paid tribute to what may be considered her greatest accomplishment. It simply reads “Mary the Mother of Washington.” Yet perhaps it was her beloved son George, who most fittingly summed up the life of Mary Ball Washington when he said, “My mother was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute all my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her.”
Few women have reared children who rose to the heights of Mary Ball Washington’s son George. Her motherly influence on him was a cornerstone in the foundation of America’s greatest father and helped to make him the most celebrated military and political figure in our nation’s history.
George Washington's Boyhood Home at Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore (www.kenmore.org, George Washington Foundation)
In Search of the ‘real’ Mary Ball Washington by Paula S. Felder (The Free Lance-Star, March 12, 2005)
Mary Ball Washington: “His Revered Mother” (History Library Point: Central Rappahannock Regional Library)
Mary and Martha, the mother and the wife of George Washington by John Lossing Benson (1886, Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square)
The Life of George Washington; with Curious Anecdotes by M. L. Weems (1877, J.P. Lippincott & Co. Philadelphia)
Washington and His Mother by Frederick Bernays Weiner (American Historical Review, 1991. 26, Vol. 3)