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Archive for the ‘Research/Lectures’ Category

July 4, 2013

Collections Uncovered


Mount Vernon recently acquired a large collection of family papers from descendants of Martha Washington’s second granddaughter, Martha Parke Custis Peter (1777-1854) and her husband Thomas Peter (1769-1834). As research on the collection continues, Mount Vernon’s Research Historian, Mary V. Thompson, will share the stories emerging from this treasure trove of information including information about the family, as well as topics such as life in the new city of Washington, DC; politics in the early republic; and, as discussed in this post, slavery.

As the owner of Mount Vernon following George Washington’s death, Mrs. Washington had to step into her late husband’s very large shoes in order to keep the plantation operating smoothly. This was not unfamiliar territory for Martha Washington who had taken over the estate of her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, following his death in 1757. Management of an estate such as Mount Vernon required oversight of the farms, the enslaved community, the household expenses, and the animals. In 1801, under Martha Washington’s management, a $72.64 bill was paid to the sheriff of Fairfax County for taxes owed on 138 slaves and 97 horses. Her account with a Dr. Hamilton shows that he made at least 15 visits to slaves on the estate between December 6, 1801 and September 6, 1802, during which he provided medicines and powders for those who were ill, bled several individuals, dressed wounds, assisted with one birth, and pulled one tooth.

Following Martha Washington’s death on May 22, 1802, Thomas Peter, her grandson-in-law, helped to manage her estate as one of the executors of her will.

One of the documents found in the Peter Collection that is most revealing about slavery is a receipt dated January 12, 1803. Written at nearby Woodlawn plantation, the home of Martha Washington’s youngest granddaughter Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis Lewis and her husband Lawrence Lewis, this receipt recorded that the sum of $50 was “received from Mr. Thomas Peter…in full for my Hire as a Smith on Mount Vernon Estate for the year 1802″.

The recipient of the payment was a blacksmith named George who signed his name with a simple cross; an indication that he could not write. Blacksmiths played an important role in plantation life where their skills were needed to shoe horses as well as to make and repair iron tools and equipment. This particular blacksmith, George, is undoubtedly the same blacksmith named George who was a member of the enslaved community at Mount Vernon freed by Martha Washington on January 1, 1801 in accordance with George Washington’s will. He had been hired back as a free person, because he had a skill Mount Vernon needed.

Mary V. Thompson
Research Historian
Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington

Category: Mount Vernon, MV Historian Series, Research/Lectures, Slavery

October 22, 2012

Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington Launches


George Washington understood the value of owning a comprehensive encyclopedia. Washington explained as much in a September 1797 letter to Clement Biddle, the manager of his Philadelphia business affairs, writing: “As the Encyclopaedia might be useful, to have by me…I would…request Mr. Dobson to have all that are published, neatly bound and sent to me.”1 Washington was so enamored with the possibilities provided by an encyclopedia that he ended up ordering two sets of Philadelphia printer Thomas Dobson’s Encyclopedia, or A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Miscellaneous Literature. Washington’s motives in ordering two sets were both ideological and practical. On one hand, Washington wanted to “encourage” Dobson’s “undertaking the work.” In addition, Washington had already given away one set of the encyclopedia and desired a bound copy for his own library.2

Luckily technological advancements have ensured that encyclopedias have become far more engaging and accessible than they were in the late eighteenth century. However, the utility provided by an encyclopedia remains strikingly similar. With this in mind, Mount Vernon is happy to announce the public launch of the Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington, a new digital history project that allows users to interact and explore primary source materials and objects from the Mount Vernon collection. Entries focus on the totality of Washington’s life and experiences, while also covering the Mount Vernon Estate, its history, and preservation. The encyclopedia includes entries written by Mount Vernon staff and experts, as well as a team of more than thirty outside scholars of history and related fields. The encyclopedia can be found at, and we hope that its resources help encourage others to undertake further study of Washington and his world.

Adam D. Shprintzen, Ph.D.
Editor/Project Coordinator, Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington

1. “George Washington to Clement Biddle, September 6, 1797
2. “George Washington to Clement Biddle, August 14, 1797″

Category: George Washington, Research/Lectures

June 27, 2012

Mount Vernon Acquires George Washington’s Acts of Congress


George Washington’s original copy of the Acts of Congress is returning to Mount Vernon. On June 22, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association secured the prized volume for the shelves of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. The acquisition ranks among the most significant in the history of the association.

Emblazoned with Washington’s bookplate and featuring his handwritten notes penciled in the margins, the 106-page book contains Washington’s personal copy of the U.S. Constitution, a draft of the Bill of Rights, and other documents recording the early acts of the new Congress. Washington received the book in 1789, his first year in office as U.S. president, and brought it with him to Mount Vernon upon his retirement from public office in 1797.

“Washington himself once wrote, ‘The Constitution is our guide, which I will never abandon.’ By acquiring this book– his personal copy of the Constitution– we are taking him quite literally,” said Ann Bookout, Regent, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. “It is extremely rare to see a book of such significance change hands, and we felt that it was essential to muster our resources to bring this extraordinary document home to Mount Vernon.”

The volume will be a centerpiece for the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. Currently under construction near the main entrance to the estate, the library will serve as a place to safeguard Washington’s documents as well as a gathering place for leaders and scholars. The association has currently raised more than $85 million of the $100 million needed for the construction of the library and its initial slate of programming.

“We hope that other patriotic Americans will be inspired by our decision to secure this most important and unique document and cornerstone of our nation’s history and step up to lend their support to our cause,” added Bookout.

For more information about the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of Mount Vernon, visit

Rebecca Aloisi

Category: Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon, George Washington, Mount Vernon, Object Spotlight, Research/Lectures

August 25, 2011

The Washingtons and Their Goldfish


Mount Vernon’s 1797 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica indicates that goldfish were first imported to England in 1691, but weren’t common there until 1728, when they were distributed around London by a man named Sir Matthew Dekker and eventually made their way across the country.

It appears George Washington was no stranger to the proliferation of the goldfish. On May 23, 1786, Josiah Parker, a naval officer and collector for the port of Portsmouth, wrote Washington to inform him that a few finned friends were en route:

“Captn[.] Nicholson has left with me a pair of Gold Fish which would have been sent to you before but feared to remove them dureing [sic] the Winter. I have now sent them to Genl[.] Weedons [sic] care; to whom I Sent [sic] a box from New York last winter for you …”

What makes us think at least one of these goldfish, an animal not known for being particularly hearty, may have survived the journey? A painting of the Washington bedchamber done by Alexandria artist John Gadsby Chapman circa 1834 portrayed a goldfish in a glass bowl atop Martha Washington’s desk. (This painting is not part of the Mount Vernon collection and is not the one portrayed above.) Although the depiction was made long after the Washingtons’ deaths, Chapman had interviewed a number of Martha Washington’s descendants who knew what had been in the room and owned pieces of furniture that had been there.

Estimated exportation dates vary for the American arrival of goldfish, which originally came from China, but the animal is not generally seen in American art until well into the 19th century. Although it originally seemed that Chapman’s goldfish could have been an anachronistic piece of artistic license, the little guy might just be one of the fish or a descendant of the fish that made an extremely long journey to meet the General.

Research for this article was conducted by Mount Vernon research historian Mary Thompson.

Category: Research/Lectures

November 2, 2010

Evening for Educators Gets Really Presidenty


Every December Mount Vernon hosts its annual Evening for Educators, but it’s not every year that the evening is so exciting.

Area teachers are invited to attend our December 2 “Presidential Perspectives” program, which will include the nation’s first four presidents (yes, in-person as seen above) in a discussion hosted by journalist Cokie Roberts.

The presidents will explore their struggle to establish a nation as each traveled down the same road toward nationhood, but with very different ideas as to how to go about it in tow. The program, part of the “Fractured Union” series being created by Mount Vernon and the Fairfax Network, is set to air in February 2010.

In case you’re still not convinced, there will also be a cocktail reception and candlelight tours of the Mansion to follow.

The fun starts at 4:45 p.m. and lasts until 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 2. Due to filming, doors will close promptly at start time.

Reservations are required. To register email your name, phone number and school with “Evening for Educators” as the subject line to Seating is limited.

Update: Evening for Educators is now full. Thanks for your enthusiasm. If you would like to participate in the program, you can email and ask to be placed on the waitlist.

Category: Research/Lectures


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Portraits in Schools

Kids holding George Washington Portrait

Mount Vernon recently invited K-12 schools nationwide to request framed portraits of George Washington to display in a respectful, prominent place.

The response was overwhelming: thousands of schools submitted letters! Along with the portrait, schools received curriculum materials to help explore our first president’s contributions.

Where has George Washington gone back to school? Click here to see!

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