“I was often there with George, his playmate, schoolmate, and young man’s companion. Of the mother I was more afraid than of my own parents; she awed me in the midst of her kindness, for she was indeed truly kind; and even now, when time has whitened my locks, and I am the grandfather of a second generation, I could not behold that majestic woman without feelings impossible to describe.” 1
-Lawrence Washington Esq., of Chotank, cousin of George
On December 1, 1738, Augustine Washington moved to Ferry Farm with his wife Mary Ball and their eldest children. The farm is located in Stafford County on the Rappahanock and is close to the town of Fredericksburg. The family had bought the farm from a man named William Strother. The farm would not actually be known as Ferry Farm until many years after George Washington’s death. Augustine had wanted to move the family closer to Accoceek, because he had to manage the iron mines. 2 They had chosen the Fredericksburg area so that their sons could be taught by the Reverend James Marye. Augustine did not have the money to educate his sons in England, so this was the best alternative. It was Augustine’s hope that with a decent education his sons would be able to attend the College of William and Mary. 3 During this time, Augustine was frequently away on business trips to England, leaving Mary Ball to manage much of the farm on her own. Life on the farm was modest but comfortable. While they did not have all the benefits of the gentry, they were still able to afford a decent living. 4
The Death of Augustine
Five years after the family moved to Ferry Farm, Augustine died on April 12, 1743. His death was recorded in the Washington Family Bible. His will, which can be found here, strongly favored his sons from his previous marriage to Jane Butler Washington. Lawrence Washington, his eldest, would inherit Hunting Creek, which he later renamed Mt. Vernon. Augustine’s second eldest son would inherit the Pope’s Creek Plantation. This is where George, Betty, and Samuel were born. George himself inherited Ferry Farm. In his will, Augustine designated Mary Ball Washington as the custodian of her son’s property either until they became of age or until she remarried. If she remarried, her husband would then be in charge of their affairs.5 This part of Augustine’s will could be a reason as to why Mary Ball never remarried and chose to raise her children and manage the plantation herself.
On Her Own
“To this date belongs the story of the sorrel colt which George, probably in conscious emulation of Alexander, determined to master. The experiment ended with the death of the fiery young horse, who broke a blood-vessel in a futile attempt to dislodge the lad from his back. It so chanced that the mother’s first question when her son and his companions returned to the house was whether or not they had seen the sorrel colt….. he replied the facts were told, promptly and squarely. The widow struggled for a second with the temper she had not lost in passing it down to her child, then replied to the effect that she was sorry the horse was dead, but glad that her boy had spoken the truth.”
-A story of Mary Ball educating her son, George 6
Upon Augustine’s death, Mary Ball Washington began managing the Farm herself. To see how well off the farm was during this time, follow this link to look at an inventory. She never remarried or hired an overseer to help her, which was uncommon for women during this time. 7 The farm itself was never prosperous and was mostly used to provide the family with necessities. Mary did receive some advice and help from Lawrence, however it was very little. She couldn’t afford to pay to send George to school in England, and any chance of attending the College of William and Mary seemed dim. For the time being, George had to remain on the Farm and help his mother while continuing to be educated by James Marye. Mary Ball was not worried about the worldly education, but was more concerned with imparting “good morals” into her children. 8 During this time George took up surveying. In 1745 when George was 13, Mary Ball agreed to send him to Popes Creek so he could continue his education with his older half brother, Augustine Jr. 9 It was here where George really began his career as a surveyor and he continued this education later at Mt. Vernon with his other older half brother, Lawrence.
Relationship with her Children
In the past, many historians have concluded that Mary Ball was a strict woman who was overbearing, ungrateful and possibly even “half-mad.” 10 There are many reasons as to why historians have reached this conclusion. Which are explored in the last section. The first is that when Augustine died, the children lost their fatherly figure. Since Mary Ball never remarried she had to take up this role and raise her children herself. There is no doubt that she was a strong and independent woman. She had to be since she managed a plantation and raised 5 children on her own. 11 Her son George also grew up holding many of the same qualities found in his mother. Their forceful personalities would lead to tensions between them which can be misconstrued as an animosity. However they still maintained personal connections and held a deep respect for each as can be seen in this letter from George written to his mother. After describing a battle which went poorly, he consoles his mother by telling her that he remains uninjured and plans on visiting soon. This shows that George shared a deep respect for his mother and that he valued her judgement.
How Historians view Mary as a Mother
As mentioned before, in the past historians have viewed Mary Washington to be an overbearing and ungrateful mother. However, this was not always true, in the late 19th century there was a resurgence of interest in the mother of George Washington. This might have been partly due to the construction of the Mary Washington Memorial in Fredericksburg, read our Legacy page for more information. The works written around this time praised and revered Mary as a symbol of how all Mothers should be. The most famous of these works is “The Story of Mary Washington” written by Marion Harland in 1893. In it she writes that Mary always served in the best interest of her eldest son, George. 12 In the 1920’s, around the time of the bicentennial of George Washington’s birthday, many biographies were published worshiping George. It was around this time when historians began to turn an unfriendly eye towards Mary Ball. One example of this is Owen Wister’s “The Seven Ages of George Washington: A Biography.” Referring to Mary Ball and George he writes that “In later days, her change of disposition and her conduct regarding money caused him pain and mortification.” 13 These changes in the view of Mary Washington has continued up until to modern day. Today historians and those interested hope to provide a neutral and comprehensive biography of the woman who raised the founding father of the US. Fredericksburg’s local paper The Free Lance Star writes about the issue in this newspaper article, written in 1999 it provides yet another, more recent, depiction of Mary Ball as a Mother.
- Margaret C. Conkling, Memoirs of the Mother and Wife of Washington 2d ed. (Auburn: Derby, Miller & Co., 1850), 22. ↩
- Alice Curtis Desmond, George Washington’s Mother (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1961), 52. ↩
- Ibid., 53 ↩
- Ibid., 52 ↩
- Ibid., 61-63. ↩
- Harland, The Story of Mary Washington, 72-3. ↩
- Desmond, George Washington’s Mother, 64. ↩
- Virginia Carmichael, Mary Ball Washington (Fredericksburg: The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, 1967), 18-20. ↩
- National Park Service, Washington as Land Surveyor (Westmoreland, VA: George Washington Birthplace National Monument, 2010) ↩
- Noemie Emery, Washington: A Biography (New York: Capricorn Books, 1976), 294. ↩
- Desmond, George Washington’s Mother, 64. ↩
- Marion Harland, The Story of Mary Washington (Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1893), 69-70. ↩
- Owen Wister, The Seven Ages of George Washington: A Biography (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1907), 22-23. Link ↩