“All that I am I owe to my mother.” 1

-George Washington, 1789

Town Across the River:

An article published in 1772 in the American Gazette gave the following description of Fredericksburg in the 1770s and 1780s:

“Fredericksburg is a post-town in Spotsylvania County, on the Southwest bank of the Rappahannock River 110 miles from its mouth on Chesapeake Bay.  It is an incorporated town, and regularly laid out into several streets, the chief of which run parallel with the river, and in all contains upwards of 200 houses, two tobacco warehouses, and several stores of well afforded goods.  Its public buildings are an Episcopal Church, an academy, courthouse, and gaol [sic].  It is a place of considerable trade and contains about 2,000 inhabitants.” 2

Welcome to Fredericksburg!

The Mary Washington House (Photo courtesy of Jenn Arndt)

Mary Ball Washington moved from Ferry Farm to her home on Charles Street (known today as the Mary Washington House) in September, 1772 at the request of her son George, who was concerned for her health.  George also felt she would be better protected from the approaching fighting of the Revolutionary War, which he believed would take place in much of Virginia.  As early as 1765, a group of men in Westmoreland County had formed themselves into an organized group for the purpose of resisting the Stamp Act.  George feared for her safety as a single women living on the plantation with only the servants for protection.  Betty Lewis, her daughter, offered Mary a room in her home at the Kenmore Plantation.  However, for 34 years, Ferry Farm had been Mary’s home and so she was reluctant to leave to spend the “rest of her days in the confines of a town,” noted writer Virgina Carmichael. 3 Nevertheless, Mary heeded the requests of her children, moving to a home purchased by George just for her.  Soon after the move, a friend from Ferry Farm came to visit, at which point Mary exclaimed that she “didn’t like the place at all!  And never should I have left the Ferry Farm, except that George wanted me to.” 4  Mary was determined to turn her new home into one that pleased her.  She tended to a garden, though smaller than on Ferry Farm, with the same diligence and care that was always put into her work.  Mary’s health was failing, but she maintained order in her household.  Author Mary Whitton noted that the inhabitants of Fredericksburg “long remembered the matron seated in an old-fashioned chaise, visiting her farm, giving her orders, and seeing that they were followed.” 5  During the 1700s, it was quite unusual and often difficult for a woman to maintain her family and run the affairs of the estate without the help of a man.  Mary was an exception.  Having been a widow on Ferry Farm for about 29 years, maintaining a smaller dwelling on Charles Street was hardly a difficult task for Mary. “Her good sense, assiduity, tenderness, and vigilance overcame every obstacle,” noted writer Margaret C. Conkling. 6  Betty and the other children did not easily give up on trying to get Mary to live with one of them.  “I thank you for your dutiful and affectionate offers,” Mary told her kids upon these requests, “but my wants are few in this life, and I feel perfectly competent to take care of myself.” 7  Indeed, Mary stayed active in town until the very end of her battle with breast cancer.

Rumors of Strict Discipline:

Mary Ball has often been described by researchers and writers as a strong and fierce mother, unwavering in the discipline of her children.  “Mary’s ideas of the respect due to her as a parent remained unchanged either by the lapse of time, or by the development of mighty events, [such as George commanding the Continental forces],” explained Conkling. 8  Mary personified the behavior demanded of her children and she tended to discipline her kids even when they were adults.  For example:

Mary anxiously watched and prayed for George’s safety in leading the Continental forces during the war.  She listened to messages baring news of victory or defeat with unflinching acceptance of the information.  Betty, on the other hand, could not contain undue excitement and was once reprimanded by her mother who said, “The sister of the commanding general should be an example of fortitude and faith.” 9

Mary expected that George never “forget himself” amongst these trying times.10

The Revolutionary War:

The Revolutionary War broke out in April 1775 between the Continental Army and the British Army in a fight for the colonies’ independence.  On June 14, 1775, George Washington was nominated by John Adams of Massachusetts and appointed Major General. This was immediately followed by Congress electing George as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.  It is unknown what Mary said when she learned of this tremendous honor placed on George, but Carmichael imagines that “her heart must have been torn between anxiety and pride.” 11 Like her son, Mary felt at the beginning of the troubles between  the Colonies and Britain that overt rebellion should, if possible, be avoided.  However, once convinced the conflict was inevitable, her loyalty never swayed. Writer Marion Harland claimed, “The cause of American Independence had no more steadfast adherent.” 12  Mary did not sit idle during the war but would knit socks for the Continental soldiers.  She stated, “An old woman can’t do much in time of war.  But at least I can knit.” 13  Throughout the war, Mary never showed the slightest degree of elation by the honors that were showered upon George’s name.  Following the end of the war, George returned to Fredericksburg a local hero.  A Ball was held to celebrate the joyful occasion and Mary received a special invitation to attend.  Although Mary felt “her dancing days were pretty well over,” wrote Conkling, “she should feel happy in contributing to the general festivity.” 14  From the moment Mary entered the room, unannounced and leaning on the arm of George, Mary was the center of interest for the numerous officers, neighbors, and acquaintances.  The officers desired to be presented to the mother of their beloved Commander.  The European guests, Conkling noted, were accustomed to the flashy displays of women in the European courts and so “regarded with astonishment [Mary’s] unadorned attire, and the mingled simplicity and majesty for which the language and manners of the Mother of Washington were so remarkable.” 15  Late in the evening, Mary expressed her desire for the Ball to continue until “the hour of general separation should arrive,” quietly adding, that “it was time for old people to be at home.” 16  The honored Mother of the Commander-in-Chief was led from the room, leaning on George’s arm.

Old in Age, Young in Spirit:

Inscription on the Meditation Rock (Photo Courtesy of Jenn Arndt)

Although Mary was nearing eighty years old, she continued to be active in her family life.  Whitton notes that, “from this period stem most of the Mary Washington traditions, her walks along the river with her grandchildren, and the gingerbread that she baked for them, source of . . . [the] famous recipe.” 17  Legend has it that this gingerbread cake was first made for General Lafayette in the 1780’s by George Washington’s mother.  Mary Ball reportedly studded her version with sweet raisins and orange rind.  The recipe can be found here. During these later years, Mary developed a habit of retiring daily to a secluded spot near her home, formed by overhanging rocks and trees. The meditation rock, as it came to be known, was where Mary isolated herself from worldly thoughts and objects and simply prayed.  When Mary first came to town, “she would sometimes stand by the window in the evening looking out, vaguely oppressed by the newness and strangeness of her surroundings,” wrote Carmichael.  “She wanted to look on rivers instead of streets; on trees instead of chimney tops, and stars instead of candle light.” 18  Although her home in Fredericksburg was in a more developed location than her home on Ferry Farm, Mary discovered that the house and garden began to look and feel like her true home.  Carmichael concluded that the house on Charles Street became where Mary wanted to spend the rest of her days.

Mary Ball’s Final Days:

“As friend, neighbor, and Christian, she had carried herself blamelessly in the sight of all,” maintained Harland. 19

Mary spent the last of her years battling breast cancer and had many visitors. Carmichael wrote that Lafayette, George’s most valued friend and frequent visitor, “often asked himself from whom Washington had inherited his loftiness of spirit, his poise, and above all, his magnificent simplicity.  In the woman who sat before him lay his answer.” 20  Though bedridden, she lived long enough to see George elected as the first President of the United States.  He visited on April 14th, 1789, proclaiming he would eagerly return to Mary’s side as soon as he tended to public matters beckoning him in New York.  With a “steady voice” and “feeble hand,” Mary said “this would be their last meeting in this life.”  21  Before George hastened off to tend to the presidential duties, Mary told George that “Heaven’s and his mother’s blessings would always be with him.” 22  In July, Betty wrote to George: “I am sorry to inform you my mother’s breast still continues bad [sic].  God only knows how it will end . . . she is sensible of it and perfectly resigned – wishes for nothing more than to keep it easy.” 23  On August 25th, 1789, Mary passed away, “upheld by unfaltering faith in the promises of the Bible, and by full belief in the communion of the saints,” and surrounded by her children and friends. 24

“She had never had educational advantages or the broadening influence of travel.  She possessed neither great intellect nor ready wit.  Most of her days had been spent on lonely farms. . . . But with her Bible, her heart, and her common sense to guide her, her accomplishments in life were great.” 25

-Reflections of Mary Ball by writer Virginia Carmichael


  1. Virginia Carmichael, Mary Ball Washington (Fredericksburg: The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, 1967), 37.
  2. Ibid., 25.
  3. Ibid., 24.
  4. Mary Ball Washington as cited in Carmichael, Mary Ball Washington, 26.
  5. Mary Ormsbee Whitton, “Daughters of the Revolution,” in These Were the Women USA 1776-1860 (New York: Hasting House, 1954), 4.
  6. Margaret C. Conkling, Memoirs of the Mother and Wife of Washington (Auburn, NY: Derby, Miller, and Company, 1850), 67.
  7. Mary Ball Washington as cited in Conkling, Memoirs of the Mother and Wife of Washington, 57.
  8. Ibid., 60.
  9. Mary Ball Washington as cited in Marion Harland, The Story of Mary Washington (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1892), 114.
  10. Mary Ball Washington as cited in Conkling, Memoirs of the Mother and Wife of Washington, 59.
  11. Carmichael, Mary Ball Washington, 29.
  12. Harland, The Story of Mary Washington, 116.
  13. Mary Ball Washington as cited in Carmichael, Mary Ball Washington, 29.
  14. Conkling, Memoirs of the Mother and Wife of Washington, 51.
  15. Ibid., 53.
  16. Mary Ball Washington as cited in Conkling, Memoirs of the Mother and Wife of Washington, 54.
  17. Whitton, “Daughters of the Revolution,” 5.
  18. Carmichael, Mary Ball Washington, 33.
  19. Harland, The Story of Mary Washington, 135-36.
  20. Carmichael, Mary Ball Washington, 34.
  21. Mary Ball Washington as cited in Harland, The Story of Mary Washington, 133.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Betty Lewis as cited in Whitton, “Daughters of the Revolution,” 5-6.
  24. Harland, The Story of Mary Washington, 137.
  25. Carmichael, Mary Ball Washington, 37.