The Father of our Country, George Washington was step-father to Martha’s children and always a concerned and affectionate uncle to his numerous nephews and nieces.
The Washington-Dandridge Connections
George Washington was the oldest of five children born to Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball. From his first marriage, Augustine had two sons, several years senior to George, but who remained close to him throughout their lifetime. George’s half-brother Augustine (sometimes called Austin) married and had surviving children. Lawrence married, but died young, and his wife and child survived him by only a few years. That was the connection that brought Mount Vernon into George Washington’s possession.
George’s full siblings were Samuel, John, Charles and Elizabeth (Betty), his only sister. All of them married and had children who reached maturity. George, however, survived all his siblings, but had no children of his own.
Martha Dandridge (Custis was the name of her first husband), was also the eldest of five who lived to maturity: two sisters, Anne (Nancy) and Elizabeth (Betsy), and two brothers, William and Bartholomew. They likewise were fruitful and multiplied. And, as might be expected, one of Martha’s nieces married one of George’s nephews. Intermarriage between family connections was rampant in Colonial times.
George Washington’s Home at Mount Vernon
From the start, George and Martha Washington and her two babies, Jackie (aged four) and Patsy (aged two) lived at George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon. At the time, it was a relatively small plantation, but beautifully situated on the banks of the Potomac River, not far from Alexandria. Over the next forty years, Washington would add to his acreage and improve the house and dependencies which would become the magnificent estate we know today.
Niece and nephews, and later great-nieces and nephews would visit Mount Vernon – sometimes for extended periods of time. After Patsy Custis died at age seventeen, the visits became more frequent. The motherly Martha found great comfort in a house filled with young people.
Then the Revolutionary War took Washington away from his beloved Mount Vernon for the better part of eight years. He relied heavily on some of those relatives to manage the plantation in his absence.
The Nephews of George Washington
Lund Washington, George’s cousin, had served ably as manager for Mount Vernon for nine years, but was older than George and wished to retire midway through the Revolutionary War. Brother Charles’ son George Augustine Washington (1759-93), had served capably during the War, but his health was poor, and Washington wanted his favorite nephew to consider taking the post. General Washington was all the more hopeful for his nephew’s acceptance, since he had married Martha’s niece, Fanny Bassett. The position came with perks: they could make Mount Vernon their home for as long as they wished. A year later, he told his nephew that he planned to leave them two or three thousand acres of property, “not a hint for you to prepare another home,” he wrote, but because of the double family bonds, and the good opinion he had of them both. The legacy would not happen. George Augustine Washington, tubercular in health, would die shortly thereafter.
Bushrod Washington (1762-1829, Brother John’s son) was another nephew that the General could depend on to assist with plantation affairs, but more in a public venue. After the Revolutionary War, Bushrod became a member of the Virginia Assembly and had made his home in Richmond, the new state capital. “Uncle” George asked him for several small favors: a copy of recent ordinances, checking on Washington’s taxes, placing an ad in the newspapers. “Uncle” George was also generous with good advice for the young legislator – advice learned from his own experience: “speak seldom, but…make yourself perfect master of the Subject.”
Samuel Washington’s sons, George Steptoe (1771-1809) and Lawrence, were a headache. Samuel had died, and his sons were young and needed care and guardianship. Washington’s brother Charles was a semi-alcoholic and was unreliable. It would be General Washington, now retired and returned to his Mount Vernon plantation, who would assume responsibility for their education and upbringing.
Education (particularly for the boys) was vitally important to Washington, whose lack of formal education always made him sensitive on that subject. He had the boys placed in school, and kept close check on their progress. He wrote to one of their schoolmasters, “tho I do not desire they should be deprived of necessary and proper amusements, yet it is my earnest request that they may be kept close to studies.” George Steptoe and Lawrence Washington would be enrolled and withdrawn from several schools. It was an age of “spare the rod, spoil the child,” and it appears that while some of the punishments meted out by various pedants was indeed excessive, the young boys were behaving like young boys do. Samuel’s sons were never particularly attentive to their education. And, to his sincere dismay, none of Washington’s kin were scholars.
Sister Betty Lewis’ children were also looked after by “Uncle” George, especially once Betty was widowed. Her son Robert would become one of President Washington’s secretaries. Nephew Lawrence Lewis (1767-1839) gave him the most personal pleasure. Not long before Washington’s death, Lawrence married Eleanor (Nelly) Custis – Martha’s granddaughter. Everyone was delighted!
George Washington may have been somewhat formal and remote, but he was a devoted uncle to his many relatives.
· Bourne, Miriam Anne, First Family: George Washington and his Intimate Relations, W.W. Norton & Co., 1982