Historic Letter from Frances Bassett Washington to Martha Washington (March 1793)

May 21, 2021 | Happy Retreat History, Historic Letters, Historic Preservation, News & Announcements

Introduction: HISTORY AT IT’S BEST FROM INSIDE HAPPY RETREAT, by Marjorie Gaestel

Those that know me know that one of my favorite Happy Retreat subjects is the portrait of the lovely Frances Bassett Washington that hangs in one of our front parlors.

Frances was married to George Augustine Washington, son of our Charles and Mildred. Sadly, neither George nor Frances had exceptionally long lives. They both died early of tuberculosis. However, I did find something that made me feel close to Frances and that is a letter that she wrote to her aunt, First Lady Martha Washington, after the loss of her husband George Augustine. She expressed her plans to visit Happy Retreat. The will of George Augustine mentions property that he owned in then what was then Berkeley County, now Jefferson County. This property was left to the children of George and Frances. It was occupied by tenants and needed to be checked on. In the letter Frances also mentions being able to visit Charles and Mildred and the children would be able to visit with their “Grandpapa and Grandmama”. When I read this, I thought how lucky I was to be able to learn something so personal from Frances.

This article was originally featured in the May 2021 Rising Sun Newsletter

Frances Bassett Washington

Frances Bassett Washington

Frances Bassett Washington, wife of George Augustine Washington and niece of Martha Washington Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association

Letter From Frances Bassett Washington to Martha Washington

See FBWL to GW, 28 March 1793
See GW to FBWL, 10 June 1793

From Frances Bassett Washington (Lear)

My dearest Aunt Hanover [Va.] March [1793]1

I had2 the pleasure to receive your kind favor of the 4th instant, inclosed with the Presidents letter to my Brother Burwell.3 I feel a great deal of concern that your coming to Virginia is delayd so long,4 I flatterd myself I shoud have had the pleasure of being some months with you <this> summer, & that your society at Mount Vernon woud soften the sorrows I must feel on going thare—from this last circumstance,5 & understanding that the President woud not stay at home more than a week on his first visit I was rather inclined not to go up untill you came in, but as this is delayd so much longer <th>an I expected, & the President also mentions that he shall probably stay at home a fortnight, I have determined to go up at the time he expects to be thar<e> the consolation & direction I shall receive from his kind advice, has greater weight with me, than any circumstance that woud oppose my going— I am very desirous of carrying my children to vis<it> their Grandpapa & Grandmama in Berkely,6 but thought of defering it untill the latter end of <the> summer. this however woud interfere with my staying with you, all the time you continued at <illegible>oud very unwillingly give up—& al<tho it> is not agreable to me to change my pla<mutilated> so frequently, I will, if you think thare <mutilated> impropriety in it, go up to Berkely after the President leaves Mount Vernon, & spend a part of the time untill you come home— the President will not I hope think it a mater<ial> circumstance, for me to take Harriet Washing<ton> up with me, if I go to Berkely, it will be shortly after he leaves Mount Vernon, & I <illegible> wish if agreeable to him7 to send for her when I return there, it is the first wish <in> my heart my dear Aunt, to act with yours & the Presidents approbation, I cannot therefore o<mutilated> <any> opportunity <illegible> <mutilated> me with the <illegible> my <illegible> of experience <mutilated> fortunate situation <illegible>ires.

ADf, NHi: George and Martha Washington Papers.

  1. FBWL was visiting her brother John Bassett in Hanover County, Virginia.
  2. A large space after this word appears to be an erasure.
  3. The enclosure to FBWL has not been found. See GW to Burwell Bassett, Jr., 4 March 1793, Papers, Presidential Series, 12:260-61 and n.1 to that document.
  4. In a 5 March 1793 letter to GW, FBWL wrote that she would visit Mount Vernon “next month, at the time, you propose to be at home” (Papers, Presidential Series>, 12:270). Having just been re-elected president, GW delivered his second inaugural address the day prior, 4 March, in Philadelphia (see Papers, Presidential Series, 12:264–65).
  5. FBWL is referring to her husband George Augustine Washington’s death on 5 February.
  6. “Grandpapa” and “Grandmama” refer to George Augustine’s parents, Charles (1738–1799) and Mildred Thornton Washington (c.1737–1804). The couple owned land and lived in Berkeley County, Va. (present-day W.Va.). In 1786, Charles incorporated a town on his land, naming it Charles Town.
  7. FBWL originally wrote, “be more convenient for me” but replaced it with the last five words.

To Frances Bassett Washington (Lear)

[2 June 1793]

The President says you are already acquainted with his sentiments on the propriety of renting out your lands & negroes in Berkeley.1 As it seems to be the intention to settle another plantation there, he thinks that the negroes, with such as you may incline to move up from Fairfax, had better be divided between the two places & each rented to some man of character & responsibility, who will be able to give security for the performance of the Agreement.2 This will ease you of much trouble & reduce your income to a certainty, which never will be the case under Overseers at a distance, as you seem to experience already. He thinks Articles should be drawn up by some professional & skilful person: and every precaution taken to prevent waste of the timber, or the cutting down too much thereof—and no abuse of either the Land or Negroes be permitted. As to the term for which you would let the Estate, it must depend upon your own view of the subject, the Will & the advice of your friends there, who are much better acquainted with the circumstances attending the Estate, & the utility of a longer or shorter term, than he is at this distance.

LB (extract), DLC:GW. The header reads, “Sentiments dictated by G. W. in a Letter from Mrs M. Washington, to Mrs Frs Washington. 2d June 1793.” The paragraph begins and ends with quotation marks. GW references this note in his 10 June 1793 letter to FBWL: “Your Aunt has lately received a letter from you, to which an answer was given about a week ago. As this answer, so far as it respected the renting of the estate in Berkley, of which you are possessed, was dictated by me, in a hurry, I will now give you my ideas more at large on that subject” (Papers, Presidential Series, 13:53). The letter in which these “sentiments” were included has not been found.

  1. MW is referring to FBWL’s inheritance from her deceased husband, George Augustine Washington, including his land in Berkeley and Fairfax counties in Virginia (Berkeley County is in present-day West Virginia) (see GW to Frances Bassett Washington [Lear], 10 June 1793, Papers, Presidential Series, 13:53-57; George Augustine Washington’s Will, 24 Jan. 1793, ViFfCh).
  2. GW references “a second plantation to be settle<d> in Berkeley county” in his 10 June letter to FBWL (see Papers, Presidential Series, 13:53). This is verified in George Augustine Washington’s will, in which he leaves a portion of his Berkeley tract to his son George Fayette (see George Augustine Washington’s Last Will and Testament, 1 Jan. 1793, ViFfCh).
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