Rebecca A. Johnson, “Betty Washington Lewis,” The Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington,
Betty Washington Fielding Lewis 1733-1797
Betty Washington Lewis was more than just the only sister of George Washington to survive to adulthood; she was also a patriot. Lewis & her husband, Fielding, contributed a considerable amount of their personal wealth & time toward the American Revolution. Their devotion & loyalty to the wartime effort & to its leader, George Washington, inadvertently led them to financial hardship.
Born on June 20, 1733, Betty Washington was the 2nd child & only surviving daughter of Augustine & Mary Ball Washington. Christened as Elizabeth, Betty was most likely named after her mother’s beloved half-sister, Elizabeth Johnson Bonhum. Along with her eventually famous older brother George, Betty had 3 other brothers, Samuel, John (Jack), & Charles, & a sister, Mildred, who died in infancy. From her father’s 1st marriage, she also had 3 half-brothers, Butler, Lawrence, & Augustine, only 2 (Lawrence & Augustine) of whom survived to adulthood, & a half-sister, Jane, who died when a child.1
Betty Washington was born at the family estate on Pope’s Creek in Westmoreland County. In 1735, the Washingtons moved to a property on the Upper Potomac, known at the time as Little Hunting Creek but eventually renamed Mount Vernon. In 1740, the family moved to Ferry Farm, overlooking the Rappahannock River, across from the town of Fredericksburg.2
Like many Virginia girls among the gentry, young Betty Washington no doubt received some practical & ornamental education. She learned to ride a horse at an early age & most likely became an expert horsewoman. Like all young Virginians, she must have learned to dance. Her mother taught her the domestic arts, such as sewing, knitting, & embroidery. Along with her 4 brothers, Betty attended a school taught by Reverend James Marye, a scholarly Huguenot. Betty & her family regularly attended Falmouth Church in Brunswick Parish, which contributed to her lasting faith & regular attendance at services in St. George’s Parish in the latter part of her life.3
Colonel Fielding Lewis (1725-1781)
Betty Washington was 16, when she married the widower Fielding Lewis, who was 8 years her senior, on May 7, 1750. The couple not only shared the same acquaintances & circulated in the same social circles, they were also 2nd cousins through their maternal grandmothers, who were sisters. Marriage between kin was common in 18C Virginia. Fielding Lewis’ 1st wife, Catharine Washington, was also a cousin. Betty Washington’s marriage settlement of £400 & 2 female slaves, left to her in her father’s will, along with Fielding Lewis’ wealth, enabled the newly married couple to live comfortably.4
In 1752, Fielding Lewis purchased 1,300 acres on the outskirts of Fredericksburg & asked his brother-in-law, George Washington, to survey the 861-acre portion that would be the site of Kenmore, the Lewises’ exquisite house.5 Together, Betty & Fielding Lewis had a total of 11 children, 6 of whom survived to adulthood. Betty Lewis also had 2 stepchildren, from Fielding's 1st marriage. It was at Kenmore where Betty & Fielding Lewis resided & raised their family during their 31 years of married life.6
Kenmore where Betty & Fielding Lewis resided
Kenmore was a Georgian-style 2 story home that consisted of 8 rooms, a full cellar, 12-foot high ceilings, & 4,000 square feet of living space.7 Many people lived & worked at Kenmore, including 80 slaves, whose quarters were among the many outbuildings on the estate. Records indicate it took several years to build the house, in part because the disruption of trade during the imperial crisis prevented the Lewsises from obtaining necessary supplies from England. Decorative plasterwork on the ceilings & mantles were added as late as 1775.8
Kenmore where Betty & Fielding Lewis resided
Fielding Lewis was often away from Kenmore due to his involvement in public life. He was a vestryman of St. George’s Church, a colonel in the Spotsylvania County militia, & from 1760 to 1768 served as a member of the House of Burgesses. In 1773, he joined Virginia’s pre-revolutionary Committee of Correspondence.9 Fielding’s absence left Betty in charge of running & maintaining their estate. Although she had many slaves to do manual tasks, like other plantation mistresses, she supervised their work. She also oversaw the management of her gardens, spent much of her time attending to her children, offered hospitality to guests, & hosted various social gatherings. Betty’s brother George was one of Kenmore's many frequent visitors.10
Betty & Fielding Lewis were strong supporters of the Revolution, & their loyalty to the cause cost them financially. The Lewises owned a store, which originally belonged to Fielding’s father. During the war, Fielding supplied salt, flour, bacon, & clothing to patriot forces. Herbs & other produce from Betty’s gardens became teas & ointments that Fielding also supplied to the army. In July 1775, the Virginia assembly passed an ordinance providing for a “Manufactory of Small Arms in Fredericksburg, Va.” & named Fielding Lewis & four other men as its Commissioners. Appropriations of £25,000 were distributed & land was secured near Hunter’s Forge for the construction & operation of the gunnery. However, the appropriations ran out, & Betty & Fielding Lewis used £7,000 from their personal accounts to maintain the gunnery. They later borrowed between £30,000 & £40,000 to provide saltpeter, sulfur, gunpowder, & lead for the manufacture of ammunition during the war. Kenmore was heavily mortgaged to meet the costs of these patriotic endeavors.11
Betty Lewis handled family affairs for her brother George, while Fielding managed many of his financial concerns. Fielding collected outstanding debts for George, & he also handled several land transactions for his brother-in-law.12 Meanwhile, when George & Betty’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, died in 1789, shortly after he had left for New York to assume the presidency, George asked his sister to take care of their mother’s estate, providing her with detailed instructions, which she followed.13 In 1790, at George’s request, Betty cared for their niece Harriot Washington, the daughter of their deceased brother Samuel. Harriot resided at Mount Vernon, & her uncle George was her guardian. Beginning in October 1792, due to the responsibilities of the presidency in Philadelphia, there were no women living at Mount Vernon to watch over her, so George Washington instructed Betty Lewis to move Harriot to Kenmore, which she did.14
When Fielding Lewis died December 1781, just two months after the American victory at Yorktown, the Commonwealth of Virginia still owed the Lewises some £7,000. In widowhood at age 49, Betty struggled financially & sometimes hired out her slaves to raise money. She also tried running a small boarding school at Kenmore, though she had to sell land in order to keep the school & Kenmore afloat.15 Betty Lewis remained at Kenmore fourteen years before she went to live with her daughter, Betty Carter, in Culpepper County. On March 31, 1797, she died at her daughter’s home, Western View, & was buried on the property.16 Eighteen days after she died, Kenmore & its contents were sold. The Lewis descendants were never compensated for Betty & Fielding Lewis’ enormous expenditures in support of the revolutionary cause.
1. Fitzpatrick, John, ed. The Writings of George Washington (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing, 1939), 28.
2. Charles Moore, The Family Life of George Washington (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1926), Internet Archive, 12-13; Duke, Kenmore & the Lewises, 19.
3. Duke, Kenmore & the Lewises, 20-21, 37-38; Moore, The Family Life of George Washington, 206-7.
4. Fielding Lewis, “Genealogical notes of the Fielding Lewis family,” Fred W. Smith National Library, Mount Vernon, General Collection; Eugene Scheel, “Kenmore House One of the Finest Examples of American Colonial Architecture;” “Augustine Washington, April 11, 1743, Will,” American Memory, The Library of Congress, Source: George Washington Papers 1741-1799, Series 4, General Correspondence, 1697-1799, Library of Congress, Manuscripts Division; “Augustine Washington’s Will,”
5. “To George Washington from Fielding Lewis, 23 April 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 10, 21 March 1774?–?15 June 1775, ed. W. W. Abbot & Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 343–344; Vivian Minor Fleming, The Story of Kenmore (Fredericksburg, VA: Kenmore Association, 1927), 6.
6. Paula S. Felder, Fielding Lewis & the Washington Family: A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg (Fredericksburg, VA: American History Company, 1998), 163.
7. Though Kenmore is the more commonly known name of the home of Colonel Fielding Lewis & Betty Washington Lewis, it was first called “Millbrook.” The name was changed to Kenmore by Samuel Gordon who purchased Kenmore in 1819. According to tradition, the Gordons named the house "Kenmore" after their ancestral Scottish home of Kenmuir.
8. Scheel, “Kenmore House;” “Historic Kenmore Plantation;” Fleming, Story of Kenmore, 6; Duke, Kenmore & the Lewises, 36, 68-69.
9. William Pitt Palmer, & Sherwin McRae, eds., Calendar of Virginia State Papers & Other Manuscripts, 1652-1781, vol. 1 (Richmond: R. F. Walker, Superintendent of Public Printing, 1875), Internet Archive, 406; Scheel, “Kenmore House;” Duke, Kenmore & the Lewises, 62-65.
10. Duke, Kenmore & the Lewises, 50; Felder, Fielding Lewis & the Washington Family, 164-165; Moore, Family Life of George Washington, 12-13.
11. “Fielding Lewis Store: The Oldest Retail Building in America?,” Historic Fredericksburg Foundation, 2005; “Fielding Lewis;” Palmer, & McRae, eds. Calendar of Virginia State Papers, 456, 502-3; Duke, Kenmore & the Lewises, 94-96; Fleming, Story of Kenmore, 9; “To George Washington from Fielding Lewis, 14 November 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 2, 16 September 1775?–?31 December 1775, ed. Philander D. Chase (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987), 371–373.
12. “From George Washington to Fielding Lewis, 20 April 1773,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 9, 8 January 1772?–?18 March 1774, ed. W. W. Abbot & Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994), 221–224; “To George Washington from Fielding Lewis, 8–9 May 1773,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: ibid., 229–230. “To George Washington from Fielding Lewis, 24 May 1773,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: ibid., 235.
13. “From George Washington to Betty Washington Lewis, 13 September 1789,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 4, 8 September 1789?–?15 January 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993), 32–36.
14. “To George Washington from Harriot Washington, 2 April 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 5, 16 January 1790?–?30 June 1790, ed. Dorothy Twohig, Mark A. Mastromarino, & Jack D. Warren (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996), 310–311; “To George Washington from Betty Washington Lewis, 25 September 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 11, 16 August 1792?–?15 January 1793, ed. Christine Sternberg Patrick (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002), 155–156; “From George Washington to Betty Washington Lewis, 7 October 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: ibid., 201-202.
15. “To George Washington from Betty Washington Lewis, 24 September 1793,” Founders Online, National Archives, Source: The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 14, 1 September–31 December 1793, ed. David R. Hoth (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2008), 131–132.
16. Moncure Daniel Conway, ed. George Washington & Mount Vernon: A Collection of Washington’s Unpublished Agricultural & Personal Letters, vol. 4. (Brooklyn: Long Island Historical Society, 1889), lix; Fleming, Story of Kenmore, 10-11.
Duke, Jane Taylor. Kenmore & the Lewises. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1949.
Felder, Paula S. Fielding Lewis & the Washington Family: A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg. Fredericksburg, VA: American History Company, 1998.
Fleming, Vivian Minor. The Story of Kenmore. Fredericksburg, VA: Kenmore Association, 1927.
Kierner, Cynthia A. Beyond the Household: Women’s Place in the Early South, 1700-1835. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.
Moore, Charles. The Family Life of George Washington. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1926. Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/familylifeofgeor008680mbp
Norton, Mary Beth. Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800. Ithaca, NY & London: Cornell University Press, 1980.