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Christopher J. Falcon
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Washington Wills

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The Wills of George and Martha Washington

The Clerk of Circuit Court of Fairfax County is the custodian of many priceless and historic documents dating back to the formation of Fairfax County in 1742. Among the most treasured are the wills of George and Martha Washington.
The Last Will and Testament of George Washington was signed on July 9, 1799, six months prior to Washington’s death on December 14, 1799. The will was probated in Fairfax County Court on January 20, 1800.
In his will, Washington referred to its composition, stating that “no professional character has been consulted.” Although Washington did not receive a formal legal education, he possessed experience as a Fairfax County court justice and legislator, which enabled him to produce a remarkably explicit document, dividing his various holdings among many beneficiaries, establishing life estates, and even providing for resolutions should disputes arise.
Washington commented in his will that its preparation “occupied many of my leisure hours.” This is evident when considering the immense detail contained in the will, and its length— 29 pages, front and back, hand signed at the bottom of every page. The first striking element of Washington’s will is its very first line: “I George Washington of Mount Vernon, a citizen of the United States and lately President of the same…” In acknowledging himself to be a “citizen of the United States,” Washington used his will as another document through which the new United States could be unified.
During his lifetime Washington accumulated a considerable amount of land and property consisting of his beloved Mount Vernon estate, townhouse lots in Alexandria and Washington, D.C., choice tracts of land on the Ohio River, as well as land in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York. Using knowledge acquired as a land surveyor and speculator, Washington attached a property schedule to his will, giving precise locations, detailed descriptions, and appraisals for each of his properties. In his will, Washington’s highest priority was to provide for his “dearly beloved wife Martha,” but he also remembered close and distant relations. His continued devotion is evident in the distribution of his extensive land holdings to his family upon his death. Martha Washington had the use of all his property, real and personal, “for her natural life.” Bushrod Washington, his nephew, would then inherit the Mount Vernon estate. Washington released debts owed to him by his brother Samuel’s estate, educational loans that he had advanced to Samuel’s sons George Steptoe Washington and Lawrence Augustine Washington, and released payment of a balance due from the estate of Bartholomew Dandridge, Martha Washington’s brother.
Washington’s second priority in his will was the emancipation, care, and education of his enslaved. Although Washington stated his opposition to slavery and his “earnest wish” to emancipate the enslaved immediately upon his death, there were complications. About half of the Mount Vernon enslaved were “dower” property owned by the estate of Daniel Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s first husband. As such, neither George nor Martha Washington had authority to free the Custis enslaved. Realizing that the enslaved had intermarried, and acknowledging that freeing some while others remained bound would cause pain and “disagreeable circumstances,” Washington decided his portion of the enslaved would be freed “Upon the decease of my wife…” The one exception was his body servant William Lee, who, upon Washington’s death, should be granted immediate freedom and a thirty-dollar annuity “for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.” Martha Washington emancipated George Washington’s enslaved almost exactly one year from the date that his will was probated — January 1, 1801.
Washington provided support for the enslaved who were too old, too young, or too ill to support themselves. The youngest enslaved were to receive assistance until the age of twenty-five and were to be taught to read, write, and pursue an occupation. The will specifically prohibited the sale or transportation of any Washington enslaved out of Virginia and admonished his executors to respect his wishes for their care.

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The Wills of George and Martha Washington

George Washington’s great aspirations for the future of the United States are clearly expressed and supported by his will. He provided stocks to finance the establishment of a school for educating orphans. He bequeathed fifty shares in the Potomac Company "towards the endowment of a UNIVERSITY to be established within the limits of the District of Columbia,” although this never materialized. Washington gave one hundred shares in the James River Company for the “use & benefit” of Liberty Hall Academy, the name of which eventually changed to Washington and Lee University. Washington’s contribution continues to be a cherished part of their endowment.
Although Washington dedicated remarkable attention in the preparation of his will, he made several minor mistakes. For example, Washington signed his will at the bottom center of each page, except for the 23rd page. The last word on page 23 is “Washington.” Evidently, in looking over the page, Washington believed that he had already affixed his signature. Another discrepancy occurred in dating the document at the close of his will. He wrote: “I have set my hand and seal this ninth day of July, one thousand seven hundred ninety and of the Independence of the United States the twenty fourth.” However, twenty-four years after the independence of the United States would have been 1799.
George Washington’s will was recorded by Clerk George Deneale on January 20, 1800. At the time of the will’s recording, the Fairfax Courthouse was located in what is now the City of Alexandria. Three months later, in April 1800, the Fairfax Court moved to the “new courthouse” at the intersection of Little River Turnpike and Old Ox Road in the City of Fairfax, where it remains today.
Since being probated, Washington’s will has been exclusively in the care and custody of the Fairfax Clerk of Court, with few exceptions. In 1861, during the Civil War, Federal troops occupied the area. The Clerk of Court, Alfred Moss, instructed his wife Martha Gunnell Moss to take the will, along with other important court records, to the home of their daughter, Mrs. John Brent Hunton, at Evergreen Farm between New Baltimore and Warrenton, Virginia. It was placed in a chest, which contained the Gunnell and Moss family silver, buried in the wine cellar and covered with coal. In October 1862, Alfred Moss returned to Evergreen Farm, removed the will and took it to the Confederate capital in Richmond for safekeeping until the hostilities ended. In 1865 the will was returned to the courthouse.
The first conservation effort of George Washington’s will likely occurred in 1862, when it was moved to Richmond for safekeeping during the Civil War. During this period, the will was folded in half vertically. As a result, the brittle pages were damaged and every page was split. In an attempt to prevent further breakage, some of the split pages were sewn together with needle and thread.
Since that first crude attempt, additional efforts have been undertaken to prevent further deterioration of Washington’s will. In 1910, William Berwick, a renowned expert with the Library of Congress, treated George Washington’s will using a conservation process called crêpeline lamination. This technique involved coating each page of the will and paper surrounds with a paste of wheat starch and water and then embedding a fine silk net into the paste. This technique and Mr. Berwick’s expertise are responsible for preserving the manuscript for the past 90 years.
Washington’s will was often on lengthy display inside the Fairfax Courthouse. In 1976, an examination of the will by conservators at the Library of Congress revealed several major tears and breaks in the silk and adhesive laminate. The tears and breaks were temporarily mended, but a long-term preservation strategy could not be agreed upon. A recommendation was made that the will only be displayed on special occasions.

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The Wills of George and Martha Washington

In 1999, at the recommendation of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association and with the approval of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Christine Smith, of Conservation of Art on Paper, Inc. (CAPI), in Alexandria, Virginia, was selected to perform conservation and provide professional advice regarding storage and exhibition of both George and Martha Washingtons’ wills.
Working with the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, CAPI has extensive experience preserving original George Washington documents, including one of two existing letters to Martha, a schedule of his enslaved holdings, and an account to the Continental Congress of Martha’s expenses for traveling to visit him during the Revolution. Using a new test developed at the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage, CAPI found that the ink used by Washington to write his will, unlike almost all iron gall-type inks, does not pose a chemical threat to the paper on which the will was written. Another study revealed that the will was not written on paper specially made for Washington, as had long been reported, but on generic paper that was likely English or Dutch in origin.
To remove William Berwick’s 90-year-old conservation treatment, CAPI used a technique in which enzymes digested the paste that covered both sides of each handwritten page and held the silk covers over the pages. After the silk was removed, all the pages were bathed in water to neutralize acids and lighten stains and discoloration, and then resized with gelatin.
Once the pages were exposed and cleaned, numerous breaks caused by movement and burial during the Civil War were meticulously mended with tiny bits of acid-free tissue – some only 2 x 2 millimeters in size, toned to blend with the color of the old paper. After the sheets were treated, they were placed in individual portfolio mats, a new type of housing designed specifically for the will. CAPI also compiled its historical and analytical research to provide the court with a thick volume of information about the will's physical components and its role in American history.
The Last Will and Testament of Martha Washington was probated in the Fairfax County Court on June 21, 1802, almost one month after her death on May 22, 1802. Soon after George Washington’s death in December 1799, Martha Washington began planning her will, as she was in ill health and had specific bequests to her children and her extended family. Her will was prepared by Washington family lawyer, and the 3rd Attorney General of the United States, Charles Lee. Martha Washington signed and dated her will on September 22, 1800, affixing her signature to the lower right corner of every page. The will is a total of seven pages and was written on larger “folio-sized” sheets of paper.
On March 4, 1802, Martha Washington added a codicil to her will, which, except for her attestation at the bottom of each page, is the only portion of the will believed to be in her own hand. In the codicil, Martha gave her “mulato man Elish” to her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis.
During the Civil War, Martha Washington’s will remained at the Fairfax Courthouse. In 1862, the courthouse was vandalized, and Martha Washington’s will was removed by Lieutenant Colonel David Thomson, who, shortly before his death, gave the will to his daughter Mary Espy Thomson. In 1903, Miss Thomson sold the will to industrialist John Pierpont Morgan for an undisclosed sum. In 1915, legislative action was initiated by Fairfax County to return the will to the courthouse. In conjunction with Fairfax County’s action, the Commonwealth of Virginia pursued the will’s return in the Supreme Court of the United States. Before the Supreme Court could hear the case, Morgan’s son returned the will to the Commonwealth of Virginia. Virginia’s Governor H. C. Stuart then delivered Martha Washington’s will to the Clerk of Fairfax County Circuit Court, nearly fifty years after it was taken.
George and Martha Washington’s Wills are historic treasures. I hope you enjoy reading the contents of these wills, which provide a fascinating look not only at Fairfax County’s history, but also our American heritage.

Christopher J. Falcon
Clerk of the Circuit Court Fairfax, Virginia


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