Circuit Court Alert:
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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John T. Frey
Clerk of the Circuit Court Fairfax, Virginia
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