The Wills of George and Martha WashingtonThe Clerk of Circuit Court of Fairfax County is the custodian of many priceless and historical documents dating back to the formation of Fairfax County in 1742. Among the most treasured of these documents 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 his death. In his will, Washington refers to its construction stating, “no professional character has been consulted.” Although Washington did not receive a legal education, he possessed experience as a Fairfax County court justice and legislator. That experience enabled Washington to produce an extremely 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. Using knowledge acquired as a land surveyor and speculator, Washington provided a property schedule attached to his will, giving precise locations, detailed descriptions and appraisals for each of his properties.
During his lifetime Washington accumulated a considerable amount of land and property consisting of 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. 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. In his will, Washington also released debts owed to him by his brother Samuel Washington’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 slaves. Although Washington states his opposition to slavery and his “earnest wish” to emancipate the slaves immediately upon his death, there were complications. About half of the Mount Vernon slaves were “dower” slaves owned by the estate of Daniel Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s first husband. The slaves had intermarried and realizing that freeing some while others remained bound would cause pain and “disagreeable circumstances,” Washington freed them “Upon the decease of my wife….” The one exception was his body servant William Lee, who, upon Washington’s demise, should be granted immediate freedom and a 30 dollar annuity “for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.”
Washington provided support for slaves who were too old, ill, or too young to support themselves. The youngest slaves 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 slave out of Virginia and admonished his executors to respect his wishes for their care. 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 50 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 100 shares in the James River Company for the “use & benefit” of Liberty Hall Academy, whose name eventually changed to Washington and Lee University. Washington’s contribution continues to be a cherished part of their endowment.
The Wills of George and Martha WashingtonAlthough 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, with the exception of 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. The property schedule was dated “9th July, 1799”, however, the will states “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.” Twenty-four years after the independence of the United States would be have been 1799.
George Washington’s will was probated in Fairfax County by Clerk George Deneale, on January 20, 1800. The Fairfax courthouse was at that time located in what is now considered Alexandria. Since being probated, Washington’s will has been exclusively in the care and custody of the Fairfax County Clerk of Court, with few exceptions. In 1861, during the Civil War, Federal troops occupied the Fairfax area. The Clerk of Court, Alfred Moss, instructed his wife Martha Gunnell Moss to take the will, along with other important papers, to the home of their daughter, Mrs. John Brent Hunton, at Evergreen Farm between New Baltimore and Warrenton. It was placed in a chest, which contained the Gunnell and Moss silver, buried in the wine cellar and covered with coal. In October of 1862, Alfred Moss went to Evergeen 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 restoration effort of George Washington’s will probably occurred in 1862, when it was moved to Richmond for safekeeping during the Civil War. At some time, the will was folded in half vertically. As a result, the brittle pages were damaged and every page was broken. In an attempt to prevent further breakage, some of the broken pages were sewn together with needle and thread. Since that first crude effort, several preservation efforts were undertaken to prevent further deterioration of Washington’s will. In 1910 William Berwick, a renowned expert with the Library of Congress, restored 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 frequently displayed inside the Fairfax County Courthouse during the mid-1900s. 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. 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), of Alexandria, Virginia was selected to perform conservation treatment and provide professional advice regarding storage and exhibition of both George and Martha Washington’s Wills.
Working with the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, CAPI has extensive experience preserving original Washington documents, including one of two existing letters to Martha, a schedule of his slave holdings, and an account to the Continental Congress of Mrs. Washington’s expenses for traveling to visit him during the war. 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 will paper. 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 is probably English or Dutch.
<< prev || next >>
The Wills of George and Martha WashingtonCAPI used recently developed techniques in which enzymes digest 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 sheets were bathed in water to remove acids and other degrading materials 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 tissue – some only 2 x 2mm, 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 materials, its role in American history, and other subjects. The Last Will and Testament of Martha Washington was written by her granddaughter Eleanor Park Custis Lewis. The will contains a total of seven pages and was written on larger “folio-sized” sheets of paper. Martha Washington signed and dated her will on September 22, 1800, and each page bears her signature in the bottom right hand corner. On March 4, 1802, Martha Washington added a codicil to her will. Martha Washington’s will was probated on June 21, 1802. 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. Miss Thomson sold the will to J. Pierpont Morgan for an undisclosed sum. 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 to the Supreme Court of the United States of America. In 1915, prior to the Supreme Court hearing the case, Mr. 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, more than 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 into our American heritage.
John T. Frey
Clerk of the Circuit Court Fairfax, Virginia
- George Washington’s Will
- Transcript of George Washington’s Will
- Martha Washington’s Will
- Transcript of Martha Washington’s Will