Betty Lewis' Probate Inventory

Newly Acquired Inventory Will Help Kenmore Interpret the Life of Washington's Beloved Sister

Knowing what Betty Washington Lewis owned at the time of her death aids national historic landmark's caretakers

By LAURA MOYER of the Free Lance-Star
Date published: 6/30/2004

Betty Lewis's probate inventoryBetty Washington Lewis lived her final year in reduced circumstances, but she was still a lady of property. The acquisition this week of a handwritten probate inventory signed by two of Lewis' sons tells officials of The George Washington Foundation exactly what that property was--right down to the tart molds in her kitchen and the 40 pounds of brown sugar in her storehouse.

GWFF operates Historic Kenmore, the Fredericksburg home of Fielding Lewis and his wife, Betty, sister of George Washington. The 1797 probate document--apparently a draft of the formal copy that would have been filed at a courthouse--came to light after [former] curator David Voelkel made inquiries among dealers about items related to the Lewis family and Kenmore.

About the same time the Lewis inventory became available, Voelkel also had the opportunity to buy the passport of one of Kenmore's 19th-century owners, William Key Howard. The passport, issued in the early 1840s when Howard was 21, is signed by then-Secretary of State Daniel Webster. The foundation was able to buy both documents thanks to a $10,000 grant from Fredericksburg resident Doris Buffett's Sunshine Lady Foundation.

David Voelkel, Kenmore's curator, examines the Betty Lewis probate inventory
David Voelkel, Kenmore's [former] curator, examines
the Betty Lewis probate inventory
The papers' value far exceeds the monetary, Voelkel said. The passport is one of only a few foundation-owned items linked to the Howard period of the mansion's history. The probate inventory is even more exciting, Voelkel said. Knowing what Betty Lewis owned at the time of her death will help tell the story of how she lived.

The Lewises' son Lawrence, who was a secretary and personal assistant to the first president, wrote the list on a large piece of stationery that bears Washington's watermark. It was folded and would have been tied with a red ribbon—the "red tape" of bureaucracy, Voelkel said.

In an even, elegant hand, Lawrence Lewis detailed his mother's property starting with her cash--3 pounds, 6 shilling, 0 pence. First listed are possessions that would have been part of Betty Lewis' everyday surroundings, including her beds and bed linens, tablecloths and napkins, china, forks and knives, three "dressing glasses," a mahogany card table and a pair of red damask coverlets.

Nothing seems too insignificant for the list--not a bag of picked cotton, two small boxes of candles, a griddle, 15 "butter potts" or some everyday green-and-white stoneware whose description matches shards recovered in digs on the Kenmore property. Betty Lewis also owned livestock, including two horses, two mares in foal, a mule and "24 head of old cattle."

Near the end of her life, Betty Lewis moved from the grand Fredericksburg mansion to Mill Brook, a farm in Spotsylvania County along the Po River. It was there that the probate inventory was made and signed by Lawrence Lewis and a brother, Robert.

Before the Revolutionary War, the Lewises were well-to-do. Fielding Lewis was a successful merchant and rising gentleman, a status reflected in the elaborate plasterwork and grand interior of his Fredericksburg mansion. But he died in debt in 1781, having sunk his personal fortune into an arms manufactory to support the war for independence.

In "Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family," historian Paula S. Felder wrote that Betty Lewis had a widow's right to use the Fredericksburg mansion and half the plantation lands until her death. But in the mid-1790s, creditors were pressing Fielding's eldest son by a first marriage, John Lewis, Felder wrote. Finally, after other property was liquidated, the plantation was the only salable asset remaining of Fielding Lewis' estate. According to Felder, a wealthy Spotsylvanian named Thomas Colson – to whom money was owed – deeded Mill Brook farm to Betty Lewis in November 1795. That enabled her to move from the Fredericksburg mansion, which was soon advertised for rent and then sold by the time of her death in 1797.

The probate document, Voelkel said, will help in creating an interpretive plan for Kenmore. Eventually, he said, "I want people to walk into the house and walk into Fielding and Betty Lewis' home."

To reach LAURA MOYER: 540/374-5417

Photos by Scott Neville / The Free Lance-Star

Read a transcription of the inventory