Fielding Lewis

Fielding Lewis
Portrait of Fielding Lewis, c. 1755-1757
Artist: Attributed to John Wollaston
Origin: Fredericksburg, Virginia
Oil on canvas
A gift from Mr. Lewis Smoot, 1940
Fielding Lewis was born July 7, 1725, into a prominent and wealthy merchant family at Warner Hall, Gloucester Co., VA. His parents were John Lewis, III and Frances Fielding. His older brother Warner was first in line to inherit the family estate in Gloucester. In 1746, his father, John Lewis, bought property in the growing town of Fredericksburg, where he built a store, warehouses, and a shipyard.

Fielding moved to Fredericksburg to learn to run the business and, in 1746, he married Catharine Washington (Fielding's second cousin and first cousin to George Washington). John Lewis built the couple a large house on his property, just up the hill from the store. Catharine gave birth to three children over a 4-year period but died shortly after the birth of her third child in February, 1750.

Just 3 months later, on May 7, 1750, Fielding married another second cousin, Betty Washington, George Washington's sister. It is thought that Betty nursed Catharine during her illness and was a logical choice to become mother to Fielding's 2 young children. Marrying so quickly after the death of a spouse was common in the 18th century. Betty gave birth to her first child, Fielding Jr., in 1751 and over the next 20 years, gave birth to 10 more children. Of those, only 6 survived to adulthood.

In 1753, Fielding purchased additional adjacent property, which brought the size of both properties to approximately 1,280 acres. Upon his father's death in 1754, Fielding inherited the business and plantation.

Fielding prospered as a merchant, ship owner, and land developer and was a prominent member of Fredericksburg society. He served in the Virginia House of Burgesses from 1760 to 1770, often traveling to Williamsburg with his brother-in-law, George Washington.

In 1769, Betty and Fielding began construction of a new mansion (now called Kenmore), farther back from the river. The mansion, with its decorative plasterwork and expensive paint and wallpapers, was designed to be a showplace, reflecting the status and wealth of the Lewis family. The family moved into their new home in the fall of 1775, on the eve of the Revolutionary War.

By this time, Fielding was suffering from a respiratory ailment (likely tuberculosis) that prevented him from fighting as a soldier. But he played a substantial role in supporting the troops. He used his ships to transport supplies including food, clothing, and gun powder. He often provided provisions for troops from his store. He also bought and had ships built to defend the Rappahannock River (the beginnings of the Virginia Navy).

In 1775, Fielding was asked to build a gun manufactory in Fredericksburg. His skill as a leader and businessman placed him in a perfect position to accomplish the job. He agreed and was given funds by the Continental Congress to start the operation. Unfortunately, future funding proved difficult to obtain and Fielding used much of his personal fortune to keep the gunnery running.

At one point, he wrote to the Continental Congress seeking payment for his expenditures, which he valued at 7,000 pounds (well over $1 million in today's dollars). He complained of being unable to pay his taxes because of the debts he had incurred. By selling personal property and land, and by borrowing money, he managed to keep the gunnery running throughout most of the war. Already sickened by tuberculosis, the stress may have contributed to his early death in 1781 at the age of 56, just a few weeks after the British surrendered at Yorktown. Unfortunately, the new government of the United States never repaid the Lewis family and Fielding's debts were passed on to his surviving children. Read Fielding's will.