J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mrs. Warner Lewis and the Chain of Errors

Martha Washington arrived at the mansion that is now Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site on 11 Dec 1775. (The portrait at right shows her fifteen years later, as painted by Edward Savage.) With her was Elizabeth Gates, wife of Gen. Horatio Gates, who I think was also staying in that house. Both women had traveled from Virginia, though they had met and started sharing a carriage only in Philadelphia.

Also on that northern leg of the journey, according to Helen Bryan’s Martha Washington: First Lady of Liberty (2002), was “Mrs. Warner Lewis, a relative of George’s.” Yet there’s no indication of why Mrs. Warner Lewis would have come along, nor anyone who recorded meeting her in Cambridge.

Bryan evidently relied on Anne Hollingsworth Wharton’s Martha Washington (1897), which states:

From the “Pennsylvania Gazette,” of November 29, it appears that Mrs. Washington and her party, which had been joined by Mrs. Gates, wife of General Gates, and Mrs. Warner Lewis, left Philadelphia on the twenty-seventh…
That book was in turn probably informed by a footnote in the 1889 edition of Washington’s writings, edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford, which quotes the 29 Nov 1775 Pennsylvania Gazette this way:
On Monday last, the Lady of His Excellency General Washington, the Lady of General Gates, J. Curtis, Esq; and Lady of Warner Lewis, Esq; set out for Cambridge.
But in fact that newspaper item reads:
On Monday last, the Lady of His Excellency General WASHINGTON, the Lady of General GATES, J. CURTIS, Esq; and Lady, and WARNER LEWIS, Esq; set out for Cambridge.
So the “Lady” in question was actually the wife of Curtis, and Warner Lewis was a man. Which offers the lesson of always relying on the earliest sources.

Except that the 1775 newspaper contained mistakes as well. “Curtis” was really Jack Custis, son of Martha Washington and her first husband. He and his wife Nelly accompanied his mother to Cambridge and back home in the spring.

And while there was a prominent Virginia planter named Warner Lewis related to the commander-in-chief, he didn’t travel with Martha Washington in 1775. Nor did his son of the same name. The newspaper printer misidentified Washington’s teen-aged nephew George Lewis.

TOMORROW: Why George Lewis came to Cambridge.

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