Mary Ball Washington – Mother of America
Mary Ball Washington, the mother of America’s first President George Washington, lived most of her life in the Fredericksburg area. And in the modern city, monuments, buildings and an entire university still bear her name. During women’s history month, get to know this namesake and the mother of America.
A Strong Woman
Mary was born sometime between 1707 and 1709 near Lancaster, Va. Her strength was cultivated at an early age when she became fatherless at age three and orphaned at age 12. She married Augustine Washington on March 6, 1731, when she was 22. She was Washington’s second wife and the couple had six children with him before he passed in 1743.
Mary proved that she was an exceptionally strong and independent woman, when after his death, she raised the children as a single mother and pushed them to be similarly resilient. But unlike most widows at the time, Mary never remarried and managed the family’s estate herself with the assistance of her enslaved workers.
“She treated George seriously as a man and seriously as a religious being,” Martha Saxton wrote in her biography of Mary.
Mother of George
After learning that he had been elected president in April 1789, George Washington traveled from Mount Vernon to visit his mother in Fredericksburg. She was ill at the time, suffering from breast cancer. The legend goes that Mary told him to serve despite her illness, “But go, George, fulfill the high destinies which Heaven appears to have intended for you for; go, my son, and may that Heaven’s and a mother’s blessing be with you always.”
This account has never been verified. What can be documented is that he received her approval and after visiting Fredericksburg, was inaugurated.
George purchased her the house in Fredericksburg where she lived out the end of her life on Charles Street, now the site of the Mary Washington House museum. The home was just two blocks from Kenmore, where George’s sister Betty lived with her husband Fielding Lewis. Mary had a favorite “prayer rock” in the neighborhood that was close to Kenmore, where she retreated for reading and prayer.
Mary died of breast cancer in Fredericksburg on August 25, 1789. George wrote a lettering to his sister about their mother’s passing, and it begins: “Awful, and affecting as the death of a Parent is, there is consolation in knowing that Heaven has spread ours to an age, beyond which few attain.” While the letter also reveals George’s continued frustration with her, he wore a black badge for five months following Mary’s death and high-ranking officials in the government observed a period of mourning.
Each year, the museum that bears her name hosts a Mary’s Ribbons event in October, which is breast cancer awareness month. While the diagnosis was a death sentence in her time, when detected early, the 5-year relative survival rate is 99 percent. The public is invited to tie pink ribbons to the fence in front of the house during the event, which is used to raise funds and spread awareness of early detection.
She was buried at her favorite prayer rocks and a monument was erected there in 1893.
She was remembered as a strong woman who played by no one’s rules but her own. Washington’s cousin Lawrence later said about Mary, “Of the mother, I was ten times more afraid than I ever was of my own parents.”
Her legacy is alive in the streets of Fredericksburg.
Mary Washington Monument, 1500 Washington Ave. Fredericksburg, Va.
Learn more about the Timeless Women of Fredericksburg