John Augustine Washington III and Mount Vernon Ladies' Association (MVLA) collection
Scope and Contents
This collection concerns the inheritance, maintenance, and sale of the Mount Vernon estate by its last private owner, John Augustine Washington III. A large majority of the collection is correspondence to or from John Augustine Washington III with a significant portion relating to the purchase of the estate by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Three diaries kept by John Augustine are also included and contain important information about his slaves, agricultural practices, and finances. Other types of material in the collection include legal documents, receipts, photographs, and ephemera. Photocopies were made for most of the manuscripts and can be viewed as surrogates to the originals.
Descendants of John Augustine Washington III maintained ownership of these records until 1990 when they were sold to Gary Hendershott, a manuscripts dealer from Little Rock, Arkansas. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association purchased the collection in October 1990.
Conditions Governing Access
This collection is open for research during scheduled appointments. Researchers must complete the Washington Library’s Special Collections and Archives Registration Form before access is provided. The library reserves the right to restrict access to certain items for preservation purposes.
Biographical / Historical
(Taken from the Digital Encyclopedia entry by Matthew Costello, George Washington’s Mount Vernon website)
John Augustine Washington III was the great-grand nephew of George Washington and the last private owner of Mount Vernon. The fourth of five children, he was born on May 3, 1821 to John Augustine Washington II and Jane Charlotte Blackburn Washington. John Augustine spent his young childhood at his parents’ Blakeley plantation near present day Charles Town, West Virginia, but after the deaths of Bushrod Washington and his wife Julia in 1829, the Mount Vernon estate became the possession of Bushrod’s nephew, John Augustine Washington II. As the son of a wealthy Virginia planter, John Augustine enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle at Mount Vernon, developing interests in politics, hunting, and agriculture. After John Augustine Washington II passed away in June 1832, the estate was left to his widow Jane Charlotte, who vowed to maintain the estate to the best of her ability without involving her children’s inheritances. While John Augustine Washington III preferred his more aristocratic pastimes, Jane insisted that he attend college after his father’s death. He graduated from the University of Virginia in 1840, returning to Mount Vernon in September 1841 with a proposition to manage the estate for his mother. She agreed, loaning him twenty-two slaves and contracting his employment for five hundred dollars per year for seven years.
As the oldest living male heir, John Augustine Washington III positioned himself to take possession of Mount Vernon from his mother. While she did not pass away until 1855, she gave John Augustine the proverbial keys to the kingdom, granting him full autonomy to run the plantation as he saw fit. However, John Augustine quickly realized that the deteriorating Mount Vernon estate was a far cry from the profitable plantation that his great-great uncle George Washington once presided over. His primary means of income came from wheat and potato production, woodcutting, selling slaves and outsourcing slave labor, collecting land rents, and his herring operation on the Potomac River. However, soil degradation, poor harvests, temperamental weather, and the devastation of crops by insects and pests limited his agricultural returns. While he managed to slow Mount Vernon’s financial decline, these endeavors were not enough to stop the downward spiral. In addition to facing these hardships, John Augustine also experienced constant interruptions by sightseers, many of whom wanted the meet the living descendent of General George Washington, see the Mansion, and ask questions about Washington’s life.
These visitors were considered a nuisance to John Augustine’s family, and their presence slowed plantation work for slaves, overseers, and hired farm laborers. Initially John Augustine followed the precedential policies of his mother, father, and uncle Bushrod, publishing trespassing notices around the property, requesting letters of introduction to enter the Mansion, and denying the landing of steamboats on the Potomac River. But with his lands yielding such little profit, John Augustine decided to embrace this historical tourism, implementing business strategies to extract money from the thousands of visitors who journeyed to the home of George Washington. In order to bring more people to the estate, he entered into a contract with the proprietors of the Thomas Collyer to permit their steamboat to dock directly at Mount Vernon. He also promoted and invested in the construction of the Alexandria, Mount Vernon, and Accotink Turnpike Road, which was designed to make travel easier to Mount Vernon over land. As more visitors descended upon the grounds, he instructed slaves and laborers to sell bouquets of flowers, fruit, milk, and hand-carved canes to tourists. Beyond the property boundaries, he went into business with James Crutchett, who purchased timber from the estate and manufactured wooden Washington trinkets near the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad depot in the nation’s capital. While John Augustine Washington capitalized on the American fascination with George Washington, these sales were not substantial enough to convince him to retain Mount Vernon. He attempted to sell the property to both the federal government and the state of Virginia, but both bodies were deeply mired in sectional and political partisanship. Convinced that neither would meet his terms, he agreed to sell 200 acres of the Mount Vernon estate, which included the Mansion, outlying buildings, and the family tomb to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA) in 1858 for $200,000.
John Augustine and his family vacated Mount Vernon for their new home Waveland plantation in February 1860. About a year later the state of Virginia called for a convention to debate the issue of secession, and in April 1861, Virginia delegates responded to the firing on Fort Sumter by voting in favor of leaving the Union. John Augustine joined the Confederate Army as a lieutenant colonel, and he served as aide-de-camp to his relative by marriage, General Robert E. Lee. In September 1861, John Augustine was killed during a reconnaissance mission at the Battle of Cheat Mountain by a Union bushwhacker. In a letter to John’s teenage daughter Louisa, Lee painfully informed her that her father “fell in the cause to which he had devoted all his energies, and which his noble heart was earnestly enlisted.” The two men had shared many conversations and moments together as tent mates, and Lee admired his unflinching “devotion to Almighty God,” assuring Louisa that “He is now safely in Heaven.” John Augustine was buried in the Zion Episcopal Churchyard in Charles Town, West Virginia, one of several Washington family members who fought and died for Southern independence.
3 Linear Feet (7 boxes)
Language of Materials
The collection is arranged chronologically with undated material listed at the beginning in alphabetical order by folder title. Addenda, photocopies, and bound volumes are described at the end of the collection.
- The John Augustine Washington III and Mount Vernon Ladies' Association (MVLA) collection
- Rebecca Baird, Archivist
- May 2019
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- Script of description