The Papers of Martha Washington at Tudor Place

As a granddaughter and namesake of Martha Washington, Tudor Place founder Martha Parke Custis Peter inherited several important pieces of her correspondence following the death of the first president.

Since 2015, the University of Virginia has been annotating and publishing the Mrs. Washington’s letters as part of an ongoing partnership between The Washington Papers project (formerly the Papers of George Washington) and the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon. Inspired by this project, Tudor Place Archivist Wendy Kail has added to the record by studying her letters and draft replies at Tudor Place and related documents in other archives for what they reveal about the Washingtons’ marriage, deaths, and legacies. Kail’s richly researched essay is presented here in three parts.


  • Detail of letter from Massachusetts patriots requesting lock of Washington’s hair. Collection of Tudor Place Historic House & Garden Archive
  • Gold urn crafted by Paul Revere as repository for the lock of George Washington’s hair given by Martha Washington. Collection of Grand Masonic Lodge of Massachusetts
  • Two engravings by Paul Revere demonstrating his support for the Patriot cause, devotion that later inspired his role in the Massachusetts Masons’ memorialization of George Washington. Collections of Gilder-Lehrman Institute.
  • Revere’s and Warren’s Masonic membership records. Collection of Grand Masonic Lodge of Massachusetts

The death of George Washington was a stunning loss to his country as well as his family. At Mount Vernon, Martha Washington enlisted Secretary Tobias Lear’s help fielding voluminous letters of condolence, tributes, and requests for memorial locks of the President’s hair. Granddaughter Martha Parke Custis Peter inherited some of this correspondence, including Lear’s drafts, and they remain in the Tudor Place Archive. In Part One of the Washington Letters essay, Archivist Wendy Kail delves into records from Martha’s widowhood to divine what Washington meant to his countrymen.

The essay’s second part, “Legal Aid,” reviews profuse discussions of the wills of both Washingtons, following George’s death in 1799 and Martha’s in 1802. Their estates were orderly, with respected (male) relations as executors, but complicated, and hint at family ties and affections but also possible rivalries. The questions that arose concerning both legacies offer a “case study” of not just the big questions that follow a prominent demise but the numerous quotidian details: Who owned the right to harvest and who must pay for the seed for crops on an inherited farm? Would the executors honor Mrs. Washington’s verbal promise to her granddaughters of Sèvres china? And who owned a pair of mirrors plastered to Mount Vernon’s walls?

The essay’s third and final section, “A Tug of War,” examines one America’s rarest early documents – a letter from George to Martha Washington. In the Tudor Place Archive, it’s one of just three pieces of their personal correspondence in existence. Washington wrote it upon accepting command of the Continental Army, offering a rare if subtle glimpse of the affection between this notably reticent couple. As Kail notes, the general’s almost apologetic argument for service “foreshadows the struggle they both would endure for the next seven years, literally a tug of war between duty and domicile.”

Each essay section contains footnotes, and a Bibliography comprises essay Part Four.

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Thomas and ‘Patty:’ Meet Tudor Place’s Founders

Who were they, the founders of Tudor Place? Martha Parke Custis Peter and Thomas Peter, civic leaders in Georgetown and the capital city, helped shape our national life but few Americans today know their names. That anonymity belies the tangible legacy they left, thanks to the constancy of their descendants and an almost genetic devotion to preservation in the lasting family line.

A businessman, landowner, and slaveholder, Thomas began life with great wealth accumulated by his father, a Scottish immigrant. Active in the business of Georgetown and the new city of Washington, he pursued personal interests extending to farming, horse racing, playing his flute (now in the Collection), and courting a certain debutante with illustrious Virginia origins.

She was Martha Parke Custis Peter, called Patty, and their 1795 marriage united two prominent American families. Patty was born at Mount Vernon to Martha Washington’s son and his wife, a daughter of Maryland’s founding Calvert family with the inherited title Baron Baltimore. A favorite of her grandmother, she was also close to her step-grandfather, the President.

Meet the Peters in this essay by former Executive Director Leslie Buhler, from Tudor Place: America’s Story Lives Here, newly published in collaboration with the White House Historical Association.

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Tudor Place Family Hero: George Peter and the War of 1812

In the state of Maryland, every September 12 is Defenders Day, commemorating a crucial American victory in the War of 1812. The Battle of Fort McHenry helped reverse American losses and also inspired a British prisoner’s poem that became our national anthem. It also recalls a hero with ties to Tudor Place who, less than a month before, had defied U.S. Army superiors to fight the calamitous British attack on Washington.

Tudor Place founder Thomas Peter had no fancy for a military life, but his brother George Peter (1779-1861) did. On August 24, 1814, Major Peter commanded a light artillery company that was one of the few to return fire at Bladensburg, Maryland, slowing the British advance on Washington. As the British tried to cross Turncliffe’s Bridge, they met crossfire from Peter’s Commodore Joshua Barney’s batteries (story begins page 8 at the link). Though taking vicious fire, Peter defied early orders to retreat before finally capitulating. The British burned the capital that afternoon and night.

During a long life of military and public service, George became the most publicly known Peter family member. His first “enlistment” came at age 15, when he ran off to join Maryland’s Whiskey Rebellion. (His parents sent an emissary to retrieve him.) Later commissioned by George Washington into the U.S. Army, he attained the rank of major before seeking election to the U.S. House of Representatives, ultimately serving several terms there and in the Maryland House of Delegates. His legacy and the legacy of the War of 1812 are reflected at Tudor Place in Peter’s artifacts (including a rare “square” piano he purchased for his daughter), in Peter family correspondence and activism relating to the war, and in the family’s relationship with anthem-author Francis Scott Key.

Even the very names of the property’s owners reflect the war’s impact. George Peter named his son Armistead for one of his favorite lieutenants. A medical doctor, Armistead Peter married his Tudor Place cousin, Thomas Peter’s granddaughter Martha Custis Peter. Their son and grandson, the Armistead Peters,  Jr. and 3rd, later inherited and stewarded the family’s storied estate.

  • Learn more about Tudor Place denizens and history in our Reading Room.

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Many Admirers… But Still a Widow: Reflections on Britannia Peter Kennon’s Widowhood

Nora Pehrson explains the origins of her essay on Britannia, written while interning here during her senior at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C. Nora now attends Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

I was drawn to Britannia’s story because of an abiding interest in women’s history. I wanted to situate  Britannia in the broader context of her time. Around the time that Britannia was on the marriage market, the abolitionist and advocate for women’s rights Sarah Grimké wrote “Letters on the Equality of the Sexes,” in which she asserted that the American woman was “a cipher in the nation” because marriage rendered her invisible in the eyes of the law.

I decided to look at how widowhood might have represented a challenge to the cult of domesticity and especially to coverture laws, which took away a woman’s legal rights upon marriage. Although there are no definite answers to the questions that I began with, my research revealed Britannia’s decision to remain a widow allowed her to own and control the estate, which, remarkably, remained in the same family for six generations. Her “tenacity and perseverance,” Armistead Peter 3rd  declared,  “did as much as anything in the world to preserve this house to the present day.”

Offered through DC Public Schools and taught by the inimitable Cosby Hunt of the Center for Inspired Teaching, Real World History brings together students from across the city to explore a topic of American history in depth and learn what it means to be a historian. After a semester of reading primary sources, conducting oral histories, and making site visits to archives and museums, students go out into the world and serve as interns at various cultural sites throughout DC. During my time at Tudor Place, I did self-guided research and developed my own tour of the house as a docent. Working with the Education Department under the supervision of Laura Brandt was an amazing opportunity to learn how historic house museums operate and, especially, how to make the stories of the house come alive for the public.

When I arrived at Tudor Place as its first high school intern, I was intrigued by Britannia’s story. Why might she have chosen widowhood over marriage? In a time when the social status of women was so closely connected to the status of their fathers or husbands, why didn’t Britannia remarry? What might her motivations have been? These questions formed the basis of my research project for Tudor Place and the culmination of a year of an extracurricular class called Real World History.

Every visitor who takes a tour of Tudor Place learns the basic outline of Britannia Peter Kennon’s life. Born at Tudor Place in the early years of of the New Republic, Britannia lived for nearly a century. Her decades-long ownership of Tudor Place (from 1854 to 1911) preserved its history and legacy for future generations. Britannia carried out her vision essentially singlehandedly: She was widowed fourteen months into her marriage and never remarried.  “Although she had many admirers,” after being widowed in 1844, as her great-grandson Armistead Peter 3rd recalled, she chose to remain single for the rest of her life.

We are a Blue Star Museum! (What is that?)

Active-duty members of the U.S. military, including National Guard and Reserve, and their family members traveling with or without them, are admitted free from May 19 (after Armed Forces Day) to Labor Day.

Like about 2,000 other U.S. institutions, we are a Blue Star Museum, part of a collaboration among the National Endowment for the Arts, Blue Star Families, and the Department of Defense.

Tudor Place also honors service families with this offer on Veterans Day, November 11.

Up to six members of one family at a time (including children, spouse, and other kin) may join any regular house tour, as often as desired, space permitting. Military ID holder can be an active-duty service member or a dependent family member with appropriate ID; the service member need not be present to take advantage of this opportunity.

Self-guided visits to the Garden are always free; illustrated garden maps and smartphone audio tour information are available in the Visitor Center.

For information on eligibility and appropriate identification, see the Blue Star FAQ page.

“For the Inspiration of the People of the United States…” Tudor Place’s Scenic Easement at 50

Armistead Peter 3rd, Tudor Place’s final private owner, donated Tudor Place as a scenic easement to the United States.  This provided for the perpetual preservation of the historic buildings and gardens at Tudor Place—the first such easement provided under the Historic Sites Act of 1935. At the ceremony commemorating this landmark agreement, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall referred to Peter’s easement as a gift to the nation.

Read the full article by Executive Director, Mark Hudson, here.

Oakland: Far from the Madding Crowd

early 1800s news clippings + map

Though grand by city standards even when the Peters first purchased it in 1805, the original eight and a half acres of Tudor Place was by no means their largest property. Most affluent urban families of the time owned large farms, and the Peters were no exception. Among the lands Thomas Peter inherited from his father Robert was a tract in Montgomery County that the family called Oakland, part of a coveted royal land grant once known as Conclusion. On it they husbanded not just Peter’s cherished race horses, but also crops, lumber, cows and hogs, some of which were transported to Tudor Place every fall for smoking. Enslaved workers also moved between the two locations, family reminiscences and other records indicate.

To at least two generations of Peters, Oakland represented more than a business or country larder. In this essay, archivist Wendy Kail traces the property’s legacy in law, commerce, and family memory.

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Tudor Place Returns to Agrarian Roots: Re-Interpreting for Its 3rd Century

To meet Americans’ growing fascination with land use, ecology, and food sources, and to mark the site’s bicentennial, the Tudor Place Foundation has reassessed the National Historic Landmark’s interpretive focus. As of today, April 1, 2016, in a nod to its semi-agrarian origins, the site has been converted to a working farm.

Executive Director Mark Hudson, who came to Tudor Place in October, spearheaded the redirection. “Tudor Place was just too many things to too many people,” he explained. “It has a vast archive and more than 15,000 artifacts and tells stories of American domestic and political life over more than 200 years. Imagine trying to cover all that in a 55-minute tour!”

“This way, we confine the story to a single function during a single 20-year time period,” Hudson continued, adding, “So much simpler. And besides, the grain harvest and livestock sales are good for the Annual Fund.”

Since opening to the public in 1988, the historic house was interpreted just as it was lived in by six generations of one family, from the years before its 1816 completion through the last private owner’s death, in 1983. Its five-and-a-half-acre historic garden traced Georgetown’s and the District’s evolution from a rough-hewn, semi-rural community to a major metropolis and offered a haven for plant lovers among elegant lawns, garden rooms, and features like gazebos, fountains and wooded paths.

In what some see as a nod to his Kansas origins, Hudson early in his tenure identified farming as a more profitable function for the site’s Gardens & Grounds professionals. Staff now tend cattle and hogs in the former North Garden, where the Boxwood Knot and its roses have proven especially appealing grazing. Tudor Place’s horticulturalist is also testing crop varieties on the South Lawn, where the Peter family once harvested hay by scythe. The 1919 Pierce-Arrow and new Tudor Place Garden Utility Vehicle now pull plows.

Practical functions have likewise been found for iconic but unproductive locations like the Summerhouse, now a grain storage depot, and the Bowling Green, where meals for farm hands — cooked by the Education staff in the 1914 historic kitchen — are laid out daily on trestle tables. The historic house designed by William Thornton has been closed to the public. Its first floor serves important museum and farm administration functions like bookkeeping, stuffing envelopes, grain sales and (to hedge against poor harvests) commodities trading.

On the house’s second floor, the Development department now occupies the west bedrooms and is enjoying a banner year, having sold three generations’ worth of Peter family toys and Caroline Ogden-Jones Peter’s exquisite 20th-century couture collection on Ebay. Britannia’s Civil War-era bedroom has also been emptied, to make room for a state-of-the-art Social Media Suite. That’s where the communications director and former Curatorial staff divide their time between thinking up viral memes using onetime collection objects and tweeting calf and piglet videos.

Outdoors meanwhile, visitors are flocking as never before to the original Tudor Place Smoke House. Recently dated (using dendrochronology) to 1794 and recognized as one of the District’s oldest original service buildings or “dependencies,” the brick-floored, roughly 10-foot-square building now houses D.C.’s newest entry in the popular farm-to-table restaurant space. EAT, the Smoke House Cafe, can accommodate just one table, a two-top. Book soon — the wait for reservations already extends into 2020. Note that Tudor Place members enjoy a 10% discount on dessert!

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Garden Party 2016

2016 Garden Party Honors Tudor Place on Its Bicentennial

Add Your Gift!



Mary Michael Wachur Invitations have been mailed.
Director of Development Please register online.
202.580.7323 |

Purchase Tickets

The 24th Annual Garden Party to support Tudor Place will take place on May 25, 2016, celebrating a rare American milestone, the National Historic Landmark’s year-long Bicentennial, with a party for 500 under an elegant lawn tent in the estate’s 5½-acre garden. Chaired by Ms. Marcia V. Mayo, the event recognizes the 200th anniversary by naming as honoree Tudor Place itself. Now a historic house museum and garden, the estate was completed in 1816 by Martha Parke Custis-Peter, a granddaughter of Martha Washington, and her husband Thomas Peter, a prominent Georgetown landowner and investor.

The music-filled evening runs from 6 to 9 o’clock p.m. and will showcase, in addition to the historic landscape, the 1919 Pierce-Arrow motor car and the elegant, art-filled rooms of the 1816 neoclassical mansion. The event is also known for its “exhibition” of hats, from elegant to fanciful, worn by many guests. Attendees will include Georgetown and Washington civic leaders, trustees, donors, and other supporters, neighbors and friends of the museum, and members of the Diplomatic Host Committee, so far consisting of ambassadors for the nations of Denmark, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Philippines, and the United Kingdom. Members of the Washington National Opera Young Artist Program will perform with costumes and repertoire reflecting the estate’s early American origins.

Tudor Place Historic House & Garden hosts more than 23,000 visitors annually, with education programs that serve more than 3,000 school children each year from schools in D.C. and surrounding communities with a living classroom on American history, the environment, architecture and other subjects. The Garden Party is the institution’s most important fundraiser of the year.

Arrival and Parking Information

Welcome! The party is from 6 o’clock to 9 o’clock on Wednesday, May 25, rain or shine. Enter through the main gate on 31st Street.

Are last-minute tickets available?

Yes. Easiest is to buy online.

Where do I park?

All guest parking  is in the reserved GARDEN PARTY LOT at 2233 Wisconsin Avenue NW (next to Einstein Bros. Bagels), between W Street and Hall Place — look for the gray/blue “Atlantic Parking” sign. Shuttles will transport guests between this lot and Tudor Place. View map.

We recommend taxis or ride services like Uber and Lyft. There will be no parking at Tudor Place.

Can I drop off guests at the party entrance?

Absolutely! Prior to parking, please bring guests to the main gate where ushers will await them and all shuttle arrivals. The Tudor Place main gate, 1644 31st Street NW, between Q & R Streets. Drivers can then proceed to the Garden Party Lot before rejoining their party. View map.

Is there valet parking?

There will be NO VALET PARKING for this event, in accordance with neighborhood zoning restrictions.

What if I have a question?

We’re party-prepping away from our desks, so call us:

  • regarding the guest list, call Felice, 202.580.7321.
  • regarding sponsorships, vendors, and other party-related matters, call Mary-Michael, 202.580.7323.
See 2015 Garden Party photos: Facebook · Flickr · Washington Life · Capitol File.
Continue the celebration!

The elegant Garden Party marquee remains for an additional event on May 26, a Landmark Society luncheon featuring Carol Joynt’s Q&A Cafe on Southern entertaining, with author Julia Reed.

From the January Clean: An Unexpected Repair

Cleaning, counting, and assessing conditions are all part of the drill when the museum closes each year for what we call the “January Clean.” Rugs are rolled up, paintings removed from walls for examination, and the walls themselves examined. In the garden, bricks are relaid and trees trimmed amid the usual plant care and preparations for spring. The Museum Shop undergoes a careful inventory (14,000 postcards!), while in offices and workspaces elsewhere on the property, closets and cabinets are straightened, files sorted, and other year-long accumulations dealt with.

For collections staff especially, close examinations of objects left quietly undisturbed the other 11 months of the year leads sometimes to unexpected new projects. The repair of a heavy walnut desk bookcase in the North, or “children’s,” bedroom was one such. Armistead Peter 3rd, the estate’s last private owner, first brought the 19th century piece here from the family’s Content Farm, a Washington County, New York, property where they spent several months each year. Today, the desk bookcase holds school books, novels, small toys, and other objects from “AP3’s” childhood.

The desk bookcase is actually two separate pieces, an upper cabinet with two glazed doors that sits upon a desk with drawers and a fall-board writing surface. When they examined it as part of a routine January inspection, Curator Grant Quertermous and Collections Manager Kris Barrow found one of its rear feet had loosened too much to support the piece’s weight. To relieve the immediate pressure, staff removed the item’s entire contents and the upper case.

As so often happens with a “lived-in” collection like ours, long in use, Grant and Kris needed first to address an earlier repair. The leg had had been reglued during the mid-1900s, and the adhesive from this earlier repair had weakened over time.  The leg and glue block (itself replaced sometime in the 20th century) had separated from their attachment point at the desk’s back corner, placing additional stress on the carved bracket foot.

The term “glue block” might be unfamiliar unless you collect or study antique furniture: It describes a small piece of wood that braces a corner joint — on this piece, where the two sides of the ogee bracket foot are joined.  A piece like this desk bookcase, where the carved bracket foot is simply decorative, actually rests in back on two uncarved, square feet concealed behind the rear ogee bracket feet.  With this rear foot loose and the joint separated from the glue block, much of the piece’s weight was now on the non-supporting decorative element, rather than the intended weight-bearing element.

Had we not detected the loose foot, the bracket foot could have split or, worse, buckled under the weight of the desk bookcase and its contents. Fortunately, the necessary repairs were uncomplicated. Staff elevated the desk on its back on padded saw horses to relieve the bracket and gain access to the damaged area and applied wood glue in key spots to re-attach the foot and glue block.  Clamps were placed on the foot overnight to apply pressure while the glue dried.  All of the work was documented and photographed as this repair now becomes a part of the physical record of the desk bookcase and is noted in its file. The piece itself, meanwhile, once stabilized,  resumed its place along the wall and its familiar toys, books. and childhood treasures returned to its welcoming shelves.

Just one project among many, the exercise shows how the room-by-room January Clean enables us not just to monitor objects and spaces within the house but to undertake crucial conservation work where needed. For more complicated repairs and conservation, the January assessment often marks the starting point for extensive planning and, often, fundraising, for projects involving conservation specialists.  [Tudor Place members are invited each January for a New Year’s breakfast and behind-the-scenes look at the January Clean and projects underway, scheduled this year on January 23, 2016.]

Having completed the upstairs rooms during the first week of January, Collections staff have turned their attention to the Drawing Room and Parlour, including careful cleaning of chandeliers (see the video clip) to make their crystals gleam.  The Office, Kitchen and servants’ spaces follow toward the end of the month. Lastly, Grant will oversee the Dining Room installation for Presidents’ Day and spring’s highlighting of the Washington Collection, for which we happily welcome back the public when we reopen (at half price all month) on February 2, 2016.

View January Clean albums on Facebook: