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.

American History TV · Washington’s Descendants at Tudor Place

Grant Quertermous at lectern, TV screenshot

Curator of Collections Grant Quertermous talks on American History TV about the Washington descendants at Tudor Place. The family, which built and remained at Tudor Place through six generations, descended from Martha Custis Washington’s son John Parke (“Jacky”) Custis, George Washington’s stepson. Quertermous shares how and what we can learn about the Washingtons, the owners, servants and slaves at Tudor Place, and the history around them, by studying and preserving the thousands of objects they left behind, including more than 200 of the Washingtons’ personal items and a rich archive of documents and correspondence.

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Land for Sale: Inquire Within

George Washington’s ties to the land –to Mount Vernon and his other farms, and his extensive knowledge of Lord Fairfax’s extensive Virginia properties–are widely known. But far less has been written about the details of his land speculation far to the west, in the Ohio River valley extending into modern-day West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky. In his will, Washington left vast tracts of what was then western Virginia to the future owner of Tudor Place, Martha Peter, and her siblings and cousins. Even less has been recorded about the disposition of these inheritances.

In this deeply researched essay, Archivist Wendy Kail tracks dealings by Washington, his executors and heirs, and their agents to find the answer to a long-standing mystery about the origins of Tudor Place: What was the land sale that paid for it? Specifically, to what property did Thomas Peter refer when he said he bought Tudor Place in 1805 with a “… sum of money received by me upon the Sale of certain real property belonging to my Wife Martha Peter devised to her by her deceased relative Genl. George Washington”?

The source of this nest egg was long thought to be a bequest to Martha Parke Custis Peter from Washington, her step-grandfather, of land in what is now West Virginia. Ms. Kail’s thorough dig through archives including and well beyond the one at Tudor Place identifies that land as 1,425 acres along the Ohio River in Ravenswood, West Va. Placing them in the context of the War of 1812 and the Panic of 1819, she narrates the dealings of Peter, his sons, and their appointed agents to show definitively that Martha Peter’s “Ravenswood Tract” was ultimately sold–and then only with great difficulty–long after Tudor Place was completed.

Along the way, the author unearthed details about Washington’s attitudes, beliefs, and western travels, early American Federalism and the turmoil that surrounded its decline, and the Peters’ real estate savvy and travails. The story, with “cameo appearances” by Presidents Jefferson, Madison and Monroe; the tragic death of young Columbia Pete;, and the early Riggs Bank; has as many twists and turns as the river itself.

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Lives Measured in the Garden: “As Time Goes By”

· Family and Friends ·

Armistead Peter Jr., the third owner of Tudor Place, cherished the labors and traditions of the estate’s landscape. His grandmother, Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon, inherited the property from its founders, her parents. She taught her grandchildren to honor these forebears and in many ways Armistead Peter Jr. measured out his own life by following the garden’s rhythms and answering its demands. This essay by Archivist Wendy Kail traces intergenerational change within the Peter family through diaries, notes, and the natural history of Tudor Place.

A mid 20th-century view of the Box Knot rose garden, where time’s passing registers on the face of a sun dial from Crossbasket Castle.

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The Custis-Peter Family Tree

Tudor Place Collage, 1

· Family and Friends ·

Tudor Place was home to six generations of one family, descending in direct lineage through four owners, from 1805 to 1983, when it became a museum held in the public trust. View a snapshot of their family tree, from Martha Washington to the modern era. On the Papers of George Washington website created jointly by University of Virginia and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, Tudor Place Archivist Wendy Kail’s biographical profile reveals the life story of founding Tudor Place matriarch Martha Parke Custis Peter.

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Letters of Love: Archival Remnants of Fathers’ Devotion

L-O-V-E: "Love Letters"

· Family and Friends ·

Among the legal documents and receipts, official correspondence, and journals found in the Tudor Place archive, you’ll also find letters of love. Those described in this essay by Archivist Wendy Kail were penned by career military men tied to the estate through marriage to Peter family daughters. Two were the sons-in-law of founders Martha and Thomas Peter, and a third was their nephew by marriage. All three wore the cloak of military civility with grace and honor, but beneath their martial façades sheltered hearts smitten with love … for their sons.

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Letter from George Washington to his wife Martha Washington, June 18, 1775

My Dearest,

I am now set down to write you on a subject which fills me with inexpressible concern—and this concern is greatly aggravated and increased when I reflect on the uneasiness I know it will give you…

After her husband’s death, Martha Washington ordered the burning of all their personal letters. This letter, purportedly found behind the drawer of her writing desk from Mount Vernon and now in the Tudor Place Archive, is one of only three pieces of their

George Washington to Martha Washington June 18, 1775, Paper, ink MS3_HV

George Washington to Martha Washington, June 18, 1775, Paper, ink, MS3_HV

correspondence known to exist. In it, General Washington informed his wife of his appointment to lead the Continental Army and details preparations he has consequently made to provide for her and their Virginia household during his absence. According to Peter family tradition, the letter was found by an unspecified family member while the desk resided at Tudor Place. A descendant sold the desk in 1939 to Mount Vernon, but the letter remained at Tudor Place under the ownership of Armistead Peter, Jr., a fifth-generation descendant of Martha Washington.