This very interesting letter was written by Elizabeth Carrington Morris (1795-1865), to her mother Ann (Willing) Morris (1767-1853), the widow of Luke Morris (1760-1802), whose home was at the corner of Germantown Avenue and High Street in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Ann (Willing) Morris was the granddaughter of Philadelphia Mayor Willing and a friend of Dolly Madison. Elizabeth became a noted scientist and her sister, Margaretta Hare Morris, became an entomologist. It is is said that Morris used the back garden of her home to study insects and plants. She maintained a collection of rare plants and corresponded with Asa Gray, a botanist and author. She became a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.
Elizabeth mentions her brother Thomas Willing Morris (1792-1852), an early-day naturalist, who was the husband of Caroline Maria Calvert (1800-1842). She also mentions her sister Abigail Willing Morris (1787-1858), who married Justis Johnson.
Curiously, Elizabeth claims to have received several letters from Mrs. Lewis to come and live at Woodlawn. George Washington gave the plantation named Woodlawn, originally a 2,000-acre tract, to his nephew Maj. Lawrence Lewis as a wedding gift in 1799. And Lewis commissioned William Thornton, architect of the U.S. Capitol, to design the grand Federal house where the major and his bride, Martha Washington’s granddaughter Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis (1779-1852) — who went by “Nelly” — would raise a family and entertain in style.
We learn from this letter that a remnant of Martha Washington’s wedding dress was made into a “needle book” and given to Elizabeth as a gift by Nelly Lewis. Nelly lived at Mount Vernon until her marriage to Maj. Lewis so she certainly would have had access to Martha’s garment. I also learned that curators at Mount Vernon claim that many of Martha’s descendants decided to cut up her clothes so that each could have a momento. Among the remnants of her clothing in their collection is an oddly shaped piece of cloth, believed to be part of her yellow silk damask wedding dress. But I also found an item appearing on loan to an exhibition of “Washingtoniana” in Washington D.C. (1902), which reads: “Needle book made by Nelly Custis, the cover was made from a piece of Martha Washington’s gown, and inside is a piece of Martha Washington’s wedding dress.” The item was loaned by James S. Bradley, Jr.
Addressed to Mrs. Luke Morris, Germantown, Pennsylvania
July 9th 1823
My dear Mother’s most welcome and affectionate letter arrived so soon after the partnership concern that I will answer both together, and afterwards will write a regular built letter to sister Caroline. Thank the girls for their verses. Tell then if they knew half the delight with which I welcome a letter from dear home, they would try a little every night and by that means make up a good sized epistle in very little time.
Your account is the only satisfactory one I have received, because you were so good, as you always are, to enter into particulars which wheher present or absent must ever interest me. I was sorry for all your difficulties and gratified by your pleasures. I think of you constantly and hope you are not enduring such heat as we feel here. All around us are suffering except Mary and myself who keep ourselves cool enough. You who feel the heat so much have I am afraid suffered by the exertion which is necessary for the entertainment of company. How did Thomas bear dear Caroline’s indisposition? Here if she complained of headache, he appeared to suffer the pain of it himself. He will never be a hero when she is not well. I have received three letters since Caroline left Riversdale,¹ from Mrs. [Eleanor Parke Custis] Lewis, each inviting me most kindly to return to her and make Woodlawn my home for as long as I can. The temptation is a strong one, and as I have your permission, I think I will go there, if General Swift does not come to Georgetown before the fifteenth, which is the day on which he is expected.
[Rosalie] Eugenia Calvert ¹ and dear captivating little Julia came to see me this morning, and brought one of Mrs. Lewis’ letters enclosing a very pretty little needle book of her own work, which she made for me from part of Mrs. Washington’s wedding dress.² You don’t know I feel gratified by such an undeserved attention. I mean to write to her today to thank her for her kind remembrance.
I am delighted with Georgetown and its hospitable inhabitants. All that visit here have called on me and most of them made parties for me. I have been out almost every evening, and when at home have had a charming circle here. When I return to you, I will convince you that the Roberdeau‘s have not colored the picture too highly.
I never was better in my life than now. Mary and [I] rise between five and six, and walk before breakfast, spend the day in working and reading, seldom sleep during the day, because I can’t bring my mind to sleeping in the morning, and as we dine at four o’clock, generally dress for the evening before dinner. And night comes so soon that it is not worth while to nap.
On Saturday, we went to Analostan [Anacostine] ³ — or Mason’s Island, as it is called; one of the most beautiful situations near Georgetown. Gen. [John] Mason’s house is in the middle of the island which contains about 17 acres in the highest state of improvement. We spent a most delightful afternoon but left there before dark for fear of a thunder cloud which hung over the Potomac. But alas, just as we had crossed the causeway to the Virginia shore where the ferry boat is kept, a gale blew up and the waterman thought it unsafe to cross the river. We all — 16 in number — adjourned to the ferry house where we remained two hours and a half, doing what we could to amuse each other. The gentlemen sung and recited poetry and some of the ladies told stories so that when the wind lulled we were almost sorry to break up so pleasant a party. A slight rain fell while we were in the boat, and before we reached home, it poured in torrents. I was completely soaked, but as we all drank ___ and wine, and bathed in brandy, the only ill effect is that my poor bonnet is almost ruined. It was too bad to do anything with at home and I have been obliged to send it to a milliner, which will oblige me to accept your kind offer of more money.
You left me fifteen dollars for my expenses on the road home and I must keep it for that purpose. I have spent but three dollars altogether since I left home, and that went principally to servants. I have been prudent thus far and will continue so for your sake. You need not therefore send much.
Give my love to Mrs. Bilton. Tell her I think she might write and console me for my long absence. To Mrs. Haines and Ann, my affectionate remembrances. Tell Ann that I shall have such good reasons to give when I see her, for my now unaccountable desertion, that I will be bridesmaid after all, and only hope it may be soon while I am in practice. You don’t mention Richard Boynton. I hope he is well. Remember me to him and all others who may ask after me. I intend to write to Rosanna Row this afternoon, if possible. Give my love to [sister] Abby and a kiss to the children. Tell Lou he shall have his picture book, but must know how to read it first. Give my love to the Dutch Caroline. I will try to get something for her too.
Write soon dear Mother to your affectionate daughter, — Elizabeth C. Morris
I have this moment received your kind letter of the 6th and was not a little gratified by finding myself once more called by the old name Lip. Make use freely of my ____ or any thing else I have left behind. You shall have a map of my travels if you wish it and a gift of my journal which I keep regularly.
The girls thank you for your remembrance of them and send love in return. They are all but poor Mary who pines in the heat of the weather. Have you seen anything of my agreeable traveling companion, Mrs. Page?
¹ Rosalie Eugenia (Stier) Calvert was the daughter of a wealthy Belgian aristocrat, Baron Henri Joseph Stier (1743–1821) and his wife Marie Louise Peeters. The Stier family fled Belgium in 1794 as a French army invaded their home of Antwerp. Once in America, the family’s fortunes would be salvaged from the disasters of European war. Rosalie married George Calvert and would go on to be one of the richest women in America, amassing a large fortune, much of which she managed herself, and she would accumulate one of the largest art collections in the country.
Rosalie Calvert lived at the Riversdale plantation, also known as the Calvert Mansion, a five-part, large-scale late Georgian mansion with superior Federal interior, built between 1801 and 1807. Also known as Baltimore House, Calvert Mansion or Riversdale Mansion, it is located at 4811 Riverdale Road in Riverdale Park, Maryland. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997.
Once the manor house and centerpiece of a 739-acre plantation, Riversdale was built for Belgian émigré Henri Joseph Stier, Baron de Stier, who lived in the Brice House in Annapolis, Maryland immediately prior to building Riversdale. Stier planned the house in 1801 to resemble his Belgian residence, the Chateau du Mick. Four years later, Stier returned to Belgium, leaving the unfinished Riversdale to be completed by his daughter, Rosalie Stier Calvert and her husband, George Calvert, the son of Benedict Swingate Calvert, who was a natural son of Charles Calvert, 5th Baron Baltimore.
Rosalie and George Calvert had a large family, though three of their children died in infancy or in childhood. The daughter mentioned in this letter was Julia Calvert (1814 – 1888), who later married Richard Henry Stuart (1808 – 1889). Rosalie Calvert died on March 13, 1821, according to her physician, “of a general dropsy affecting the whole system,” at the relatively young age of 43.
² There is a replica of Martha Washington’s wedding dress (gold damask) on display at the Mount Vernon museum.
³ The island now known as Thomas Roosevelt Island in the Potomac River “was acquired by George Mason in 1724. John Mason, the son of George Mason, inherited the Island in 1792 and owned it until 1833. John Mason built a mansion and planted gardens there in the early 19th century. The Masons left the island in 1831 when a causeway stagnated the water. Aside from a brief period in the Civil War when Union troops were stationed there, the island has been uninhabited since the Masons left. Locals continued to call it “Mason’s Island” until the memorial was built there. Around 1906, a fire on the island extensively damaged the mansion. Today, only part of the mansion’s foundation remains. From 1913 to 1931, the island was owned by the Washington Gas Light Company, which allowed vegetation to grow unchecked on the island. The island has previously been known as My Lord’s Island, Barbadoes Island, Mason’s Island, Analostan Island, and Anacostine Island.”