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Charles Washington

Founder of Charles Town, West Virginia, and President George Washington’s youngest brother.

Charles Washington & Happy Retreat

The parcel on which Happy Retreat stands is located in present-day Charles Town, West Virginia, on what was part of a 1,106-acre tract that Thomas Lord Fairfax granted to Lawrence Washington on October 17, 1750. Lawrence Washington was half-brother to Charles, who was born in 1738 and was the youngest brother of George Washington. Lawrence Washington died in 1752, when Charles had not yet reached the age that allowed him to assume ownership of his portion of his half-brother’s land, in what was then known as Frederick County, Virginia. As the population grew and settlement spread westward, new counties were created, and the area became part of Berkeley County, before it was transferred to Jefferson County, Virginia, in 1801. When Charles reached the age of majority in 1759, he became the legal owner of the parcel where Happy Retreat stands.

For roughly two decades Charles Washington’s attentions were focused on the life he made for himself in the town of Fredericksburg and the surrounding area. In 1757 Charles married his cousin Mildred Thornton, daughter of a prominent Spotsylvania County family. According to John Wayland, noted 20th-century historian of the Shenandoah Valley, by 1759 Charles had acquired land in Spotsylvania County, and two years later he purchased two valuable lots in the neighboring town of Fredericksburg. It was one of those lots that became the site of the famous Rising Sun Tavern. It was the later sale of the Fredericksburg lots that provided the funds to begin the construction of Happy Retreat.

Charles Washington

Charles Washington 1738-1799

The original portrait of Charles Washington painted during his lifetime was destroyed in a house fire in the 20th Century. This copy of the original portrait was painted by James Alexander Simpson in 1855. Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

Charles Washington was actively involved in the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County communities, where he “entered upon responsible duties of public service.” He was elected to the vestry of St. George’s Episcopal Church, and in 1766 ascended to the post of Warden. In 1768, Charles was appointed along with other notable Fredericksburg citizens to lead the efforts to raise funds through a lottery to build a new Church (St. George’s). Washington also served as magistrate of Spotsylvania County and later as a justice of the Spotsylvania County court. He was a signer of the famed Leedstown Resolutions protesting the Stamp Act, a precursor to the American Revolution. A measure of his prominence was his election in June 1, 1774, to the Spotsylvania Committee of Safety, the body empowered to prevent profiteering and authorized to call out the militia should it be needed. It was also during these years that Charles Washington partnered with George Weedon in raising livestock and selling the butchered meat. Washington’s responsible positions in county government and church activities, as well as his land ownership and business activities, suggests that his financial position was both stable and thriving during his two-decade tenure in the Fredericksburg-Spotsylvania area.

Simultaneous with Charles Washington’s presence in Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County, records indicate he continued to attend to his lands in western Virginia, a journey of two to three days from his home. On March 4, 1771, Washington received a receipt of damages for a mill race on the land he had inherited from his half-brother, Lawrence.

In 1780 Charles and Mildred Washington and their four children (George Augustine, Frances, Mildred, and Samuel) moved from Fredericksburg to Berkeley County, which is now Jefferson County, West Virginia. Confirming this date, a deed recorded in Spotsylvania County and dated April 20, 1780, identified Charles and his wife Mildred as “late of the town of Fredericksburg.” Four years later, Charles Washington held a public sale of his original town lots in Fredericksburg, the sale of which presumably generated some income for him.

Read Historical Context from the Historic Structure Report (pages 6-14)

The Washington Family’s investment in the region began in the mid-1700s. In 1748, 16-year-old George Washington surveyed it for Thomas, Lord Fairfax. Impressed with the land, George bought land along Bullskin Run in 1750. Through the years, he continued to acquire more land in the area, and, at one point, owned nearly 2,300 acres. His half brother, Lawrence, also owned land in the county, and after he died in 1752, his properties were ultimately distributed to his brothers—George, Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles. George received Mount Vernon but retained the Bullskin until his death in 1799; his diaries record numerous visits to the area to visit his brothers—Samuel at Harewood, the home he built in 1770, and Charles at Happy Retreat.

After Charles’ death, the property eventually was sold to Thomas Hammond. It stayed in the Hammond family until 1837 when George Washington Hammond sold it to Judge Isaac R. Douglass. The house then passed through the hands of a number of different owners before it was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. William Gavin in the 1960s.

Today the 6,332 sq. ft. mansion lies within the corporate limits of the city on 2 acres while Charles Town’s Parks and Recreation Commission own the surrounding 10 acres which about the northern border Evitts Run and a surrounding 21.3-acre wetland community park, which includes the gravesite of Charles and Mildred Washington.

Founding of Charles Town

Charles Washington formally laid out a town to be known as “Charles Town” on 80 acres of land adjacent to his house at Happy Retreat in 1786. He had held a public sale of the lots two years earlier, but the transactions had not been recorded since the official charter for the town was not enacted by the Virginia General Assembly until 1786. Among the group of purchasers of lots in the new town, which included prominent Washington family members, was Thomas Hammond, who later married Charles Washington’s youngest daughter and eventually purchased Happy Retreat. (Historic Structure Report page 8)

Charles Town historic map

Historic Map of Charles Town

Figure 4 from Historic Structure Report (HSR). Map of Charles Town from the James E. Taylor Sketchbook (Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio).

Learn more about the history of Happy Retreat