Monday, March 25, 2024

The Farm That Margaret Sold


The pursuit of family history can lead us on a chase past both verifiable details and enigmatic situations which seem more fiction than fact. We've all run across unlikely tales which began, "there were three brothers," or talked to great-aunts who insisted on our descent from famous leaders or the proverbial "Indian princess."

In our current project, however, we can't lose too much time puzzling over the possible legend of the "thirteen blooming daughters" birthed by Margaret Watts, my seventh great-grandmother, or we will pass right over the making of another family legend—this one of presidential proportions. It may just be that the cherry tree which young George Washington supposedly chopped down was planted by Margaret Watts' first husband, William Strother. Before we consider that, though, we first need to learn something about the colonial Virginia farm that Margaret Watts Strother sold in 1738.

Actually, I stumbled upon that detail by accident. I was looking for the will of William Strother, father of my sixth great-grandmother Jane Strother, who eventually became wife of Thomas Lewis. I wanted some form of documentation linking the father with his daughter, and during those colonial times, my best hope of finding Jane's name was to look for her father William's will.

The year Jane was born—about 1732—was close enough to the year in which her father died that I wasn't sure whether he had died unexpectedly before even drawing up such a document. I thought my best chance at finding such a record would be to put the Full Text search at FamilySearch Labs through its paces.

I didn't want to use too many filters—thus wiping out any possibility of finding the will by guessing the wrong details about, for instance, the location of his death. So I simply entered William's first and last name in quotes, added a keyword "Margaret" for his wife, set the location simply as Virginia, and limited the time frame to the 1730s. 

And pressed the "search" button.

With a search as wide open as that, I wasn't surprised the result yielded 310 possibilities. I'm still scrolling my way down that very long list. Right at the top, though, was an entry which caught my eye. It was a deed dated 1738, and it was a document filed in court in King George County, not one of the counties I had seen mentioned in my research yet.

Without even asking for the help yet, this proposed document provided me with the answer to my next question: after William Strother's death, who did Margaret marry? The deed clearly laid out the facts: that William had appointed Margaret as his sole executrix in his will dated November 20, 1732, and that Margaret had subsequently married someone named John Grant.

The terms of William Strother's will included a stipulation that two of his properties were to be sold to the highest bidder. One of those properties was located in King George County, and Margaret had found a willing purchaser there: a gentleman by the name of Augustine Washington.

Once the purchase was made, Augustine moved his family to the property by the end of that year. Unfortunately, Augustine died only a few years later—in 1743—leaving the property to the eldest son of his second marriage, who was only eleven years of age at the time. Thus, George Washington's mother Mary managed the property until George became of legal age to assume ownership of the property where he had lived since he was six years old.

Whether the Strother family had planted any cherry trees on their property before George Washington's father acquired that 150 acre site in 1738, I can't say. Nor can I say whether the future president's father had ever gifted him with a hatchet—or lived to rue the day he had misused it. The general consensus now, at least among those historians who have studied such matters, is that the never-tell-a-lie son of Augustine Washington became the subject of a myth perpetuated long after his own passing.

That Margaret Watts Strother Grant sold the Strother family farm to the Washingtons, however, is certainly not a legend. Though the name of the property has changed—it became known as the Ferry Farm—it is still upkept by The George Washington Foundation. Should I ever get curious enough to wonder what the farm of my ancestors looked like, I can still go visit the property, even get a guided tour if I'd like. More than that, I could take a look at the on-site archaeology lab which has reportedly found "thousands of artifacts" on the property—some, perhaps, dating back to the farm's previous owners, as well. 

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