Skip navigation

This blog is by Library of Congress Manuscript Historian, Dr Julie Miller

June 4, 2020


The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress mostly document the life of George Washington. There’s nothing surprising about that. What is surprising is that Washington’s papers also contain a lot of fragmentary, often eloquent information about the lives of much more ordinary people. These are people we would know nothing about except that their lives happened to intersect with Washington’s. They include servants, slaves, grocers, dentists, wine merchants, bakers, tavernkeepers, landladies, seamstresses, and laundresses. Many of them were women.


One of the best places to find out about these people in Washington’s papers is in the meticulous records he kept of his public and private spending. These invoices, receipts, and ledger books constitute the thirty-four volumes of Series 5. The receipted bills Washington kept of his spending during the Revolutionary War, in Series 5, Volume 29, are the focus of our latest crowdsourcing project, “Ordinary Lives in George Washington’s Papers: The Revolutionary War.”


I would like to introduce you to one group of women you will meet as you work your way through these receipts. They are the laundresses who worked for Washington during the Revolutionary War.


Washington’s steward Caleb Gibbs made an understandable mistake when he wrote that Margaret Thomas received “twenty eight pounds seventeen shillings & sixpence Pennsylvania currency in full for Washington done for his Excellency General Washington” for almost eighteen months of washing. Washington was on the move during this period, so Thomas probably traveled with his household. She signed the receipt herself.


Martha Morris probably lived in New York, since the single bill she submitted to Washington, in October, 1776, is dated from there. It describes her and her work this way: “cloas washd by Marther the negor wench.” The back of the receipt, similarly: “Negro wench’s bill for washing linnen.” When the British occupied New York after Washington fled, just after the date of this bill, they offered freedom to escaped slaves. If Morris was among them, she might have chosen to stay in the city. Read more about her here.


Between July and September, 1776 Andrew Marschalk submitted five bills for washing and mending performed by “Mrs. Marschalk.” Because Marschalk’s bills end when Washington left New York, it’s likely the family lived in the city. Mrs. Marschalk’s labor supported the family, but Anglo-American law entitled her husband to her earnings, as these receipts demonstrate.


In May, 1776 Sarah Einglis submitted a bill for washing Martha Washington’s aprons, handkerchiefs, and ruffles. George Washington’s letters show that he was in New York on that date. This receipt is a piece of evidence to show that his wife was there, too. Einglis appears to have written out this receipt herself.


The bills submitted by this diverse group of women are a window into their working and economic lives, and add a rich layer to our understanding of the Revolutionary war as it was experienced by ordinary people. We hope you enjoy puzzling out these receipts, and helping researchers and students of the future to more easily search and access these small, but important documents.

This blog is by Library of Congress Manuscript Historian, Dr Julie Miller


Today we're releasing a new By the People Campaign featuring handwritten receipts and interrogations of deserters--documents found in the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress. Read this blog and then visit “Ordinary Lives in George Washington’s Papers: The Revolutionary War” to transcribe, review, or read these historic materials.


In 1782, during the Revolutionary War, the American artist John Singleton Copley painted this portrait of thirteen-year-old Augustus Brine, a sailor in the British Royal Navy. The boy’s capable hands and confident stance, startlingly combined with his rosy cheeks and curly hair, are a clue that the redcoats we learned about when we were children may not have been exactly as we imagined.


Augustus Brine (1769–1840) painted as a young boy by Anthony Copley. He stands with his body slightly turned away from us, his right hand in his pocket, his sandy hair long and falling around his shoulders. Artist: John Singleton Copley (American, Boston, Massachusetts 1738–1815 London) Date: 1771 Medium: Oil on canvas. Painting held at the Met and made available online under Creative Commons Zero (CC0).

More evidence to prove the truth of this is in two small notebooks in Series 6A of the George Washington papers at the Library of Congress. These contain notes made by Washington’s aides as they interrogated British deserters and escapees. The interrogations took place around New York City in 1782 and 1783 while the city was occupied by British troops.


These men constituted a diverse group. They were Americans pressed into British service, sailors captured from French ships, escapees from British prison ships, Hessian mercenaries, and Americans serving in loyalist regiments, including the one commanded by Benedict Arnold after his defection. Responding to a set of questions, they give their names and histories, describe conditions at British encampments, and tell where, how, and why they left.


Christian Reidenby, a Hessian mercenary, deserted his regiment on Governor’s Island because he owned land in Georgia and preferred to stay in the United States. John Carrol, a sailor originally from Philadelphia, had been impressed by the British and imprisoned in Jamaica. Then he sailed on a privateer, and finally escaped from a British ship on Lake Champlain. Richard Green and Daniel Lane deserted from the loyalist corps headed by Benedict Arnold. They had enlisted with Arnold in order to get out of jail in British-occupied New York. James Nealy, a fifer, escaped his regiment on Long Island. He reported that “great uneasiness prevails” in his corps, probably because they had learned of the impending evacuation of New York and the shipment of British troops to the West Indies, where they knew that heat and disease threatened the lives of British soldiers.


George Washington used the information he learned from these and other deserters in his plans. Today these capsule biographies, which range from one sentence to several paragraphs each, should interest anyone who wants to gain a complex understanding of the British or British-allied men and boys who occupied New York during the Revolutionary War.