Grant Quertermous – Interview with a Washington DC History Author – “A Georgetown Life: The Reminiscences of Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon of Tudor Place”

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Grant Quertermous – Interview with a Washington DC History Author – “A Georgetown Life: The Reminiscences of Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon of Tudor Place”

A GEORGETOWN LIFE: The Reminiscences of Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon of Tudor Place. Grant S. Quertermous, Editor. Georgetown University Press, October 2020

http://press.georgetown.edu/book/georgetown/georgetown-life

Tell us about the book.   

 The book, A Georgetown Life: The Reminiscences of Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon of Tudor Place is an edited and annotated version of a manuscript found in the Tudor Place Archives known as “The Reminiscences of Britannia W. Kennon.”  This eighty-one-page document contains the recollections of the longtime owner of Tudor Place, Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon (1815-1911).  A great-granddaughter of First Lady Martha Washington, Britannia was owner of Tudor Place from 1854 until her death in 1911.  Born on the house in 1815, Tudor Place was Britannia’s home for all but a few years of her life.  Starting around 1890, her grandson Armistead Peter Jr. and his siblings began prompting Britannia Kennon to describe her childhood in Georgetown, her memories of Tudor Place during the Civil War, and recollections of George and Martha Washington and Mount Vernon that had been told to her by her mother, Martha Custis Peter (1777-1854). The grandchildren, led Armistead Peter Jr. then carefully wrote the information down exactly as she recounted it, sometimes on scraps of available paper, then carefully recopied the information in legible form.  These memories and anecdotes form the manuscript compilation known as The Reminiscences of Britannia W. Kennon.

The document is a significant but relatively unknown primary resource because it contains eyewitness accounts and recollections from someone who lived in Washington, D.C. for nearly 96 years and interacted with many significant local and nationally historic figures. The political and social prominence of the Peter family in Georgetown and greater Washington ensured that Britannia met Presidents of the United States, visiting dignitaries such as the Marquis de Lafayette, as well as other historical and political figures including Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, Daniel Webster, and the family of John C. Calhoun, who resided across Road (now R) Street from the Tudor Place property. Of equal importance is the information Britannia recounts of the enslaved individuals formerly owned by the Peter family. Recalling many of the individuals by name, Britannia Kennon describes both Custis dower slaves inherited by her mother following Martha Washington’s 1802 death, as well as individuals formerly enslaved at Tudor Place who continued to live in Georgetown following the emancipation of slavery and were still residing there in the 1890s when she began to recounting her memories of them to her grandchildren.

What’s your thesis? Story arc?

I think the story arc is that Britannia Kennon is part of this group of very strong and independent women that you see in the Custis-Peter family throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.  In 1842, at just twenty-nine years of age,  she is widowed after only sixteen months of marriage, returns to Tudor Place and lives for the next 67 years, never remarrying, raising her daughter as well as several nieces and nephews, and several of her grandchildren following her daughter’s untimely death. Britannia Kennon was also resourceful–she maintained Tudor Place as a boarding house for Union officers through much of the Civil War, despite her own southern sympathies,  in order to prevent its seizure for use as a hospital. And in her daily life, she’s literally surrounded by history.  She conducted her daily correspondence on Martha Washington’s writing table and her collection of family heirlooms was the subject of several articles in periodicals with nation-wide coverage in the late 19th century.   And realizing the importance of her knowledge and personal history, her grandchildren begin conducting oral history interviews with her in an era before that was widely done.

.What are the myths or misconceptions you’d like to dispel about this subject?

That the focus of the book isn’t just limited to the Tudor Place property or even the Peter family.  In addition to information that Britannia Kennon shared with her grandchildren about the growth and evolution of the city of Washington during her lifetime, the book includes her recollections of trips to Baltimore and Philadelphia in the 1830s, her memories of the time spent as a refugee traveling around Virginia for several months following the outbreak of the Civil War, and some fascinating insights that were based on information her own mother Martha Custis Peter had shared with her about George and Martha Washington.

I also want to dispel the idea that history books are boring and filled with lots of names and dates.  While my book contains its share of names and dates, its humorous at times, tragic at other times, and is filled with a very interesting cast of characters—the members of the Peter family.  Three sisters named Columbia, America, and Britannia, their parents, aunts, uncles, etc. The leading lady, Mrs. Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon, is a truly fascinating historical figure who serves as an eye witness to many key events of 19th century American history and also proudly embraced her role as the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington during an era where Americans was eager to connect to their colonial past.

What were the most important resources you found (and where)?

In addition to the Peter family papers found in the Tudor Place Archives, there are also Peter family papers in the archives at two other repositories—The Fred W. Smith Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon and the University of Virginia’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.  All of these collections were key resources as I was working on the project–annotating the Reminiscences and writing the two essays that introduce the reader to Britannia and examine why her grandchildren created this important document.  In more than one instance, I was able to find a receipt or letter in the family papers that allowed me to determine the exact date for an event that Britannia Kennon discussed with her grandchildren.  And once I knew the exact date of one of these events, especially if it occurred during her childhood, l could know her age at the time as well. One such example was a carriage accident she described that resulted in the enslaved footman needing to have a leg amputated after he was run over by a carriage.  The bill for the Doctors who performed the amputation survives and was dated, allowing me to learn that this tragic event occurred in 1824 at a time when Britannia Kennon would have only been nine years old.  

Are there sources you wish existed but don’t?  

Yes,  one especially interesting episode, which only came to light toward the end of my project after a colleague discovered a reference in a Lee family letter and brought it to my attention, regarded some family news/gossip about Britannia and a beau she had about two years before meeting her future husband.  There is no mention of this in any of the surviving Peter family papers, but its discovery gave me a whole new perspective on Britannia Kennon as well as of her mother.  I would love to know Britannia’s side of this story.  The letter, written ca. 1839 by Britannia’s aunt Mary Custis to her daughter Mary Custis Lee, describes the beau, a Georgetown newspaper editor who wished to marry Britannia, but according to the letter, Martha Custis Peter disapproved of the match and persuaded her daughter to end things with the man because she felt that he lacked any prospects.

Who’s your audience?

The breadth and variety of subjects discussed by Britannia Kennon make A Georgetown Life appealing to a wide audience of academic and non-academic audiences including history lovers both in Georgetown and the Washington region as well as across the country. As the work is a primary source document, readers will be able to experience the events Britannia Kennon describes as she witnessed them rather than through secondary or tertiary analysis by a later historian. In much the same way that readers were able to experience the Civil War through the first-person lens of diarist Mary Boykin Chestnut in A Diary from Dixie, they can see how the conflict impacted Britannia Kennon on many levels from the death of two family members hanged as spies by the Union Army in 1863 to her decision, as a Southern sympathizer, to rent rooms at Tudor Place to Union officers to prevent the house from being seized as a hospital by the Federal Government.

The narrative form of the document makes it easy to read and Britannia’s tendency to interject her own opinion on various people and events of 19th century Washington makes the book an often humorous and enjoyable read.

What inspired you to write this book?

 I wanted to make this important and informative document from the Tudor Place archives–the compilation of Britannia Kennon’s Reminiscences–available to a wider audience of everyone from scholars to people who just.  I also wanted to be able to present the document with accompanying contextual information and annotations to identify the various family members Britannia Kennon described as well as the places that she mentioned.   I want the reader to get a sense of who Britannia Kennon was and also understand that she was the product of the era in which she lived.  She was an enslaver. She was a widow. She was a wife, a mother, and a grandmother.  And I wanted to bring her story to a wider audience.  And also make it available for the visitors who come to Tudor Place and want to learn more about the Peter family after their tour. 

What’s unique about your perspective? 

I think spending five years reading through as much of the materials in the Tudor Place archives as possible during the course of this and other research projects helped me to understand the Peter family and their connections—familial, social, political, and commercial, within the context of Georgetown and D.C. during the 19th century. Its important to remember that Georgetown existed as a thriving port city for almost half-century before the nation’s capitol was created, so it had already forged its own identity and the Peter family were playing an active role in Georgetown from its earliest settlement.  The project also gave me a greater understanding of Britannia Kennon and the world in which she lived.

Also, as a Curator, I’m always focusing on the objects—the material culture—and what it can tell us. It is fortuitous that Britannia Kennon lived during an era that saw the advent of photography, so it’s possible to present a visual record of a large portion of her life- time through numerous surviving daguerreotypes, cartes-de-visite, and photographs—especially the time period from 1846 until her death in 1911. Seeing images of her, being able to study objects that were important to her and understanding how she lived with the collection at Tudor Place. I call her very accurately Tudor Place’s first curator. She arranged objects within the house. She made labels and attached them to objects, providing provenance and other historical information, she gave tours of her collection to reporters and interested visitors.

What’s your favorite DC history book? 

That’s a difficult question.  There are so many great works focusing on the history of the city.  For reference for this project, one important resource for me was the book Capital Losses: A Cultural History of Washington’s Destroyed Buildings by the late James Goode.  Many of the buildings Britannia Kennon described from her childhood are no longer standing, and this book was key to identifying their locations in the city, providing an image of and a good overview of their history. 

Another favorite that was also an invaluable research tool for this project was the transcription of Volume I of William King’s Mortality Books by Jane Donovan and Carlton Fletcher.  The Mortality Books are a set of ledgers in the collection of the D.C. Historical Society that were kept by Georgetown cabinetmaker William King Jr.  As a cabinetmaker, King was patronized numerous residents of the District including the Peter family and he also made an important commission of seating furniture for the President’s House during the Monroe administration.  William King also made coffins—a valuable side business for any cabinetmaker.  In his mortality books, he carefully recorded the name and date of each individual for whom he made a coffin during almost sixty years in business, even identifying the type of wood he used  Everyone from a sitting Vice President of the United States who died in office to enslaved individuals whose coffins were paid for by their masters.  It’s a valuable research tool when looking at 19th century Washington, D.C., and even more interesting when it can be paired up with extant receipts such as those for several of the Peter family funerals now in the Tudor Place Archives.