Event Inside the Stephen Decatur House: The First and Last Private Residence in Lafayette Square
Just across Lafayette Square from the White House, the Stephen Decatur House, completed in 1819, is one of the oldest homes...
Like his father, Thomas Peter was a skillful businessman, a significant landowner, and a large slaveholder who was active within the community and the new city. His pursuits included farming and horse racing. A man of refinement, he was also an accomplished flutist, and his literary interests are revealed in his extensive book collection. President John Adams named Thomas a justice of the peace for the County of Washington on March 3, 1801; he was reappointed justice of the peace in 1807, 1812, 1817, 1823, 1828, and 1833. In addition, Thomas was commissioned a member of the Levy Court for Georgetown on April 30, 1817, and was reappointed in 1822, 1826, 1827, 1829, 1830, and 1833.1 Within the business and social spheres, he was a director of Bank of Columbia from 1815, officer of the Jockey Club (1806), commissioner of Washington Turnpike Committee (1813), one of the stewards for the Meridian Hill track, and a vestryman of St. John’s Church, Georgetown. Continuing his father’s business dealings with George Washington, Thomas acted as agent in the sale of Washington’s tobacco.
Martha Parke Custis Peter, called Patty, was the daughter of Martha Washington’s son, John Parke Custis, and his wife, Eleanor Calvert, the beautiful and witty daughter of Benedict Swingate Calvert, son of Charles Calvert, 5th Baron Baltimore. She was born on December 31, 1777, in the Blue Bedroom at Mount Vernon, with her grandmother, for whom she was named, in attendance. Following the death of her father in 1781, Martha resided with her mother at Abingdon Plantation just north of Mount Vernon on the Potomac River and, when her mother remarried, with her mother and stepfather, Dr. David Stuart, at Hope Park in Fairfax County, Virginia. Stuart, a friend and business associate of George Washington, was appointed in 1791 as one of three commissioners charged to site and design the nation’s new capital city.
Martha retained a strong affection for her grandmother throughout her life. In February 1794, Martha Washington wrote to her niece Fanny Bassett Washington, “I wish Patty may marry well she is a clever girl and I am the more anxious that she should marry well as I am sure it will be an advantage to her younger sister [Nelly].” Martha Washington also noted that Patty and Nelly took a “flying trip to New York they were only two days in the city rode around it—and went to church Thursday—and to a play—they seemed so delighted with the jaunt all together.”2 One month later, Martha Washington wrote again: “From what I can hear Patty and Mr. Peter is to make a match—The old gentleman will comply with Dr. Stuart’s bargain and in the last letter I had from Mrs Stuart she says Patty had given him leve to visit her as a lover—I suppose by that he is agreeable to all parties—if it is so I shall be very happy to see her settled with a prospect of being happy—I really believe she is a very deserving girl—I am told that he is clever.”3
Thomas Peter and Martha Parke Custis, then 17, married at Hope Park on Twelfth Night, January 6, 1795, the same day and month in which Martha and George Washington had married. Martha Parke Custis brought into the marriage a Custis patrimony of sixty-one slaves as well as livestock. Some of these slaves were sold while others were sent to farms or remained at Tudor Place serving the family. One of them, Barbara Twine Cole, took care of the Peters’ children. Her mother was Sal Twine, who worked on George Washington’s Dogue Run Farm in Fairfax County. Barbara’s daughter, Hannah, worked at Tudor Place and was part of the dowry for the Peters’ daughter, Britannia, who would later sell her to Colonel John Carter. Hannah married one of Carter’s slaves, Alfred Pope, and was manumitted upon Carter’s death.
The newlyweds, following a stay with Robert and Elizabeth Peter at Peter’s Square in Georgetown, moved to a residence built about 1795 by Robert Peter (today 2018 K Street) and given to them upon their marriage. One of three brick town houses built by Robert Peter, it was among the first to conform to the streets of the new city. Martha’s sister Nelly and other family members visited, spending long periods of time with the Peters. George Washington often dined and stayed with Martha and Thomas while engaging in business related to the fledgling Federal City. On November 9, 1799, he spent his last night in the Peters’ home; he died the next month. “Morning and whole day clear, warm and pleasant,” he had written in his diary. “Set out a little after 8 oclock, viewed my building in the Fedl. City, dined at Mr. Law’s and lodged at Mr. Thos. Peter’s.”4
On May 22, 1802, Martha Washington died at Mount Vernon. She bequeathed to her granddaughter Martha Peter “my writing table and the seat to it standing in my chamber, also the print of Genl. Washington that hangs in the passage” and added, “It is my will and desire that all the wine in bottles in the vaults to be equally divied between my grand daughters and grandson to each of whom I bequeath ten guineas to buy a ring for each.” Martha Peter had been one of four witnesses to her will, and Thomas Peter was appointed one of the executors of her estate.5 As stipulated in the will, many items from Mount Vernon were sold, first in a private sale to family members and later in a sale open to friends and associates. An advertisement in the National Intelligencer on November 24, 1802, announced: “For cash at the stone hse, prop of Mr. Robt Peter, nr the county wharf, kitchen articles, 3 large paintings, remainder of furniture offered at Mt Vernon sale.”6
The City of Washington was hardly a city in the early 1800s, and Georgetown was a separate entity within the District of Columbia. It was where visitors and members of Congress were most likely to find amenable lodgings. During the administration of John Adams a French lady described Georgetown as “a town of houses without streets, as Washington is a town of streets without houses.” 7
Georgetown prospered and grew as the Federal City struggled to develop. An early twentieth-century historian compared the two: “A gay and fashionable society had grown up there [in Georgetown], trade had prospered, wealth had accumulated, and there had come an ease and culture to its inhabitants that attracted men of fashion and distinction. In this way Georgetown took the national capital under its wing and became the centre of social and diplomatic society.” 8
Up the hill from Georgetown’s waterfront large lots were sold from Colonel Ninian Beall’s Rock of Dumbarton tract to create handsome country seats overlooking the river. The grand houses had formally designed landscapes, orchards, kitchen gardens, smokehouses, and other outbuildings. One of the grand houses was built by Thomas and Martha Peter.
On June 5, 1805, Thomas Peter purchased 8 1/2 acres of the Rock of Dumbarton tract from Francis Lowndes, formerly of Bladensburg, Maryland, to establish his family’s seat. The Peters needed more space than their town house afforded as their family was growing, eventually to ten children, five of whom survived to adulthood. Already on the property were a brick house, brick stable, smaller dwelling, brick kitchen, smokehouse, and other outbuildings. The Peters called their estate Tudor Place.
While designs for a grand house overlooking the town and its wharves proceeded, building was delayed due to economic challenges as tobacco production faltered and trade was disrupted by the Napoleonic Wars. In 1812 the United States declared war on Britain, and in 1814 British troops stormed into the capital city, burning the U.S. Capitol, the President’s House, and other government buildings. Fortunately Georgetown was spared, and residents from the Federal City took refuge there, including Dr. William Thornton, architect of the U.S. Capitol, and his wife, Anna Maria, who watched the city burn from Tudor Place. The war exacerbated the great division between the Federalist Party, which the Peters and Thorntons supported, and the Democratic-Republicans affiliated with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
After the war, the Peters began construction of their neoclassical home; it was completed in 1816. There Thomas and Martha Peter entertained friends and politicians. Congressman Josiah Quincy III of Massachusetts remembered, “Among the notable matrons whom I met in Washington, perhaps the first place must be accorded to Mrs. Peter, of Georgetown. She was a granddaughter of Mrs. Washington, an intelligent and ardent Federalist.”9 According to her aunt Rosalie Stier Calvert of Riversdale in Bladensburg, Maryland, in 1819 Martha Peter hosted “three balls and several tea parties.”10 The Marquis de Lafayette, Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, and Robert E. Lee visited and possibly dined and danced at Tudor Place during the first half of the nineteenth century. A large circle of friends and family enriched the Peter family’s lives, including Marcia Burns and John Peter Van Ness, Colonel and Mrs. John Tayloe III, Francis Lowndes, Anna Maria and William Thornton, Martha’s sisters Eliza Custis Law and Eleanor (Nelly) Custis Lewis, her aunt Rosalie Stier Calvert, and Thomas’s brothers, George, Alexander, Robert, and David Peter, among many others. To support their lifestyle, in 1820 the recorded slaves on the Tudor Place estate included three adult males, four adult women, and three males and five females under the age of 14.
In addition to social occasions with friends and family, and the management of legal, domestic, and business affairs, Thomas and Martha Peter’s lives revolved around visits to Philadelphia, Mount Vernon, and their working farms, Oakland and Effingham. Like many owners of large Georgetown estates, the Peters had large farms outside of Georgetown that supplied their needs. Oakland was up the Potomac River in Seneca, Maryland, and Effingham, a smaller farm of 136 acres, was within the boundaries of the District of Columbia (at what is now between Seventh and Sixth Streets, NW). In her reminiscences, Britannia Peter Kennon, Thomas and Martha’s youngest daughter, recalled the provisions these farms supplied:
There were twenty hogs brought down from Oakland every fall and put up in the meat house here [Tudor Place]—There were hams, middlings, jowl, spare-ribs . . . sausage and lard. That was food worth eating! . . . Every thing was fried with pork in those days and a delicious flavor it gave to things too.— The hogs were cut up, salted, and packed in barrels for six weeks, after which they were hung up with white oak splits in the meat house and smoked.—Poor old Will Johnson used to start his fire in the smoke house and keep it smoking but he never let the fire burn up to heat the meat—kept it smothered and smoking continually. . . there were more than twenty hogs raised at the farms! There were the negroes to be fed. Pork and corn meal were the principle articles of food for them. Besides, there were always hogs sent to market and sold.
Tudor Place was also a working farm:
We raised our own beef, mutton, hogs, poultry—and fine fowls we had.—We had our own dairy where the butter was made. Then, there was the garden where the vegetables were raised—the orchard, from which we had an abundance of fruit trees. The fruit was put up for winter use—either preserved, canned or dried—vegetables were stored away and herbs were dried for seasoning. And where was there a place in those days without its herb garden!11
The distance to Oakland and poor roads prohibited the Peter family from traveling to and from in one day. Effingham’s proximity to Georgetown meant that supplemental provisions could be brought to Tudor Place with greater ease. But Oakland was where hounds were raised for hunts in the countryside and Thomas Peter’s race horses were put to pasture. As the racing season in Washington usually occurred in late October or early November, it appears that the Peters planned their trips there after the racing season. Thomas enjoyed horse racing at the Lafayette Square course and later at the Columbia course, also called Holmead or National, and at the course at the old Bladensburg Road and the end of Fourteenth Street.
The Peters were avid readers, and they amassed a substantial library at a time when books were expensive and highly valued. Subjects included religion, history, astronomy, geography, agriculture, and cooking.
In the early nineteenth century as farmers found their soils depleted from tobacco, they turned to other crops. In Montgomery County, farmers began growing wheat, and Georgetown tobacco factors started handling this and other commodities, such as flour, cotton, wool, and paper. As a crop, wheat did not require the extensive labor of enslaved workers that tobacco had demanded, and great numbers of enslaved workers were sold south to work the plantations in states such as Louisiana and Kentucky.
After the death of Martha Washington, Martha Peter received the remaining thirty slaves from her Custis patrimony, valued at approximately 2,000 pounds sterling. Thomas inherited a substantial amount of land and a large number of slaves from his father. As part of his business dealings, he purchased and sold slaves, some at Georgetown taverns and hotels where slave trade was a thriving business and also through land dealings throughout the region. Slaves worked at Tudor Place, Oakland, and Effingham; those who were skilled in carpentry, brick making, and other trades were rented out to others in the community.
Over the years, a large free African American community developed in Georgetown, concentrated in its eastern section called Herring Hill, so named for the fish peddlers who sold herring that ran in Rock Creek. The residents in this fifteen-block area (south of P Street between Rock Creek Park and Thirty-first Street) created an unusual dynamic within the slaveholding community. Slaves and free blacks intermingled and met, often in churches, at the water well, and in the market. Infrequently, slaves such as the Peter family’s cook, Patty Allen, were granted permission to live with their free spouses away from the property. Despite legal and social restrictions, during this time some free blacks established businesses and owned property. They formed their own institutions, such as Mount Zion United Methodist Church, on what is now Twenty-ninth Street, established in 1816.
In 1828 construction began on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, first envisioned by George Washington; in 1850 it reached Cumberland, Maryland. Built to open trade with the West, in its early years the canal invigorated Georgetown’s economy by carrying wheat, coal, lumber, and other commodities to the port. In 1843 another transportation innovation reversed Georgetown’s prosperity. The Aqueduct Bridge, a raised “canal” over the Potomac River, allowed barges to cross the Potomac River and move down a canal on the southern shore to the rival port of Alexandria. The bridge eliminated the need for cargo to be unloaded from canal boats and then loaded onto sailing ships at the Georgetown port. With the new bridge, Alexandria soon dominated national and international trade on the Potomac River, much to the dismay of Georgetown residents.
After her husband’s death in 1834, Martha Peter lived for twenty more years at Tudor Place. Her youngest daughter, Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon, returned as a widow to live with her in 1844. Martha Peter died on July 13, 1854, in the original nursery of the west wing of Tudor Place.
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