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How George Washington's Iron-Willed Single Mom Taught Him Honor

May 10, 2019 in History

By Matt Mullen

In the drama of her son’s life, Mary Ball Washington has been cast as a villain and a saint—or written out entirely. In reality, she was an independent woman at a time when few others were.

Here are some of the ways Mary Ball Washington, George Washington’s mother, has been described by historians: Crude. Greedy. Illiterate. Self-centered. Slovenly. A Loyalist. An especially ruthless slave-owner. An impediment to her son’s success.

Alternatively, she has been described as a saint, a perfect Christian mother who raised a perfect son.

In reality, none of these things are true. “She has been the object of both meaningless praise and more often antagonism from writers who dreamed of a different mother for their hero George,” historian Martha Saxton writes in The Widow Washington, a new biography of our first president’s deeply misunderstood mother.

President George Washington and his mother.

Mary Ball Washington was neither a villain nor a saint—but rather an exceptionally strong and resilient woman, a single mother who raised five children and instilled in them qualities of fortitude and purpose. She was independent in ways few other women were at the time, choosing not to remarry after her husband Augustine’s death and refusing to give up her property.

By many accounts Mary was a tough mother. After she was widowed, she didn’t have the money to send George to school in England, as was common for well-to-do Virginia families at the time. Instead she enlisted him and his siblings to help run the farm. She emphasized obedience in her children. “She treated George seriously as a man and seriously as a religious being,” Saxton writes.

Prior historians once interpreted this as poor mothering, which contributed to Mary’s unfortunate standing in history. In fact, it was common of mothers at the time to be stern, even remote. “The fond mother, the mother who is psychologically and emotionally utterly available and has nothing but unconditional love for her children came about in the late 19th century,” Saxton says. “That’s not the kind of mother Mary was.”

Mary Ball was born around 1708 or 1709, in Lancaster County, Virginia. Her father died when she was 3, and her mother remarried and had more kids. After her step-father died just a few years later, Mary grew up in a matriarchal household. She watched how her mother openly exercised authority and independence—something she would later emulate …read more


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Building the Transcontinental Railroad: How 20,000 Chinese Immigrants Made It Happen

May 10, 2019 in History

By Lesley Kennedy

Railroad companies were at first reluctant to hire Chinese workers, deeming them too “weak,” but the immigrants soon proved to be a vital powerhouse.

They toiled through back-breaking labor during both frigid winters and blazing summers. Hundreds died from explosions, landslides, accidents and disease. And even though they made major contributions to the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, these 15,000 to 20,000 Chinese immigrants have been largely ignored by history.

Looking back, historians say, the Chinese, who began arriving in the United States in significant numbers during the California Gold Rush of 1848-1855, were deemed too weak for the dangerous, strenuous job of building the railroad east from California.

Hilton Obenzinger, associate director of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford University, says that Central Pacific Railroad director Charles Crocker recommended hiring Chinese workers after a job ad resulted in only a few hundred responses from white laborers.

Chinese workers building a cut and a bank at Sailor’s Spur in the Sierra foothills for the Central Pacific Railroad in California, 1866.

“But Crocker’s plan hit opposition amid anti-Chinese sentiment, stemming from the California Gold Rush, that gripped the state,” Obenzinger told NBC, noting that construction superintendent James Strobridge didn’t think the immigrants were strong enough to do the job.

Nonetheless, Central Pacific Railroad was desperate, says Gordon Chang, Stanford professor of American history and author of the book, Ghosts of Gold Mountain.

“White workers, whom the company wanted, did not sign on in numbers anything close to what was needed,” he says. “Crocker’s colleagues objected at first because of prejudice but then relented as they had few other options. The idea of hiring Chinese, it appears, might have been raised first by Crocker’s Chinese manservant.”

READ MORE: Chinese Americans Were Once Forbidden to Testify in Court. A Murder Changed That

According to the Chinese Railroad Workers Project, Central Pacific started with a crew of 21 Chinese workers in January 1864.

Chinese laborers at work on construction for the railroad built across the Sierra Nevada Mountains, circa 1870s.

“In January 1865, convinced that Chinese workers were capable, the railroad hired 50 Chinese workers and then 50 more,” the Project notes. “But the demand for labor increased, and white workers were reluctant to do such backbreaking, hazardous work.”

Leland Stanford, president of Central Pacific, former California governor and founder of Stanford University, <a target=_blank …read more