What if after 235 years all that was left to tell the story of your life was a single scrap of paper? That is exactly what happened to a woman named Martha Morris who lived in New York during the Revolutionary War.
When George Washington was general of the Continental Army during the Revolution he kept his household receipts so that Congress could reimburse him after the war. Today there are hundreds of these in the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress. Among them is this one, for laundry. It is dated October 19, 1776, and on the top it says: ‘Cloas washed By Marth[a] the Negor wench.” At the bottom is her full name, which appears to be Martha Morris.
We know what George Washington was doing in New York in 1776. He and his troops arrived in the city in April to protect it from the British ships gathering in the harbor. After a series of disastrous losses, the Americans were defeated. In October, Washington left Manhattan. The British marched in, and for the next seven years they occupied New York City.
But what about Martha Morris? The receipt offers a few tantalizing facts about her life: she was an African-American woman, worked as a laundress, was probably young and poor (what is a “wench”?), and probably lived on Manhattan Island.
The receipt suggests even more questions than answers: What did laundry work entail? Did she write this bill herself, demonstrating that she was literate? How much did she charge for washing clothes and “Shirts for his [Excellency] General Washington”? Why did she use English pounds (₤), shillings (sh), and pence (d)? Do the receipt’s phonetic spellings preserve the sound of her speech? Was she free or enslaved?
You might use the receipt to launch students into research and to construct a narrative:
Your students can use the receipt to write a biography of Martha Morris. Encourage them to list additional questions that they have about her. Then, working alone or in small groups, students might research to locate information to form answers and construct a biography.
Students may compare the wartime experiences of Martha Morris to those of George Washington. Ask students to research where George Washington was on October 19 and to construct a timeline of events in the days immediately before and after that date. How does learning what George Washington was doing affect their understanding of Martha Morris’ life?
Students may locate another receipt in the George Washington Papers and apply similar processes of thinking, questioning, and researching.
For more resources for teachers from the Library’s manuscript collections, visit this page.
Although we will never know as much about Martha Morris as we do about George Washington, her receipt can help your students imagine what life was like for a woman who saw the American Revolution with her own eyes.
What other everyday primary sources could students work with using these sorts of questions?
Note: In the information about this receipt on the Library’s Web site, it is sometimes described as being from “Matthew Morris”. The receipt is in fact from Martha Morris.