Below is the preserved Headquarters of General George Washington at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania not far from White Deer Valley in 1777-1778, wherein both William Lee-Margaret Thomas would have lived, worked and possibly loved each other. Martha Washington also spent extensive periods of time there with her husband.
One of the most amazing historical distortions about George Washington's triumphant wintering at Valley Forge was the deliberate and successful campaigns by ante-bellum artists and writers to eradicate images or suggestions of the sizeable Native American and African heritage soldiers and civilians in and around the encampment. Yet, Washington's own records tell a different tale from what America's teachers have been indoctrinated to teach; and, refuse to read or dismiss with ridicule any suggestions to the contrary.
Margaret Thomas was employed as a washer woman at the Valley Forge Military encampment of the Continental Army during the winter of 1777-1778. It can be safely assumed that she would have met and known William Lee during that period. It is not known whether or not she followed Washington's headquarters as it moved into Washington's spring offensive campaigns after Valley Forge. Whatever the case may be George Washington viewed her relationship with William Lee to be that of man and wife; likely not knowing she was already married.
It is almost a certainty, the marriage was not legally recognized in Virginia where marriages between slave and free was illegal; and, would certainly explain her refusal to accompany William back to his past at Mount Vernon, whether she loved him or not.
After the war
Lee's wife was Margaret Thomas Lee, a free African American from Philadelphia who had worked as a servant in Washington's headquarters during the war. Although slave marriages were not recognized by Virginia law, in 1784, at the couple's request, Washington tried to arrange having Margaret move to Mount Vernon to live with her husband. Whether or not she ever came to Mount Vernon is unknown.
In 1785, Lee injured a knee while on a surveying expedition with Washington. Three years later, while going to the post office in Alexandria, he fell and injured his other knee, rendering him seriously disabled. When Washington was elected president in 1789, Lee attempted to make the journey to New York City for the inauguration, but had to be left in Philadelphia for medical treatment. He was attended by several physicians, who made a steel brace for his knee that allowed him to join Washington in New York. Lee's disabilities prevented him from continuing his previous duties, however, and he spent the last years of his life as a shoemaker at Mount Vernon, struggling with alcoholism. Revolutionary War veterans who visited Mount Vernon often stopped to reminisce with Lee about the war.
When Washington died in 1799, he offered to free William Lee in his will, citing "his faithful services during the Revolutionary War". Lee was the only one of Washington's 124 slaves freed outright in his will; the remaining slaves owned by Washington were to be freed upon the death of Martha Washington. (Another 153 slaves living at Mount Vernon were the property of Martha's first husband's estate, and could not be freed by Washington.) Lee was given a pension of thirty dollars a year for the rest of his life, and the option of remaining at Mount Vernon if he wanted. Lee chose to live out the rest of his life at Mount Vernon, where he is buried.
"If Billy Lee had been a white man," wrote historian Fritz Hirschfeld, "he would have had an honored place in American history because of his close proximity to George Washington during the most exciting periods of his career. But because he was a black servant, a humble slave, he has been virtually ignored by both black and white historians and biographers."
Hirschfeld, Fritz. George Washington and Slavery: A Documentary Portrayal. University of Missouri Press, 1997.
Wiencek, Henry. An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.
The 1800 U.S. Census reveals only one person named Margaret Thomas, living in the household headed by Jonathan Thomas in Upper Dublin of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. It is not known whether or not William fathered any children with her, but research suggests a son may have been born who then became an AME minister whose wife (Kissi Lee) also became ordained and famed for her evangelism. We do not know, but have a need to understand that wars are painful for generations that suffer them. William Lee, so we believe, could not stay out of Virginia without brewing consequences for this brother Frank and other family members. So far as we know, William may have even fathered other offspring by women of his youth at Mount Vernon and surrounding plantations.
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