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This Day (Good Christian Death Edition)

December 14th, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe · No Comments

On this day in 1610, Sir Richard Martin of the Virginia Company of London addressed a letter to the colony’s secretary, William Strachey, requesting his elaboration on life in Virginia and, in particular, “how the Barbarians are content with your being there.” This, it should be said, is as close as most Englishmen came to showing genuine interest in Virginia Indians, and Martin’s request eventually resulted in Strachey’s The Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia (1612).

An important early history “togither with the manners and customes of the people,” Strachey’s book was nevertheless spurned by the very company that commissioned it in the first place. Apparently Strachey was sometimes critical of colonial management (see Time, The Starving), and he had the spectacularly bad fortune of trying to publish at the same time as John Smith. No way he could compete.

Also on this day, in 1799, George Washington died. According to the historian Ed Lengel, it was a “cold, blustery afternoon” and a throat infection made it so he could barely breathe.

Determined to meet the end with stoicism, Washington shed no tears and did not ask for comfort. His attitude was businesslike. After urging George Rawlins, an overseer, and two doctors to bleed him white—only inducing further weakness—Washington called for Martha and told her where to find his will. Then he turned to [Tobias] Lear [his secretary and friend]. “I find I am going,” he whispered, “my breath cannot continue long. I believed from the first attack it would be fatal.” What dwelt foremost in his mind? Martha? His grandchildren? His farms The afterlife? He said nothing of these. Instead, he charged Lear to “arrange and record all my late Military letters and papers—arrange my accounts and settle my books, as you know more about them than anyone else, and let Mr. [Albin] Rawlins finish recording my other letters, which he has begun.”

He died five hours later.

Lengel, as it happens, is the current editor of the Papers of George Washington, a project that is about to embark on its forty-fourth year.

A version of this post was originally posted on December 14, 2011.

IMAGE: Life of George Washington The Christian death, by Junius Brutus Stearns, ca. 1853 (Library of Congress)

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