George Washington never stepped foot in South Mississippi, but in a historical way, the first U.S. president is rooted here. At least his Mount Vernon is.
With Presidents Day on Monday, this is a time to remember the George Washington connection to the Mississippi Coast.
A camellia blooming in Pass Christian in the 1870s came from George and Martha Washington's Virginia estate, books, news articles and local stories have claimed for more than a century. A number of offspring from that original plant, which itself survived about 100 years, are likely still blooming along coastal Mississippi.
The woman who planted the original Pass camellia, Frances Parke Lewis Butler, was born on Mount Vernon in 1799, or in 1797. Birth dates vary, but unquestionably, the eloquent, educated and intelligent Frances died in 1875 in the Pass, where she is buried at Live Oak Cemetery.
Frances' connection to the first First Family comes through her mother, Nelly, whose complete name is Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis. Nelly was reared by George and Martha Washington after her father died in the Revolutionary War.
The Washingtons had familial reasons for taking over Nelly's education on the fineries of colonial life. Nelly was Martha's granddaughter, although the relationship would become more daughter-like. Nelly would later marry the president's nephew.
Genealogical threads of that era are difficult to follow because guardianships for children who lost one or both parents was common among friends and family. That's what George, who never sired children of his own, did for Nelly and a brother. More research confusion comes with a repetition of colonial names, a requirement for family inheritance.
Nelly's dead father (John Parke Custis) was Martha's son from a previous marriage to a Virginia planter (Daniel Parke Custis). The widowed and very wealthy Martha married George Washington two years after Daniels' death and 16 years before George commanded the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War.
Whether or not correct, some modern histories use the term "step" -- both step-daughter and step-granddaughter -- when describing Nelly's relationship to George and Martha. Nelly herself referred to them as "affectionate Parents."
No matter the title, history proves family ties were tight, and family history helps define the social status of Nelly's daughter, Frances, who planted the Mount Vernon camellia in Pass Christian.
Famous families unite
When Nelly married Lawrence Lewis, the Washingtons gave them a wedding gift of 2,000 acres adjacent to Mount Vernon, on which the Lewises built Woodlawn Plantation, now a National Trust estate.
Nelly's marriage tied another thread to the Washington family, one that is mentioned on a Pass cemetery marker. Nelly's husband was the son of Betty Washington Lewis, George's sister, making their daughter, Frances, the president's grandniece. Of course, Frances was also Martha's great-granddaughter.
Young Frances lived with her parents at Mount Vernon until Martha died in 1802, and then the Lewis family moved next door to Woodlawn, still under construction. In her mid-20s, Frances married Edward George Washington Butler, who also came from a famous Revolutionary family, the Irish-American Pennsylvania Butlers.
George was son of one of the acclaimed Five Fighting Butlers, and when his own father died, Edward was raised by Andrew and Rachel Jackson at the Hermitage. He later proved himself worthy of the Butler name in the Mexican War under Zack Taylor.
Edward and Frances chose to live near relatives in the South, on their Dunboyne sugar plantation in Iberville Parish, La. They were considered among the American and Southern gentry. One son, Maj. Edward G.W. Butler Jr., described as the first Confederate field officer to die in the war, has a headstone in the Butler family plot.
Frances proudly took on the Washington family role of keeping alive the stories and significance of America's First Family. When she died June 3, 1875, in her mid-70s, national newspaper stories declared: "The deceased was the nearest living relative of the 'Father of his country.'"
Frances was the last of the family to live at Mount Vernon with the former president and first lady, even if for a short time. One story cited by Mount Vernon recounts Frances' birth 17 days before the retired president died. He visited the bedroom to see infant Frances, who later would write that he "gave me the last blessing he ever gave to anyone."
The president died Dec. 14, 1799. Frances was born to Nelly on Nov. 27, and that is 17 days. The confusion arises from a conflicting birth year. A marker on the Butler cemetery plot in Pass Christian lists Frances' birth in 1797, and that date is repeated in a number of written histories. That, however, would put two years and 17 days between the president's death and Frances' birth. Other histories, including Mount Vernon archives, give the birth year as 1799.
The Coast connection
Why is Frances Butler, who proudly bore her Mount Vernon connections, buried in Pass Christian?
As was the case with many Louisiana antebellum elite, Frances and Edward Butler were frequent guests in Pass Christian's beachfront estates.
In 1870, when the Butlers sold Dunboyne to a relative, they moved into the McCutcheon-Butler House on East Scenic Drive in the Pass, then owned by a Washington relative and now still standing despite Hurricane Katrina. That is where Frances planted the Mount Vernon camellia and where she died June 30, 1875.
Her widowed husband Edward moved to Missouri to be with a son, and that is where he died. Months before his 1888 passing, this so-described "walking encyclopedia of American history" was proclaimed the oldest living West Point graduate. Engraved granite indicates he is buried in Pass Christian.
The camellia story was kept alive by relatives and Pass residents, but it was not widespread until the Butler grave and camellia tree were "rediscovered" by the Coast and New Orleans chapters of Daughters of the American Revolution.
Grave, camellia make the news
"While living there, Mrs. Butler planted a camellia japonica tree whose size and bloom -- a large double red flower -- was famed throughout the region. It was blooming in December 1873 and is still living," a Times Picayune story reported Dec. 14, 1930.
Two years later this newspaper,
then called The Daily Herald, reported that the grave of Washington's grandniece would be marked by the DAR on March 18, 1932, as part of the Washington Bicentennial. About 10 Washington relatives living on the Coast attended the ceremony. Later in that decade, this entry appeared in the "Mississippi Gulf Coast: The American Guide Series" of the Depression-era Federal Writers Project:
"The Adelle McCutcheon Home, 861 E. Beach Blvd., is a faded brown one-story house of Greek Revival design. Built in 1849, it came into the possession of Samuel McCutcheon in 1853. His daughter, Miss Adelle Destrehan McCutcheon owns and occupies the place.
"Giant magnolias partially conceal the house, and on the front lawn is one of the Coast's largest and most interesting camellia japonica. This plant, of the single-blossom type, was rooted by Mrs. Frances Parke Lewis Butler -- great-granddaughter of Martha Washington and grandniece of George Washington..."
The mother plant is no longer, but Bruce S. Stinson, a Pass resident and member of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Camellia Society, recently explained, "I believe some grafts must exist somewhere.
"I saw a photo, circa 1950, of the original plant. It stood somewhat sprawling in front of the house. My mother was once told by the owner of the house that she had replaced that plant after Camille [a 1969 hurricane], apparently with a graft of the original."
The 1950 American Camellia Society Yearbook stated, "Pass Christian's famous camellia has many children scattered throughout the town, and the townspeople say that the flowers from the parent plant are of a deeper shade than those of the offspring."
Hurricanes were unkind
Stories vary as to whether the Butler camellia survived 1969's Hurricane Camille, which wrecked the town. This positive account appeared in the May/June 1973 issue of the popular Down South Magazine, which highlighted the McCutcheon house:
"Mrs. Butler planted a camellia bush in front of the home, and it has been tenderly cared for during the years. Badly damaged in Hurricane Camille, it was given professional care, and, although it had to be severely cut back, it still blooms."
Modern stories and book chapters have surfaced about a very old camellia in the same location before Katrina, and about thriving offspring. The problem is that none cite original documentation to prove the Butler camellia came from Mount Vernon. In fact, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which sold plants to the public as a fundraising, does not list camellia japonicas in its 1882 nursery catalog.
But that fact doesn't debunk this popular story, although it may indicate more research. Much of the story is unquestionable: France Butler's love of plants, her Mount Vernon birthplace, her link to the Washingtons.
Camellias were first imported to the U.S. from England at the turn of the 19th century, so Martha and George Washington may never have gazed on one. The story, however, never claimed that -- just the plant coming from Mount Vernon.
Before Hurricane Katrina leveled much of Pass Christian in 2005, according to Stinson, the late Hyman Norsworthy of Beaumont, Texas, identified the camellia's obscure cultivar. Norsworthy, a noted camellia expert, believed the cultivar had "long been out of commerce," meaning the Pass Christian camellia was very old and consistent with a Mount Vernon connection.
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or c/o Sun Herald Newsroom, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535-4567.