First Lady of Virginia

Lady Dunmore

Lady Dunmore’s ease and grace are among Lord Dunmore’s most valuable political assets. Interpreter Corrine Dame reflects on the lady who delighted the colony.

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Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.

Virginia's last royal governor, Lord Dunmore, enjoyed a great measure of popularity, largely due to his wife, Lady Dunmore. Beloved by the colonists, her sweet nature lent this ruler a remarkable level of acceptance. At Colonial Williamsburg, Lady Dunmore is interpreted by Corinne Dame.

I don't know, were you with Lord Dunmore in New York before he came here?

Corinne Dame: No. When he first came to New York in 1770, he left lady Dunmore behind because he had heard that it's best for colonists to become seasoned to the place they were at. He felt it was best to settle before he sends for Lady Dunmore. Then shortly after, a year later, he is assigned to Virginia as the governor. So he goes down to Virginia in '71, and by that time, he's making preparations for Lady Dunmore's arrival. He wants to send for her, but he says that the home that they have is too small for his family. So he makes renovations upon the home. It eventually, by 1773, he sends Captain Foy, his secretary, down to England to fetch his wife.

Lloyd: Lady Dunmore and Lord Dunmore had, I've forgotten, a lot of children.Corinne: They did. They had four daughters and five sons by '74. One of their sons, William, had passed away just recently when she arrives in the colonies. He passed away in '73 at the age of 10. Lord Dunmore had found out before Lady Dunmore arrived in the colonies.Lloyd: Now, when Lady Dunmore was in Williamsburg, if I've got this right, she had a daughter whom she named Virginia.

Corinne: Correct.

Lloyd: Winning the hearts of every colonist.

Corinne: Yes. Although I believe she probably already had their hearts at that point.

Lloyd: Really?

Corinne: I believe that they loved her from the first -- before she got there, after she got there, and even after she left. There are so many newspaper articles about when she arrives, how much a lady she is, how beloved she is there. There are poems written about her and her personality, and how warm she is. All down her travels from New York all the way to Virginia, there are fireworks, there are 21-gun salutes being set off for her, there are cannons being fired for her in every place she stops.So they loved her. They've never seen a countess in the colonies before. That's the first. They're like royal celebrity. She just won the hearts of everyone. Gouverneur Morris writes about his encounter with Lady Dunmore being so warm and so lovely, and her children have the sprightly manner and the warmth of their mother that he cannot believe that Lord Dunmore waited so long for the company of his wife and children and that once you see her, you will know the truth of it.

Lloyd: When Lord Dunmore first got to Virginia, he became quite popular by leading the anti-Indian raids in the western part of the state. And that made him popular at the time, but the truth of the matter is, he was never a warm person.

Corinne: Not from what I've read, no.

Lloyd: He was quite demanding, quite gruff, and some few people have even said quite rude, which does not go with this lady you are describing.

Corinne: True, very true. But you know, he was also in a position of power. He had to, you know, set an example for the colonists. I don't look as poorly upon Lord Dunmore as some people may. There are some people who still hate him as a governor. I think he was doing what he felt was for the best of the crown and for the people.His fight, everyone loved him for what he was doing in the Ohio territories and the western territories against the Indians. I don't think he really started getting disliked until perhaps when he dissolved the burgesses. But even then, at the ball that they held the next day, things seemed to go swimmingly, according to accounts of it. So, maybe until the gunpowder is when things started really to get tense between the colonists and Lord Dunmore. But they never had any problems with Lady Dunmore, ever.

Lloyd: He has a position of authority, which quite often can make it difficult for you to be popular. But Lady Dunmore has no official position of authority, so she can be just as sweet as she wants to be.

Corinne: Yes. But I also think she did have a little bit of play in the politics of her husband as well.Lloyd: I'd be amazed if she didn't.

Corinne: In fact, some believe that she even had a hand in getting her husband the appointment in New York, and in Virginia, because her brother-in-law, Lord Gower, was the president of the privy council and had the ear of the king. There's actually one reference of one of the lords saying that his brother-in-law got him the positions.

Lloyd: That puts a different face on it altogether. On the other hand, she would not be the first politician's wife in any age who didn't know how to play politics. Is there any record of how Lady Dunmore felt about the colonies after the war?

Corinne: After she left? As far as that has gone, I have not come across anything that she has made comment of, except one reference. Her daughter, Lady Virginia, the one that was named after the colony, when she was becoming into her later ages in life, she petitions the colony for 100,000 pounds, saying that they adopted her as their god daughter, and that they promised to take care of her financially. Well, Lady Dunmore writes in one of the accounts about how she has always respected the gentlemen burgesses, and she knows that they will be honest and do the right thing, in a sense.

That's the only part that I've actually read of her words.Now, as far as the colonists' words after she leaves for England, there was a planter who wrote in a newspaper article about how, "Please, Lady Dunmore, don't think anything that we have nothing but respect for you, the highest regard." He talks about her warmth, her sincerity. He mentions something about how the poor will miss her well-timed favors and the rich will miss her conversation. In fact, if our lord had had any of your sincerity and warmth and goodness, in a sense, that he would be the beloved idol of all the people, a brave and free people.So they, even after she left, had the highest respect for her. They tried their best to let her know that in every way possible, because there are several articles after she left about that.

Lloyd: Even for a highly respected lady, it would seem to me difficult to maintain your affection or warmth and affection during the Revolution.

Corinne: Yeah.

Lloyd: But apparently, she could pull it off. In the articles that were written, generally speaking, what did they say? Were they all flattering?

Corinne: You know, it's funny. As I read, there are so many of them. I just keep finding more and more every chance I read. At one point or another, I thought to myself, "Can any one of these just be sarcastic?" Just being very satire, like, "Oh, yeah, we love your innocence and your sincerity, and we're going to miss you."But I believe that there are so many that are written about her that are all so loving and good about her that they were all meant from the heart. They would even say, there was one gentleman, Philip Mazzei, he was an Italian friend of actually Thomas Jefferson. When he came here to be naturalized, Governor Dunmore wanted to introduce him to his wife. He said that Lady Dunmore, from first thought, he thought she deserved a better husband, and realized later that she did.

Lloyd: Ha ha.

Corinne: It was interesting, because apparently from what I was reading, Philip Mazzei and Lord Dunmore were cordial to one another, but he put her in the highest light, and even said that the daughters, Catherine and Augusta, her two oldest daughters, held the same warmth in appearance and personality as their mother, but the son imitated his father.

Lloyd: From your study of Lady Dunmore, do you think it is possible that she could be faking it? She obviously is political. She obviously is royally trained.

Corinne: Well, if there weren't some things about her in England as well. There was one gentleman, Horace Walpole, who wrote about her in the coronation procession, or the procession at the king's coronation, and said that there were two new Scotch peerages who pleased everybody. So she was well-trained there as well, and apparently well-liked.There was even once instance where they did fireworks for Lady Dunmore in Yorktown and Williamsburg. One article stated that they felt that it wasn't enough for her ladyship, but they did the best they could. She was so grateful and said that they were so wonderful and gracious about it. I believe that, I truly believe that she was a very warm, sincere person. I don’t think she could have fooled that many people.

There was one thing I read once. Some people say you can't necessarily say – it's a journal of Ms. Nelson Campbell. She talks about a Mrs. Page, when she saw Lady Dunmore in Williamsburg when she was 5 years old. So it was a reference to a 5-year-old's memory, but she says that, "Lady Dunmore was there dressed in red, and that her husband was very red in the face. He wanted her to come to him, and she was afraid of him." In that instance, I see a little – it's a 5-year-old's memory – but at the same time, I see a little, you know, character flaw. She's showing that she's afraid, in front of people. I can see that. That makes her human to me, you know, at the same time.

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