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Washington’s Ring?

by Rae Ann Sauer, NSSAR Archivist,
and Joseph W. Dooley, President General
 
 
Forrest Proper of Joslin Hall Rare Books in Northampton, Massachusetts recounts an interesting story.
 
RingIn April of 1917, William Lanier Washington auctioned several items at Mitchell Kennerly’s Anderson Galleries, a leading auction firm in New York City.  (“Lanier” is pronounced LAN-yer, not La-NEAR.)  Lot 27 in this auction was a set of Sheffield candlesticks, said to have been used by George Washington on his desk at Mount Vernon.  Prominent bookseller G.D. Smith happily bought the candlesticks.
 
William Lanier Washington also sold Washington memorabilia door-to-door.  In 1920, he arrived at G.D. Smith’s home in New York, and not realizing Smith had already bought a set of Washington candlesticks, attempted to sell him another set, also purportedly used by General Washington.  Smith questioned just how many candlesticks George Washington kept on his desk.  He and William Lanier Washington got into a heated argument, and Smith dropped dead on the spot.
 
So, how is this relevant to the SAR?
 
1920 Sale RingWhen SAR President General Messmore Kendall passed away in 1959, he left in his will a special gift to the SAR: a seal ring believed to have been owned by George Washington.  The ring was in a varnished, wooden box with a shield on the front and brass knob.  Accompanying the ring was an affidavit, dated February 16, 1922, purporting to verify its authenticity and signed by a lateral descendant of George Washington: William Lanier Washington.
 
According to the affidavit that accompanies the ring, William Lanier Washington was the 4th-great-grand-nephew of President George Washington.  The line of descent proceeds from George Washington’s nephew William Augustine Washington (1757-1810), to his son George Corbin Washington (1789-1854), to his son Lewis William Washington (1812-1871) to his son James Barroll Washington (1839-1900), father of William Lanier Washington.  This lineage can be independently verified in Genealogies of the Families of the Presidents.  The affidavit also asserts that George Washington gave the seal ring to William Augustine Washington, his eldest nephew, and that the ring had never left William Lanier Washington’s possession since his father’s death in 1900.
 
In February 1920, William Lanier Washington held another public sale of George Washington artifacts in New York, under the management of The American Art Association.  (The organizations that hosted William Lanier Washington’s various sales no longer exist.)  Listed in the 1920 program as Item No. 16 is “Gold Ring with Washington’s Coat-of-Arms: Cut in carnelian.  Given by General Washington to his nephew, Colonel William Augustine Washington.  In black morocco case with inscription.”
 
While a 1920 photo of this ring is not of high quality, the ring’s square shape clearly indicates it is different from the ring that would ultimately come into the SAR’s possession.  The collection catalog of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association indicates that Mount Vernon owns a ring with a similar description as Item No. 16 in the 1920 sale.  That ring was donated to Mount Vernon by the William Randolph Hearst family in 1963.  Like G.D. Smith and many others, William Randolph Hearst purchased many items that he thought had belonged to George Washington.  It is also interesting to note that the ring sold at the 1920 auction was in “a black morocco case,” while the SAR’s ring sits in a wooden box.
 
In 1922, William Lanier Washington held another public sale.  Item No. 134 is listed as “Contemporary Seal Ring.  Gold.  Enriched with coat-of-arms finely cut in carnelian.”  This description more closely matches the ring owned by the SAR.  But it should be noted at this writing, that no account of George Washington using a seal ring has been found in contemporary documents.
 
It should also be noted that many of the items sold by William Lanier Washington were accompanied by affidavits purporting authenticity, similar to the affidavit that accompanies the signet ring now owned by the SAR.  At this time, it is unclear how the signet ring owned by the SAR passed from William Lanier Washington to President General Messmore Kendall.
 
So, did the Washington signet ring owned by the SAR ever belong to George Washington?  We cannot say with certainty that it did.  Forrest Proper and others attest that some of the items sold by William Lanier Washington were authentic, and at one time belonged to George Washington.  But it is impossible to determine at this time which items sold by him were authentic, and which were simply late 18th or early 19th century artifacts that he merely claimed were owned by his illustrious 4th-great-grand-uncle.
 

  • American Art Association (1920).  William Lanier Washington’s Collection of Relics and Memorabilia of George Washington.  New York: American Art Association.
  • American Art Galleries (1922).  Relics and Memorabilia of George Washington Inherited and Collected by his great-great nephew Mr. W. Lanier Washington.  New York: American Art Galleries.
  • Anderson Galleries, Inc. (1917).  Historical Relics of George Washington Inherited and Collected by Mr. William Lanier Washington.  New York: The Anderson Galleries.
  • Henry, R. B. (1935).  Genealogies of the Families of the Presidents.  Rutland, VT: The Tuttle Company.
  • Kendall, M. (1958, August 20). Copy of Last Will and Testament of Messmore Kendall late of Dobbs Ferry, Westchester County, New York.  NSSAR Archives, Louisville, KY.
  • Mount Vernon.  Catalogue Entry for Washington Seal Ring, #W-2423. Mount Vernon, VA.
  • Mount Vernon.  Mount Vernon Ladies' Association: A Brief History.
  • “Washington’s relics sold on birthday.”  (February 23, 1922).  New York Times.