This incredible letter was penned by Miss Arete E. Johnson (1829-1904) of Louisburg, Franklin county, North Carolina. On 8 June 1859, when Arete was 30 years old, she became the second wife of James Hart Yarborough (1828-1860). He died the following the year and “though she was a very beautiful and much admired woman,” Arete never remarried. Arete’s 1904 obituary described her as “a fine type of antebellum Southern woman—soft of speech, gracious of manner, versatile of gifts, and a charming conversationalist; she gave the impression of a culture higher and better than that of the post-vellum commercial life of the ‘New South.’ She and a sunny and cheerful disposition and was, withal a genuine believer in the Christian religion. Her religious faith ran like a thread of gold throughout her whole daily life. She was a consistent member of the Episcopal church…No estimate can be made of the influence for good of a good woman’s life. It is a sad but very truth that the types of social southern life, exemplified by Mrs. Yarborough, are fast disappearing. [The Franklin Times, 7 October 1904]
Arete was the daughter of Wood Tucker Johnson (1802-1862) and Josephine Ann Stephon Outerbridge (1806-18xx) of Franklin County. Arete’s father was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Medical College but in later life he settled into the life of a gentleman farmer on his 950 acre plantation where he raised cotton and other crops. Prior to his death in 1862, Arete’s father willed her one quarter of the 71 family-owned slaves.
In 1854, when Arete was 25 years old, she was called upon by a member of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA) to represent her county—Franklin county, N. C.—in a fund raising activity to purchase and thereby save the home and gravesite of George Washington. The following letter, in Arete’s own hand, was sent to some unidentified female resident of Franklin county with a copy of a circular that was printed by the MVLA providing the details of the association and its purpose. The name of the letter’s recipient would normally have been written at the lower left hand margin of the letter and has most likely been torn off the third page. In 1858, the Association began printing the “Mount Vernon Record” to document their activities and to record the amounts of monies raised in the states. Miss Johnson’s name appears among the more successful North Carolina collectors, having raised $241 through her efforts.
“If the men of America have seen fit to allow the home of its most respected hero to go to ruin, why can’t the women of America band together to save it?” In 1853, Louisa Bird Cunningham wrote these words to her daughter, Ann Pamela Cunningham, after seeing the decrepit state of George Washington’s home while traveling on the Potomac River. Inspired by her mother’s words, Cunningham took it upon herself to challenge the nation to save Mount Vernon. She founded the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in 1853 and by 1858 had raised $200,000 dollars to purchase the mansion and two hundred acres.
Louisburg [Franklin county, North Carolina]
August 9th 1854
My dear Madam,
Though a stranger to you, I take the liberty of addressing you on a subject which I feel should make us friends and acquaintances, for it is one in which every person in the Union, whatever the station, or degree, age or sex, is equally interested—and this common cause should bind us all together in bonds as close as this between the dearest friends, causing us to set in concert in this important matter in which being united, we will succeed for “in union there is strength.”
The accompanying circular will explain the reason of my letter.
Mount Vernon, the home and grave of Washington is about to pass into the hands of strangers and perhaps in a few years, the precious remains of the “Father of his Country” will be desecrated and no man will be able to point out his sepulcher!
I am sure, my dear Madam, that this appeal will not be made to you in vain. Will you read this circular? and when imbued with its spirit, will you carry it around to your neighbors? and rouse the same spirit and energy that inflamed our revolutionary mothers and made them accomplish such deeds of heroism!
We are not called upon to rival them in those glorious acts! All that we are asked to do is to contribute out mite to assist in purchasing the Home of Washington in order that his last resting place may be sacred!
You will see by the circular that a lady is shown from each county to act as “Presiding Lady” of that county. I have received this appointment for the county of Franklin and my business is to cause the subscription list to be carried into every part of the county so that every woman and infant girl may have her name down for at least one dollar.
As it would be impossible for one lady to visit in person all the different parts of her county, she chooses a lady to act for her where she cannot go. I have selected you for this work, and I beg you, for the remembrance of our beloved Washington, to carry this around your neighborhood and induce every woman and girl to give something towards this good cause. It is thought that all could give one dollar, perhaps, some would give more. If a mother had several daughters, she might subscribe a dollar for each one, writing down the names under her own, in order that all may have a share in the work. It is advisable to collect the subscription at the time of procuring the name as this mode would prevent confusion and trouble hereafter. In case of great inconvenience, however, this might be omitted, taking care of course that “Paid” be written after the name of every person who does pay.
Will you undertake this cause with you whole heart and work while there is yet time? The women of Franklin are surely as patriotic as those of other sections of the State. I feel that they will not be behind hand in so good a cause.
Will you do all that you can immediately, and send the subscription list with the amount collected by some trusty person to yours, very respectfully, — Arete E. Johnson
Received the following response to an inquiry made at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon:
“Thank you for sharing this document and transcription with us. This letter is particularly interesting because if the early date. The Ladies’ Association had been organized for less than a year when this was written and we don’t have much correspondence or other manuscripts from the earliest years in our archives. I’m attaching a Washington Circular which must be similar to the one Mrs. Johnson enclosed in her letter, but it cannot be the exact same because of the date (ours is dated November 1854 and the letter was written in August). We do not have an earlier form of the circular in our archives, but I now know that they printed other versions before this one. Thanks again for sharing the letter with me. If your friend decides to donate it, we would be thrilled to accept it. Best regards,– Rebecca Baird, Archivist”