Welcome to “Uncommon Knowledge”

With all of the research we amass while creating our audio tours, there are always bits and pieces of information that we can’t fit into the tour, much to our dismay! Not wanting to waste perfectly good stories, we’ve created this blog and titled it “Uncommon Knowledge” because — well — that’s what it is.

Just a note on content: We do our best to fact-check, but if you find something that doesn’t look quite right, if you have questions, or if you have something to add, please feel free to send us an email at BrightPathTours@gmail.com.


Martha Washington’s Grandchildren — Part III

With this post, we complete our discussion of Martha Washington and her grandchildren as we take a look at the lives of the two youngest, Eleanor Parke and George Washington Parke Custis.

Nelly Custis
Eleanor Parke Custis

In 1783, just a couple of years after Jack Custis died, his widow, Eleanor Calvert Custis married Dr David Stuart. At that time it was agreed that Eleanor’s two older children would live with their mother and step-father while the two youngest children, Eleanor and Wash would live at Mount Vernon, much to the delight of the Washingtons. Eleanor, like her mother, was also called “Nelly.” She was just four or five years old when she arrived at Mount Vernon and it was this place that she dearly loved as her home. She would be educated here under the watchful eyes of both grandparents.

However, in 1789, Nelly’s life, along with everyone else’s at Mount Vernon, would take a dramatic turn as her beloved grandfather became the first President of the United States. With the inauguration at hand, the Mount Vernon household packed up and moved to New York City. By then, Nelly was ten years old, certainly old enough to enjoy the many interesting outings and social occasions offered by the great city.
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Martha Washington’s Grandchildren, Part II

With this post, we take a look at Martha Washington’s second  grand-daughter, Martha Parke Custis. Martha was the second oldest daughter of Martha (Washington’s) son, John Parke “Jacky” Custis,

Patty Custis
Martha Custis Peter

Compared to her older sister, Eliza, Martha Parke Custis was far more conventional. Patty, as she was known, (the common nickname for Martha at that time was Patty or Patsy) was born on New Years Eve, 1777, at Mount Vernon — the only grandchild born there. And although she and Eliza lived with their mother and step-father, their lives were heavily influenced by Martha and George Washington due to their frequent and lengthy visits they made to Mount Vernon.

By many family accounts, Patty was known as a sweet-natured girl who was both quiet and clever and, like many young girls at the time, was given music lessons – something Martha Washington insisted on and ruled over! To this day, at Patty’s home, you can still see one of her music books that she used at Mount Vernon.
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Martha Washington’s Grandchildren, Part I

Daniel Custis
Daniel Parke Custis

In our research for our tour of Colonial Williamsburg, we found many more references to Martha Dandridge than we expected. The Dandridge family lived near Williamsburg and young Martha would marry Daniel Parke Custis, the son of a Williamsburg resident. Their marriage would produce four children, only two of whom lived to adulthood – and even then, they barely made it to adulthood! Daniel himself died in 1757. Two years later, Martha marries George Washington and Martha and her children move to Mount Vernon.

Martha Custis
Martha Parke Custis

The younger of the two surviving children, Martha Parke Custis, also known as Patsy, lived to age twenty-four, but starting around age twelve, she suffered from what is believed to be epilepsy, the condition becoming progressively worse during her teenage years. On June 19th in 1773, after a pleasant dinner at home, Patsy suffered another violent seizure and died that evening with George and Martha at her side.
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LaFayette Square: The Washington Club – Gone but not Forgotten, Part II

One more time, we return to LaFayette Square and finish up the story of the home of Commodore John Rodgers.

Commodore Rodgers Home

Going back to the 1830s, shortly after Commodore Rodgers built the house, he rented it out for a few years. Why, you might ask, would he build this grand home and NOT live there? The answer is simple: the family home up to that time was at Greenleaf Point, about 3 miles from LaFayette Square, and Rodgers, who loved the home at Greenleaf Point, desired to remain there for a time.
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LaFayette Square: The Washington Club – Gone but not Forgotten, Part I

Our tour of LaFayette Square covers the least square footage of any of our tours, but it is rich in historic drama! With this blog we go back to the death of Philip Barton Key, son of Francis Scott Key. When Congressman Dan Sickles shot Key, bystanders carried Key into the nearby Washington Club, a large building that faced the Square, and it’s there that Barton Key died. The history of that property and its lineage is the subject of this blog.

Cosmos Site
Madison Place today, site of the Washington Club & Rodgers Home

The Washington Club is long-gone, and most of the block has been taken over by the United States Court of Claims – but on the ribbon of land that faces LaFayette Park, along Madison Place, there remains a small number of buildings that have occupied the site since James and Dolley Madison lived there. And on one particular plot, the property occupied by the Washington Club and now occupied by the Court, was one of the most historic and storied properties on LaFayette Square.

But before we get to that, let’s go back and take a look at how this area became LaFayette Square.

The District of Columbia, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, was, to say the least, barren, wild, and undeveloped. In the late 1700s, the land that is north of the White House today was owned by the Pearce family — and the land that became the Square was their orchard. Well, part of it was the orchard. Another section became the family burial ground. These sections became part of the White House grounds in 1791 and the bodies in the graveyard were exhumed and moved to a plot in Northwest DC, known as Holmead’s Burial Ground.

Residential development of this area began just before 1820 and by the 1830s we see additional residences surrounding a public park; the park that would become known as LaFayette Square, named for the Marquis de LaFayette.
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The Lincolns of Washington, DC — Part IV

Our final discussion of the Lincolns of Washington, DC takes us to the United States Capitol. It is fitting that we do this because after all, it was here that Lincoln first arrived from Illinois to take a seat in Congress in 1847, and it was here in 1861 and again in 1865 that Lincoln took the oath of office as our 16th President. Finally, it was here that the body of Lincoln would lie in state after his assassination in April, 1865, before he made the final trip back home to Illinois.
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The Lincolns of Washington, DC – Part I

The next four blog posts come from BrightPath Tours, “The Grand Monuments of Washington DC,” tour as well as a talk prepared for the Gettysburg Foundation a few years ago.

Starting with the Civil War-era, we find quite a variety of memorials to Abraham Lincoln. Besides the Lincoln Memorial itself, there are at least seven smaller memorials to Lincoln in Washington, DC. There is Lincoln at Judiciary Square, Emancipation, the Rail Splitter, the two statues at the National Cathedral, and a statue and bust at the Capitol. In this post, we’re discussing two of the four “outdoor” memorials to Lincoln, the Lincoln Memorial and Lincoln at Judiciary Square.
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LaFayette Square – Back to Barton Key

Our tour of LaFayette Square offered a wealth of side stories. With this blog, we’re going back to two earlier characters: Philip Barton Key and Dan Sickles.

Barton Key
Philip Barton Key
(Harper’s Weekly,
Matthew Brady photo)

Following in his father’s footsteps, Barton Key would be appointed a US District Attorney in Washington, DC. Key won this appointment with the help of his Congressman-friend, Daniel E Sickles. Key served in that post up ‘til that fateful day in February, 1859. But you know, Philip Barton wasn’t the only son of Francis Scott Key to be killed. Key had another son – actually he had eleven children, six of whom were sons. Daniel Murray Key, Philip’s older brother, was a midshipman, having joined the Navy when he was but seventeen years old.

For some reason, Daniel took a distinct disliking to a fellow midshipman, John F Sherburne. From the scant accounts that exist, it appears that Key was the aggressor, picking on Sherburne for one perceived fault after another. One account says that the two argued over the draft of a boat on the Potomac River. That’s about the level of their animosity. But whether it was that argument or some other nit-picking complaint, Key would end up challenging Sherburne to a duel. At first, Sherburne scoffed at the notion but Key pressed the issue and the two eventually met at the secluded dueling ground just over the border from DC – the Bladensburg Dueling Ground. Key would be mortally wounded – and his parents wouldn’t even know about this until his body was brought to the family doorstep on Capitol Hill. Daniel Key, dead at age 20.

Daniel E Sickles (Library of Congress)
Daniel E Sickles
(Library of Congress)
Thad Stevens
Thaddeus Stevens
(US House of Representatives)

And finally, I’d like to make one more point regarding Dan Sickles’ “insanity defense.” Congressman Daniel Sickles might have been the first to successfully use that defense but he wasn’t the first to attempt it. Early records tell us that this defense had been used by one of Sickles’ fellow Congressmen: colorful, erudite, sabre-tongued Thaddeus Stevens. In the early 1800s, Stevens defended a man convicted of murder, trying to convince a jury that the man was insane. But he lost the case — and the man was hanged. Stevens would go on to use the defense in subsequent cases, successfully, but, his first attempt was unsuccessful and both the case — and the man — have  been pretty much lost to history. And just where did all of this take place? Gettysburg, PA. The very place where Dan Sickles would end up in July of 1863, during the epic three-day battle.

We’re still not done with LaFayette Park, but for now, we’re setting aside that area to focus on Abraham Lincoln. In our next dispatch, we’ll talk about some of the “outdoor” Lincolns, starting with the earliest Lincoln Memorial in America.

Until next time.


  • “Our Neighbors on LaFayette Square,” Benjamin Ogle Tayloe
  • “The President’s Square,” Frances F Donaldson
  • “Francis Scott Key,” Francis Scott Key Smith
  • www.biography.com
  • www.ourdocuments.gov
  • pabook.libraries.psu.edu
  • news.stanford.edu
  • baltimoreauthors.ubalt.edu/writers/fscottkey.htm