Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Mary Digges Lee (1745-1805)
MSA SC 3520-2229
First Lady of Maryland, 1779-1782 and 1792-1794

Mary Digges Lee was born in 1745 at "Mellwood Park" in Prince George's County, Maryland. 1 Her parents were Ignatius and Elizabeth Parnham Craycroft Digges. Ignatius, the son of William and Eleanor Digges, was a prominent landowner in Upper Marlboro. 2 His first wife, Elizabeth, died at a young age; subsequently, Ignatius married Mary Carroll who became a step-mother to young Mary Digges. 3

The Digges were descended from Sir Dudley Digges of Chilham Castle in Kent who was the British ambassador to Russia during the reign of James the First. 4 Edward Digges, Sir Dudley Digges' son and Mary Digges Lee's great, great grandfather, emigrated to York County, Virginia in 1650 and became the provincial Governor in 1665. 5 William and Eleanor Digges, Mary's grandparents, relocated the family seat to Maryland in the early eighteenth century when they acquired a 1,050 acre tract of land in present day Prince George's County known as "Mellwood Park." 6

The Digges family estate at "Mellwood Park" was renowned for its beauty and hospitality, and most notably, for having hosted George Washington on several occasions. The distinguished future President relied upon "Mellwood Park" and his friend Ignatius Digges to provide a place of respite on his frequent journeys around the colonies. 7 Yet, while conducting his visits with the family, little did Mr. Washington know that young Mary Digges would grow up to play an essential role in America's impending war for independence.

Being from two of the most prominent families in the area, it is hardly surprising that Mary Digges and Thomas Sim Lee were drawn together. Thomas Sim Lee, son of Thomas and Christianna Sim Lee, was born on October 29, 1745 and raised at "Blenheim," his grandfather Philip Lee's estate in Prince George's County. 8 Thomas was descended from Colonel Richard Lee of Shropshire, England, who came to Virginia in 1641. In 1700, Col. Lee's grandson, Philip Lee, relocated the family to present day Prince George's County. 9

Although the details of their courtship are unknown, by 1771 the couple had decided to marry. However, Mary's father Ignatius was vehemently opposed to the union because of the families' religious differences. The Digges were devout Roman Catholics, while the Lee family practiced Protestantism. 10 Unwilling to allow this obstacle to put a stop to their wedding plans, Thomas wrote emotional letters of intention to Mr. Digges in order to win his approval for the match.

In these moving letters, Lee promised that any children produced by the union would be educated by Mary and raised in accordance with the tenets of Catholicism. Thomas also swore that, if Mary Digges should die an untimely death, Ignatius Digges would be authorized to direct the upbringing of the children in her place.11 As a final gesture of his devotion and sincerity, Lee converted to Catholicism himself. 12

After successfully overcoming her father's objections, Mary and Thomas were married at "Mellwood Park" on October 27, 1771. 13 Their union produced six sons and two daughters including: Ignatius Digges, Archibald (who died at the age of three), Thomas, Archibald, William, John, Mary, and Eliza. 14 The Lee family resided at "Needwood," Thomas Sim Lee's estate in present day Frederick County. 15

Although the couple was kept quite busy with patriotic activities during the Revolutionary War and throughout the formative years of Maryland's statehood, Mary and Thomas Sim Lee did not neglect their religious and community ties. In accordance with their beliefs, they founded St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Petersville, in Frederick County. 16 Recently, the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a plaque in honor of the Lees and their contributions to Maryland on the church's wall as a lasting memorial to these two great Americans. 17

From the beginning of the colonial dissention, the Lees supported the American cause in the struggle for independence. Thomas served as the colonel of the local militia, and he represented Prince George's County in the 1775 Provincial Convention held in Annapolis. Lee also served on the Governor's Council from 1777 to 1779 and, in 1779, Thomas Sim Lee was selected to become the second Governor of Maryland, succeeding Thomas Johnson. Lee held the position of state executive until 1782 and then was selected to serve again in 1792. He completed his second tenure as Governor in 1794. 18

For the Lees, serving as the first family during the Revolutionary War proved extremely difficult. The war was costly in Maryland men, material, and morale. One of the most challenging aspects Governor Lee faced in the administration of the war was keeping the American army supplied. Indeed, the officers of the Maryland Line continually reported on the deplorable conditions suffered by the Continental troops. 19 For example, in 1777, Colonel Stone expressed his fear that soldiers under his command who lacked basic essentials such as blankets, shoes, and tents would desert. 20 In 1780, it was reported that units serving in the Carolinas were starving and practically naked for want of supplies. 21

In the wake of these devastating shortages, General George Washington personally appealed to Governor Thomas Sim Lee on December 16, 1779 for assistance from Maryland. In his letter, Washington resolved that "the situation of the Army with respect to supplies is beyond description alarming" and that "unless some extraordinary and immediate exertions are made by the States from which we draw or supplies, there is every appearance that the army will infallibly disband in a fortnight." 22

Under extreme pressure to provide as many war materials as possible, Thomas Lee turned to his wife for support. Mary Digges Lee enthusiastically stepped into the public arena, a place usually forbidden to women of the period. During the eighteenth century, women were expected to be supportive wives, dutiful homemakers, gracious hostesses, and caring mothers, and were largely barred from the political sphere and the public realm. 23 However, Mrs. Lee was prepared to accept any criticism for stepping outside of her circumscribed gender role, for she was determined to aid the patriotic cause and to alleviate the suffering of American soldiers.

In 1780, Mary Lee emerged as a leader as she rallied the support of Maryland's women to provide supplies for the army. She personally collected money and materials for the troops and encouraged other women to lend their talents to the war effort. In August when a desperate plea was made for linen to be used in shirts by Maryland's Regiment Extraordinary, Mrs. Lee drew upon the combined resources of the Maryland women and ordered that 260 shirts be delivered to the troops immediately. 24

On September 27, 1780, Mrs. Lee wrote to General Washington to request his input on how the money and materials that she collected could best be utilized. In her letter, she proudly proclaimed that the ladies of Maryland had been able to raise a "considerable sum for the relief of the American army." 25 Mindful of the craftspeople and of the economy in her home state, she suggested that the money be used to procure any supplies that could be made in Maryland. Finally, Mrs. Lee graciously offered her further assistance to George Washington in the actual purchasing of the supplies for the army. 26

On October 11, 1780, General George Washington sent a warm letter of gratitude to Mrs. Lee for the "patriotic exertions of the ladies of Maryland in favor of the army." 27 He praised Mrs. Lee for her assistance and recognized the generosity of Maryland's women. Also in his letter, the general directed that the money be dedicated to the purchase of shirts and black stocks for the troops in the Southern army where the need was the most grave. 28

Thus, as General Washington recognized, Mrs. Lee played an influential role in the war for American independence. While her aid to the war effort was inestimably important, her actions hold a deeper significance for American women. In addition to being a wife, a mother, a homemaker, and a hostess, Mary Lee emerged as a leader, a role model, and a patriotic citizen. She challenged contemporary popular notions of women's capabilities, and she dared to venture outside of the limited sphere allowed to women of the period. Through her actions on behalf of the state of Maryland, Mary Digges Lee became a true American hero who earned her title of First Lady of Maryland, as well as her place in history.

Mary Lee died on January 25, 1805 at the age of 60 and was buried at Mt. Carmel Roman Catholic Cemetery in Upper Marlboro. 29 Her husband remained a widower for the rest of his life which he spent at "Needwood." He died on November 9, 1819 and was buried beside his wife at Mt. Carmel. 30

In conjunction with the First Ladies and Official Hostesses Biographical Project, in October 1995 the Maryland State Archives nominated Mary Digges Lee, wife of Governor Thomas Sim Lee, for induction into the Maryland Women's Hall of Fame. Established in 1985 by the Maryland Commission for Women and the Women Legislators of Maryland, the Hall of Fame honors Maryland women who have made significant and unique contributions to the economic, political, cultural, and social life of the state. Among those honored are educators, legislators, writers, political and social activists, scientists, and spiritual and community leaders. Past honorees include women who have provided models of achievement for future female leaders such as Clara Barton, Barbara Mikulski, Harriet Tubman, and Rachel Carson. The inductees represent women who have shaped Maryland, the United States, and the world.

The process of selecting individuals for the induction into the Hall of Fame begins with a statewide call for nominations. Once submitted, the nominations are considered by an independent selection committee comprised of representatives from the Maryland Commission for Women, the Women Legislators of Maryland, and the community of noted historians and educators. The committee annually selects up to five women from the historical and contemporary categories for membership in the Hall of Fame. On March 12, 1996, the Commission announced this year's inductees and the Governor honored these individuals in a special ceremony in celebration of Women's History Month. In addition to First Lady Mary Digges Lee, the 1996 inductees were Brigid Gray Leventhal, M.D., Barbara Robinson, Ethel Llewellyn Ennis, and Madeleine L. Ellicott.

The preceding essay was taken from the Master's thesis of Maryland State Archives' Archival Research Intern, Emily A. Oland. This thesis, entitled Running Mates: A Biographical Study of First Ladies and Official Hostesses of Maryland, 1777-1995, is copyright protected by Emily A. Oland and was submitted to the University of Maryland Graduate School, Baltimore in August 1996 in partial fulfillment of the requirements for an M.A. degree.

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