© Library of Virginia
Life and Times
Mary Randolph was the author of “The Virginia Housewife”, the first regional cookbook in America, published in 1824. It is still being reprinted in facsimile. She was also the first person to be buried at what is now called Arlington National Cemetery in America.
Her book reflects the cooking of the American south at the time, recording everything from beaten biscuits to okra to catfish, with the base still noticeably British. And, there are many European recipes as well, because it was intended for those in wealthy households like hers that knew far more cooking than just “down-home” cooking. Her book also puts paid to a number of theories about the period. For instance, she features tomatoes in no less than 17 of her recipes, showing that tomatoes were in fact in use in the early 1800s in America, despite the many food writers who believe otherwise.
Mary Randolph was one of the most well-connected women in America at the time. Her grandmother was a Randolph, she was a Randolph, and she married a Randolph. Her nickname was “Molly.” One of her brothers, Thomas Mann Randolph, would become the governor of Virginia and marry Thomas Jefferson’s daughter Martha J., who ran her father’s Monticello household from 1790 to 1826.
Her cousin George Washington Parke Custis was the father of General Robert E. Lee’s wife (Mary Randolph Curtis, of whom our Mary Randolph was also the godmother), and George Washington’s stepson.
As a child of privilege, even in her down and out times, she still had servants who did most of the toiling in the kitchen, and her level of “hard times” was still higher than that of most people’s “good times.”
Mary was born 9 August 1762 as the first child born to Thomas Mann (1741 — 19 November 1793) and Ann Cary Randolph, who lived in Tuckahoe, Goochland County. Thomas and Ann would have 13 children in total. Her tombstone says she was born in Ampthill, which was a plantation owned by her mother’s parents Archibald Cary and his wife Mary (née Randolph, 1727 — 1781) in Ampthill, Chesterfield County, Virginia. In 1929, the plantation house was moved to Richmond; the site is now (2007) the location of the Dupont Company.
She was tutored by Thomas Jefferson’s father, Peter. Her family was related to the Jeffersons as distant cousins, and her father had been raised by Peter and his wife.
Chronology of her life
- 1780 — In December, at the age of 18, she married David Meade Randolph (1760 — 1830), thus reacquiring her mother’s maiden name as her last name. He was her first cousin once removed. The couple lived first at Presqu’Ile near Bermuda Hundred, Chesterfield County. It was part of David’s family’s holdings. They had 4 sons while there. They would have 8 children all together, 4 of which survived: Richard, William Beverly, David Meade and Burwell Starke. But David and Mary didn’t like it there: it was along the James River, and swampy.
- 1795 — David was appointed by George Washington to the position of US Marshal of Virginia (a federal court appointment)
- 1798 — Mary and David moved their family to Richmond, Virginia and built a large brick house they named Moldavia, at the corner of Fifth and Main Streets. Moldavia was an amalgamation of their two names, “Molly” and “David.” Mary flourished in the city, and entertained a great deal; David continued his work for the government.
- 1801 — (Some sources say 1800, others say 1802) Despite Mary’s relationship with the Jeffersons, David lost his government position when Thomas Jefferson was elected as the two men didn’t agree politically, and David was criticizing the new president openly. At the same time, there was a business recession, and tobacco prices fell, lessening the income from their lands outside the city.
- 1802 — Mary and David were forced to put Moldavia up for sale. Their money started to dwindle, and they were not used to living frugally
- 1805 — By this time, Moldavia had been sold and they had moved into a rented house
- 1807 — Mary and David were living in Cary Street, where she opened a boarding house to bring in money — but she still had servants. During the twelve years that she ran the boarding house, she acquired a reputation as a gracious hostess. David found a job in the same year, travelling to England and Wales to study mining there with a view to improving the Black Heth Coal Mines near Midlothian, Virginia.
- 1819 — Mary moved to Washington DC to live with one of their sons, William Beverley Randolph.
- 1824 — Mary published her book, “The Virginia Housewife.”
- 1825 — She published a second edition of it.
- 1828 — Mary died 23rd January in Washington DC unable to complete the third edition she was planning. At the time, she was nursing her youngest son, Burwell, who had fallen while in the Navy and had become crippled from the fall. She was buried at Arlington, the home of her cousin’s husband George Washington Parke Custis (later the property of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his wife.) The Curtis’s mansion is still there; Mary is buried 100 feet (30 metres) north of it. The grounds would later become known as Arlington National Cemetery. Today, the area she is buried in is known as Section 45. She was the first person to be buried at Arlington — not Private William Christman, 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, as some sources say: he was buried there in 1864.
Her grave stone reads:
“In the memory of Mrs. Mary Randolph,
Her intrinsic worth needs no eulogium.
The deceased was born the 9th of August, 1762 at Amphill near Richmond, Virginia
And died the 23rd of January 1828
In Washington City a victim to maternal love and duty.
As a tribute of filial gratitude this monument is dedicated to her exhaulted virtue by her youngest son”
- 1824. The Virginia Housewife; or, Methodical Cook. Washington: Davis and Force. (copyrighted by her son William Beverley in 1828)