Even before Lettice Lee's remains were discovered 17 years ago on the grounds of Darnall's Chance, an 18th-century house in Upper Marlboro, the woman's legacy had managed to survive several generations.
More than 228 years after her death, some of Lettice Lee's descendants are keeping her name alive, literally, and recent research has further illuminated her life. Historians refer to her by her maiden name, Lettice Lee, because she was married three times.
Last month, Darnall's Chance was the site of a reinterment ceremony that paid homage to a woman local historians and archaeologists have been studying since 1987, when an archaeological survey uncovered a family burial vault in the stately Georgian mansion's back yard.
The reinterment ceremony was followed by a viewing of the house museum's newest exhibit, "This Fair Lady: The Life of Lettice Lee," which runs through Sept. 26. The exhibit uses Lettice Lee's history to portray the secondary role women played in 18th-century Prince George's County. It also explains the process used to excavate and restore the vault. Seventy of Lettice Lee's descendants and others came from different parts of the country to participate in the reenactment of her funeral.
Upon arriving at the ceremony, guests were greeted by a historical interpreter playing Lettice Lee's housekeeper, who pointed to the coffin where the "lady lay" in the foyer and handed out black armbands, an 18th-century mourning ritual. Also in the spirit of the era, black cloth was draped over the front door and windows of the house. And reenactors acting as pallbearers wore traditional woolen garb despite the summer heat.
Officiated by Rev. Letitia Lee Smith, a great-great-great-great granddaughter of Lettice Lee who lives in Greensboro, N.C., the program took place under an outdoor tent in the mansion's back yard near the burial vault. Smith led the gathering through a relatively upbeat service with prayers and a homily, and also explained some of the more modern details of the reenactment. An authentic service would have been more solemn and grim, she said. Another "contemporary Colonial" touch was the bagpiper who played while pallbearers carried the coffin from the house and then later into the burial vault. Music was not a usual accompaniment to an 18th-century funeral.
To end the ceremony, the skeletal remains of Lettice Lee, as well as the eight other skeletons unearthed as part of the burial vault excavation, were placed into the restored vault.
Afterward, many people connected to Lee's genealogy pieced together family history and met one another for the first time.
"It was a wonderful surprise to find out I had such a long and rich history," said Lettice Lee "Ticie" Rhodes, who comes from a line of Lettice Lee's that stretches five generations back to the Lettice Lee.
Rhodes, 44, traveled from Knoxville, Tenn., with her husband and son to find out more about her family history.
"We're really interested in stories of the people, and I think that family is important. People's stories are much more interesting than names and dates in history books," she said.
The story of Lettice Lee (1726-1766) and the excavation of the burial vault spans three separate rooms on the first floor of Darnall's Chance. The exhibit shows other household items, such as ceramic and glass artifacts, and discusses the process of returning the vault to its original color and texture.
It also describes Lettice Lee's struggles and how members of her family emerged as major military and political figures of the American Revolution. She resided at Darnall's Chance during the second half of her life.
"Our grandmother traced us back to the American Revolution, and this kind of fills in the rest," said Debbie Enders, 54, a great-great-great-great-great granddaughter of Lettice Lee, as she scrutinized the exhibit with her sister, Ann Price. Both women came from Indianapolis with their teenage sons to honor their ancestor's memory.
"We can pick out people [in the exhibit] that our grandmother told us about. It's much more fun to go to a museum when you have ties to the history," said Price, 46.
"To me the 18th century seems so far removed, but it wasn't that long ago. We're a very young country. When you make a little connection, it all starts making sense," she said.
"This Fair Lady: The Life of Lettice Lee" is open through Sept. 26 at Darnall's Chance House Museum, 14800 Governor Oden Bowie Dr., Upper Marlboro. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for seniors and $1 for ages 5-18. 301-952-8010.