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Digging into Washington’s past


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If George Washington actually did chop down a cherry tree and refuse to lie about it, the incident probably happened at Ferry Farm, his boyhood home along the Rappahannock River.

Many people who visit the site today arrive with this famous story in mind. They’ll find a few cherry-related items for sale in the visitor center and step into a vibrant garden with two cherry trees at the center.

David Muraca, the chief archeologist at Ferry Farm, eyed the fruit-laden branches on a June day and picked a bright red cherry to sample. “Oh, that’s good,” Muraca said. He smiled. “The archeologists eat out of this garden all the time.”

Out on the grounds, about 10 of those archeologists were scrabbling around two excavation areas — large plots of exposed brown soil in the middle of an otherwise green field. The popular tale of the cherry tree is just a side note to the bigger story that this team is compiling about the Washington family home, its landscape and their influence on the first U.S. president.

Today, Ferry Farm covers 80 acres preserved from a tract of approximately 600 acres purchased by Washington’s father, Augustine, in 1738.

The place, as well as the name, is far less grand than that of Mount Vernon, the well-known estate along the Potomac River where Washington spent the later years of his life. But Ferry Farm — and its location on the Rappahannock River — played an important role in Washington’s young life and helped shape his future opportunities.

“History tells us the outcome, but the landscape tells us how he did it,” Muraca said.

Washington lived at Ferry Farm from age 6 through nearly 20, in a two-story wooden house that overlooked the river and the port town of Fredericksburg, VA, on the opposite shore. Two ferries that crossed the river at the end of a road that passed just a few hundred yards from the house gave the farm its name.

Archeology intern Peggy Humes checks for artifacts in the soil. (Dave Harp)

Archeology intern Peggy Humes checks for artifacts in the soil. (Dave Harp)

The family moved here from a plantation on Pope’s Creek, farther south and along the Potomac River, because Augustine Washington was in business with a nearby iron furnace. But problems soon followed.

Within two years, Washington’s young sister died and the house caught fire. Then Augustine died in 1743 and Washington, who was 11 years old, inherited the farm. His mother, Mary, managed it. She did not remarry, and for years, the Washingtons were financially stressed and struggled for their place in society. At one point, Washington said he couldn’t visit his brother because his horse was malnourished and might not survive the trip.

Washington sold Ferry Farm in 1774. The house was reduced to ruins in the 1800s, although subsequent landowners, local residents and even Union troops who occupied the land during the Civil War all knew that it was Washington’s boyhood home.

“One farmer said he’d built his home directly over the foundation of George Washington’s house and he’d take people down to show them the basement,” Muraca said. Archeology has since proven that it wasn’t the right spot. “But he was close,” Muraca said.

Despite the known association with the United States’ most famous founder, the land was not protected until Wal-Mart planned to move in during the 1990s. Advocates rallied to save the site, and the George Washington Foundation, known at the time as the Kenmore Foundation, purchased the farm in 1996. Wal-Mart built its store about one mile away.

Muraca left his work at Colonial Williamsburg in 2001 to search for the remains of Washington’s house at Ferry Farm. He faced a confusing trail of disturbed soil, artifacts from a wide range of time periods, and remnants of houses and outbuildings left by six different farms. Virtually all of the clues were underground.

“It’s a tale of torture,” Muraca said. “It’s the most difficult site I’ve ever worked on.”

Excavations were under way for seven years — including two digs that proved to be the wrong locations — before finding success with a third site in 2008. Along the way, an increasing number of artifacts, including two stone-lined cellars, were dated to the time of the Washingtons’ presence. Muraca was cautiously optimistic as the work continued.

“Then one day I was standing there, looking at the excavation, and I realized that my doubts were gone. For a minute, I literally couldn’t breathe,” Muraca said.

The house had stood in the last place he expected to find it: a potentially unstable location, at the edge of a steep slope above the river. Muraca said that he believes it was chosen so that the house could be easily viewed by anyone looking across the river from Fredericksburg.

Archeology continues at the house site, as well as on the grounds and garden area to its rear. With the exception of the visitor center, which was built as a boys’ home in the 1960s, the land is mostly open field and wooded waterfront. A trail along the river crosses a small stream that the Washingtons relied on for water as well as the clearly visible path of the former ferry road.

Farther inland, one end of the tract has been restored to a native meadow where visitors have spotted around 140 species of birds. Small mammals visit and some big ones too, including an occasional bear passing through in the spring.

Inside the visitor center are exhibits that explain the site’s history and the process of locating Washington’s house. Artifacts include pieces that Washington may have handled, such as a pipe with masonic carvings and a riding spur once worn by a boy. (Washington was known for his horsemanship from a young age). Other pieces, like cowrie shells and a shiny, orange-red bead of carnelian were brought from Africa and worn by enslaved people.

But changes are in the works. “Right now, archeology and nature are the centerpieces, and next we’ll be adding the built landscape to it,” Muraca said.

Plans and permits are in the works to recreate Washington’s house over the footprint of the original structure. Although fund-raising continues, a ceremonial groundbreaking took place in April.

The replicated house will help people better envision the world of young Washington, his mother and siblings, and the enslaved people who labored there. But there is something to be said for making a visit while the site is less packaged, more personal, and remnants of the original house are still exposed.

Muraca’s team has been combining their finds with historical records and landscape information to create a richer understanding of Washington’s life along the Rappahannock River, a central player in his story.

“This part of the river is tidal, just below the rocks, where the river is changing. You could load up a ship in England and sail it all the way to Fredericksburg,” Muraca said.

That fact made Fredericksburg a hotbed of trade and social activity in colonial Virginia. “In the rural world of the 18th century, this was a bustling place,” Muraca said.

The “King’s Highway” — now Route 3 — ran along the inland side of the farm. The access road to the ferry cut through the Washingtons’ land, where people and wagons queued up for the journey west. Washington watched this steady stream of migration, and the American frontier became a lasting fascination.

Locally, the ferry connected Washington to culture in Fredericksburg. He crossed the river to hire a fencing instructor and take dance lessons. He also joined the fraternal organization of Freemasons. He may have attended school in Fredericksburg.

“Washington becomes a sophisticated guy, and that’s because he’s here,” Muraca said. By age 25, he married Martha Custis, one of the wealthiest widows in the colony of Virginia. Other accomplishments followed, of course, including his service as general of the revolutionary army and first president of the United States.

But during his early years, Mary Washington was managing both the farm and her family in ways that would save money and maintain their tenuous place in society.

Artifacts from Ferry Farm have revealed details of her effort. Archeologists have recovered many fragments of dishes and serving pieces — not porcelain, which would have been top quality of the day, but the next best option — creamware. Some pieces had been broken and mended with glue. The repairs were not a professional job, even though plenty of “tinkers” were available for hire. Instead, someone on the Washington farm mixed their own glue and handled repairs on the farm. While this repaired the breaks, the glue — derived from Suffolk cheese, similar to Romano cheese, mixed with the whites of duck eggs — was not water-tight, so the dishes weren’t fully functional. But they were saved anyway, probably for display.

Archeologists were especially surprised to find a large number of small, oblong pieces of clay. These turned out to be wig curlers — hundreds of them.

Wigs were fashionable, and most gentlemen would have owned two or three. Usually, wigs were sent out fairly often for cleaning and curling. But the large number of curlers found on site suggests not only that the Washingtons’ wigs were tended at home, but that a servant or enslaved person may have earned money for the farm by serving others.

These findings, combined with historic records of the Washingtons’ lives at Ferry Farm, show that both Washington and his mother worked to keep the family and their reputations afloat, taking advantage of the commercial and societal hub that had formed along the Fredericksburg waterfront.

If you visit Ferry Farm, don’t rush. Walk it slowly, without the throngs of tourists you’ll find at Mount Vernon. Chat with the archeologists.

When the receptionist offers you an iPad tour, take her up on it. It’s well done, easy to use, and adds depth to your visit without distracting from it. You’ll find many quiet places to listen to the birds, look across the river, and share the land that Washington walked when his future was not yet written.

Lara Lutz

Lara Lutz is a writer and editor who specializes in the environment, heritage, and outdoors of the Chesapeake region.

November 6, 2017

Main image: George Washington grew up at Ferry Farm, along the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, VA. In 2008, archeologists located the exact site of the house that he shared with his mother and siblings. (Image Courtesy: Dave Harp)
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