Tracing young Washington

Diggers believe they've finally found his boyhood home

July 03, 2008|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun reporter

After a century of speculation, seven years of digging in the Virginia dirt, and two false starts, archaeologists believe they have finally found traces of George Washington's boyhood home, called Ferry Farm, on the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg.

Thousands of mid-18th-century artifacts, including a broken tea set, along with the home's complex design, are providing historians with hard evidence that is enabling them to reconstruct, for the first time, the physical and economic circumstances of the first president's formative years.

The clues suggest that Washington did not grow up in the rustic cabin often portrayed in 19th-century drawings, but rather in a relatively comfortable, eight-room, one-and-a-half story clapboard house.

"Most were living in one- or two-room houses in this period," said Mark Wenger, a consulting architectural historian on the project. "I wouldn't say this was three times as large, but it is quite a bit larger than normal houses we see on this landscape" in the mid-1700s.

The 53-foot-by-37-foot home faced the Rappahannock. It had two front rooms flanking a central hall, each with a fireplace for heat. There were several back rooms and several more upstairs under a sloping rear roof.

The diggers found nothing to support the fanciful tale of how young George chopped down his father's cherry tree with his hatchet and confessed rather than tell a lie. Such stories about Washington's boyhood emerged in the popular literature after the president's death in 1799.

Paul Nasca, the staff archaeologist at Ferry Farm, said his crews uncovered several hoe blades, but no hatchets.

Washington's pipe?

Among the most intriguing items recovered was a pipe bowl decorated with Masonic symbols. Washington is known to have joined a Masonic lodge in Fredericksburg in 1753 while living at Ferry Farm. He was 21.

"One can't say this is George Washington's pipe, but we can certainly wonder about that," said David Muraca, director of archaeology at the George Washington Foundation, which operates the Ferry Farm site and museum.

The dig was sponsored by the Commonwealth of Virginia, the Dominion Foundation, the National Geographic Society, the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation and many individual donors. In addition to the main house, the work also uncovered the home's kitchen and slave quarters. Future workers will seek other outbuildings, gardens and orchards.

There are plans to reconstruct the home and several outbuildings as they looked in the 1740s. They will be integrated with educational programs on the site, called George Washington's Boyhood Home at Ferry Farm - a 113-acre National Historic Site and museum operated by the George Washington Foundation. None of the farm's original buildings survive.

Historians believe the Washingtons - Augustine, his wife, Mary, son George and five other children - moved to Ferry Farm in 1738, when George was 6 years old. Augustine Washington wanted to be nearer the Accokeek Creek Iron Furnace, which he managed.

During his 15 years there, George witnessed the death of his baby sister, Mildred, in 1740. Historians once believed that a fire that year destroyed the original home and forced the Washingtons to rebuild. Burned plaster and lathe, and other evidence from the dig, however, suggest that the fire damaged only part of the house, which was repaired and expanded.

The future general and president is known to have swum in the Rappahannock, and often took the ferry across to Fredericksburg. He learned the surveyor's trade and applied for his first military commission while living at the home.

George Washington's father died at Ferry Farm in 1743. His mother did not remarry, and the family fell on hard times. George, who inherited the 600-acre farm, once complained in a letter of having too little hay to sustain his horse for a ride to visit his brother.

But Muraca said colorful fragments of a fine Wedgewood tea set suggest that good times had returned a decade before Mary Washington moved to Fredericksburg in 1772.

"She does have adult children. They could be helping her out," Muraca said.

Washington grew tobacco, wheat and corn at Ferry Farm. In 1753, he moved to another family property, called Little Hunting Creek, which he later renamed Mount Vernon.

When his mother finally moved, the old place was leased and later sold to tenants. By the 1830s, the house was in ruins. It was finally destroyed during the Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg and its exact location was forgotten.

The long search

Several previous attempts to find the site failed. This one began with crews digging a large number of small test pits, Muraca said. When they turned up household artifacts from the right period, including broken tableware and pipes, the diggers noted their locations. Eventually, they focused on three "areas of interest" and started digging more seriously.

After two years of excavations, the first potential house site turned out to be too early, Muraca said.

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