Stones mark the corners of George Washington's boyhood home, discovered by George Washington Foundation archaeologists in 2008. The Rappahannock River flows in the distance.
Down an old dirt road and across a muddy field, archaeologist Dave Muraca motions toward a hillside overlooking the Rappahannock River.
“They arrive here when George is 6, and they stay here. George stays here till he’s about 24, but his family stays here for like 30 years,” says Muraca. “We have a big chunk of the Washington story here at Ferry Farm.”
When many people think of Washington’s home, they think of Mt. Vernon in Alexandria. But that’s only where he lived lived later in life. Our nation’s first president spent most of his childhood at Ferry Farm in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
The house itself has long since been destroyed, but after years of excavation, archaeologists have found its exact location, along with hundreds of thousands of artifacts. Muraca has been director of archeology at Ferry Farm since 2001. It's under his leadership that a team of archaeologists found the Washington home in 2008.
“What we argue is that the place that is Ferry Farm shapes — or helps shape — the man that George becomes,” he says.
A bird’s eye view of the remains of the Washington house , with an overlay showing the names of the rooms. George Washington Foundation archaeologists discovered the house site in 2008. (George Washington Foundation)
A life shaped by a location
After his father died, says Muraca, young Washington lost his mentor, his guide into gentleman status. “He needs to learn about a thousand things, and he has no one to introduce him to it," he says. So Washington goes across the river into town, and learns to fence and to shoot pool. He goes to the theater; he even gets dancing lessons.
“This town, this landscape, allows him to overcome a lot of the hardships that life had dealt him with,” Muraca says. “It helps him become a very sophisticated guy.”
Ferry Farm’s location on the river also gave the young Washington a sense of the adventure the world had to offer.
“Every day, George Washington sees people that are embarking on the adventure of their lives,” Muraca says. “They’re going to cross that ferry and get on a boat, and go someplace exotic like England or the Caribbean. Or even better, they're going to come down here, wait for their ferry, cross, and go to the frontier, into the woods.”
But before he could go off on adventures, Washington had years of growing up to do. And he did so on this hillside overlooking the river.
“Those stones mark the corners of where the house was,” Muraca says. “Step over here, you’re outside. Which room are you in? You’re probably in the passage. You can see this house from every house in Fredericksburg. It’s a show house, and in order to make it a show house, they stuck it right on the edge of the hill.”
Clues from the past
Inside the visitor center, archaeologist Laura Galke holds up a picture of one of the items they found digging here. “That’s a wig hair curler!” she exclaims.
Galke gets pretty excited about her team’s latest big discovery, made with help from Virginia Commonwealth University: The residue on that hair curler shows evidence of 18th century hair powder.
“What’s newsworthy about the Washingtons’ hair powder was that it was cheap hair powder,” she says. “So we’re even finding ways the family economized in the use of their hair powder. They were adulterating it with oyster shell.”
It may sound like a small detail, but Galke says this is an important find. It shows how the Washingtons lived in a period about which very little is written.
“We're making strides into understanding the nature of George's life, the nature of colonial Virginia during the mid-1700s, and new techniques for analyzing this material that no one has considered before,” Galke says. The findings will soon be published in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports.
The cherry tree
Something that's unlikely to make its way into a journal is the location of a certain mythical tree about which young George couldn’t tell a lie.
“It’s hard to find one tree in a landscape this big,” Muraca says. “The cherry tree story's importance is not whether it happened or not, but that people were exposed to it and people knew it. Every 19th century soldier knows that story. This is a civil war battlefield, and when soldiers get here, they start looking around for cherry trees. And they find the pits and they send them home. And so it doesn't really matter if that story is true or not. The fact that people know that story, and sort of understand this landscape in that lens is what's important.”
Even if that cherry tree is never identified, there’s plenty to explore here. Archaeologists have already found hundreds of thousands of fragments – and now they plan to put those puzzle pieces together. Eventually, the George Washington Foundation hopes to recreate the house on the site where it once stood.
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