The foundations of George Washington’s childhood house have been found at Ferry Farm in Virginia, the setting of the legendary cherry tree story.
Wig curlers, a carnelian bead and a half million other artifacts were also part of the discovery, which will help scholars fill in large gaps in the story of the first U.S. president’s early life. (See pictures from the site.)
“When you look at the normal biographies of Washington, they start when he’s 23,” said David Muraca, who oversaw the excavation as director of archaeology at the George Washington Foundation, which owns Ferry Farm.
“This piece of the story is very difficult for historians to get their hands around,” he said. “This dig will let us start our stories much earlier.”
Washington was always known to have grown up at Ferry Farm. But scholars did not know where exactly his house was located on the property, which he sold in 1774, after he had already moved to Mount Vernon, Virginia, some 40 miles (65 kilometers) away.
Many of the stones used in the Ferry Farm house were later reused to construct other buildings and houses on the property, which starts at the banks of the Rappahannock River in Stafford County.
Still, after a seven-year search, the team was able to identify the floor plan of the house the Washington family inhabited, beginning in 1738, when George was six years old.
The archaeological data—cornerstones, hearths, and several cellars—matched information from a tax inspection after Washington’s father died in 1743, said Philip Levy, a University of South Florida historian and archaeologist who also oversaw the excavation.
(Levy has been funded by the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration, which has supported the Ferry Farm excavation project along with the Dominion Foundation and others. The Society owns National Geographic News.)
The house—”a fairly common English building with some regional variations”—was one and a half stories, the “half” being a furnished attic with dormer windows, Levy said, describing the Washingtons as “county-level gentry.”
“This was a very, very nice house,” said Mark Wenger, an architectural historian at Ferry Farm, “a very elaborate house for this time and place.”
The Washingtons kept about ten slaves in the main farmhouse and outbuildings, while another twenty lived at a still-undiscovered nearby site, the historians said.
Trove of Artifacts
The cellars beneath the house held a trove of artifacts, including wig curlers, a Masonic pipe, pottery sherds, fish bones, more than a thousand straight pins, and a mysterious carnelian gem originally from India.
The site also included prehistoric matter that far predated George Washington’s house, as well as items from the years since, said Muraca.
The researchers found a pipe, decorated with a carved compass in a square on the inner side of the bowl and columns and other Masonic symbols on the outside.
Records show that Washington first became a Freemason in Fredericksburg, across the Rappahannock River from Ferry Farm. He could have smoked the pipe on the site while studying to advance through the fraternity’s hierarchy between 1752 and 1753.
“That pipe was certainly in use during that time,” said Muraca, who would not comment further on the possible link to Washington.
John Ferling, a Washington biographer and professor emeritus at the University of West Georgia in Atlanta, noted that Washington was not otherwise known to have smoked tobacco.
Ferling, who is not affiliated with the Ferry Farm excavations and has not seen the artifacts, was intrigued by the inch-long (2.5-centemeter-long), rusty red colored carnelian bead.
Muraca said the semiprecious stone originated in India and was cut into a form popular then in West Africa, where such beads were sold.
It was the centerpiece of a bead necklace, he said, and similar beads were found in slave graves in Barbados.
“This is the first one I know of in the mainland of the U.S.A.,” Muraca said.
The Barbados and Virginia beads could be linked, because Washington, in his late teens, had gone to Barbados with his brother, who had tuberculosis and had been advised by a doctor to convalesce there, the historians said.
The Ferry Farm bead may also have been owned by enslaved Africans then living on the site.
“You never know what the discovery of an artifact might lead to,” Ferling said. “If they would find any artifact that would tell us anything about Washington’s youth, that would be extremely important.”
Regardless of their origins, the discoveries will help paint a better picture of the first U.S. president’s life, especially since Ferry Farm has achieved almost legendary status.
Civil War soldiers in the area—from both the Union and Confederate armies—wrote home about having visited places of Washington interest, Levy said.
All the soldiers would have been familiar with the anecdotes that still resonate today. It was on this landscape, for instance, that the young Washington is said to have damaged his father’s cherry tree and then nobly confess: “I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.”
That story can’t be verified, and Mason Weems, the author of the 1806 biography in which it first appears, has been accused of embellishing stories. Even so, Levy, who is writing a book on the site and its stories, notes that the tale is not all that hard to believe.
“There’s nothing implausible about it. It’s not a Paul Bunyan style of story,” Levy said, referring to an outlandish American myth.
“It is, at its core, a tale of a six-year-old kid with an ax who banged on a tree and then was caught red-handed by his father,” he said.
Levy says the veracity of the story ultimately is less important than the story’s longstanding centrality in Americans’ understanding of Washington.
“To the extent that who George Washington was as a child has an influence on who he is as an adult—we’re going to be able to understand that piece of him in a way that we’ve never been able before,” Levy said.
As the excavations continue and the artifacts are cleaned, identified, labeled, and cataloged, the team also will oversee the construction of a replica of the Washington home and its surroundings.