Archaeologists sift through the recently unearthed ruins of George’s childhood home for clues to what made him a man of destiny.
On Christmas Eve 1740, fire broke out in a modest clap- board farmhouse across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, Virginia. The flames were quickly extinguished, but caused significant interior damage to the main house at what later came to be known as Ferry Farm. One of the people temporarily forced out into the cold that yuletide season was 8-year-old George Washington.
Washington spent many more Christ mases at Ferry Farm before moving to Mount Vernon as an adult. But the original homestead was torn down by subsequent owners and its exact location was lost to history until this year, when a team of archaeologists uncovered remains of the foundation and chimneys, two stone-lined main cellars and two root cellars, as well as traces of a kitchen building and a slave quarters. Amid the ruins they also found evidence of the Christmas Eve fire— ash, scorched stone and burnt plaster—which provide a rare physical link to an event in Washington’s childhood.
Washington’s life at Ferry Farm became grist for legend when Parson Weems, in his 1800 book The Life of Washington, spun an apocryphal tale of young George chopping down a cherry tree there. (“I cannot tell a lie. I did it with my hatchet.”) Otherwise historians have had to make do with precious few glimpses of young Washington, who grew from a raw Virginia country boy into a young man of destiny at Ferry Farm. He was only 11 when his father, Augustine, died in 1743, leaving him master of the 600-acre farm and 10 slaves. During a sojourn there that lasted through his teen years, George learned surveying, joined the Fredericksburg chapter of the Masons and patiently copied out The Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, an exercise that improved his penmanship and provided him with a lifelong guide to comportment.
Researchers hope the household artifacts unearthed at Ferry Farm will provide insights into Washing ton’s formative years, including the economic ups and downs his family experienced after his father died and his mother, Mary, opted not to remarry. “I like to compare this to a landing on the moon,” says David Muraca, the chief archaeologist at the site. “The day that the astronauts picked up the rocks was a great day. But it’s not until the rocks get into the lab that the real work begins.” Whatever they discover, the historical portrait of our founding father as a young man will remain sketchy. No doubt Washington would have preferred it that way. After all, one of those rules of civility that he laboriously copied into a notebook at Ferry Farm read, “Be not Curious to Know the Affairs of Others.”
Originally published in the December 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.