Artist's rendering by L. H. Barker © 2008 The George Washington Foundation (GWF) announced, on July 2, 2008, that archaeologists working at the site of George Washington’s childhood home have located and excavated the remains of the long-sought house where Washington was raised. The site was the setting of some of the best-known stories related to his youth, including tales of the cherry tree and throwing a stone across the Rappahannock River.
Using evidence unearthed over seven seasons of excavation, Foundation archaeologists have positively confirmed the foundation and cellars that remain from the clapboard-covered, wooden structure that once housed George, his parents, and his siblings.
Far from being the rustic cottage of common perception, the Washington house was a much larger, one-and-a-half-story residence, 53 feet, 8-1/2 inches by 28 feet, 4 inches, perched on a bluff overlooking the Rappahannock River.
Historians have long known that the Washington house caught on fire on Dec. 24, 1740—the incident was mentioned in two separate letters. Near the end of last season’s dig, the archaeologists found material evidence of it—pieces of burnt plaster and charcoal in one of the root cellars. The evidence showed that the fire had been contained to a relatively small part of the house and that the house was later repaired.
Most of the wood and other elements of the original Washington structure are long gone—many of them “recycled” by builders of houses later constructed on the property or destroyed by Civil War troops who once camped there—and part of the house foundation has eroded away. But as they dug through layers of soil, the archaeologists came upon the remains of two chimney bases, two elegantly crafted, stone-lined cellars and two root cellars, where perishables once were stored.
Excavation of the four cellars yielded thousands of artifacts—pieces of ceilings, painted walls, and hearth; fragments of 18th-century pottery and other ceramics; glass shards, wig curlers, and toothbrush handles made of bone. The cellars constituted a time capsule of evidence that helped the archaeologists confirm that they had indeed found the long-lost residence.
The land was plowed in the 19th century so some of the objects that have been found are in small pieces. The archaeologists are particularly interested in a broken-off bowl of a pipe, blackened inside from heavy use, that was typical of the mid-18th century when George lived in the house. Found in one of the cellars, the pipe bears a clear Masonic crest; Washington joined the Fredericksburg Lodge of the Masons in 1753. .
The archaeologists have also located the family’s kitchen and slave quarters and are searching for the dairy, smokehouse and, possibly, warehouses. But the site is important for more than just its buildings, fields, gardens, and orchards. It reveals much about the places where people worked, socialized and played.
Called the Washington Farm in George’s day, the property later became known as Ferry Farm because of a ferry that linked it to Fredericksburg via the Rappahannock River, just down the bank from the Washingtons’ house. The Washington family moved to the site in 1738 from their previous home 45 miles away when George was six so that his father, Augustine Washington, could be closer to the Accokeek Creek Iron Furnace, which he managed. Besides George, Augustine and Mary’s family included Charles, Samuel, Betty, John, and Mildred (Mildred died in infancy at the farm). George was known to swim in the Rappahannock River and to take the ferry to Fredericksburg.
Augustine Washington’s death, five years after the family moved to the farm, would forever alter George’s life. Mary Washington, a formidable person, chose not to remarry, which left the family in a precarious financial situation. No longer able to afford school for George, Mary arranged for a part-time tutor.
George learned to grow tobacco, wheat, and corn on the farm and, on these fields, he transitioned from boyhood to manhood. He learned surveying, worked at making social contacts, and contemplated joining the British Navy, until his mother vetoed the idea. If she had let him go, the future of our country would have been very different.
The house was the centerpiece of the Washington landscape from the 1740s until 1772, at which time Mary Washington moved to Fredericksburg. George spent less time at Ferry Farm as he grew older, often taking trips north to visit his half brother, Lawrence, at Little Hunting Creek (later known as Mount Vernon). Around 1753 he finally moved to that estate near Washington, D.C., though he continued to be the official owner of Ferry Farm, having inherited it from his father.
Bisecting the site of the house is a several-hundred-foot-long defensive trench, a relic of a later chapter in American history. Long after the Washington era, Ferry Farm served as a staging ground during the Civil War for Union soldiers attacking Fredericksburg. President Lincoln visited the troops at the farm in the summer of 1862. Soldiers were aware that they were camping on George Washington’s land, some of them writing home about the irony of ripping apart the Union that Washington had been so instrumental in creating. By the mid-1800s, the Washington house had been replaced. Union troops demolished this new house, out-buildings, crops, landscape features, and livestock. The soldiers did leave something behind: quantities of musket parts, uniform buttons, and other Civil War relics unearthed by the archaeologists.
Archaeology will continue at Ferry Farm for years to come as staff and volunteers search for additional Washington-era structures.