Ferry Farm History
American Indians, early English pioneers, a gentleman entrepreneur, and the boy who would become “The Father of His Country,” all laid claim, at one time or another, to the area now known as Ferry Farm.
The plantation was well known for farming, fishing, and the ferry that crossed the Rappahannock River. In the 1860s, the Civil War disrupted these peaceful activities, with Ferry Farm serving as a firing position and a staging ground for the Union Army’s invasions of Fredericksburg.
American Indians Occupy Ferry Farm
Over thousands of years, American Indians periodically inhabited the lands that today make up Ferry Farm. Archaeological finds include a spear point made over 10,000 years ago by a big-game hunter, numerous tools associated with bands of hunter/gatherers, and pottery created by native farmers. Read more about archaeological finds of this period.
First Europeans come to Ferry Farm
The first European claim on the property was a land patent granted to John Catlett in 1666. By 1710, the tract had been subdivided into several small farms, with Maurice Clark in ownership of what would become Ferry Farm. In 1727, the property was sold to William Strother, a lawyer and a Burgess for the newly formed King George County.
George Washington’s Family moves to Ferry Farm
Artist's rendering by L. H. Barker © 2008 In 1738, George Washington’s father, Augustine, acquired the plantation from the Strother estate. Augustine Washington held political office, owned several thriving plantations, and was a managing partner of Accokeek Iron Furnace located six miles north of Ferry Farm on a tributary of the Potomac River. He moved to Ferry Farm in the fall of 1738 with his second wife, Mary Ball Washington, and their five young children. The property was described as:
“… lying about 2 miles below the Falls of the Rappahannock, close on the River Side, with a very handsome Dwelling house, 3 Store houses, several other convenient Out-houses, and a Ferry belonging to it …”
Although the ferry was situated on the property, it was not owned or operated by the Washingtons and they derived no income from it.
Disasters Strike the Washington Family at Ferry Farm
The Washingtons' early years at Ferry Farm were marked by a series of disasters. Their house was damaged by fire on Christmas Eve in 1740. The entire family was forced to live in the kitchen dependency until the house was repaired. Even more tragic to the Washingtons was the death of two family members. In 1740, George’s younger sister Mildred died in infancy. Three years later, Augustine Washington died, leaving a will that divided his property among his sons, with Ferry Farm going to George. His widow, Mary Ball Washington, never remarried. She and her children remained on the plantation, farming it with her enslaved laborers. George Washington continued to call Ferry Farm home until 1753 or possibly 1754.
George Washington’s Mother Moves to Fredericksburg
In 1772, Mary Washington moved into the town of Fredericksburg and in 1774, Ferry Farm was sold to Dr. Hugh Mercer. After making improvements to the existing structures, Mercer intended to establish the plantation as his home, but the Revolutionary War interrupted his plans. Mercer, a brigadier general, died from wounds received at the Battle of Princeton. The family never occupied Ferry Farm but leased it instead.
The Civil War Comes to Ferry Farm
In 1846, Winter Bray purchased the property, which remained in his family’s hands until 1872. During the Civil War, Ferry Farm served as a staging ground for the Union offensive against the Confederate-held city of Fredericksburg. After the bloody battle, the farm served as part of the Union Army’s dismal winter camp. Period maps and photographs indicate that any remaining structures (and most of the trees) on the property were gone by 1863, probably burned as fuel.
Preservation Initiatives at Ferry Farm
In the 1870s, the Carson family purchased the property. At the beginning of the 20th century, Ferry Farm was purchased and farmed by James B. Colbert. Interest in preserving Ferry Farm as a memorial to George Washington grew with the approach of the 1932 bicentennial of his birth. The National Park Service considered undertaking the preservation and restoration of Ferry Farm, but decided instead to focus its efforts on Washington's birthplace at Pope's Creek [off-site link] in Westmoreland County, on a tributary of the Potomac River.
In 1928, the newly formed George Washington Foundation purchased 160 acres of the land from Colbert. It was the intention of this Foundation to turn the farm into an historic shrine. Unfortunately, the owners were unable to maintain their mortgage, and the heirs of James B. Colbert bought out the Foundation’s equity. After World War II, the George Washington Boyhood Home Restoration Organization purchased 50 acres of the original Washington tract, but this second attempt at preserving the property failed due to lack of financial support. However, the Ferry Farm site was added to the National Register of Historic Places [off-site link] in 1972.
In 1990, the Samuel Warren family, then owners of the property, worked with the Board of Supervisors and the County Administrator to donate 36 acres to Stafford County. In 1993, the George Washington Boyhood Home Foundation, consisting of members from across the country, was formed to develop Ferry Farm as a historical attraction. The Foundation completed a significant archaeological study of the property, which located over 30,000 important artifacts, and worked with an architectural firm to develop plans for a visitor center. An adjacent 25 acre parcel to the east was zoned for commercial development. In 1996, Wal-Mart proposed construction of a store on the parcel. This move was strongly opposed by local residents. The County worked with Wal-Mart to find a suitable site to the east of Ferry Farm, where the store is located today..
Kenmore Association Acquires Ferry Farm
In 1996, the George Washington Boyhood Home Foundation approved the transfer of 36 acres to The George Washington Foundation (then known as the Kenmore Association) contingent upon the Association's agreement to develop the property in accordance with the plans drawn up by the George Washington Boyhood Home Foundation. The Kenmore Association also purchased the commercially zoned section of the property, thus acquiring all of the Washington property that had not been developed.
NPS Easement Protects Ferry Farm in Perpetuity
In 1998, a bill was passed in Congress that provided an easement to include Ferry Farm as a part of the George Washington Birthplace National Monument to protect the site in perpetuity. Today, approximately 113 acres, including the entire length of the original Washington waterfront, are under the Foundation’s stewardship. Ferry Farm was designated a National Historic Landmark [off-site link] in 2000 and was added to the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network [off-site link] in 2005.
The Great Oak Pavilion
In March and April of 2005, The George Washington Foundation joined with the Timber Framers Guild and the Virginia Military Institute to construct a 24' x 48' outdoor pavilion at Ferry Farm. The structure, which is used as an educational space for the Foundation, is a five-bent, four-bay, open pavilion. Its roof mimics that of the 1770s-era Kenmore Plantation house of Washington’s sister, and uses a kingpost truss system with principal rafters, principal purlins, and common rafters. The connection at the wall plate is the English tying joint. The frame was cut on site and raised using period-appropriate technology, such as gin pole, shear legs, and block and tackle.
While none of the Washington-related structures remain at Ferry Farm, the site is rich with archaeological resources. Over the next several years archaeologists and architectural researchers will gather information on the site and recreate the Washington farm. In the process, the Foundation has created new interpretive and educational programs.
Ferry Farm has been saved for future generations due to the care and concern of many individuals, organizations, and government entities. Won't you, as an individual, help support this great work?