George Washington, My Grandfather, and the Noble Art of Fencing

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (1796). Public domain.

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (1796). In the portrait, Washington wears his ceremonial sword. Public domain.

Editor’s Note: This is the second of two posts inspired by this year’s Summer Olympics. This week, Archaeologist Mara Kaktins reflects on the connection fencing has created between her family and George Washington. Read our first Olympics-inspired post here.

At our monthly blog meetings, post topics are floated and people grab them up, usually when it aligns with individual research interests.  George Washington as an avid fencer seemed an appropriate subject with the Summer Olympics in full swing this month.  I am no fencer, nor am I an athlete, so why write about fencing?  The spirit to volunteer for this assignment came to me because of the recent passing of my father.  He, my uncle, and my grandfather were all fencers.  It led me to ponder our first president, my grandfather, and the modern Olympic sport of fencing.

Let’s begin by examining the early history of fencing in the American colonies.  Long considered a ‘gentleman’s sport’, fencing was massively popular in Europe. Respect for the knowledge of sword play extended to the colonies, where masters from abroad set up schools to teach young men this ancient art.  These instructors did not just show their students how to fence.  Sword play was part of a larger artistic curriculum that could also include dancing, horseback riding, popular languages such as French, boxing, gentlemen’s games like cards, and knowledge of various musical instruments.   Fencing, or ‘short sword’ as it was sometimes called, was not seen as merely a sport.  It was referred to as an ‘art’.  With mastery, came not just dexterity, physical fitness, and strength but also good temperament, courtly manners, and a sense of restraint.  Teachers often emphasized that a gentleman well-versed in the sword was less likely to ever use one, having gained honor and discipline in addition to knowledge of a deadly weapon.  Sort of like the colonial equivalent of “With great power comes great responsibility”.

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart Sword

A closer view of Washington’s ceremonial sword.

As a young man living at Ferry Farm, George Washington attempted to better himself learning all of the gentlemanly arts. It is no surprise he studied fencing.  Some evidence suggests that Lawrence Washington, his older half-brother who was a Captain in the Virginia Militia may have helped him in this regard.  Schooled in England, Lawrence learned all he needed to know of being a gentleman in the mother country, as was customary for gentry children.  George Washington never attended a real school, much less an English one.  He was determined, however, and sought his gentlemanly education where he could in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Ferry Farm Sword Fragment

Fragment of a cooper-alloy hand guard from a sword dating to the late 1600s or early 1700s and unearthed by archaeologists at Ferry Farm.

The closest dedicated fencing instructor was in far-away Williamsburg so George had to make do. The early George Washington biographer, Washington Irving, suggested that Lawrence and his military friends along with an adjutant known only by his last name of Muse probably instructed George in sword play.  There was also a rather mysterious Dutch mercenary and translator, Jacob Van Braam (all good stories should have a shadowy Dutchman).  Temporarily located in Fredericksburg, Van Braam was in between wars and supplemented his income by teaching young George how to handle a blade.  They later campaigned together and fought at Fort Necessity in 1754 where a mistranslation by Van Braam may actually have contributed to the conflict that is credited with helping start the Seven Year War.  Presumably the Dutchman was more skilled with weapons than in French and George Washington went on to become a famous general, often depicted carrying a sword, a symbol of his status and military skill.  Van Braam later fought in the Revolutionary War but for the British before retiring to France.


Fencing foil belonging to the late Uldis Kaktins, my father.

Fast forward two centuries to a young man in Latvia named Zigurds, my grandfather.  Fencing remained a popular sport in Europe and a skill that educated men certainly looked to acquire.  Zigurds was tall, young, and handsome, had a law degree, and his father was a world famous opera singer.  Zigurds seemed to have a lot going for him and likely learned to fence for many of the reasons George did: physical prowess and a respected mental fortitude.  With the onset of the Second World War, Zigurds learned that the Soviets were going to deport him, his wife, and two young children to Siberia so he took his family and fled to the United States.  In America, his and his wife’s law degrees were worthless.  They moved into a rough but affordable neighborhood in Boston and worked blue collar jobs.  My grandfather’s life was completely different from what he had known in Latvia except for fencing.  He instructed fencing at the YMCA and headed a Latvian fencing club.  Normally a fairly stern figure, Zigurds once dressed as a ‘swashbuckler’ to be filmed fencing for a short film or commercial.

Mara's Grandfather

Zigurds Kaktins, my grandfather, (right) fencing in swashbuckler’s costume in the 1960s.

Zigurds passed on fencing to my father and uncle.  My recently deceased father always had a grace about him.  He carried himself easily and with confidence but was quick and nimble when needed.  Perhaps not coincidentally, he was also an excellent dancer.  I think that his early instruction in fencing contributed to this grace.  A man of grace and confidence, an excellent dancer, and a fencer.  These words prove an apt description of my father, my grandfather, and the Father of my Country.

Mara Kaktins

Photos: “The Taming of the Shrew” at Kenmore’s Shakespeare by Candlelight

Taming of the Shrew (1)

This past weekend was Shakespeare by Candlelight at Historic Kenmore!  William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew was presented in eighteenth-century style on the Lawn at Kenmore on Friday and Saturday nights and, because of a thunderstorm, indoors on Sunday night.  Enjoy this collection of photographs from the Saturday and Sunday performances.  Learn more about The Taming of the Shrew’s history here.

Show Horse: How Colonial Horse and Rider Looked Their Best

"Washington Before Yorktown" by Rembrandt Peale (1823) Public domain. Courtesy: The Athenaeum/Wikipedia

“Washington Before Yorktown” by Rembrandt Peale (1823) Public domain. Courtesy: The Athenaeum/Wikipedia

Editor’s Note: This is the first of two posts inspired by this year’s Summer Olympics. This week, it’s an equestrian-inspired post from Archaeologist Laura Galke, who briefly looks at some of the ornaments found on 18th century horse tack.

What an impressive sight the Washingtons made as they rode their horses with bridles and straps embellished with these shiny brass decorations.  Today, people who study these decorations refer to them as “mounts” or “leather ornaments.”  They were used to ornament the leather straps, nosebands, harnesses, and reins of horses. Individual riders enjoyed these, but they also could adorn steeds that pulled carriages.  About twenty of these ornaments have been found during recent excavations at Ferry Farm.

Ferry Farm leather ornaments dating from the 1700s. The Harwoods, Strothers or the Washingtons may have purchased these.

Ferry Farm leather ornaments dating from the 1700s. The Harwoods, Strothers or the Washingtons may have purchased these.

Colonial Virginians, including George Washington, took pride in owning horses. Adorning their stallions with such flashy decorations attracted attention to their owners as they journeyed through the streets, on the ferries, and along the trails of Colonial Virginia and beyond.  It was also a great way to draw attention to a favorite steed or an elegant carriage in a public setting. Unlike household adornments – which were esteemed by an intimate circle of family, friends, and enslaved attendants – investments in these leather ornaments were appreciated by a wider audience as rider and horse proudly paraded about the colony and region.

This copper-alloy mount dates from the mid-to-late 1700s.

This copper-alloy mount dates from the mid-to-late 1700s.

In Colonial households, men typically purchased these showy trimmings. Indeed, they bought most things associated with the stable: horses or transportation.  Horse milliners were the source for such tack.  However, purchases related to the health of livestock, such as medicine, was the responsibility of women.

Copper naturally repels the bacteria that break down organic materials such as leather. These mid-to-late 1700s Washington family ornaments have actually preserved a small portion of the original leather straps they adorned.

Copper naturally repels the bacteria that break down organic materials such as leather. These mid-to-late 1700s Washington family ornaments have actually preserved a small portion of the original leather straps they adorned.

George Washington was an accomplished rider praised by Thomas Jefferson as “the best horseman of his age, and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback.”  Leather ornaments and mounts like those excavated at Ferry Farm helped to create that graceful appearance for George and all horse-loving Virginians.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

Further Reading

Cofield, Sara Rivers
2008  A Preliminary Study of 17th– and 18th-Century Leather Ornaments from Maryland.  Maryland Archaeology 44(2):12-27.  Available online

Griffiths, Nick
2004  Harness Pendants and Associated Fittings.  In The Medieval Horse and its Equipment, c. 1150 – c. 1450, edited by John Clark, pp. 61-71.  The Boydell Press, Woodbridge.

McBane, Susan
1992  The Illustrated Guide to Horse Tack.  David and Charles.  Milanostampa, Brunel House Newton Abbot Devon.

Noel Hume, Ivor
1991  A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America.  Vintage Books, New York.

Vickery, Amanda
2009  Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England.  Yale University Press, New Haven.

Bartmann Bottle: The Coolest Thing We’ve Ever Found

We excavate hundreds of artifacts every day during the field season at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and occasionally one or two really stand out.  For me, the most interesting artifacts uncovered during the past few years are fragments of a Bartmann Jug.  The combination of an animated human face and fascinating symbolism makes this particular ceramic vessel unique among the hundreds of other vessels excavated from our archaeological site.  Just imagine the excavator’s surprise when the intense bearded face emerges as the dirt gets brushed off. That intense face and the story behind it make this object, in my view, the coolest thing we’ve ever found.

Bartmann Bottle (1)

The bottle itself would have had a solid sturdy base and a round, bulbous body with a cylindrical mouth.  It may have had a pewter lid, but these rarely survive archaeologically.  Pewter was fairly valuable and would have been melted down and reused after the vessel was broken, rather than discarded with the rest of it.  The bottle was medium sized, holding approximately a liter of low-alcohol beverage such as beer or cider.  The face of the bottle itself features a raised applied decoration known as a sprig mold, which is made by pressing wet clay into a mold, letting it dry to a point where it could be peeled out of the mold, and then attaching it to the unfired bottle.

Establishing when the bottle was actually manufactured can be challenging for these vessels.  They were produced in Germany between 1550 and 1770.  The British Navigation Acts made foreign imports increasingly rare in the colonies after the early 18th century.  Knowing that the make-up of the ceramic body and glaze is German lets up narrow down the dates for this bottle to the early years of the 18th century.  It is decidedly part of the pre-Washington era material culture here are Ferry Farm.

Bartmann Bottle (3)

When looking at these bottles with their somewhat grotesque faces, one can’t help but wonder why people decorated their drinking vessels this way for some two hundred years?  What did it mean to their culture?

These Bartmann Bottles were not just made in Germany. They were also shaped by German culture.  Their molded faces were sometimes elaborate and detailed and sometimes crudely executed. They were always male and always sported a large bushy beard.  This references German folklore’s “wild man of the woods.”  He was thought to live just beyond the bounds of civilization and run feral in the wilderness, living almost like an animal.  Perhaps rather appropriate to adorn a container of alcohol with?  However, these bottles were also widely exported. When they were brought to England, they became divorced from this folklore context.  Subsequently, the English created their own story about what the face on these Bartmann Bottles meant.

Bartmann Bottle (2)

In England around 1634, the bottles began to be called Bellarmines after Cardinal Robert Bellarmine.  Superficially, the wild face was said to resemble him. On a deeper level, the name was used as a way to mock the Catholic Church and its wider anti-protestant movement that Cardinal Bellarmine headlined.  This is following the monumental split of England from papal control and its moves farther towards Protestantism.   The colonists who brought this bottle to the new world thought of themselves as English so, if they gave any thought to the grimacing man who adorned their bottle of beer, they would have likely seen the figure as Bellarmine.

This fascinating and drastic change in meaning as the object moves from culture to culture combined with the striking human features is what makes it, in my view, the coolest thing we’ve ever found.

Lauren Jones, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Technician

Shakespeare’s Comedies in Colonial America

Washington Allston, American - Scene from Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (Katharina_and_Petruchio)

Scene from Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” or “Katharina and Petruchio” (1809) by Washington Allston. Public domain. Courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art/Wikipedia.

When we look at the history of Shakespeare in America the preference for his classic tragedies is obvious. Romeo and Juliet and Richard III are two of the three most-performed plays of the 18th century (George Farquhar’s The Beaux Stratagem rounded out this top three). While this ranking is based on surviving records of theatrical productions and therefore incomplete, it is still quite apparent that the Bard was unmistakably popular.

Of those oft performed favorites, tragedy wins out. Of the 13 different Shakespeare plays performed in Colonial America, the only comedy was The Merry Wives of Windsor. Why? Was it the general sentiments of an American audience? Was it a larger issue of theatrical expectations? Why didn’t American audiences watch Shakespeare’s comedies?

It is not because the people didn’t want comedies. Just like today, people liked to be entertained and for everyone who loves a heart breaking tragedy, there is someone who would prefer a light-hearted comedy. Comedies were actually wildly popular in colonial America, even beating out many tragedies in popularity! The aforementioned The Beaux Stratagem was one such comedy, as was John Vanbrugh and Colley Cibber’s The Provoked Husband and David Garrick’s The Lying Valet, which were also reportedly performed with regularity.

In colonies opposed to theatre based on moral grounds (think New England), a belief in the inherent sinfulness of plays and entertainment meant that, if theatre was to make its way into these colonies, it should certainly avoid comedies as they were usually rife with scheming rakes (The Beaux Stratagem), irascible wives (The Provoked Husband), and lying servants (The Lying Valet).

Tragedies, however, could be held up as moral lessons. One such play that was extremely popular in the colonies (even though it had fallen out of favor in London) was The London Merchant or The History of George Barnwell. It was a contemporary tragedy that told of a young man whose life had promise and success until he met a conniving woman who tempted him to steal, lie, and cheat for her love. He succumbed to those sins and they ultimately led to his untimely death.

The American Company of Comedians tried to break into the New England market with Othello, but instead of advertising it as a play they described it as  “Moral Dialogues… in Five parts, Depicting the Evil Effects of Jealousy and other Bad Passions, and Proving that Happiness can only Spring from the Pursuit of Virtue.”

Such moral apprehension about theatre was nearly non-existent in Virginia.  Why do we not see more of Shakespeare’s comedies in Virginia? The lack of comedy performances was also due to the theatrical expectations of the time. Theatre-goers knew that their evening at the playhouse would consist of two plays: a mainpiece and an afterpiece.

The mainpiece was the first play of the evening. It was longer and typically a tragedy or ballad opera (the musicals of the day). While it wasn’t impossible to see a comedy first, mainpiece was traditionally the more serious portion of the evening.

The afterpiece was always much shorter and typically a light-hearted comedy, farce, or romance. This division of the evening into mainpiece and afterpiece meant that there just wasn’t any real place for Shakespeare’s comedies. They were either too light-hearted to be a mainpiece or too long to be an afterpiece.

Shakespeare’s plays, however, did what they always do: they got with the times. Eventually, the Bard’s comedies transformed into shorter afterpieces and one of the most popular comedic afterpieces performed in the colonies was Catherine and Petruchio, essentially a shortened version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. It maintains most of the confrontations between the titular characters and their epic battle of the sexes, a theme popular in many contemporary farces.

First Quarto title page of The Taming of the Shrew

The title page from the first quarto, printed in 1631 Quarto of A wittie and pleasant comedie called The Taming of the Shrew. Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library/Wikipedia.

Despite American audiences’ preference for the tragic tales of William Shakespeare, his comedies were not lost, only transformed. Indeed, the Bard flourished on early American soil.

Joe Ziarko
Guest Contributor

Enjoy an evening of history and entertainment under the stars on the Lawn at Kenmore with a performance by candlelight of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, staged in an eighteenth-century style om August 12, 13, & 14 starting at 8:00 p.m.

Taming of the Shrew was presented in colonial Virginia, and the prologue of the play includes an introduction to theatre in the American colonies, before the Revolutionary War.

$15 adults; $7.50 students
For more information contact Vickie Hayes at 540-370-0732 or
Candlelight tours of Kenmore offered from 6:45 p.m. – 7:45 p.m.
Performance on the Lawn at Kenmore—please bring a folding chair(s).

Video – Building George’s House: The Concrete Cradle

An interpretive replica of the house that young George Washington lived in with his family is being built at his boyhood home at Ferry Farm near Fredericksburg, Virginia. This replica is being constructed on the exact location of the original. Through the use of a specially-designed concrete cradle, the replica will not harm any of the original architectural remains underground. In this video, we see the construction of this cradle and learn about the science and skill that makes this engineering feat possible.

To learn more, read an “Introduction to the New George Washington’s Ferry Farm.”