Archaeologists at Ferry Farm regularly find evidence of ‘expedient’ tool making by Native Americans. These quickly-made tools were created for a single, immediate job and, once used, just discarded. In this video, we break off a flake of obsidian and use it to fillet a fish.
As thanksgiving approaches we turn our thoughts to tradition, family, and feast. Thanksgiving traditions call to mind family around a table full of food, a roast turkey with cranberry sauce, or maybe even a romanticized recreation of New England meal from the 17th century. But what is the history behind that tradition? What would people of the 18th century Virginia thought of our feast? Would Betty and George Washington have sat down for a meal of turkey and mashed potatoes in late November?
Thanksgiving as a national holiday wasn’t born until the 19th century and many modern American concepts of Thanksgiving come from legend and advertising.
But when you peel back the layers of myth and romance in the above painting, in the advertising, and in the legends, you find a history deeply rooted in the 18th century and just as at home in Virginia as in Massachusetts.
While many people tend to look to colonial New England as the origin point for this late fall celebration, these bountiful autumn feasts have existed in places all over the world and for much longer. Many agrarian cultures have celebrated harvest festivals to mark the end of the harvest season. Families and communities came together, celebrated the bounty of the harvest, and gave thanks for all they had.
In the 1700s, Virginian households were familiar with a large fall feast. Produce that hadn’t been preserved had to be eaten. Cooler weather meant it was time to butcher and preserve meat. Soon, winter weather would make travel impractical. Any farm that enjoyed a bountiful year could celebrate with a large feast in the late fall.
But what would have been served at those feasts?
The dishes typically associated with Thanksgiving are inherently American. Turkey, potatoes, pumpkins, and cranberries are indigenous to the Americas and were unknown to Europeans prior to the 1500s. By the 18th century, Atlantic trade changed this. Some American produce like cranberries and pumpkins did not enjoy popularity in England. However, other American food had been fully accepted into kitchens and cookbooks on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Lewis family owned Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple, a cookbook from which Betty undoubtedly pulled many of her recipes. It contains multiple dishes modern Americans would consider typical Thanksgiving fare. It provides instructions for roasting a turkey complete with stuffing, making gravies for every kind of meat/preparation, and baking a plethora of desserts. It even contains a mashed potato recipe on page 193 that would be perfectly at home on any modern table.
BOIL your potatoes, peel them, and put them into a sauce-pan, mash them well; to two pounds of potatoes put a pint of milk, a little salt, stir them together, take care that they don’t stick to the bottom, then take a quarter of a pound of butter, stir it in, serve it up.
But if we are going to study Thanksgiving’s historic details, what about the term itself? Thankfully, we have George Washington himself to look to. Seventeen months after the ratification of the Constitution the newly elected President put forth a proclamation at the request of the Congress and Senate that…
… recommend[ed] to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.
The day assigned was November 26, 1789, the last Thursday of the month.
We may not know whether or not Mary Washington ever sat her family around a large turkey dinner at Ferry Farm in late November, but we do know that a large harvest meal would not have been uncommon. Since Hannah Glasse’s cookbook rested on her shelf, we can have confidence that Betty Washington Lewis would have approved of our present-day mashed potatoes and roast turkey. Finally, we can read the words of Thanksgiving proclaimed to Americans by George Washington, as the new nation’s first president. When you sit down with family next week, remember that you are part of long tradition and celebrating something truly American.
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services
This past Friday, November 13, visitors enjoyed “Night in Washington’s Day,” a special evening event at Historic Kenmore that explored the history of nighttime in the 18th century. Night was an active time 200 years ago. People cleaned, cooked, plowed, prayed, and visited neighbors at night. Darkness inspired scientists to make incredible discoveries that led to centuries of exploration and different cultures composed epic narratives inspired by the stars. You can read information similar to that presented during “Night in Washington’s Day” here and here.
The black darkness of night — before electric lights – is hard for us to imagine today. We assume life simply stopped as our ancestors awaited day’s return, though historical research suggests it did not. People cleaned, cooked, plowed, prayed, and even visited neighbors in the dead of night. In one instance, George Washington wrote John Hancock, saying “From the hours allotted to Sleep, I will borrow a few moments to convey my thoughts on sundry important matters to Congress.” Night did not necessarily mean sleep for early Americans.
Historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech has found substantial documentary evidence that, before the Industrial Revolution, people “experienced two major intervals of sleep bridged by up to an hour or more of quiet wakefulness.” This ‘segmented sleep’ was referred to as first sleep, watch or watching, and second or morning sleep. It seems that people of the 18th century did not immediately go to bed with the onset of darkness. They waited until about two hours after dusk. Once they went to bed, they slept for four hours but, not long after midnight, they awoke and remained awake for an hour or two. Eventually, they fell back asleep, slept for about four more hours, and awoke around dawn.
The idea of segmented sleep has been supported by some scientific studies, the most famous of which was conducted by psychiatrist Thomas Wehr. In the study, Wehr removed electric light from people’s lives. After a four-week adjustment period, the study’s subjects moved away from sleeping for eight uninterrupted hours and actually reverted to sleeping for four hours, being awake for one or two, and then sleeping for four more hours. How many of us who suffer with ‘insomnia’ might simply be hanging on to an older sleeping pattern altered by the relatively new technology of electric light?
Segmented sleep, however, may not even be the oldest human sleeping pattern. Brand new research published last month in Current Biology raises the possibility that, in actuality, eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is an even older sleeping pattern than segmented sleep. Scientists studied some of Earth’s last remaining groups of hunter-gatherers and found that all three groups slept for 7 to 8.5 hours per night without a period of wakefulness. The study’s primary author, Jerome Siegel of UCLA, “doesn’t dispute Ekirch’s analysis; he just thinks that the old two-block pattern was preceded by an even older single-block one.” Siegel speculates that segmented sleep arose when humans moved away from the equator into latitudes with longer periods of darkness.
So during the many centuries of that humans followed the segmented sleep pattern, what did people do during watch, that time in the middle of the night between first and second sleeps? The short answer is almost anything! Most people seem to have simply remained quietly in bed, perhaps pondering their dreams or even praying. They may have talked with their bedmate, who was not just a spouse but could have have been another servant in the household or another traveler overnighting at the tavern. Beds were often used to full capacity, even if that meant sleeping with a stranger.
If people rose from bed during watch, it might have been to use the chamber pot or privy.
Work took place too, since fires might need tending or the next day’s baking started. The ancient Roman poet Virgil even mentions women servants spinning yarn during watch.
On farms, a full moon could practically turn night into day. Work schedules changed to take advantage of the light. “For several nights every September,” writes Ekirch, “light from the full moon nearest the autumnal equinox is more prolonged than usual because of the small angle of the moon’s orbit. Well known in England as the ‘harvest moon’ . . . farmers on both sides of the Atlantic benefited from the moonlight to gather crops. ‘Sometimes,’ Jasper Charlton wrote in 1735, ‘the harvest people work all night at their hay or corn.’ Nearly as useful was the ‘hunter’s moon’ in October, when a full moon next appeared. ‘The moon of September,’ declared a writer, ‘shortens the night. The moon of October is hunter’s delight.’”
If there was no moon or work to do, night brought a respite from the hard routine and strict rules of the workday for laborers, tradesmen, servants and slaves. Enslaved people especially relished night as a time to run away, to sneak away and visit family on other plantations, to gather together for celebrations, to earn money through extra work, or simply to do whatever personal chores had piled up while working for master or mistress.
The darkness of watch afford ne’er-do-wells opportunity to steal and poach. Even Washington noted how night was a time for thieving when he complained about slaves using dogs to “aid them in their night robberies” of his sheep.
Because of segmented sleep, night, at least in George Washington’s day, seems to have been a surprisingly active time. People were awake for a couple of hours each night and during that time did almost anything imaginable from personal errands and household chores to farm labor and crime to prayer and meditation. The 18th century may have literally been a darker time but it was not necessarily a time for more sleep.
Manager of Educational Programs
 A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, New York: W.W. Norton, 2005: 300-1.
 Ekirch, 171.
This cuff link or ‘sleeve button’ – made in the mid 1700s – was recovered by archaeologists from George Washington’s boyhood home at Ferry Farm. It is one of the earliest examples of the Washington family’s resistance to King George III. What makes this sleeve button so interesting is the man depicted: King William III, who ruled England with Queen Mary. This sleeve link was made two generations after the death of this monarch. Nonetheless one of the Washington brothers wore this politically provocative accessory. What made William III, a monarch who died in 1702, an attractive choice for colonial apparel during the mid-1700s? The answer resides in this sleeve link’s political dimensions and reflects the Washington family’s early resistance to Crown policy.
November is an appropriate time to remember the polemical reign of William and Mary: they were married on November 4, 1677 and William landed at Torbay, England, November 5, 1688 to begin battles against the supporters of King James II, then ruler of England. When the unpopular James fled to France with his wife and young son (heir to the throne) parliament met and, after some deliberation, offered the monarchy to William and Mary. Individual rights, representative government, and justified rebellion became associated with the rule of William and Mary and were part of annual celebrations held for this sovereign pair for generations. Popular items such as coins, playing cards, plates, mugs, and pamphlets reinforced these connotations throughout their reign and beyond.
Cuff links, such as the William III link from Ferry Farm, were popular fashion accessories throughout the 1700s. Made from a molded glass ‘gem’ (see photo) originally situated within a copper-alloy setting (not shown), this sleeve button featured King William III’s silhouette. It was modeled after coins that depicted the English monarch beginning in the mid-1690s (see image). At that time, the king’s profile, along with his name “Gulielmus” (in Latin) followed by the initials “D. G.” – an abbreviation of the Latin dei gratia (by the grace of god [King]) – were prominently featured on currency.
Beginning in the mid-1700s, when the Washingtons wore their William III sleeve link, tensions were growing between Britain and her North American colonies, incited by the colonists’ concern over the policies of King George III. The Sugar Act and the Stamp Act taxed American colonists, even though they had no representation in parliament.
Colonists asserted that this was a violation of their rights under the English Bill of Rights (enacted in 1689 under the reign of William and Mary). Thanks to a popular campaign that originally began in the 1690s, William and Mary came to represent the right of subjects to resist a king who was abusing power, and this narrative proved to be enduring. In fact, colonists supported this narrative with other figures in English history. As the Washingtons were looking to William and Mary to legitimize their resistance to King George III, Thomas Jefferson took as his role model Oliver Cromwell, whose rebellion resulted in regicide and who was considered particularly militant by the colonists. While the Washingtons owned cufflinks to celebrate William and Mary, Jefferson owned a miniature depicting the far more revolutionary Cromwell.
Regardless, William III thus became a symbol for American colonists in general, and the Washington family in particular, as momentum grew to resist crown powers during the mid-1700s. By wearing this sleeve link, the Washingtons proclaimed their enduring support for representative government. And, we all know where that led—the American Revolution and birth of the United States, whose first president grew up at Ferry Farm.
Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst
Cofield, Sara Rivers
2012 Linked Buttons of the Middle Atlantic, 1670-1800. Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology 28:99-116.
Greene, Jack P.
1992 The Glorious Revolution and the British Empire 1688-1783. In The Revolution of 1688-1689: Changing Perspectives, edited by Lois G. Schwoerer. Cambridge University Press, New York, pp. 260-271.
McConnel, James Richard Redmond
2012 The 1688 Landing of William of Orange at Torbay: Numerical Dates and Temporal Understanding in Early Modern England. The Journal of Modern History 84(3):539-571.
2006 The King’s Three Faces: The Rise and Fall of Royal America, 1688-1776. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.
Schwoerer, Lois G.
1990 Celebrating the Glorious Revolution, 1689-1989. Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies. 22(1):1-20.
1989 Images of Queen Mary II, 1689-95. Renaissance Quarterly, 42(4):717-748.
1977 Propaganda in the Revolution of 1688-89. The American Historical Review 82(4):843-874.
Weil, Rachel J.
1992 The Politics of Legitimacy: Women and the Warming-pan Scandal. In The Revolution of 1688-1689: Changing Perspectives. Cambridge University Press, New York, pp. 65-82.
2010 Good Government and Providential Delivery: Legitimations of the 1672 and 1688/89 Orangist Revolutions
The night sky is the astronomer’s workspace, the explorer’s final frontier, and, perhaps surprisingly, the historian’s library of epic tales, myths, and legends. This library of stars connects us to the cultures and civilizations of our past in a uniquely special way. The Ancient Greeks, Native Americans, enslaved Africans, British colonists of the 18th century, and even George Washington himself all looked up at essentially the same night sky we can see two centuries later.
Inspired by stories, myths, and legends, our ancestors gazed into the sky and connected the stars together into patterns they imagined were familiar objects, fierce animals, great heroes, or powerful gods. We call these patterns ‘constellations’ and the stories or ‘star lore’ they tell are as old as humanity itself.
Imagine a clear, crisp early November night. George Washington and his brother-in-law Fielding Lewis are walking home from a nearby tavern. George is enjoying another of his occasional visits with his sister and her husband in Fredericksburg. During their journey home, the two men’s path is lit only by the small flame in the glass lantern they carry. Once in a while, they see a feeble candle through a house window. Otherwise, the Fredericksburg they walk through is far darker than we could imagine today. Consequently, George and Fielding see millions of sparkling pinpoints of light over their heads.
As educated men, George and Fielding could identify and name numerous constellations created by these pinpoints of light. On their imaginary November walk, the two men no doubt spotted Orion, Cassiopeia, Bootes, and, of course, the distinctive Big Dipper pattern that forms part of the constellation Ursa Major or “The Great Bear.”
They would have known the Greek myths attached to each of these constellations. For example, the myth behind the Great Bear says that the goddess Hera turned Callisto, a maiden desired by Hera’s husband, the god Zeus, into a bear. Zeus then lifted the bear into the sky by its tail, causing the tail to stretch. The three stars of the dipper’s handle represent this elongated tail. Another Greek tale says Hercules threw a troublesome bear into the sky by grabbing its tail, swinging it above his head, and flinging it up to join the stars. Probably even more familiar to plantation owners like George and Fielding was the idea – common throughout Britain – that the stars of the Dipper actually form a plow.
In the basements, attics, and kitchens of some of the houses George and Fielding passed, enslaved men, women, and children slept. Literally brought in chains from their African homelands, they looked up at the night sky above the land of their enslavement and were reminded of home by the constellations they saw. Some of these Africans may have seen what they termed “The Drinking Gourd.” Indeed, there is speculation that our common use of the Big Dipper as the name for this distinct pattern comes directly from the African idea that the stars form a hollowed out gourd used for collecting and drinking water. In the 1800s, the drinking gourd formed the basis of the African American folksong “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” which, it is claimed, contained thinly veiled instructions for slaves to follow when running north to freedom. The Dipper pattern can assist someone navigating by stars to find the North Star.
Before George, Fielding, and their slaves lived in Fredericksburg, Native Americans occupied the land along the Rappahannock River. Interestingly, like the Greeks, certain Algonquian-speaking nations, also saw the Big Dipper as a bear. Instead of a long tail, however, the three stars of the Dipper’s handle were three hunters who chased the bear across the sky. This chase lasted until autumn when the hunters killed the bear and its blood fell to Earth and caused the leaves to change color.
It is increasingly difficult for today’s Americans to see the library of epic tales, myths, and legends in our night sky. The glow from streetlights, security lights, lighted signs, and other outdoor lighting is blotting out the stars from view. Indeed, 2/3 of Americans – over 200 million people – can’t see the Milky Way from their own homes. In 1994, an earthquake knocked out all the power to Los Angeles. Many anxious residents phoned authorities to report a “giant, silvery cloud” in the dark sky. They were seeing the Milky Way, normally obliterated by the urban sky glow.
If we can’t see the stars, we may ultimately forget the stories they tell and even more tragically our ancestors – the Greeks, Africans, and Native Americans – who created those stories. More and more, we are no longer looking up at the same night sky that George and Fielding beheld on their imagined walk home from the tavern. The same sparkling stars are still there. We just can’t see for the light.
On Friday, November 13, learn more star lore during Night in Washington’s Day at Historic Kenmore! Families and visitors of all ages can experience Kenmore lit only by methods available in the 1700s and witness a theater scene showing how enslaved people used their night hours to catch up on personal chores. Glenn Holliday from the Rappahannock Astronomy Club will share tales of great discoveries from astronomy’s past. Children may make a paper-bag ‘tin punch’ luminary and cookies and cider will be served to all! Please bring a flashlight to use in select activities.
Cost: $12.00 adults, $6.00 ages 4-17, free ages 3 and under.
Reservations required. Call 540-370-0732 x24 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Manager of Educational Programs