I love stories. I mostly love true stories but I also love those stories that may not actually be true but are perceived by many to be true. It is in those perceived truths that one can make discoveries about how people and societies see history. Likewise, studying a collection of one’s own oral stories that have come down through generations in a family can help bring into focus how we view our own personal histories.
Have you ever played the game “Telephone”? A group sits in a circle and each participant takes turns whispering the same sentence into the ear of the person next to them. When the sentence has gone around to everyone, the person who started the game announces what the original sentence was and then, giggling, the last person reveals what the sentence morphed into as it passed along from person to person. Oral histories can be like “Telephone” as they pass through the generations. Nevertheless, they are important stories from which we glean cultural information. We should be keepers of them for future generations.
Stories about historical figures and historical places can be like that, too, as they pass through people, time, cultures, and ideologies. In my professional life, I am privileged to explore the narratives of a life well lived by the Virginian, George Washington. Most of these narratives are well known to the world and have inspired Americans for centuries. They are big, important stories that resonate with countless people young and old.
The two functions I serve in my work for The George Washington Foundation are as Archaeology Lab Supervisor and Oral History Project Coordinator. These two positions offer me the unique opportunity to “read” stories in excavated trash (archaeological artifacts) and to listen to and record oral stories collected from people associated with our sites like former residents, visitors, and employees. At first glance, one might seem more scientific and the other merely anecdotal. But these two jobs, even though they appear at odds, are not necessarily so opposing.
Both activities illuminate what we know about the history of George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore and both can serve as interpretive tools for museum exhibit content. I often tell groups of school children who visit us in the Archaeology Lab that I would be able to tell a lot about them if I could look in their trash cans at home. This helps them to understand that looking at George Washington’s excavated trash is informative in the same way.
As an employee of an organization that relies on careful archaeological data, I feel very strongly about doing my part to provide the public with information that is as accurately interpreted as possible given the scientific techniques, processes, and experts used to gain the truths we seek. These truths reach far beyond the Washington years. The artifacts deposited at our active dig site at Ferry Farm also inform us about Native Americans who lived here, early settlers of this property when it was the frontier of Virginia, Civil War soldiers who were encamped here, and several families that lived here throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
Our archive of oral histories works hand in hand with scientific archaeology to fill in the details of what we know to be true “from the dirt.” For example, one interviewee who had lived at Ferry Farm in the mid-20th century asked if any of the archaeologists had ever found metal army men on the site. He explained that he and his brother had a mold from which they would make lead soldiers. They had melted down Civil War minie balls they found in the yard around their house and used the liquefied lead to make their toy soldiers. They were simply recycling, as it were. So, if our archaeological team were to excavate such a soldier, it would speak to both the Civil War and World War II era histories of Ferry Farm.
Oral histories collected from people associated with Ferry Farm and Kenmore during the 20th and 21st centuries have made significant contributions to our understanding of the inhabitants and activities at both properties. These histories have also helped document important preservation initiatives aimed at protecting George’s boyhood home and the home of Betty Washington Lewis and her husband, Fielding. The GWF Oral History Project overall has created a community, however disparate, of citizens supportive of Ferry Farm and Kenmore and the stories they tell. If you have a story to share, please contact me!
Archaeology Lab Supervisor
Oral History Project Coordinator