In this episode, we join blacksmith Peter Ross in his shop in North Carolina as he forges a thumb latch for the Washington house at Ferry Farm.
It isn’t known when the myths about the small white building called the Surveyor’s Shed at George Washington’s Ferry Farm began, or why it was believed by so many that the structure existed during George Washington’s childhood. It was long-held myth was that Augustine Washington taught his son, George, how to survey in this building but, in truth, the structure was built after the Civil War. As with many historic structures, the years have not been kind to the little frame building. Repairs and renovations over the years have periodically exposed its architectural secrets, revealing the true story of Ferry Farm’s oldest standing building. The collection of myths about this structure, referred to as the “Surveyor’s Shed” or “Surveyor’s Office” are of equal importance to its documented architectural history. Valuable oral histories from the people who once lived, worked, or visited at Ferry Farm include their own interpretations of the land on which George Washington spent his boyhood. Collected by Ferry Farm staff, these oral histories offer insights into the myth of the Surveyor’s Shed and give us clues as to why the story has remained so entrenched, regardless of the fact that the structure was built a century after George’s mother, Mary, left the property.
For decades, the Surveyor’s Shed was believed to be and indeed was introduced to visitors as George Washington’s first surveying office, where his father, Augustine, taught George how to survey. Having purchased the property years earlier, James B. Colbert built a large Victorian-style farm house at Ferry Farm in 1914. This farmhouse changed hands multiple times and was occupied for most of its existence. The house burned down on the morning of September 26, 1994.
It is believed that Mr. Colbert began the Surveyor’s Office myth, since the building was not referred to by that name before Colbert owned the property. In Where the Cherry Tree Grew, Philip Levy, describes the relationship between J.B. Colbert and the Ferry Farm myths:
“Was it Colbert’s idea to serve up these stories in aid of his own ends, or were visitors bringing their beloved Washington tales with them? There is no way to know for sure, but J.B. was orchestrating these stories- adding to them, accommodating them, making the most he could of them, and seeking ways to profit from them. He may not have set this Ferry Farm Weemsian renaissance in motion, but he certainly kept it rolling along and was its principal beneficiary.”
In an oral history interview, Charles Linton, a later resident of the home, remembered that Belle Colbert — J.B.’s daughter — came to pay her respects once a year at the Surveyor’s Office.
The Linton family continued to share Ferry Farm’s most famous myths with visitors to the property during the 1940 and 50s. While the Linton’s lived at Ferry Farm, tourists were welcomed. Charles Linton recalled two or three guests showed up unexpectedly in a single day. The family kept a guestbook inside the Surveyor’s Office and greeted anyone who showed up to visit. When guests arrived, they were offered a tour that included the Surveyor’s Office and a cherry tree stump purported to be descended from the tree George cut down with his little hatchet. This stump was revered by visitors and treated as a shrine. The Lintons never questioned the authenticity of the shrines.
Additionally, a trunk of a cherry tree was housed inside the Surveyor’s Office, and the Linton children cut off pieces of its bark to sell as souvenirs. Charles Linton remembered in his interview, that when one trunk was used up, he and his brother, Tayloe, crossed Kings Highway to cut down another cherry tree and sell parts of that trunk, as pieces were in such high demand.
Paul Millikan moved into the Colbert house with his wife and children in 1962. He recalled during an oral history interview that upon moving in, most of the downstairs of the home was used as a museum and the upstairs was the family’s living area. He also noted that the Surveyor’s Office had surveying equipment on display, although the equipment was not of the Washington’s era. Like the Lintons, Millikan did not immediately question the authenticity of the Surveyor’s Office at first. Over time, he began to question the possibility that the building was not of Washington’s time, but remained inspired by those who revered this land and its shrines as authentic Washington era relics.
The Surveyor’s Shed was officially listed as “George Washington’s First Surveying Office” in the Historic American Building Survey of 1935 but this listing was accompanied by a note stating that the claim was not supported with written proof. In 1972, the Surveyor’s Shed was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Its nomination form (PDF) described the building as a 13’ x 12’ frame house sitting on loose stones, 20 feet to the south of where “George’s mother’s house stood”. While the structure was referred to as “George Washington’s surveying shed” on the NHRP application, this document clearly stated the building was not of colonial origin.
In reality, the construction of the shed likely began when the Carson family owned Ferry Farm in the late 19th century; a full 100 years after Mary Washington left the property. To build the structure, the Carsons used materials from other structures owned by the family on the property. Machine-cut lath in the original plaster walls and ceiling, the cut nails holding the structure together, and the platform framing are all evidence the building was constructed after 1870. The onslaught of the Civil War and the occupation of Ferry Farm by Union soldiers would have almost definitely caused major damage, if not complete destruction, of a small building like the shed if it had been standing pre-war. The war’s destruction was immense as evidenced by letters and photographs of Ferry Farm from the Civil War show a land denuded of trees or wood of any kind. Soldiers used every scrap of wood they could find to fuel fires for cooking keeping warm.
Nevertheless, the Surveyor’s Office was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, and was again carefully recorded and repaired by historic preservationists after suffering damages from weathering, aging, and even wildlife. Ferry Farm’s oldest building, while not from George Washington’s times, is still an important part of George’s boyhood home, and is considered an important American shrine by Fredericksburg locals. The myth of the structure being from the Washington era has been dispelled, but the little building is close to its sesquicentennial year as a symbol of the importance of the property it sits on. The myth behind the Surveyor’s Shed has become valuable in its own right, similar to the Cherry Tree Story. Both myths have affected the way we look at George Washington’s formative years. Had it not been for this little white building, and J.B. Colbert propagating these myths as facts, the narrative of the Surveyor’s Shed might not be as well-known, and Ferry Farm itself might not have been saved and protected as it is today.
Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Artifact Cataloger & Field Monitoring Technician
 Levy, Philip. Where the Cherry Tree Grew: The Story of Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Boyhood Home. New York, St. Martin’s Press. 2013: 148.
“There is no man who hates the power of the crown more, or who has a worse opinion of the Person to whom it belongs than I.” – Charles James Fox, letter to Edmund Burke, 24 January 1779. Quoted in L. G. Mitchell, Charles James Fox (1997:41).
“It is intolerable that it should be in the power of one blockhead to do so much mischief.” – Charles James Fox referring to King George III. From a letter to Mr. Fitzpatrick, 9 September 1781. Quoted in John Brooke, George III (1974:363-364).
Charles James Fox was contrary. He gambled excessively, drank heavily, and he was generally irreverent. He enjoyed resisting powerful people, supported unpopular causes, and expressed his disdain for high society by adopting a disheveled appearance later in life. His colorful British Parliamentary career spanned decades. He was a champion of liberty: including the abolition of slavery, religious freedom, the colonists’ struggles with King George III, and he supported the French people in their quest for democracy.
Fox questioned King George III’s policies toward the American colonies and feared that the monarch was becoming tyrannical. It was parliament’s job to guard against such corruption. Fox and his supporters often wore apparel in the colors of buff and blue – the colors of Washington’s army – to show their support for American concerns. The Americans, in turn, honored their parliamentary champion with their own fashion accessory: they wore buttons that featured a fox, an obvious – and often used – stand-in for the controversial orator.
Buttons featuring a fox racing across the landscape with the word “TALLIO” were intensely popular from the 1770s through at least the first quarter of the 1800s and they are common discoveries at archaeological sites. “Tallio,” “talley-o,” “talley-oh,” “talleo” and “talley ho” were all acceptable spellings for the traditional huntsmen’s shout upon spotting the fox during a chase. But this exclamation dates from the 1770s: well over a century after the sport had been brought to the Chesapeake. 
Fox hunting enjoyed wide popularity among Chesapeake gentlemen. The English Brook family brought their foxhound pack to Prince George’s County, Maryland when they immigrated in 1655. Fox hunting continued in the Brook family for generations, and the popularity of this privileged recreational activity spread. Fox hunting on horseback was an amusement of the leisure class and the chase was considered more important than the capture of the prey. By the late 1760s, Washington himself maintained a pack of fox hounds at Mount Vernon.
Many who discover these buttons today attribute their imagery solely to the popularity of fox hunting as a sport. These buttons are often referred to as “hunt” buttons, a category that includes buttons which feature favored hobbies or athletic pursuits. Some assert that these sleeve links were widespread because fox hunting was so popular. And indeed, it was. These links – historically referred to as ‘sleeve buttons’ – enjoyed great popularity in the years surrounding the American Revolution, the Early Republic, and into the antebellum period.
I believe these buttons also achieved a deeper, political meaning, however, especially in the years around the American Revolution. Due to the support by Charles James Fox of the American cause, fox imagery came to represent resistance to tyranny. A number of contemporary British political cartoons used a fox to symbolize this politician. In addition to this documentary evidence, I believe the fox imagery used on these buttons came to symbolize the fight for liberty. For those recovered buttons for which we have context, it is evident that they are especially prevalent at sites associated with the Revolutionary War and with American patriots.
As the political difficulties between the British Crown and the American colonies intensified, Fox’s outspoken support of colonial concerns attracted attention on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain, some called Fox a traitor for his disrespectful rhetoric against the crown. In Britain’s North American colonies, his stoic support for their cause provided colonists a crucial ally in an unexpected, but politically powerful position. Patriots and revolutionaries enthusiastically incorporated these fox hunting-themed buttons into a celebration of Fox’s ardent support.
Tallio/fox buttons have been recovered from several American Revolution-era and Early Republic era forts in Tennessee and New York. Two domestic sites associated with George Washington have yielded these buttons as part of their archaeological discoveries. Signer of the Declaration of Independence, William Paca, proudly wore a tallio/fox button. Colonial towns such as Dumfries, Virginia and Jacksonborough, South Carolina have yielded these buttons from layers dating from the Revolutionary era.
Anthropologists – scholars who study people – make special efforts to identify such symbols in societies, both in contemporary studies and in analyses of past people. Symbols are especially powerful because viewers do not need to be able to read, to understand language, to hear, or to speak, in order to comprehend a symbol’s message. These messages can summon strong emotional responses. Think about how you feel when you see an American flag and how your responses might change depending on how a flag might be used at a protest, funeral, or baseball game. During the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the fox symbolized resistance to tyranny, freedom, and the pursuit of liberty. Wearing a fox button proclaimed your support for American independence.
The die struck fox image on these buttons was not originally created as a political symbol for Charles Fox, however. The meaning of these buttons was adapted to that purpose after their initial manufacture. As we have seen, fox hunting was indeed a common pastime for gentlemen, and these fashionable buttons were popular among those who “chased the hounds.” As tensions between Britain and her North American colonies increased, beginning by the 1760s, the fox symbolism present on tallio buttons was malleable, and provided a gentleman with leeway in a politically volatile climate: its meaning could change according to a gentleman’s situation. Among unfamiliar company, such a multivocal symbol would allow an adroit – or perhaps even a vacillating – patriot some political latitude. Uncertain if the person with whom you’re dining is a Tory? Your innocent little TALLIO sleeve link merely celebrates a popular, recreational activity, whose roots in the Middle Atlantic region went back generations. But, at the same time, comrades in the struggle for American Independence recognized their solidarity in the symbolism of the fox: honoring their parliamentary advocate of colonial resistance to the King George III.
Along with the tallio sleeve button, another apparel item as evidence for the Washington family’s burgeoning resistance to the Crown has been found at Ferry Farm. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, the Washingtons wore a mid-1700s William III sleeve button to display their resistance to George III: a monarch that many colonists deemed tyrannical in his exercise of power. On more than one occasion, Charles Fox himself compared America’s Declaration of Independence to William and Mary’s “Glorious Revolution,” and (fairly or not) drew parallels between the monarchical abuse of powers exercised by George III and James II. British subjects had the right to replace a tyrannical king with another: an example set by William and Mary, and an important precedent for the American colonists. The Washingtons’ support for the Leedstown Resolves in February 1766 provides documentary evidence for their concerns with Britain’s rule and (at the time) their loyalty to the Crown.
Together, the symbolism on each of these buttons and the Washington brothers’ participation in the Leedstown Resolves demonstrates a long and growing frustration among Virginians with Britain’s colonial policies. The material expression of these sentiments can be traced back to the mid-1700s-era male apparel buttons at Washington’s childhood home. These discoveries were possible thanks to the preservation of this site, the thorough excavation of its layers, and a contextual understanding of the social and political landscape of this period.
This fox/liberty symbolism apparently endured well into the 1800s in the United States. Archaeologists recovered a “TALLIO” sleeve button from the root cellar of a quarter for enslaved laborers in South Carolina: strong circumstantial evidence that this symbol of the struggle for liberty and freedom continued beyond the American Revolution. As previous mentioned, Fox was an ardent abolitionist. The layer from which this particular button was recovered dated no earlier than 1845. In this context, this symbol of liberty underwent another change and now represented a reproach displayed by enslaved Americans to highlight the paradox of slavery in what was supposed to be a democracy. Though Charles James Fox died in 1806, the use of the fox as a symbol for the struggle for freedom endured.
Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst
Sites where such TALLIO links have been recovered
Collectors and archaeologists have found TALLIO buttons from at least New York to South Carolina, and westward to Tennessee, where they occur at a number of United States military forts, late 1700s-era towns, and at sites associated with patriots.
Bledsoe’s Station, Tennessee (1783-1795) – “civilian fort” (Context dates from c. 1783-1795).
British Officer’s Revolutionary War Hut in New York (Calver and Bolton 1950: 225, 227).
Dumfries, Virginia, “Late 18th century.” (Sprouse 1988:119-120).
Fort Southwest Point, Tennessee (1797-1807), federal military fort.
Fort Blount, Tennessee – territorial militia post (1794-1797); federal post (1797-1798).
George Washington’s Boyhood Home (1762-1772), parlor cellar and antebellum plowzone.
H.M.S. DeBraak, Delaware (1798) shipwreck. (Cofield 2012:103-104, 113).
Jacksonborough, South Carolina. Colonial town. (Smith, Dawson, and Wilson 2008:22-23, 30).
Mount Vernon, Virginia, Washington’s home (1754-1799). Recovered from a c. 1820s garden layer.
Tellico Blockhouse, Tennessee – federal military post (1794-1807).
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Plowzone. (Fitts et al. 2012:35, 88-89).
William Paca Garden, (c. 1763-1780) Annapolis, Maryland. http://annapoliscurator.blogspot.com/2014/09/william-pacas-sleeve-buttons_12.html
2008 Life of Johnson. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Calver, William L. and Reginald P. Bolton
1950 History Written with a Pick and Shovel. University of Virginia Press.
Cofield, Sara Rivers
2012 Linked Buttons of the Middle Atlantic, 1670-1800. Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology, 28:99-116. https://www.jefpat.org/diagnostic/SmallFinds/SleeveButtons-Cufflinks-Studs/Linked%20Buttons.pdf
Fitts, Mary Elizabeth, Ashley Peles, and R. P. Stephen Davis, Jr.
2012 Archaeological Investigations at the Vance Site on the University of North Carolina Campus, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Research Report No. 34. The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Hastings, Anne M.
1997 Fox Hunting: History and Change in a Mountain Sport. Appalachian Journal 25(1):30-46.
Mitchell, Leslie George
1997 Charles James Fox. Penguin, London.
Noël Hume, Ivor
1961 Sleeve Buttons: Diminutive Relics of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. In Antiques 79(4):380-383.
Polhemus, Richard R.
1979 Archaeological Investigations of the Tellico Blockhouse Site (40MR50): A Federal Military and Trade Complex. Report of Investigations 26, Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Reich, Jerome R.
1998 British Friends of the American Revolution. M. E. Sharpe, Armonk, New York.
Smith, Kevin E.
2000 Bledsoe Station: Archaeology, History, and the Interpretation of the Middle Tennessee Frontier, 1770–1820. Tennessee Historical Quarterly 59(3):175–187.
Smith, Samuel D., and Benjamin C. Nance
2000 An Archaeological Interpretation of the Site of Fort Blount, a 1790s Territorial Militia and Federal Military Post, Jackson County, Tennessee. Tennessee Dept. of Environment and Conservation, Division of Archaeology, Nashville, TN
Smith, Steven D., Audrey R. Dawson, and Tamara S. Wilson.
2008 The Search for Colonial Jacksonborough (38CN280) Colleton County, South Carolina. South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology Report, Columbia. Presented to Lowcountry Council of Governments, Yemassee, and Francis Marion Trail Commission, Florence.
Sprouse, Deborah A.
1988 A Guide to Excavated Colonial and Revolutionary War Artifacts. Heritage Trails, Turbotville, Pennsylvania..
2008 Archaeology on the Great Pee Dee River: The Johannes Kolb Site. http://38da75.com/professional.htm, accessed July 31, 2012. Diachronic Research Foundation, Columbia, SC.
 A generation earlier Fox’s father, Henry Fox – also a member of parliament – found himself represented as a fox on multiple occasions in political satire.
 The recovery of this artifact from a layer created between 1766 and 1772 indicates that “tallio” was a term popular before it first appeared in print in 1773 (“tally-ho, int. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Web. 31 May 2017). Since this “TALLIO” button was deposited before 1773, perhaps the Oxford University Press might consider updating their “tally-ho” entry.
 A nice history of fox hunting is provided in Anne M. Hastings, 1997 article “Fox Hunting: History and Change in a Mountain Sport.” Appalachian Journal 25(1):30-46.
 Archaeology is a subfield of anthropology. Archaeologists study past peoples.
 Political sleeve buttons that said “Liberty” (revolutionary) or portrayed a Crown (Loyalist) provided their gentlemen no political leeway: they betrayed the political sympathies of their gentlemen quite directly. Did gentlemen who elected to wear TALLIO buttons lack commitment, perhaps coveting the ambiguous – and potentially innocent – message of the fox imagery?
 Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles Washington all signed the Leedstown Resolves which, though it expresses concern, is nonetheless effusive in its expressed respect for the monarchy.
 Carl Steen, Personal Communication, 15 April 2013.