Primary Sources: Interpreting the Past in the Present

At George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we focus on archaeology as one way to learn about both the Washingtons and the other people who lived and worked on this landscape.  We rely on archaeology because many of these residents did not leave behind documentary primary sources for us to study.  A primary source is a “letter, speech, diary, newspaper article, oral history interview, document, photograph, artifact, or anything else that provides firsthand accounts about a person or event.”  Primary sources are the historian’s most essential tool and serve as windows into the past that allow us all to decipher meanings and draw conclusions about history’s people and events.

Reproduction Washington family documents

Reproduction Washington documents in the house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Credit: Brice Hart

Even with our focus on archaeology, written primary sources have played a vital role in understanding Ferry Farm’s history and in helping us reconstruct and now interpret the Washington house.  For example, Augustine Washington’s probate inventory is helping us furnishing the recreated family home.  Basically, primary sources help The George Washington Foundation staff to understand the Washingtons and others so we can better inform the visitor. Most importantly, primary sources help us to remember that, while the past was certainly different from today, the people of the past were human just like us and, in a way, can bring them to life.  Let’s see how!

Lawrence Washington to Augustine Washington - May 30, 1741

The letter dated May 30, 1741 written by Lawrence Washington to his father Augustine Washington while fighting in the War of Jenkins’ Ear. Credit: Raynor’s Historical Collectible Auctions.

The primary source we will use in this blog post is a letter written by Lawrence Washington (eldest son of the Washington family) to Augustine Washington (patriarch of the Washington family). The letter was written on May 30, 1741 from Jamaica where Lawrence was fighting as a loyal subject of English king against the Spanish, one of the other European powers competing for global dominance through colonization.

The letter provides the reader pertinent details in how the Colonial Era differed from the 21st Century; yet it also contains clues on how the two time periods are similar. Lawrence begins by addressing his father with “Honored Sir” and ends with “Your ever dutiful Son,” a stark contrast in how we might address our parents or relatives today. This suggests that families in the Gentry class of the original English colonies addressed their elders with an air of formality and respect. This would have been much the same in their mother country of England and a practice carried over by the colonists.

Lawrence also mentions that he had written many letters to his father, but “to [his] great concern, [he] [had] never yet received one from Virginia”. This gives us a closer look into the lives of military men of that time who were missing home and writing fervently to their families. A soldier’s timeless and ever-present homesickness can also be seen in Lawrence’s grumbling that “We are all tired of the heat & wish for a Cold season to refresh our blood.”

Lawrence also comments to his father, “I hope my Lotts are secured; which If I return shall make use of as my dwelling”. As the eldest son, he would have received inheritance in the form of land from his father. Unlike today, land was everything to the people of the Colonial Era, and it is not unusual for Lawrence to remind his father of his intentions with his land once returning to Virginia from war abroad. Like us today, he also worries about a debt he owes. Even men at war abroad today make similar statements to loved ones about worries and plans after their service is complete.

Lastly, another statement Lawrence makes to Augustine is that “War is horrid in fact.” He also relates how he and his compatriots have learned “to watch much & disregard the noise, or shot of a cannon”. This brief description of war could come from any century.

Many living in 2018 can fail to recognize the many similarities they have with persons from history. In doing so, we can forget to see the people of history as individuals living lives similar to our own. We can easily turn them into a historic figure, and forget they are a person. This often happens with George Washington and the rest of his family. However, the beauty of primary sources is that they can bring someone who has passed long ago, back to life in our imaginations.

Allison Burns
Museum Educator

Advertisements

The Thriving Theatre of Colonial America

Theatre is one of America’s most popular and thriving art forms. It has been a part of American culture since the early part of the 18th century. The development of theatre in the earliest American colonies in New England was prohibited because of those colonists’ strong Puritan beliefs. Colonial America’s first theater was built in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1716 after a number of English actors arrived in the more-accepting South and began performing plays.  Acting ensembles and student groups performed plays, which for the most part were amateur productions, in makeshift theaters and temporary venues—anything from a barn to a large tavern room. Eventually, theaters were built in other cities like Philadelphia in 1724, New York in the mid-1730s, and Charleston in 1736.

The typical colonial theater was not like the ornate theaters of today. Shaped like a shoebox, the stage occupied one-third of the space. The seating took up the remaining space. All different walks of life and classes came together to enjoy theatre performances from the boxes, the pit, or the gallery. The box seats were reserved for the wealthy, whose objective was to be on display for everyone while watching the play. The boxes were raised on the sides of the theater and faced each other and not the stage. The “middling sort” or middle class sat on the theater’s floor in the pit on wood benches. George Washington, a devoted fan of theatre, was said to have preferred watching from the pit despite being of the higher gentry class than other patrons seated there. The gallery was for the “lesser sort”—students, sailors, and even slaves – and was located in the area we’d call the balcony. In England, the lower sort could determine a play’s success and became known as “the gallery gods.”

Royal Theatre, Drury Lane 1813

This sketch of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London in 1813 — not long after it opened — gives an idea of how one of the world’s finest theaters appeared in the early 19th century. Colonial America’s theaters would not have been this elaborate. Indeed, many of the acting companies traveling in the colonies performed wherever they could. Performances usually took place in taverns but sometimes even in barns. Credit: Public domain.

William Hallam and his brother Lewis Hallam were the first to organize a complete company of professional actors called The London Company of Comedians in Europe to bring to the American colonies. They had seen moderate success but then eventual failure in England, so they decided to try their luck in America. They had their first performance in Williamsburg in 1752, where they rented a large wooden structure which they altered to meet their needs. Their opening play was Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and music was supplied by a single player on a harpsichord. It was said that the venue was so near the forest that the players were able to shoot wild fowl from the windows of the building.

Nancy_Hallam_as_Fidele_in_Shakespeare's_Cymbeline_Charles_Willson_Peale_1771

Nancy Hallam, a niece of Lewis Hallam, as Fidele in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline by Charles Willson Peale (1771). Credit: Courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Lewis Hallam died in 1754 or 1755 in Jamaica where they had gone to perform, and his widow Sarah married David Douglass, manager of another company in the West Indies. In 1758 the companies merged and returned to New York City with Douglass as manager. The Hallams’ son Lewis Hallam Jr. was an actor and star of the company.  Responding to a growing sense of national pride, they renamed themselves the American Company of Comedians in 1763. They toured and converted theatres up and down the East Coast including the Southwark Theatre in Philadelphia, the first permanent playhouse in America and built in 1766. They also built the John Street Theatre, later known as the Theatre Royal, in New York in 1767. The Prince of Parthia, a Neo-Classical tragedy by Thomas Godfrey, was the first stage play written by an American to be presented in America by professional actors on April 24, 1767.

There were frequent attempts to ban plays during the Revolutionary War including a 1774 decision by the Continental Congress. This was a result of the opposition to British imports, as most plays were from England, as well as objections to the supposed frivolous nature of drama and other entertainments during a dangerous political crisis.

Once America gained independence from Britain, theatre began to flourish again as a national cultural art form. Restrictive wartime legislation was soon repealed and theaters opened across the country, including in formerly anti-theatre New England. By the end of the 18th century, American theatre was a rapidly growing, socially acceptable art-form, and it continues to thrive today throughout the country.

Jessica Burger
Manager of Marketing, Communications, and Technology

View theatre as many did in the 18th century—outside! Shakespeare on the Lawn at Kenmore returns for its fifteenth year with performances of As You Like It—Saturdays and Sundays: June 9-10 and 16-17, 7:00 p.m. Arrive early to tour the mansion and view the refurnishing. Bring folding chairs or a blanket, and maybe bring a picnic supper to enjoy.

As You Like It image

Sources:

Peter Holland and Michael Patterson, “Eighteenth-century Theatre,” The Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre, John Russell Brown, ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 2001: 255-298 http://thowe.pbworks.com/f/eighteenth.century.theatre.pdf [accessed May 25, 2018]

“Theatre in Colonial Virginia,” Colonial Williamsburg Teacher Gazette, April 2006, http://www.history.org/history/teaching/enewsletter/volume4/april06/theatre.cfm [accessed May 25, 2018].