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

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