We Really Dig History!: This Summer’s Excavations at Ferry Farm

Archaeological excavations at George Washington’s Ferry Farm have occurred nearly every summer since The George Washington Foundation purchased the property in 1996. The summer of 2017, when the majority of the replica Washington house construction was underway, was the major exception. The archaeological site was proved too close to ongoing construction so excavations were put on hold until the summer of 2018.

This year, a five person crew consisting of a field director Steve Lenik, assistant field director Elyse Adams, and interns Reagan Andersen, Cheyenne Johnson, and Aileen Kelly worked from April to July on the Ferry Farm property. For five weeks, an additional seven students from Georgia Southern University and the University of South Florida came to Ferry Farm for a field school, to learn the basics of excavation and lab work.

The North Yard

Historic AreaN

We investigated two areas.  The first, an area at the crest of the ridge to the north of the replica house, was the North Yard.  This yard lies between the Washington House and a slave quarter that was completely excavated in previous years. The purpose of digging in this area was to find evidence about who controlled this space. Was it the domain of those who lived in the Washington House or of the enslaved population who lived in the quarter?

Excavations are not yet complete in this area, but we discovered that this space was relatively clean compared to the Work Yard and areas immediately behind the Washington house, where a lot of trash and debris from daily 18th century activities were found during past excavations. The lack of trash and debris in the North Yard was likely because, in colonial times, this was part of the property visible from Fredericksburg and therefore was well-kept  A public space like this one would have likely fallen under the control of those who lived in the Washington house.

North Yard Excavating

Field school students excavating the North Yard.

We were also looking for evidence of any other outbuildings and gardens, in order to accurately recreate the landscape of the farm as it was in the 1700s. We discovered evidence of large trees that lived on the landscape during the 18th century in this area. This discovery will allow archaeologists to look even closer into the use of this space with the goal of re-creating it as it was in the time of the Washingtons.

The Work Yard

Historic AreaW

The second area we investigated during this summer’s dig was behind the Washington house in the Work Yard, which is exactly what it sounds like—a space for work to be done on a farm in the 1700s. This space is special to our research here at Ferry Farm.  Much of this space was excavated already in past years, yielded a treasure trove of artifacts and information, and was then filled back in once excavations were complete.

One small area just behind the house was left to excavate, however, and that’s where we worked this summer.  We discovered large stains in the soil, very deep in the ground.  They were made during the colonial era but, as yet, we do not know why.  This area was originally thought to be a cellar, but as excavations continued, we began to notice a series of pits instead.  Analysis is still ongoing and artifacts excavated in this space are still being processed so we don’t have answers to any of our questions yet.

Work Yard Excavating

Field crew exposing the large soil stain of possible cellar at the start of the 2018 excavations.

Work Yard Features

Final photo of the Work Yard pits at the end of the 2018 excavations.

Nevertheless, our minds were racing with possible explanations of these pits and we couldn’t help but wonder if they were somehow related to Ferry Farm’s collection of at least 215 wig curlers—very unusual finds for a Virginia farm—that were excavated above or around this space.

It’s far too soon to tell, we don’t have any complete answers, and we still aren’t finished excavating the Work Yard, but this area already is proving important to the Ferry Farm story. Once we understand the landscape and complete the Work Yard excavations, the 18th century outbuildings that have been identified and that once stood in this space will be replicated just like the main house.

Archaeology Team

The dig team! (l-r) Reagan Andersen, Cheyenne Johnson, Aileen Kelly, Steve Lenik, Elyse Adams

Future excavations will continue to yield the information we need to replicate the entire boyhood landscape of George Washington’s home. Every bit of information, no matter how small the tree root or how tiny the artifact, is pertinent to the understanding and accurate interpretation of this important landscape, and to understanding the lives of all who have lived and worked here. We look forward to many more years of discovery, and many more summers of digging into the history of the Washington Farm.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Assistant Field Director

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The Tale of the “Black Dogg”

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The heavily worn coin, known as a “black dogg” and pictured above, is a unique archaeological find at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. It was originally circulated in the French Caribbean and certainly traveled some distance to find its way to British Virginia.  The coin may have traveled this distance in the pocket of a sailor whose ship first visited the West Indies, as the Caribbean islands were known in the 1700s, and then docked at Fredericksburg to unload its cargo.  Fredericksburg was a port town in the 18th century and marked the furthest point up the Rappahannock River that small ocean-going vessels could travel before encountering rapids.  These sailing vessels were a familiar sight to the Washington family as they looked down upon the river from their home atop the bluff (Read this blog post about a Fredericksburg ship’s voyage around the Atlantic in 1732).

The coin’s poor condition is a tribute in part to how popular it was as currency. Some black doggs featured a high pewter content. Their darker color, when compared to other coinage of the time, is how they came to be called black dogs or black doggs in the British colonies. British colonists used the term generally to refer to non-British, small change coinage that came from the West Indies.  It was not a complimentary term, and these coins were typically the lowest value available.

While the French government provided coinage for its Caribbean colonies, hard currency proved difficult to come by for these islanders. French Caribbean coins such as our black dogg were widely circulated. An amalgam of copper and silver alloy coin bits, these debased silver coins provided much needed small change for remote colonies.

A new & accurate map of the West Indies and the adjacent parts of North & South America (1755) by William Richard Seale

“A new & accurate map of the West Indies and the adjacent parts of North & South America” (1755) by William Richard Seale. Credit: Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library

In 1779, France issued a coin for their Caribbean islands featuring a crowned “C” in relief on the front. The reverse side was blank, and individual islands often elected to stamp them with initials emblematic of a particular island.

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The black dogg’s front featuring a barely visible crowned “C” in relief.

Although Ferry Farm’s black dogg is in poor condition given both its many years in the soil and its popularity while in use, the “SV” counter stamp is clear, and refers to the island of Saint Vincent. Saint Vincent was a prize the British Crown enjoyed after the Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years’ War in 1763. However in 1779, the year this coin was made, the French regained control of the island for a few years. Saint Vincent was eventually returned to the British under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1783, which ended the hostilities between allies France and Spain and their adversary Britain that had resulted from the American War of Independence.

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The black dogg’s reverse featuring a stamped “SV” for Saint Vincent.

At the same time, this coin may be a counterfeit produced in England. Birmingham produced many counterfeit coins, which were sometimes referred to as “stampe” or “stampee.” Since a counterfeit coin possessed some silver content, it provided some value for its users, but it was not minted by a government.  Caribbean islanders were so desperate for hard currency that even coins that were easily recognized as counterfeit circulated freely, much to the dismay of colonial governments.

Correspondence of the time occasionally refers to people buying “a dogs worth” of a given product. In this context, “dog” referred to the currency used, not our four-legged friends. A dogs worth would represent a very small quantity. For poor people and the enslaved –  whose commerce involved trading or purchasing items of low value – coins worth a fraction of a pence were popular indeed.

Although the black dogg coin found at Ferry Farm was of little value in the 1700s, for us today, it is an excellent representation of the far-flung British empire and of a thriving global network of trade that even reached Fredericksburg and the Washington family at Ferry Farm.

If you’d like to learn more about 18th century coins and the colonial economy, watch the lecture “Credit and Coinage: The Economy of Colonial Virginia”.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst