The Hazards of Winter in Washington’s Day

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Washington house replica at George Washington’s Ferry Farm after a December snow in 2018.

Many people find winter miserable. It can be hard dealing with freezing temperatures, inclement weather, and long nights.  With much of the nation experiencing record-breaking cold and windchills today and the current temperature at George Washington’s Ferry Farm as we publish this post only 20 degrees Fahrenheit. it may not feel like it but our modern conveniences negate some of the brutality of the season. Colonial Americans did not have these luxuries.  For them, winter was not just difficult but deadly.

OUTDOORS

Winters outdoors in the 18th century were dangerous for many reasons that we take for granted.  Modern infrastructure and weather forecasting have reduced the dangers of winter for us today.

Colonial Americans did not have a permanent network of solid roads and sidewalks they could rely upon.  Roads and walking paths were often dirt and subject to seasonal change.  When the weather turned icy and snowy, the road into town could disappear while a well-worn path through a forest became much more perilous.

Furthermore, lakes and ponds vanished under layers of snow, which gave the impression of a solid surface and created the illusion of a quick but deadly shortcut.  It was common for people and sleds to venture across the frozen water sometimes with lethal results as newspaper reports show.

Williamsburg, January 28. The Weather has been so excessive bad, for some Time past, that there has been scarce any passing the Rivers, for Ice, or travelling for Snow.  And we have Accounts from several Places, of Persons being frozen to Death, and others drowned, by attempting to cross the Rivers.  No Post has come from the Northward these 6 weeks; and we may reasonably conclude, that as the Weather is so severe here, it is worse there. – Virginia Gazette, January 28, 1738

For the last two days the weather has been severely cold. On Thursday night the Mercury in Fahrenheit’s Thermometer was 26 degrees below freezing point; and yesterday morning the Delaware river was frozen, so that many persons crossed on the ice.  Nearly opposite to Spruce Street it broke under a young man, and he fell into the water.  With great difficulty he was saved, after being nearly exhausted with the cold. — Gazette of the United States, & Philadelphia daily advertiser, December 24, 1796

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Gazette of the United States, & Philadelphia daily advertiser, December 24, 1796

A heartbreaking example of drowning after falling through ice happened in 1793 when a group of cousins tried to cross what was thought to be a solid frozen river in their sleigh.  The ice broke, taking all under the water.  Assistance was rendered by people on the shore but only one person could be saved.

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Gazette of the United-States, New York, NY, March 24, 1790

Fluctuations in temperatures, unpredictable by the rudimentary weather forecasting available at the time, were also very dangerous.  Many underestimated just how quickly freezing temperatures could take their toll and suffered frostbite or succumbed to exposure while trying to carry on with daily life.  On one particularly cold February day in New York, frigid temperatures even froze wine and beer.   In Boston, during the same cold snap, “two or three persons were found frozen to death the beginning of this week, and … many people in the country had their ears and cheeks frostbitten going to public worship.”

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Virginia Gazette, March 25, 1773

INDOORS

Indoors, dealing with freezing temperatures in the 18th century was a constant struggle made more difficult because fire was the only source of heat.  Fire in the open hearth was not efficient, consumed copious amounts of fuel, and only provided warmth within a small area. Almost 90% of the heat produced by a fire in a traditional colonial fireplace escaped up through the chimney. Not only that, but chimneys were drafty, letting in cold air.  This ineffectiveness meant that a family’s living space became restricted and fires were kept going almost constantly.

The quest for warmth lead to many house fires.  The Washington family even experienced a house fire first-hand sometime in the 1740s at Ferry Farm. A small fire began near the fireplace in the hall back room and did enough damage to ensure major repairs. The upper floor would have been well smoked and whole parts of the first floor ceiling were ruined. The home was damaged, but not lost, and repairs ensued.  Archaeological evidence of this fire includes a root cellar filled with fire related ash, burned artifacts, and fire-damaged plaster.

Although it is unreliable, there is some documentary evidence, of a fire at Ferry Farm in a letter to George Washington from Robert Davis dated May 25, 1795.  Written 55 years after the fact, Davis’s memories are interesting but contradict the physical evidence found by archaeologists. He wrote…

“I am not sure but I was once a play Mate of yours many years ago, was Colonel [Augustine] Washington who lived on Rappahannock & opposite to Fredericksburgh your Father, whos Estate Joined a Plantation of Mr Anthony Strathers on the River side—from Mr Strather, a Mr Robt Shadden had a Store house, with him I lived as a young Assistant in the Store, Colo. Washington was very kind and indeed a second Father to me and I Remember it well, that it give me a very sore Heart that on a Christmass Eve, his great house was burned down & that he was Obliged with his good family to go and live in the Kitchen.”

A more contemporary letter hints at the fire as well but provides no real details other than some sort of fire happened.  Writing to Augustine Washington on October 9, 1741, Richard Yates opens his letter with “In the midst of your late calamity wch. you suffer’d by fire, for which I am sincerely concern’d…”[1]

While the Washingtons’ fire was apparently not a newsworthy event at the time, colonial-era newspapers carried plenty of thrilling details about many other fires for their readers.

For example in 1774, the Governor’s house at Fort George in New York City, caught fire and the Virginia Gazette, although far from New York, published stories of a narrow escape out a second story window, lost jewels and valuables, and the death of 16-year-old “servant girl” Elizabeth Garret.

Along with the increased danger of house fires, the cold also made fighting out of control fires much more difficult Another Virginia Gazette story discussed efforts to battle fires in freezing temperatures on an evening in Boston. The Gazette reported, “In this cold season were several alarms of fire breaking out which were happily extinguished before any considerable damage was done, excepting one…”  This was the joiner’s shop of Mr. Benjamin Sumner, “which before the inhabitants could be collected, was all on fire.”  People worked to extinguish the fire “notwithstanding the uncommon severity of the weather, which was so cold that the water thrown from the engines upon those building, that were in the most danger, instantly congealed into ice.”  Despite the difficulty with the extreme cold, the fire was put out, many houses were saved, no one died, and only a few people had their hands and feet frozen.

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Virginia Gazette, March 25, 1773

Some were not so fortunate.  The same newspaper dispatch about the Boston fire noted that on a December night in 1772 Michael Law of Putney lost not only his house but four children.

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Snow begins to fall on Historic Kenmore on the evening of January 12, 2019.

Winter has always been a difficult time for people. The constant battles with the cold and lethal dangers of the season were in the forefront of colonial Americans’ minds.  As Mary Palmer Tyler reminisced in the 19th century about the brutality of winter in her youth in the 18th century, “Truly the people of this age know little of the horrors of winter.” [PDF]

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Richard Yates to Augustine Washington, October 9, 1741, printed in Moncure D. Conway, Barons of the Potomack and the Rappahannock (New York, 1892), pgs 68-69.

The President’s Cough

“The day being Rainy & Stormy – myself much disordered by a cold and inflammation in the left eye, I was prevented from visiting Lexington (where the first blood in the dispute with Great Britain) was drawn.” – George Washington, October 26, 1789

The sounds of sniffling, hacking, and sneezing, are everywhere, whether at a social events, shopping, or dining out. Here in the midst of our current cold and flu season, I thought readers might enjoy hearing about a historic, 1789-1790 respiratory malady that plagued many Americans and was referred to by contemporaries as “Washington’s influenza” or “the President’s Cough.[1]” So how did this widespread illness become associated with our first president? Read on!

In the fall of 1789 President Washington took advantage of a Congressional recess to embark on a tour of the nation over which he now presided. Capitalizing on his widespread popularity, Washington journeyed to diverse parts of the Atlantic states, in order to assess its industries, its potential, and to gauge the temperament of its diverse citizenry. In part an effort to validate the fragile new administration, Washington hoped the sojourn might demonstrate to Americans everywhere the promise of their new representative government: one in which all voters could participate.* The new administration was untested, and Washington realized its success could not be taken for granted. He appreciated that his own popularity would significantly contribute to its initial success and long term stability.

This particular trip focused upon the New England states. Everywhere that Washington traveled, he was greeted by throngs of enthusiastic well-wishers, and he quickly found crowds craved the opportunity to cheer their victorious general. Americans were especially exuberant when they witnessed the president, not in a suit (the attire of a politician), but rather in his splendid, buff-and-blue Revolutionary War general’s uniform. Washington exuded confidence in this familiar regalia, but his role as a political leader of a democratic republic was less familiar and did not ‘fit’ as well.

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“Washington’s Inauguration at Philadelphia” by J.L.G. Ferris from a postcard published by The Foundation Press, Inc. in 1932, which itself was a reproduction of oil painting from the series: “The Pageant of a Nation.” This scene imagines George Washington arriving to be inaugurated at Congress Hall in Philadelphia on March 4, 1793. Credit: Library of Congress

From a young age, Washington was sensitive to the fact that his appropriate attire, deportment, expressions, and manners made good impressions that paved the way toward success. Elegant appearance and grace were personified by the self-conscious Washington, who first practiced these talents under his parent’s roof. Throughout this trip, if Washington was not in uniform, he often elected to wear black velvet mourning clothes, worn in honor of his late mother, who had recently passed away, losing her battle with breast cancer on August 25, 1789.

While Washington and the crowds who met him throughout his journey presented a stirring spectacle to the eye, the laudatory ceremonies were peppered by the sounds of wheezing and constant hacking from attending throngs and orators alike. The widespread disorder afflicting the new Americans originated in the southern states and Middle Atlantic region. In November, the American Mercury newspaper of Hartford, Connecticut reported that symptoms included “great languor, lowness, …anxiety, frequent sighing, sickness, and violent headache,” muscle aches and difficulty breathing (American Mercury November 9 1789:2). Children and the elderly appeared to escape the worst of the illness. The widespread illness was noted in letters and diaries across the nation. Newspapers recorded the spread of the pervasive illness.

Mere respiratory distress did not dissuade the hacking citizenry from catching a glimpse of their new president and showing their support for their republican government, however. Americans greeted Washington with pageantry and elaborate ceremonies. While well-intended, such rites made the first president – and many Americans – uncomfortable, as these formalities were too similar to the monarchical adulation from which the newly-established nation sought to distance itself. Adoring citizens cheers were interrupted by fits of coughing. Washington referred to it as an “epidemical cold.” The illness, sometimes referred to by contemporaries as an “epidemic catarrh”[2] proved fatal to a few of those so afflicted, which was especially vicious to those in the prime of life.

As he traveled, Washington maintained his correspondence. In a mid-October letter to his beloved – and only – sister Betty Lewis, George noted that he had thus far escaped falling victim to the highly contagious flu that gripped the nation. Two weeks after he wrote this letter, Washington admitted in his October 26 diary entry that he, too, suffered from the popular contagion. Despite the physical discomfort that his illness brought to him, Washington maintained his schedule, allowing each community through which his procession entered, to honor him with various events and dinners.

Despite the hardship of his illness, Washington’s exertions during his travels were an important contributor to the unification of a diverse assembly of states experimenting with democracy.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst

 

Further Reading

Breen, T. H.
2016 George Washington’s Journey: The President Forges a New Nation. Simon & Schuster, New York.

Twohig, Dorothy (editor)
1999 George Washington’s Diaries: An Abridgment. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville.

 

[1] Dorothy Twohig, editor, 1999 George Washington’s Diaries, An Abridgement, p. 351.

* Voting rights varied by state and were generally restricted to free men who owned land.

[2] American Mercury 9 November 1789:2, Pennsylvania Packet 18 November 1789:2

“Twelfth Night at Historic Kenmore” 2019 [Photos]

Each January, Historic Kenmore presents Twelfth Night at Kenmore, a dramatic theater presentation that imagines the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis spent in their newly built home. The play is set in January 1776 and that year is not a time for the usual celebration. War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family and their friends.

The 2019 edition of Twelfth Night at Kenmore took place January 11 and 12. Here are a few photos from the performances.

Coming Soon! “Twelfth Night at Kenmore” [Photos]

On Friday, January 11, Saturday, January 12, and Sunday, January 13, Historic Kenmore will again present Twelfth Night at Kenmore, a dramatic theater presentation set in 1776.

This production depicts the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis celebrate in their newly built home. It is not the usual joyous atmosphere, however. The Revolutionary War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family, their friends, and Kenmore’s enslaved community.  Here are some photos from last year’s performance.

Performance dates: Friday, January 11, Saturday, January 12, Sunday, January 13
Performance times: 3:30 p.m., 4:00 p.m., 4:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m., 6:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

Reservations required. Call 540-370-0732 x24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org

Cost: $12.00 adults, $6.00 ages 3-17; under age 3 free.