George’s First Job

When visitors come to George Washington’s Ferry Farm, they can stand in what were once the fields of the Washington family’s farm, where they grew tobacco and other crops. While living here, Augustine Washington, George’s father, taught his sons – George, Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles – to see opportunity in land.

Ferry Farm Aerial View

Aerial view of the present-day Washington house replica, work yard, hen yard, and archaeological digs at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Credit: Joe Brooks, EagleOne Photography

Growing up at Ferry Farm, George Washington learned that land was wealth. He learned how to run a plantation and to manage the enslaved workers who lived and toiled on his family’s farms. He learned what crops to grow and livestock to raise, how to care for them, and how to put them to use.  George Washington was many things at different points in his life – diplomat, politician, general, president –  but, throughout his sixty plus years, he was always a farmer.

To George and the other Europeans who settled in British North America in the 1700s, land and its natural resources were privately owned commodities or raw materials to be bought or sold. Land was used to create goods for market or was sold for profit.  In other words, land was valuable and owning a lot of land made you wealthy.

Before growing anything on a farm, Washington and his fellow colonial-era farmers had to own land and the land they owned had to be defined legally. It had to have boundaries, so they and other people knew it belong to them.  If land was wealth, it was vitally important to know how much land you owned.

Creating these boundaries was the job of a surveyor and being a surveyor was, after his lifelong work as a farmer, George Washington’s first job.

Young George Washington, Surveyor

An ink sketch from 1956 imaging a young George Washington surveying. Credit: National Park Service / Wikipedia

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines surveying as “determining the area of any portion of the earth’s surface.”

Today, surveyors use the Global Positioning System (GPS), satellite imagery, lasers, and other advanced digital equipment to do their work more quickly and more accurately. When George Washington was a surveyor, he used simple tools compared to today but, 200-years-ago, these simple tools were as advanced technologically speaking as today’s surveying equipment.  Indeed, in the 1700s, surveying was relatively brand new.  The word itself first appeared only in 1682.

Although a relatively new science, young George Washington was probably familiar with surveying from an early age.  His father Augustine owned “1 Set Surveyors Instruments,” according to the probate inventory made of Augustine’s property after his death in 1743.

The state-of-the-art instruments of a surveyor in the 1700s included a surveying compass on a tripod used to figure out the bearing and direction of a proposed boundary line.  A surveying compass included “sighting vanes” used to point “the compass by peering through the slit in one of the vanes and lining up the horsehair or wire in the oval of the other vane with a target or object” along boundary line.  These targets were often just trees (sometimes marked in some fashion with a hatchet), boulders, steams, or any other landmarks.

Surveyor's Compass

Surveyor’s compass by David Rittenhouse, believed to be given to George Washington in 1782. Credit: National Museum of American History / Daderot / Wikipedia

Measuring the distance between these targets set the property’s boundaries as well as its acreage. These distances were measured using chains carried by the surveyor’s assistants known as chainmen.  A full surveyor’s chain was 66 feet long and 100 links and eighty of these chains equaled one mile. “Dragging a sixty-six-foot chain through the brush of colonial Virginia’s forests was impractical.” These long chains snagged on trees and other vegetation so surveyors in the colonies used a chain that was only 33 feet long with 50 links.

Surveying Chain

Surveyor’s chain, c1830. Credit: National Museum of American History / Daderot / Wikipedia

George Washington began a survey by choosing a starting landmark as well as a landmark to travel towards.  He recorded the direction of the line using his surveying compass.  Then, to measure the distance, the rear chainman held one end of the chain at the starting point while the lead chainman walked a straight line toward the ending target.  As the surveyor, George constantly checked the compass to make sure the chainmen followed his line.  Keeping the line straight sometimes meant the lead chainman hacked his way straight through brush and undergrowth.  Once the he reached the end of the chain, the lead chainman pinned it to the ground and the rear chainman brought up the other end. They then repeated the process until the ending point of the line was reached. The rear chainman picked up the pins as they walked.

Fifteen-year-old George Washington made one of his first surveys on February 27, 1747 when he measured out his older half-brother Lawrence’s turnip field at Mount Vernon. According to Ledger Book Zero, Washington bought a Gunter scale, essentially a two-foot long ruler specifically designed to solve the trigonometry problems common to surveying, from his cousin Baily on September 20, 1747.

Thirteen months later, on March 11, 1748, George accompanied George William Fairfax and James Genn, the Surveyor of Prince William County, on a month-long trip across the Blue Ridge Mountains and into Virginia’s frontier to survey land for Thomas, Lord Fairfax.  Young Washington kept a journal of his experiences.

In 1749, at age 17, George was commissioned the surveyor of the new county of Culpeper by the College of William & Mary, which appointed all county surveyors in Virginia This was unusual for someone this young to be appointed.  A year later, he began a two-year period of off-and-on trips throughout Virginia’s Frederick County, which at the time encompassed a vast swath of frontier land that today makes up nine separate counties in two states“By 1752, Washington completed nearly 200 surveys totaling more than 60,000 acres.”

In the later 1750s, George began to focus his work life more on soldiering (the French and Indian War) and farming. He never completely stopped surveying or acquiring land, however. In 1771, he surveyed Ferry Farm in preparation to sell the property and he surveyed for the last time in 1799, the year he died.

In the colonial age, land was wealth and was how many colonials, including George Washington, made their living.  As such, early Americans wanted to know what land they owned as well as how much they owned.  Surveyors, like George Washington, measured the land and created boundaries so ownership would be clear.  “At one time, Washington owned nearly 70,000 acres between the Potomac and Ohio Rivers.”  Surveying was Washington’s first job and allowed him to begin to build vast amounts of land holdings and thus wealth. This wealth, in part, propelled him to the heights of colonial American society and politics.  He began this journey as a surveyor while living at Ferry Farm.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

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Ferry Farm’s Bird Life: An Update

Fredericksburg Birding Club

Members of the Fredericksburg Birding Club at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Between September 2017 and February 2019, the Fredericksburg Birding Club (FBC) conducted 12 bird surveys at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  We did three in spring, one in summer, three in fall, and five in winter.  During that time, we saw 78 of the 136 species listed in the “Checklist of Birds at Ferry Farm” pamphlet and saw 3 new species for a total of 81 species spotted.  All observations were recorded at ebird.org.[i] A full list of species observed by the FBC during this time follows.

The chart below compares species listed in the “Checklist of Birds” with those seen by the FBC by abundance designations. Some species vary in abundance with season and, in those cases, these species were given the designation used during their most abundant season.  For example, Catbirds are uncommon in spring, common in summer and fall, and rare in winter.  Nonetheless, in the chart, they were designated as common because summer and fall are when they are encountered most, spring sightings are the “earlybirds” anxious for warm weather, and winter sightings are out-of-habit occurrences.

Designation Definition # of species on “Checklist of Birds” # seen on FBC surveys
Abundant

 

Very numerous 16 16
Common Likely to be seen or heard in suitable habitat 23 23
Uncommon Present, but not certain to be seen 44 29
Occasional Seen only a few times during a season 40 8
Rare May be present but not every year 13 2
New Not listed in checklist (3) 3

 

 

Total

   

139

 

81

As you can see, we observed all birds listed as abundant or common. In addition, we saw 29 of 44 listed as uncommon; eight of 40 species listed as occasional; and two of 13 as rare.  We also sighted three species not listed: the American Pipit, Red Headed Woodpecker, and Pied-billed Grebe.  These sightings bring the total of rare birds at Ferry Farm up to 16 and the total number of bird species seen to 139.

American Pipit

American Pipit. Credit: Becky Matsubara / Wikipedia

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker. Credit: William J. Majoros / Wikipedia

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe. Credit: Mdf / Wikipedia

We don’t think the low numbers of uncommon, occasional or rare species indicate a trend as we are comparing 12 field days over 18 months with former Ferry Farm staff member Paul Nasca’s eight years of intense observation.

However, we noted two differences in frequency of sightings compared with the “Checklist of Birds.”  We only sighted one Catbird and they are listed as common in spring and summer.  In contrast, we have seen Bald Eagles on five of our 12 outings and they are listed as occasional.  Again, at this point in our surveys, these are just interesting observations to follow, not necessarily trends. This year, we expect to pick up more uncommon species and hopefully some occasional species. We’ll see if any of rare ones show up.

Bird Species List

Four of the surveys were conducted during the breeding season — spring through summer — and that data was entered into the Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas 2 (VABBA2) database.  This atlas is the second for Virginia, the first being compiled from data collected between 1985 and 1989. VABBA2 will document breeding birds throughout the Commonwealth with data collected over five breeding seasons from 2016-2020.

The VABBA2 database notes specific behavior observations that indicate breeding.  By those criteria, we confirmed breeding of four species: Tree Swallow, Northern Cardinal, Chipping Sparrow, and House Finch.  We also observed probable breeding of four additional species: American Crow, Eastern Bluebird, Common Yellowthroat, and Carolina Chickadee.  While we know these and other species breed at Ferry Farm, we have to observe behaviors or actual juvenile birds to document the breeding.

Highway noise from State Route 3 and the Blue-Gray Parkway at the south end of the property may be a factor in bird observations for both birds and birders.  Studies have documented birds abandoning nesting areas or changing breeding songs so they can be heard.  Additionally, highway noise makes it difficult for birders to hear songs, which affects observations of both bird presence and breeding activity.

The club’s major goal this year is to increase field days in the spring and summer both to document bird presence, particularly of uncommon and occasional species and to observe breeding behavior for VABBA2, increasing the number of confirmed breeding species at Ferry Farm.

Maureen Daly Hamm
Fredericksburg Birding Club

[i] During the non-breeding season, all birding data is entered directly into ebird.org at “George Washington’s Ferry Farm” hotspot.  During the breeding season, the data must be entered through https://ebird.org/atlasva/home.  VABBA2 has split Virginia into geographical blocks and the breeding data must be entered in the block where the birds are observed. Unfortunately, Ferry Farm falls into two different blocks. The southern field area is in block 0380277C4SW, and the remainder of the property is block 0380277C4CW.  We submit data for the southern field area as “George Washington’s Ferry Farm 038077c4SW” The block 0380277C4CW data encompassing the majority of Ferry Farm property is listed simply as “George Washington’s Ferry Farm.”  We will investigate ways to make the data simpler to access, but it may not be possible until the breeding bird survey is complete.