Abraham and The Ropewalkers: Finding Large Stories in Small Details

The staff of Historic Kenmore & George Washington’s Ferry Farm regularly conducts research into the enslaved communities that existed at both Kenmore and Ferry Farm during the Lewis and Washington family occupations.  Most of the surviving information about the enslaved is of a statistical nature – numbers, ages, locations, and luckily, names.  In comparison to the amount of documentation surviving about the Lewis family at Kenmore, however, the records pertaining to that site’s enslaved residents are scant.  And yet, Kenmore’s enslaved community is remarkably well-documented in comparison to other historic sites.  At Kenmore, we started our project with four known primary documents which survive in our manuscript collection:

  1. “The Probate” – Fielding Lewis’s probate inventory, conducted in 1781
  1. “The Divvy List” – a list written by Betty Lewis, outlining the division of slaves between her children as directed by Fielding Lewis’s last will and testament (list is dated 1782 and provides the age of each enslaved person listed, as well as some familial relationships)
  1. “The Vendu List” – a page from an account book that lists the names of enslaved people, as well as the skill or trade for some, and some familial relationships, on the Kenmore property that are to be sold at vendu (public auction or sale) following Betty Lewis’s death in 1797 (list is dated 1798, the author is unknown)
  1. “The Final Disposition” – a similar page from an account book that lists the names of slaves who were actually sold at the vendu in 1798, as well as the price paid for each and in some cases, the person who purchased them (the author is unknown)

Initially, these documents provided us with a timeframe for slavery at Kenmore, and a way to calculate the number of people owned by the Lewis family (in total, we believe that Fielding Lewis owned approximately 132 people in 1781, spread between his two primary plantations in Fredericksburg and in Frederick County, Virginia).  But, as we began to read the documents with a more critical eye, other details began to emerge – tiny notations and symbols, words crossed out by an unseen hand 200 years before, and abbreviations with an unknown meaning.  We noted every single one of these pen strokes.  There was actually a great deal of information hidden in plain sight on these documents – we just had to decipher it.

Abraham RW

Portion of The Divvy List showing Abraham with an “R.W.” after his name.

One such mysterious notation appeared on the document we refer to as the Divvy List.  One name, Abraham, appeared in the column for enslaved persons going to Robert Lewis.  Abraham was listed as being age 25, and the letters “R.W.” were written after his name.  What did R.W. mean? No other name in the document showed the same notation, and there didn’t appear to be any other clues in the Divvy List, so the mysterious “R.W.” was simply noted in Abraham’s file (we have developed a file for each enslaved person identified in the project) and we moved on.  But Abraham’s odd notation would come up again, with some interesting significance.

In the Vendu List, we were presented with unambiguous, cut and dry information.  Names of the enslaved, their skills, and children identified with their mothers.  It didn’t require a great deal of interpretation.  However, there were three enslaved people who showed some rather unusual skillsets.  Bob, George, and Randolph were all listed as being “ropemakers.” While ropemaking was certainly an important trade in the 18th century, having three people with that skill in a group of 25 adults seemed somewhat unusual.  Again, the information was noted in each individual’s file and we made a mental note to come back to it at some point.

Bob 2 and 3

Portion of The Divvy List showing Bob #2 with “Fredbg” after his name and Bob #2 with “Ropewalk” after his name.

The enslaved individual named Bob in the Vendu List was one of three Bobs who showed up throughout the four original primary documents, but only in the Divvy List did all three Bobs show up at the same time, which afforded us the chance to distinguish between the three individuals.  Bob #1 was age 27, Bob #2 was age 50 and Bob #3 was 23 years of age.  Bob #2 and #3 were listed as going to Lawrence Lewis, while Bob #1 was to stay with Betty.  Using a device that she employed throughout the Divvy List to differentiate between people with the same name, Betty added a word after each Bob.  Bob #1 had “(long)” written after his name, probably referring to a physical characteristic as “long” often meant “tall.” Bob #2 had “Fredbg” after his name. Obviously, this is simply an abbreviation for Fredericksburg where Bob lived (as opposed to the Lewis property in Frederick County). Bob #3 had “ropewalk” written after his name.  Initially, we thought it was a misprint and that Betty had intended to write “ropemaker”, since one of the ropemakers on the Vendu List was a Bob.  But, what if it wasn’t a misprint? What if, like “Fredbg”, “ropewalk” indicated the place where Bob 3 lived? And if that was the case, what if the notation of “R.W.” following Abraham’s name also indicated a place? What if that place was a “ropewalk”?

Prior to the invention of steam power, ropewalks were quite literally the places where rope was handmade throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.  They were most often found in port cities, like Liverpool, England, Norfolk, Virginia, and Boston, Massachusetts (where the earliest colonial ropewalk is documented in 1642)[i], to serve the endless need of maritime vessels for incredible lengths of rope (the British Navy required that a single rope be no less than a 1,000 feet and the HMS Victory required 26 miles of rope).[ii]  Once the American Revolution was in full swing, and the fledgling American Navy had come into existence, the colonies were on their own for producing enough cordage to supply the fleet, and smaller ropewalk operations began popping up in river towns and military supply centers.

Wright's Rope Walk, 1770

Wright’s Rope Walk in Birmingham, England about the year 1770.

Large commercial ropewalks, like those in Boston, were comprised of low, one-story, incredibly long sheds (Gray’s Ropeworks in Boston was 934 feet long – more than 3 football fields), usually with only a roof.  These structures housed a ditch in the ground, in which long hemp fibers were laid out and twisted together by “spinners” who had to walk the length of the building, backwards, while twisting and pulling hemp fibers, hence the name “walk.”  A ropemaker could walk the equivalent of 20 miles in one day’s work.[iii]  Spinners wore bundles of hemp fibers wrapped around their waists, which they fed into the twisting rope in front of them.  Spaced at regular intervals along the ditch were wooden posts, with hooks mounted on them.  The spinners would loop the freshly spun rope over the hooks as they proceeded down the ditch, to keep the tightly wound fibers from snapping backwards or coiling in on itself.  Ropewalks were also known as incredibly dangerous places, as the air was filled with the fine dust of hemp fibers which easily ignited and could cause uncontrollable fire.

This back breaking work was done mostly by free tradespeople in northern cities.  In fact, one of the first three men killed in the Boston Massacre was Samuel Gray, a ropemaker at Gray’s, who had been involved in several street fights with British soldiers, along with a gang of his fellow ropemakers, in the days leading up to the Massacre.  Ropemakers were known agitators for the revolutionary cause and fomented sedition in the ropewalks of Boston.

In a complete contrast, in southern ports, ropemaking was performed almost entirely by enslaved labor.  In Virginia, there were at least 18 ropewalks in operation by the end of the war.  Three of them were government-sponsored and used public funds to purchase hemp from local farmers.  The rest were private ventures, run by merchants and entrepreneurs who saw the growing need.[iv]  The largest of the public operations was the Public Rope Walk in Warwick, near Richmond.  It had become the primary rope producer for the Continental Navy after the British destruction of their own ropewalks at Norfolk, which had been confiscated by American forces after the war began.[v]  At its height, Warwick employed 28 enslaved laborers.  In 1781, Benedict Arnold led British forces against Richmond, with one of their main objectives being the destruction of the Warwick ropewalk, which they achieved.  Fifteen of the enslaved workers were captured (or perhaps chose to leave with British forces).  The Virginia government sold the remaining 13 ropemakers to private ropewalks around the colony.[vi]  The catastrophe at Warwick was a huge blow to Virginia naval forces and for the duration of the war it was up to the smaller ropewalks to meet demand.

So, if Fielding Lewis owned enslaved persons who appeared to be living at or employed in a ropewalk, was there a ropewalk in Fredericksburg? Fredericksburg was a primary depot for supplies being shipped out to the Continental Army and to the Virginia militia.  Fielding Lewis himself oversaw many supplies distributed out of Fredericksburg and, of course, he was one of the two owners of the Fredericksburg Gunnery, which manufactured and supplied weapons to the Continental Army.  Additionally, Fielding owned several transatlantic trade ships, which he converted into naval patrol vessels once the war broke out.  Those ships required rope before and during the war. Perhaps ropemaking was another war-time activity that Fielding participated in?

Ad for Atkinson & Hanewinkel, Virginia Gazette, September 1776

Advertisement for “dressed FLAX and HEMP” placed by John Atkinson and Alexander Hanewinkel in the September 6, 1776 edition of Purdie’s Virginia Gazette.

It turns out that there was indeed a local ropemaking industry with three separate ropewalks documented in the Fredericksburg area.  According to an ad placed in the Virginia Gazette in September of 1776, Alexander Hanewinkel and John Atkinson had opened a hemp and flax factory that made textiles, sail cloth and rope, and included a school to train laborers to break and dress hemp for rope.  It read, in part, “Gentlemen may have their negroes, etc. instructed in Flax Dressing, for six months of their labour.”[vii]  However, it appears that Hanewinkel and Atkinson ran out of money for their venture by the end of the year and petitioned the House of Delegates to provide them funding.  Hanewinkel and Atkinson specifically mentioned the high wages charged by laborers skilled in ropemaking and weaving as being among the reasons they were running short of money.[viii]  Another ad in the Virginia Gazette in 1777 indicates that another ropewalk had been set up in nearby Falmouth by John Richards and James Long, who were seeking to hire a manager, but almost no record of this ropewalk exists beyond the ad.[ix]  Lastly, John Frazer started the Fredericksburg Ropewalk, which appears to be the largest of all the local ventures.  In fact, the Fredericksburg Ropewalk is documented as sending cordage north to supply the rope merchants in Alexandria, despite the presence of several ropewalks in that city.[x]  Additionally, James Hunter (Fredericksburg merchant and business rival of Fielding Lewis) purchased 11,000 pounds of cordage from the Fredericksburg Ropewalk in 1779, indicating a rather large operation.[xi]

Likely because of the chaos of war and the ad hoc way in which the Americans were trying to supply the war effort, documentation for these ventures is hard to find, and therefore we don’t even know where in Fredericksburg the ropewalks were located.  The smaller ropewalk operations begun to help the war effort were usually much less formal than their pre-war counterparts, like Gray’s Rope Works in Boston.  Instead of actual sheds or roofed buildings, most were just the long, straight ditch in the ground, bordered by occasional wooden posts on either side, situated on flat stretches of land, like fields or flood plains.  With so little actual structure, archaeological evidence for these sites is sparse.  The Jones Point Ropewalk site in Alexandria, Virginia has been excavated, but archaeology revealed only post holes in long rows, with a stained stretch of ground between them (the stain may have been caused by the tar that was poured over the rope to make it resistant to rot).[xii]  Such a site would be hard to locate without any indication of where to look.

The Fredericksburg Ropewalk probably did not have actual sheds or roofed buildings. It was most likely just a long, straight ditch in the ground, bordered by occasional wooden posts on either side, situated on a flat stretch of land similar to this Dutch ropewalk.

The likeliest candidates for the places where the Lewis family’s enslaved ropewalkers Abraham, Bob, George and Randolph were employed are either the Hanewinkel & Atkinson factory and school, where Fielding might have sent them to learn a profitable (for him) trade, or the Fredericksburg Ropewalk, which was clearly the largest operation in the area.  But, the petition for funds put before the House of Delegates by Hanewinkel seems to indicate that he and his business partner were having no luck in attracting owners to provide slave labor to their ropewalk.  On the other hand, would Fielding have been willing to supply labor at his own expense to business rivals like James Hunter and John Fraser?

Interestingly, it may be that a major clue about enslaved ropemakers at Kenmore was right in front of us all along.  Among the “odds and ends” of assets and instructions for their disposition listed at the very end of Fielding Lewis’s will is “my share in the Chatham rope walk in Richmond” (which Fielding directs to be sold and the proceeds divided between his sons).  Prior to learning that three, and possibly four, of the enslaved persons at Kenmore were ropemakers, this reference seemed to be just one of many rather insignificant business matters.  But suddenly it became a more important notation.  What was the Chatham ropewalk? Obviously it was in Richmond, but could we learn anything more about it? In fact, we could.

The Chatham ropewalk (sometimes called the Chatham Rope Company, sometimes the Chatham Rope Yard, and also the Chatham Ropery) was owned by a consortium of businessmen led by Archibald Cary, who also had part ownership in one of the ropewalks destroyed by the British at Norfolk in 1776.[xiii]  It didn’t take him long to regroup however, and less than a year later, in August 1777, Cary and associates were advertising in the Virginia Gazette for trained spinners to work at the Chatham site, which was located on Shockoe Hill.  Fielding Lewis is not mentioned as one of the founding investors in the venture, but he certainly knew Cary, as they served in the House of Burgesses together and both were tasked with procuring military supplies in central Virginia.

Rope, or line, was an 18th century essential, rather on Atlantic sailing vessels or a Virginia farm.

There appears to be some debate about the fate of the Chatham ropewalk.  In January of 1781, when Benedict Arnold and his British forces raided Richmond, many industrial buildings were intentionally destroyed, aimed at critically injuring the American war machine.  Arnold identified a ropewalk as being among the facilities that he and his men destroyed in Richmond (in addition to the ropewalk at Warwick, outside of Richmond), and since most of their destruction took place in and around Shockoe Hill, some historians maintain that the Chatham ropewalk seems the likely candidate.[xiv]  However, the Marquis de Lafayette apparently quartered his troops inside the ropewalk “on the east side of the city”[xv] (which would also describe the location of the Chatham ropewalk) when they marched through Richmond a few months later, which would seem to indicate that the ropewalk structure was still standing.  And of course, Fielding Lewis seemed to feel that his share in the Chatham ropewalk was still worth something when he wrote his will in October of 1781.  No additional family documents shed any light on whether or not the share was sold as directed.

So, the question now becomes, did Fielding Lewis send Abraham, Bob, George, and Randolph to work and possibly live at the local Fredericksburg ropewalks or did he send them all the way to Richmond to work and live at a ropewalk in which he had a financial stake? Arguments for both can be made, but at the moment we haven’t found any documentation to conclusively say which it was.  One final clue, although its meaning is still unclear, was discovered in a fragmented receipt in the Kenmore archival collection.  The receipt, dated 1794, shows that Betty Lewis paid off her account with the Fredericksburg general mercantile store Callender & Henderson by hiring out the labor of Bob, George, and Randolph for one year to David Henderson.[xvi]  As all three were ropemakers, we have to assume that Henderson was interested in them for that skill and was aware that they had it.

As to the ultimate fates of Abraham, Bob, Randolph, and George, we know some things.  Abraham was intended to go to Robert Lewis when he came of age, and so we assume that he did.  However, estate records for Robert Lewis show no Abraham on his property at the time of Robert’s death.  Bob was apparently intended to go to Lawrence Lewis, but instead he must have stayed with Betty Lewis, as his name and occupation of ropemaker appear on the Vendu List in 1797.  However, his name does not appear on the Final Disposition, so we do not know with any certainty who purchased him at the sale.  Randolph also stayed at Kenmore and is listed on the Final Disposition document as being sold to George Lewis for £121.  As property of George Lewis, he would have gone to Marmion Plantation on the Northern Neck.  Interestingly, George was also sold to George Lewis in the Final Disposition, for £122, meaning that Lewis had purchased two of the three ropemakers listed.

Abraham’s mysterious “R.W.” notation was initially just a fragment of information to be cataloged as part of the larger project to research the enslaved communities at both Kenmore and Ferry Farm.  While we know almost nothing else of this man, that tiny two-letter notation revealed a story that he was a large part of – what trade he may have had, where he may have lived, and which members of his community he may have been closest to.  We will continue to search for these larger stories in the smallest of details.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[i] Samuel Gray.  Boston Massacre Historical Society. http://www.bostonmassacre.net

[ii] HMS Victory, The National Museum of the Royal Navy. https://web.archive.org/web/20120501012634/http://www.hms-victory.com

[iii] The Long Story of the Jones Point Ropewalk, 1833 – 1850. National Park Service Historical Marker. https://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=127774

[iv] Swenson, Ben. Hemp & Flax in Colonial America. Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Winter 2015.

[v] Ward, Harry M. and Harold E. Greer, Jr. Richmond During the Revolution: 1775 – 1783. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA. Pg. 136.

[vi] Herndon, G. Melvin. A War-Inspired Industry: The Manufacture of Hemp in Virginia During the Revolution. The Virginia Magazine of History & Biography, Vol. 74, No.3 (July, 1966).  Pg. 309.

[vii] Ibid, Pg. 305.  Virginia Gazette, September 5, 1776.

[viii] Journal of the House of Delegates, Anno Domini 1776. Library of Virginia. Pg. 8.

[ix] Herndon, 307.  Virginia Gazette, June 6, 1777.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] John Frazer to James Hunter, August 25, 1782. ALS. Hunter Family Papers, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, VA.

[xii] The Long Story of the Jones Point Ropewalk, 1833 – 1850.

[xiii] Ward, 136.

[xiv] Ibid, 137.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Receipt, January – December, 1794.  Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 716.

Where Are the Human Remains?: The Washington Family

Ferry Farm’s tens of thousands of years of human habitation has provided archaeologists with nearly 800,000 artifacts to date, consisting of discarded items left by the people who lived on, worked, or visited this land. A question we often receive from visitors is where are graves of the PEOPLE who left behind these discarded items?

Well, nearly all of the Washington family, who lived at Ferry Farm from 1738 to 1772, are buried elsewhere. George is in a burial vault at Mount Vernon, where he died 220 years ago.  If you are a Fredericksburg local, you likely know George’s mother Mary is buried on Washington Avenue near Kenmore, her daughter Betty’s home. Although he died at Ferry Farm, George’s father Augustine is buried at Pope’s Creek where George was born. A Washington family cemetery had already been established there years before. George’s brothers Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles and sister Betty are accounted for in various other cemeteries in both Virginia and West Virginia.

George Washington's Tomb

George Washington’s Tomb at Mount Vernon. Credit: Tim Evanson

Washington Family Burial Ground

Augustine Washington, George’s father, is buried in the Washington Family Burial Ground at Popes Creek, where George Washington was born. Credit: National Park Service

2016MaryWashingtonMounment

Mary, George’s mother, is buried near The Mary Washington Monument on Washington Avenue in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

So, are any Washington family members buried at Ferry Farm? The only Washington buried here is George’s youngest sister Mildred, who was born shortly after the family moved to Ferry Farm in 1738, and died at only 16 months old. Her cause of death is unclear, but the infant mortality rate in the 18th century was far higher then it is today.

The topic of burials at historic sites like Ferry Farm can be both exciting and panic-inducing for archaeologists. In general, we are pretty well-versed in identifying grave shafts long before we reach actual human remains and measures are always taken to know as much as possible about where we are going to dig before we actually initiate an excavation.

Human burials leave telltale signs when they are accidentally disturbed if you are paying attention. When soil is removed from the ground and then returned during the digging of a grave, the now mixed composition of the soil doesn’t look the same as the undisturbed soil surrounding it.

In any case, how to approach the care of a burial site is a serious subject and a legal subject too. In Virginia, if archaeologists discover human remains, a permit or court order is required to continue the excavation. Once permits are in place, forensic archaeologists who specialize in excavating human remains are called in. They must determine if the burial is old or new, and whether or not we may have stumbled into a possible crime scene. Usually (thank goodness), there is no crime scene but a whole new can of worms is opened in determining what to do next.

We don’t know exactly where the remains of Mildred Washington are located on the Ferry Farm property. All we have to locate the burial site is a survey of the property conducted by George himself in 1771, where he uses “the little gate by the tombstone” as his beginning reference point to lay the boundaries of what George called “the fields where my mother lives”.

Along with the survey is an 1833 painting by John Gadsby Chapman of the Washington property facing the Rappahannock River that shows foundation stones where the Washington House stood and, in the approximate location of the grave on George’s survey, the silhouette of an object that resembles an arched headstone.

In 2009, we brought in experts to conduct a geoscientific study to assist in locating but not excavating the grave of Mildred. It would help the foundation planning effort if we knew where this important grave was located. William Hannah, Claude Petrone, John Imlay, and Dale Brown conducted non-destructive remote sensing surveys in and around the area identified in George’s 1771 survey. These remote sensing surveys included ground-penetrating radar (GPR), electromagnetic induction (EMI), and vertical magnetic-gradiometry.

Ground-penetrating radar survey of George Washington's Ferry Farm by Bill Hannah and John Imlay.

Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) survey of a portion of George Washington’s Ferry Farm conducted by Bill Hannah (R) and John Imlay (L).

GPR by DaleBrown and PetePatrone

Dale Brown (L) and Pete Patrone (R) assisted with the GPR survey.

The researchers kept in mind that while finding Mildred’s grave was like searching for a needle in a haystack, there were some clues to hold onto while conducting the search. First, they considered the 1771 survey and the Chapman painting, and then they focused on the probable size of the grave. To prepare themselves for what kind of anomalies to look out for on their equipment, they looked at a modern growth chart for a 16 month old child. The composition of the container holding the body was also considered. It was determined the size of the anomaly should be around 29.25 to 33.25 inches in length, and though it had been 270 years, any iron elements such as coffin nails might be detected with these methods.

Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) uses electromagnetic radiation in the radio spectrum to reflect signals off of anomalies below the surface. In short, radar waves bounce off of objects of different densities in the ground, providing an image of differences in the surrounding area. You can see voids as well as objects. The image created comes back like this:

Electromagnetic induction (EMI) measures changes in electromagnetic fields, and the magnetic susceptibility of both metal and non-metal materials to provide a sub-surface image (below). The resulting image maps areas of more and less resistivity, revealing patterns and shapes that archaeologists can use to identify any possible features.

EMI by Bill Hannah

Bill Hannah begins an electromagnetic induction survey at Ferry Farm.

Vertical magnetic-gradiometry senses total magnetization of ferrous (iron) materials and produces imaging similar to EMI, but using just magnetization instead of electrical conductivity. Patterns and shapes that archaeologists recognize are still present.

SONY DSC

Bill Hannah conducted a magnetic gradiometry survey of Ferry Farm.

Once plotted on a map, there were a few areas in the expected region that had “grave-like” qualities based on the 2009 remote sensing survey.

Diagram from remote sensor survey report show "grave-like" echoes.

Diagram from remote sensor survey report shows “grave-like” echoes.

Armed with evidence from surveys old and new, we theorize that this area is the possible location of Mildred Washington’s grave. But without a full excavation, we can’t be certain if this is Mildred’s gravesite, or if this area even contains a grave at all. Conveniently shaped anomalies can throw off researchers, but these geophysical surveys provided useful evidence. There are indeed a few anomalies that are the right length, width, and depth of a grave for a young child. We have not conducted any ground-truthing, or surveys that involve coring or probing the ground, nor have we dared to move dirt in this area for fear of disturbing Mildred’s final resting place. The area remains undisturbed, even while the surrounding excavations and the construction of the replica Washington House took place from 2016 to 2018. Due to the destructive nature of archaeology, avoiding the grave site is best for now, and there are no plans to disturb or excavate the area.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Co-Field Director / Archaeology Lab Technician

Five Cool Ancient Artifacts Found at Ferry Farm [Photos]

Fredericksburg is famous for its colonial and Civil War history – but what about before that history?  Decades of archaeological excavations at George Washington’s Ferry Farm have revealed millennia of human development and technology from pre-historic Native American Clovis spearpoints to 18th-century wig curlers and beyond.  While our main focus rests on young George Washington’s story, nearly 25% of all artifacts ever found at Ferry Farm have actually been Native American in origin with many dating thousands of years into the past.  Here are five cool ancient artifacts found at Ferry Farm…

Jasper Drill: The above is the tip of a jasper drill.  It may have been adapted from a spear point, which was not uncommon.  When a spear point broke or became too short from re-sharpening sometimes they were turned into other tools.  This particular drill likely dates to around 8,000 BCE to 6,000 BCE.

Clovis Point: Also, jasper, this spear point (shown above) is our oldest artifact and dates to between 13,500 BCE – 11,000 BCE.  To learn more about it, visit our previous blog post here.

Ground Stone Axes: These two axes (depicted above) were found together.  They’re made of Catoctin metabasalt, which is also often called ‘greenstone’.  They were in use from 3000 BCE – 1000 BCE.

Mystery Bead: This large partial bead (shown in the two photos above) is a bit of a conundrum.  It’s made from non-local sandstone and is heavily weathered.  To further the mystery, it was found with the stone axes discussed above and the chunkey stone discussed below, leaving us to believe these artifacts were part an amateur archaeologist’s collection and may not have been brought here by people indigenous to Virginia.

Chunkey Stone: The doughnut-shaped stone (in the above photo) is made from quartzite and is part of a game called chunkey which was invented around 600 CE.  To learn more about our chunkey stone, check out our recent blog post here.

See these and other artifacts during ArchaeoFest: Exploring Ancient Techology at Ferry Farm this Saturday, October 26 from 10am-4pm.  Enjoy a family-friendly day focused on early human technology! Scheduled demonstrations by members of EXARC, a global network of experimental archaeology professionals and other experts, include flint knapping, throwing spears using atlatls, making Viking glass beads, 18th century stone carving, and much more.  Experimental Archaeology demonstrations begin at 11am.  Dive into hands-on activities like an archaeological dig, see a sampling of the thousands of Native American artifacts excavated at Ferry Farm, and visit with members of the Patawomeck tribe.  Admission is $9 for adults, $4.50 for students,  and free for under age 6.  To learn more, visit ferryfarm.org.

When Games are Serious Business: Chunkey

Sometimes games are just fun but sometimes games can make you or break you. This is the case with chunkey, a Native American game.  Invented around 600 AD by indigenous peoples of the Cahokia region (near modern day St. Louis, Missouri), chunkey was a popular game that spread across much of North America.  There were variations in the rules, depending on the cultures playing it, but the basic premise was that a large ground stone disc (a chunkey) was rolled across a level field by a player. One or multiple players from the opposing side would then throw sticks (also called chunkey) underhanded at the stone, aiming to get as close as possible or to touch the stone once it stopped rolling.  Chunkey stones took time to make, were considered valuable, and were often communal property of a village.

Although the game could be played casually, Chunkey tournaments were a big deal with much pageantry and costumes, often drawing people from far away to participate and watch.  Think of it as an ancient Super Bowl.  Gambling was common at these events with players risking everything, including their honor, on the outcome.  Reportedly some unfortunate defeated players killed themselves after a loss.

Chunkey continued to be played after Europeans arrived in North America and was subsequently documented by some who frequented the events.  However, sometime in the mid-19th century, the game lost favor, likely as a result of the decimation of indigenous cultures by those same Europeans.

“Tchung-kee, a Mandan Game Played with a Ring and Pole” (1832-3) by George Catlin depicts Native Americans playing chunkey. Credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum

This brings us to the chunkey stone excavated at Ferry Farm.  Visitors who see it immediately note that it looks like a stone doughnut.  Personally I believe it to be one of our coolest artifacts.

Chunkey stone excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Oddly enough, this chunkey was found suspiciously close to three other prehistoric artifacts, not all of which belong on an archaeological site in Virginia.  Two stone axes and an odd bead were recovered right next to the chunkey in soils that were plowed which caused the mixing of artifacts from different time periods.  The axes date to the late archaic period (3,000 BCE – 1,000 BC) while the chunkey stone, as stated above is thousands of years younger.  Additionally, the bead, which is still a bit of a mystery, is a type of sandstone not found in Virginia.

So does this mean that indigenous peoples hundreds of years ago were playing chunkey on a site that would eventually be George Washington’s home?  Maybe…but maybe not.  When you add all of these factors together it starts to look more and more like these items were collected in the historic period and did not necessarily belong to any tribes living at Ferry Farm. The English and their colonists were prodigious collectors of natural and Native American artifacts.  Famous colonial collectors include Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

The chunkey stone and these other Native American artifacts are still very cool finds but definitely a reminder that removing artifacts from their original location without preserving their context greatly limits how archaeologists can interpret them.  And, in this case, may throw archaeologists a bit of a curve ball …er, a curve chunkey!

Play a version of chunkey during ArchaeoFest: Exploring Ancient Technology at Ferry Farm on Saturday, October 26 from 10am-4pm.  For more details, visit kenmore.org.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

The Brick Building Where George Didn’t Sleep: A History of Ferry Farm’s Visitor Center

The Visitor Center at George Washington’s Ferry Farm is a lovely red brick colonial revival building with towering white columns and cool architectural details built in the 1960s.  What’s not to love?  The only problem with having a 20th century building that looks like it could be from the 18th century is that people who visit sometimes assume our visitor center is actually Washington’s boyhood home, a mistake that’s easy to make.  Even though our building dates from just 50 years ago, it does have its own fascinating history. Here is the tale of this often misunderstood yet beloved structure.

Ferry Farm Visitor Center (2)

The Colonial Revival-style exterior of the Visitor Center at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

In the 1950s, The George Washington’s Boyhood Home Restoration, Inc. (GWBHR) owned Ferry Farm and was dedicated, as many groups had been before, to transforming the property into nationally-renowned historic site dedicated to the young life of the first president.[1]  By the end of the decade, the group’s hopes had dimmed and, in 1961, board member “Joe Zenker . . . brought Ferry Farm to the attention of Youth for Christ International” (YFCI).[2]

Youth for Christ emerged out of a series of Christian youth rallies centered in Chicago during the Second World War.[3] By the 1960s, the organization’s Lifeline ministry was working with social welfare services to help children deemed troubled, disadvantaged, or as having difficulties living in foster homes.[4]

Youth For Christ was interested in Ferry Farm as the location of a boys home and initially hoped to purchase the site from GWBHR but that was not to be.  Instead, a YFCI majority was placed on the GWBHR’s board and they launched their plan to build the home.[5]  It was hoped that by living where Washington grew up the young men would “develop character . . . and become leaders in our country.”[6]

Ferry Farm Visitor Center (3)

A visit to Ferry Farm begins at the welcome desk inside the Visitor Center.

By 1962, Youth For Christ was using an existing farm house on the property called the “Colbert House” after the family who built it in 1914.  Paul Millikan was placed there to curate the George Washington Museum on the first floor and to function as YFCI’s on-site representative while a suitable boys’ home was constructed.[7]

The architects hired to design the boys’ home were Robert Sully and Stephen Oppenheim. They envisioned a large Colonial Revival structure with a formal symmetrical garden on the grounds.  Construction of the home was started in fall of 1965 by Nice Brothers Inc. of Newport News, Virginia and was completed by January 1966.[8]

Ferry Farm Visitor Center (4)

A museum gallery in the Visitor Center displays artifacts excavated by archaeologists at Ferry Farm and panels chronicling George Washington’s boyhood and the construction of the Washington house replica.

By the fall of 1966, boys were living in the house and spent time “taking meals, being bussed to local schools for class, performing chores, working on homework, and participating in recreational activities.”[9]  There was time for play as well.  Archaeologists have excavated toys and game pieces such as “Hi-Ho Cherry-O” cherries throughout the property. Whether or not these games were provided as a reminder of Washington’s youth and the myth of the cherry tree is unknown, but it is certainly possible that this game was part of YFCI’s plan to evoke Washington ideals even through play.[10]

While the local community donated food, gasoline, and household items, these gifts did not provide funds to address the house’s mortgage payment. The live-in house parents at the time, Gilbert and Kathe Nichols, were critical of this lack of involvement as seen in The Free-Lance Star on February 16, 1968:

Frankly disappointed in support the home has received here, the Nichols say their critics are honest in wanting to know why the home needs money and how it can expect local aid when it refuses to take local boys into its care….  All monetary contributions must, in the home’s financial arrangements, go toward the mortgages, [Gilbert] Nichols says. Support money from the court and a small income from the George Washington Boyhood Home shrine go toward operating expenses. . . .  Nine of the 10 boys living at GWBH now are from Virginia, but not from Fredericksburg or nearby counties. And the fellows are mainly ones who need a new environment to get on the right track in society. This is why local boys aren’t accepted. Too close to home and old peer groups, boys wouldn’t feel the impact of the normal, yet professionally guided life.

As former director of the home Gary Foss recalled, Fredericksburgers probably expected a large, well-funded national group like Youth for Christ to fully fund the house.  The sizable mansion-like building itself surely exacerbated this feeling.[11]  Moreover, its appearance confused visitors, who mistakenly thought it to be George Washington’s actual boyhood home.[12]

Ferry Farm Visitor Center (5)

Visitors may watch archaeologists analyze artifact findings through these windows that look into the Archaeology Lab in the Visitor Center.

Faced with growing debt on the new building as well as day-to-day costs, YFCI sold access rights to the southern portion of Ferry Farm to be used to quarry stone for gravel to form the roadbed of I-95.[13]

Operations at the boys’ home ceased in the summer of 1968 because a fundraising drive by Youth For Christ to keep the home open was not successful. On August 2, 1968, The Free-Lance Star reported that “The George Washington Boys’ Home in Stafford County is being closed after more than two years of operations. . . .  The phase-out marks the end of a dream for Youth for Christ, Inc.”[14]  By 1969, there were no longer any boys living at the George Washington Boys’ Home.

Ferry Farm Visitor Center (6)

The office of a member of the museum education staff in Ferry Farm’ s Visitor Center.

On March 27, 1969, Samuel and Irma Warren bought the property containing both the historic area and the closed Youth for Christ boys’ home.[15]  The Warrens rented out the boys’ home building to a variety of religious groups.

The first tenant was the Fredericksburg Bible Institute and Seminary and the related Crossroad Baptist Church.  The institute, founded by Dr. George Albert Brown, Jr., moved into the building on the first day of January 1970 while, later in the decade, Brown’s newly formed Crossroads Baptist Church met for three years in the building.  In 1981, the church and institute vacated the property to move into a new building in Fredericksburg.[16]

Ferry Farm Visitor Center (1)

The Warrens’ next tenant was Calvary Chapel starting in 1985.  Three years later, Calvary tried to use the building once more as a foster home for teenage boys.  Six boys, ranging in age from 12 to 18 years, were placed in the home called Samuel House.  This effort lasted only two years and was the final attempt by anyone to make Ferry Farm into a residential youth home.  Calvary Chapel did continue using the building for church services until 1995.[17]

Today, the boys’ home building serves as the Visitor Center for George Washington’s Ferry Farm and houses the Archaeology Lab and staff offices for The George Washington Foundation, which has operated Ferry Farm as well as Historic Kenmore as historic sites together since 1996.  This is the building where your visit to Ferry Farm and the newly built Washington house replica begins and we hope to see you soon!

Sasha Erpenbach, UMW student
Fleming Smith Intern

 

[1] Rebekah K. Wood, “History of the Visitors Center Building, George Washington’s Boyhood Home at Ferry Farm,” The George Washington Foundation, October 15, 2010: 1.

[2] Philip Levy, Where the Cherry Tree Grew: The Story of Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Boyhood Home, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013: 169; Wood, 1.

[3] Dr. Art Deyo, “Celebrating 70 Years of Youth for Christ: YFC’s History,” https://www.yfc.net/images/uploads/general/YFCs_History_by_Dr._Art_Deyo_-_Final_Version.pdf [accessed July 29, 2019]: 1-4.

[4] Oral History with Gary Foss, January 18, 2008. Interviewers: Melanie Marquis and Rebekah Wood. The George Washington Foundation Oral History Project, The George Washington Foundation, Fredericksburg, VA: 2, Deyo, 8.

[5] Foss oral history, 8.

[6] Foss oral history, 6, 10, 22.

[7] Wood, 3; Oral History with Paul Millikan, Jay Kessler, Bruce Love, and Gary Foss, July 1, 2008. Interviewers: Melanie Marquis and Rebekah Wood, The George Washington Foundation Oral History Project, The George Washington Foundation, Fredericksburg, VA: 22.

[8] Wood, 3-4.

[9] Wood, 4.

[10] Melanie Healy-Marquis, “Souvenirs from Ferry Farm: Two Centuries of Myths at George Washington’s Boyhood Home,” 2009, 11.

[11] Foss oral history, 10, 18.

[12] Wood, 5-6.

[13] Levy, 173.

[14] John Goolrick, “Boys Home Here Begins Shutdown,” Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star, August 2, 1968: A1.

[15] Wood, 8.

[16] Wood, 8.

[17] Wood, 9.

Little George Goes to London [Photos]

A staff member who works at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore recently vacationed in London.  Little George accompanied her and visited places related in some fashion to George Washington and his era as well as the city’s most popular tourist sites.  Here is a collection of photos documenting Little George’s travels!

GW on Blackheath

GW at Greenwich

Little George stayed with a friend in Blackheath, straddling the Boroughs of Greenwich and Lewisham.  Blackheath is famed for its heath, or large field, while nearby Greenwich Park boasts impressive views of London.

GW on Thames

Little George views the Thames River at Greenwich.

GW at Cutty Shark

Little George relaxes at the Cutty Sark, an old pub in Greenwich built in the early 1800s on the spot of an even older pub that catered to sailors.

GW at Hatfield 1

GW at old Hatfield

Little George visits old Hatfield House (above top), which was the home of Elizabeth I before she became Queen in 1558.  The “new” Hatfield House (above bottom), a Jacobean house built around 1611, is the seat of the Cecil Family, the Marquises of Salisbury.

GW and St. Pauls

Little George near Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The site of a church since CE 640, the current cathedral was built by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed the previous church.

GW at Old Royal Navy College

Little George at Old Royal Navy College, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, established in 1692 as the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich. Then, in 1873, it became a training site for the Royal Naval.  George himself nearly joined the Royal Navy as we’ve written about here.

GW at Pillars of Hercules

Little George outside the Pillars of Hercules pub in Soho, which we’ve actually written about on the blog.

GW at British Museum

Anti-colonial propaganda British Museum

Little George toured the British Museum, founded in 1753, and saw an ceramic bowl decorated with an anti-colonial propaganda.  Personal objects often carried or were endowed with political symbolism. Read about the 18th century political significance of ceramics, cuff links, and pipes.

GW at BF house

Little George at the door to Benjamin Franklin House, where Franklin, the colonies’ representative before the Crown, lived and worked for sixteen years from 1757 to 1775.

GW Buckingham Palace

Little George outside Buckingham Palace, built by the Duke of Buckingham and acquired by King George III in 1761.  It is the main official residence of the present-day British monarch.

GW and dentures

At the Museum of London, Little George looks at a nice pair of 18th century dentures that he probably wished he could have had instead of his painful dentures of cows, donkey, and human teeth encased in lead.  Read about George’s infamous teeth troubles here.

GW with Tarleton Painting

Little George with Tarleton, The Butcher.  Tarleton was a colonel in command of the British Legion, a contingent of Loyalist cavalry and light infantry. At the Battle of Waxhaws in South Carolina on May 29, 1780, Tarleton’s force ignored the white surrender flag of some Virginia Continentals led by Colonel Abraham Buford and killed 133 soldiers, severely wounded 150 others, and captured 203, earning his infamous nickname.  Tarleton also undertook some raids into Virginia and, for a time, it was feared he might come as far north as Fredericksburg or Mount Vernon to abduct George’s mother Mary, his sister Betty, or even his wife Martha.

Cornwallis Pub

Little George at The Marquis Cornwallis, a pub in Bloomsbury, London.  Charles Cornwallis was a general in the British Army during the American Revolution whose surrender to George Washington in 1781 ended the Siege of Yorktown and ultimately the war in America.

GW at Westminster Abbey

Little George at the famed Westminster Abbey, coronation and burial site of numerous English and British kings and queens.

GW with GW at National Gallery.png

Little George stands next to a statue of himself outside The National Gallery.  The Commonwealth of Virginia gave the statue to Great Britain and Ireland and it was erected in 1921 on a square of American soil.  It is based on Jean Antoine Houdon’s marble statue in the rotunda of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond.

GW on Tube

Little George rides the London Underground, which first opened in 1863, only 64 years after George Washington’s death. While the Tube was not around in his time, Little George approved of it as a great way to get around the city.