We Really Dig History!: 2020 Excavation at Ferry Farm

After a delay of five months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, archaeological excavations in the Washington house work yard at George Washington’s Ferry Farm got underway in mid-August and finished on October 30.  Despite the cancellation of a planned spring field school with archaeological students from the University of South Florida, a crew of four paid interns and two college students helped make up the labor difference and our work commenced.

Our 2020 project continued last year’s exploration of the Washington-era work yard.  This area located to the east of the house is where the everyday activities of a busy colonial household took place.  Permanent structures such as a kitchen, dairy, smokehouse, storage sheds, office, laundry, temporary workspaces, and landscape features like gardens were concentrated in this area near the house but out of view of the public eye and the formal riverfront side of the house. Evidence of these buildings and work areas, in conjunction with the trash generated from their associated daily activities, is of the utmost importance in our planned authentic recreation of Ferry Farm’s Washington-era landscape. 

Location of the 2019-2020 archaeological dig.

In addition to reopening the unfinished 2019 excavation site, we opened fourteen new 5 foot x 5 foot units directly north, revealing a total of 800 square feet. Our approach to excavating was the same as in previous years – remove the 20th century layers, then the 19th century layers, and so on, across the entire site, allowing us to view related features at the same time.

2019 and 2020 excavation site.
Visitors to the site interact with the excavators.

We uncovered numerous new features dating from the 20th century back into prehistoric Native American times. Modern gas and electric lines crisscrossed the site on their way to a now-demolished early 20th century house. They cut through multiple historic layers and sometimes through intact earlier features.  Eighteenth century features we excavated included a large, circular, flat-bottomed pit, 5 feet in diameter. The pit’s purpose is still under investigation. A 10-foot long linear feature, obviously related to last year’s still unknown Features 274 and 275, was also found just to their northwest, adding to their mystery.

Feature 285 – Historic large circular pit with a 5’ diameter
Feature 283 – Historic linear feature, similar to Features 274 and 275 found in 2019
2019 Features 274 and 275

An especially exciting discovery this year was uncovering a large post mold and post hole in the southern end of the site.  The posthole indicates the presence of a post-in-ground structure and excavations next year will try to reveal more of this building. Adding another outbuilding to the Washington landscape would be very exciting.

Feature 288 – Post mold and Posthole located at southern edge of the site

Hundreds of artifacts, of course, were collected during our three-month dig, including wig curler fragments, Native American projectile points, and Civil War bullets. We also found lots of historic ceramics and glass and architectural items, including this stoneware pot base fragment wrapped within a large tree root pictured below. 

Stoneware fragment encased within a root.
A sample of artifacts found one day ranging in age from the 21st century to the Prehistoric era.
One of eighteen wig curlers found during this year’s dig.

The upcoming winter months will be spent washing and cataloging all the artifacts recovered across the site, drawing the features and site maps, and writing reports. The site is securely covered for the season and will wait for us until the next dig starts, hopefully in the spring.

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Co-Field Director

How to Do Archaeology During a Pandemic

Like so many of you, in the middle of March this year, nearly all employees of George Washington’s Ferry Farm & Historic Kenmore began working from home and did not return to our offices for two and a half months.  We expected a lengthy time away and, as such, prepared as best we could for the change.  For some departments, the change mainly involved figuring out access to digital files but, since our jobs revolve around physical artifacts, we archaeologists had to do a little improvising.

The ‘wet lab’ where artifacts are washed before cataloging and analysis sits quietly unused at George Washington’s Ferry Farm during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.

First, while it’s normally not a “best practice” to take artifacts home, we really had no choice if we were going to remain productive.  This meant I as archaeology lab supervisor and that Elyse and Judy, archaeology lab technicians , all had to create what essentially amounted to an a archaeology lab in each of our homes.  Elyse and Judy need space to wash, label, and catalogue artifacts while I needed space to analyze artifacts while simultaneously keeping them away from my extremely inquisitive preschooler! I mostly succeeded in that last task. Elyse actually enlisted the help of her older and amazing daughter June with washing artifacts.  As so many of us found out in 2020, working and parenting from home is not easy but Elyse and I adapted well, I think.

Elyse Adams, archaeology lab technician, and her daughter June wash artifacts at home.

It should also be noted, however, that keeping artifacts away from all of our many, many dogs and cats proved challenging as well.   While my cats were thrilled (well, as thrilled as cats can get, at least) that I was home all day, they were occasionally of the opinion that the Washington-era porcelain sherds I was researching looked much better on the floor.

Despite these challenges, we got the job done and eventually returned to the lab at Ferry Farm having accomplished quite a bit.

Life inside Ferry Farm’s archaeology lab looks quite different now, too, compared to this time in 2019. Since the lab is relatively close quarters, we instituted a rigorous cleaning schedule, spaced our work areas out as much as possible, and started taking temperatures every day.  Our beloved volunteers have not come back (Shout out to our volunteers! You guys are awesome!) because we needed to limit the number of people working in the lab to only myself, Elyse, and Judy.

One of the coolest features of our lab is the huge viewing window through which visitors could see real live archaeologists at work.  While Ferry Farm is now open to the public for tours, the visitor center remains closed and there’s no longer any inquisitive folks peering at us through the glass. It’s a surprisingly lonely feeling not to glance up from our work occasionally to see visitors watching what we’re doing.  We also put a temporary halt on lab tours that we do occasionally during special events or children’s camps at Ferry Farm.  Both of these changes are a bummer because we really liked the interaction we had with visitors. That being said, we’re optimistic that someday life will return to normal eventually and we’ll be able to share our lab with the public once again.  When that time does finally comes, please visit and check out the archaeology lab at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. We miss you!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

When a Spoon is More Than a Spoon: The Initialed Teaspoon of Betty Washington

One of the most exciting and important discoveries archaeologists have made at Ferry Farm is a pewter teaspoon baring the initials B.W.  It belonged to Betty Washington.  This spoon was part of a set that trained her to oversee the extremely important tea ceremony.

Serving tea in the 18th century was more than an act of providing a mid-afternoon refreshment or a small meal to family and guests.  Tea time, with its prescribed social behaviors and ritualistic customs of service, symbolized gentility and civility, and was an expression of social class.[1]  As an imported good, tea was initially an expensive commodity used only by the upper and middle classes of society.  In addition to the tea, a proper hostess also had to purchase the accouterments of the tea ceremony, such as teapots, cups and saucers, slop and sugar bowls, milk jugs, silverware, and a suitable tea table for presentation.  The cost of these accessories, as well as the time and decorous social habits needed to prepare, serve, and entertain family and guests, meant that the tea ceremony was more a custom of the elite leisure classes, who had the time and money to do such things. 

As a restricted custom, the tea ceremony transformed into an indicator of class and gentility, and consequently, its “social and cultural significance increased enormously.”[2]  Rules governing the behavior of the participants, including the host, family and guests, were understood by all and represented learned standards of civility. Politeness and courtesy were important, and deference was made to the hostess in terms of the pace and content of conversation.  Even the act of serving tea was ceremonial in nature. Seated at her tea table, the hostess made, poured, and distributed an individualized cup of tea for each guest, who received it in a gracious manner.  It was a “small personal ceremony” that “epitomized the giving that was at the heart of hospitality.”[3]

Two ladies and an officer seated at tea (1715) by unknown artist.
Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum.

The tea ceremony was a gendered activity almost exclusively performed by and associated with the women of the household, who selected the teaware that they used in the ceremony[4] A household’s leading female figure, often the wife or oldest daughter, predominantly oversaw the service of tea to family members and guests, emphasizing her position of authority within the household and the gathered social circle.  As such, women used the opportunity to express their gentility and respectability.[5]

Teatime also supplied a moment to maintain and cultivate important social ties within the community.[6]  Neighbors, business and political associates, and potential suitors met over a convivial small meal and discussed important matters.

Teatime was also an opportunity to teach the younger generation, especially girls, how to act and behave during this social encounter.[7] As a future wife in charge of her household, it was essential for women, such as Mary Washington’s daughter Betty, to know how to successfully conduct this unique social custom and be able to demonstrate her inclusion and influence in the community elite.[8]  Betty was trained in the art of tea making, as is evidenced by the archaeological presence of a pewter teaspoon bearing her initials at Ferry Farm.  Monogrammed just for Betty, the teaspoon was part of a beginners tea set used by a young lady to train for many future tea times to come.

Betty Washington Lewis (1750) by John Wollaston. Credit: Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

Betty’s uncle Joseph Ball also sent her a silver tea set when she was a teenage girl, further enforcing her future role.[9]  The importance of properly entertaining guests with such tea equipage cannot be overstated, but in addition to this, Betty’s learning how to elegantly serve tea was a must for her prospects as the future wife of a well-off gentleman.  One can imagine a teenage Betty serving tea gracefully to her future husband, Fielding Lewis, having practiced diligently with her pewter and silver tea sets.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist


[1] Woodruff Smith, Consumption and the Making of Respectability, 1600-1800 (New York: Routledge, 2002), 173; Amanda Vickery, Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 275.

[2] Smith, 172.

[3] Vickery, 273.

[4] Annie Gray, “‘The Proud Air of an Unwilling Slave’: Tea, Women and Domesticity, c.1700-1900,” in Historical and Archaeological Perspectives on Gender Transformations: From Private to Public, ed. Suzanne M. Spencer-Wood,  23-43 (New York: Springer, 2013), 28; Smith, 174.

[5] Smith, 173.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Smith, 174.

[8] Laura Galke, “The Mother of the Father of Our Country: Mary Ball Washington’s Genteel Domestic Habits, Northeast Historical Archaeology 38 (2009): 29-48.

[9] Paula Felder, Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family: A Chronicle of Eighteenth-Century Fredericksburg. (Fredericksburg, VA: The American History Publishing Company, 1998), 68.

More Than Meets the Eye: What Their Portraits Say About the Lewis Family

On walls of the Historic Kenmore’s drawing room hang two large portraits of a man and a woman.  The man is an older gentleman in a serene outdoor setting, looking quite dignified and sober in a brownish knee-length jacket, knee breeches and long waistcoat. His eyes rest on the portrait viewer, one hand on moss-covered rocks, the other on his hip, and his head turned slightly to his left.  Across the room, the woman sits at a slight profile with her head turned to her left to face the portrait viewer. She wears a billowing blue and white dress and holds two pink roses in her right hand while her left arm casually sits on a marble top table. She is indoors with what appear to be some drapes billowing behind her. The man and woman are Fielding Lewis and Betty Washington Lewis, the owners of Kenmore.

Fielding and Betty’s portraits were commissioned by the couple and painted by prolific colonial artist John Wollaston in the 1750s.  On the surface, these paintings are just two genial portraits that provide us with visual records of the heads of the family. Through the subtle symbolism, however, they also tell a larger story of how Fielding and Betty wished to be portrayed publically to their contemporaries as well as to posterity.

Portraits first became a popular mode of expression for the aristocracy and the wealthy during the Renaissance.  These paintings were usually large scale affairs meant to be displayed and seen by the public.  The paintings depicted people with expensive goods, fine cloth, rare flowers, and exotic pets. Whether the portraits’ subjects actually owned these items was less important than the suggestion including the items made. In fact, these paintings were filled with symbolism–images, objects, or colors representing ideas and that allow the artist to go beyond the obvious to create links between otherwise different concepts.  A color can depict character, a flower personality and a fabric economic status.[1]

Through symbolism, portraits were used to reflect social status, wealth, success, power and cultural refinement.  A portrait’s details were integral to the story of the painting and many factors had to be taken into account.  Aspects such as artist, style, background, color, fabric, and accessories all needed to be discussed to create the portrayal desired by the patron.[2]

Centuries after the Renaissance, the importance of portraiture as a record of status and position in society had not changed and the custom had become more popular outside of the aristocracy as well as outside of Europe.  Even in faraway British North America, the wealth of the gentry, or upper class, desired portraits to show their status and position. Fielding Lewis and Betty Washington Lewis, members of the gentry with a wealthy business in Atlantic World trade, were no exception. Mr. and Mrs. Lewis wanted to portray themselves as socially refined not only to cement their place in the community but to allow for a continued rise in their status.  Accordingly, they sat for portraits by John Wollaston.

Fielding Lewis (c. 1753-1758) by John Wollaston.

The most noticeable thing about Fielding’s portrait is the muted colors used in the background and in his clothing.  One of the most visually striking symbols in portraits was the colors used to represent the subject.  While color may not have inherent meaning, it can be made meaningful through context.  The colors in the background, clothing, and accessories all relate to the overall message or story being told by the artist. The browns, greens, and beiges in Fielding’s portrait create a natural and relaxed atmosphere.  The nature background is a stylized classical bucolic setting that helps strike a balance between Fielding’s muted clothing palette and the landscape setting.  The woodland glen signifies a natural sincerity that, when mixed with the brown and beige of his ensemble, creates the feeling of calmness, reliability, dependability and an earthy richness.  All of these traits are important for a successful merchant.  Fielding was telling visitors to his house that he was a person they could do business with and trust.[3]

Betty Lewis (1750) by John Wollaston. Credit: Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

Betty’s portrait uses color, context, fabric and an accessory to illustrate her own geniality and her family’s affluence, for not only as a Lewis but as a Washington as well.  The background around Betty, who is at the center of the portrait, offers hints of this grandeur with brown walls and a heavy brown billowing curtain creating a frame of luxurious richness.  To add to the opulence, Betty is poised with her arm resting on an ornate Rococo-style marble top table with heavily carved gold legs.  The portrait conveys that she can afford such ornamental comforts.  Next to the table, Betty in her flowy blue and white satin dress with a pair of roses resting on her right knee is the focus.  Blue was a popular color for ladies and was common in many portraits painted by Wollaston. The color gives the sitter not only an air of peace and calmness but also of restraint and intelligence. The satin denotes a luxury and fashion available to only those with means. Meanwhile, the pink rose tells of Betty’s grace, beauty and gentility.  Overall, the portrait depicts a sophisticated and refined 18th century woman, a wife and mother who adds balance and depth to her husband’s trustworthiness and professionalism.[4]

Fielding and Betty did not stop with portraits of themselves.  About twenty years after sitting for John Wollaston, they commissioned famed painter Charles Willson Peale to produce several portraits of their offspring.  There are two in Kenmore’s collection.

John Lewis (c. 1775) by Charles Willson Peale.

One of these Peale portraits depicts John Lewis, the eldest son of Fielding and his first wife, Catharine who sits with one hand on his hip and one hand on a book.  The posture gives John a sense of self-assurance and capability.  Unlike his father’s subdued color palette, John’s jacket and waistcoat are an amazing red with gold detailing.  The red paired with the gold creates warmth but also projects a sense of power, strength and confidence.  The book in his the left hand gives an air of knowledge and awareness.

Fielding Lewis Jr (c. 1775) by Charles Willson Peale.

The second Peale portrait in the collection depcits Fielding Lewis Jr., the eldest son of Fielding and Betty, striking a very traditional pose with a hand tucked in his jacket and a slight tilt of the head.  The pose is welcoming, kind and is the embodiment of a thoughtful young gentleman.  Much like his father he chose a subdued color palette with an earthy reddish-brown jacket and goldish yellow waistcoat, which convey a sense of reliability, stability and affability.  The brown background adds a natural simplicity with soothing warmth.   Additionally, like his brother, there is a well-read book by his side indicating a sense of learning and mindfulness.  This portrait’s symbolism reflects the more aspirational messages in these paintings as Fielding, Jr. struggled with money problems for most of his life and even ended up in debtors’ prison.

Later portraits in Kenmore’s collection contain other fascinating symbolism that tells the stories of the paintings’ subjects. These portraits visually record family history or emphasize familial connections.

Eleanor Rosalie Tucker (1818) by unknown artist.

This 19th century portrait of Eleanor Rosalie Tucker, the great granddaughter of Fielding and Betty, is painted in characteristic neoclassical style with direct lighting, soft features, rosy cheeks and a roundness of the face.  The white muslin gown gives the young girl a purity and serenity beyond her years.  The halo surrounding the sitter represents her delicacy and gives her an otherworldliness. This is appropriate as, sadly, she was painted for this portrait on her deathbed in 1818.

The Wallace Family (c. 1856-1862) by John Adams Elder. A loan courtesy of Mrs. W. Wallace Morton, Jr.

Finally, this portrait of the Wallace family painted in the mid-Victorian period is quite a unique painting in our collection with a fascinating twist to its symbolism.  The portrait has a traditional composition but at the center is a large leashed bird in mid-flight.  This bird is a rebus, a puzzle device used to visually depict words and/or phrases.  They are used extensively in heraldry to hint at the name of the bearer.  This painting’s bird rebus is attached to a young girl named Mary Byrd Wallace, the great, great granddaughter of Fielding and Betty Lewis.

Portraits are sometimes the only visual representation we may have of a historic figure.  These portraits do more than capture a person’s appearance, however.  The wealthy and socially important also used portraits and their symbolism to emphasize their wealth and high status.  Portraits also visually recorded family history or emphasized familial connections.  For the Lewis family, like everything in their house and like their house itself, their portraits revealed how they saw themselves and, perhaps more importantly, how they wanted others to see them whether in the 18th or the 21st centuries.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager


[1] “Faces of a New Nation: American Portraits of the 18th and early 19th centuries”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Summer 2003: 11

[2] Crown, Carol. The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Vol. 23, University of North Carolina Press, 2013: 150-151.

[3] Centeno, Carlos. “Lose the Color Symbolism Chart: The Unpredictable Meanings of Color,” July 6 2016. https://medium.com/@carlitocenteno/lose-the-color-symbolism-chart-the-unpredictable-meanings-of-color-edc81db6541e; “Faces of a New Nation,” 13

[4] “British and American Grand Master Portraits of the 1700s”, National Gallery of Art. https://www.nga.gov/features/slideshows/british-and-american-grand-manner-portraits-of-the-1700s.html; Centeno; De la Tour, Charlotte. Le langage des fleurs, 1819: 58; Hooper, Lucy. The Lady’s Book of Flowers and Poetry, 1846: 248.

General Likability: Eisenhower and Washington

Left – Dwight D. Eisenhower on horseback in his later years. Credit: Eisenhower National Historic Site | Right – George Washington receiving the salute on the field at Trenton (1899) by John Faed. Credit: Public Domain.

“Who did I think I was, running against George Washington?” – Adlai Stevenson, 1952 [1]

This future president was born into a large family, had a mother who wasn’t a big fan of his military career, first served his country as a general in the military before becoming president, and ended his presidency with a warning against partisanship. No, I am not talking about George Washington. This time, I am talking about Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States, born 130 years ago today on October 14, 1890.

With voting underway in the 2020 presidential election, it is impossible not to reflect on some of our past leaders and, of course, here at The George Washington Foundation, we would be remiss if we didn’t look at the leadership qualities of George Washington. As a young boy living at Ferry Farm, no one could have possibly known what would become of George. With our hindsight, we can look to the influence of his mother and older half-brother, who both molded him. Washington’s leadership qualities are difficult to quantify, but we can certainly say that his commanding presence (he was 6’3” and quite athletic from all that horseback riding) was a good first step.

Eisenhower also possessed a commanding presence as a young man. At 5’11” he wasn’t the tallest of his contemporaries nor did he rival Washington’s height, but he was an exceptional athlete, who played football at West Point. His presence was felt in a room. It was a presence certainly felt by his bride, Mamie Doud, daughter of a meatpacking executive, and considered quite out of Ike’s league when they met. Similar to George and Martha, Ike and Mamie were mismatched financially but had a strong marriage despite war, politics, and long periods of separation.

Early in Eisenhower and Washington’s military careers, they both found their roads blocked. Washington, initially hoping to join the Royal Navy, was shot down by his mother. Only later did he join the Virginia militia, experiencing combat for the first time during the French and Indian war. Eisenhower went to work straight out of high school, helping to support his family and allowing his older brother to attend school first. With the financial stability of his family in question, Ike wasn’t sure he’d even get the chance to go to college at all until a friend pointed out that the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis was tuition-free. He decided to request consideration for both the Naval Academy and for the United States Military Academy at West Point. He was too old for Annapolis but got into West Point. His mother, a pacifist, was disappointed, but understood Ike’s decision.  Here we see one differentiation in our parallel men; Eisenhower did not see any combat experience during World War I. Instead, he frustratingly found himself stuck stateside.

Left – General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower (1947) by Thomas Edgar Stevens. Credit: National Portrait Gallery | Right – Commander in Chief of the Continental Army General George Washington (1776) by Charles Willson Peale. Credit: Brooklyn Museum

As to learning military leadership, Washington had first-hand experience while Eisenhower spent several years training others for a war he missed. However, both Washington and Eisenhower served as aides to generals from whom they learned much. Washington, even at the end of his life, credited British General Edward Braddock with giving him his first command opportunity and teaching him the knowledge he needed to succeed in his military career. Similarly, Eisenhower spent four years of the 1930s in the Philippines with General Douglas MacArthur. While theirs wasn’t a mentor/mentee relationship like Washington and Braddock, Eisenhower’s time with MacArthur taught him skills that would prove vital when he encountered difficult personalities throughout the rest of his career.

Indeed, both Eisenhower and Washington had their fair share of thorns in their sides. For Washington, during the American Revolution, people like Charles Lee left him fuming. During the presidency, his constant disagreements with Thomas Jefferson were infuriating. Eisenhower faced similar issues. During World War II, he struggled with generals like George Patton and British Bernard Montgomery who refused to follow orders. Later, in his presidency, Ike faced the likes of Nikita Khrushchev. Ike and George handled these challenges with poise and delicacy.

When given the opportunity to choose their own staff, both men had a knack for picking good ones. Washington’s reliance on Henry Knox, Nathaniel Greene, Daniel Morgan, and others was a big part of what led to our victory in the Revolution. Eisenhower surrounded himself with Walter Bedell Smith, Omar Bradley, and Matthew Ridgway – generals who all helped execute the victory in World War II.

After the Revolution, Washington desired nothing else but retirement at Mount Vernon. At the end of World War II, Ike expressed his desire to do the same, purchasing a farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to serve as his retirement home. All the same, both men found their country was yet not finished with them. Washington and Eisenhower were each approached and convinced by others to stand for president. Having spent his entire adult life in the military, Eisenhower lacked political party affiliation but eventually decided to run as a Republican. Non-partisanship was something Washington officially maintained throughout his presidency. With immense popularity assured by their monumental military victories, the generals won electoral landslides.

Throughout their presidencies, George and Ike struggled with deepening clashes between political parties, an overly powerful military, and a nation recovering from tragedy and loss. Both men focused much of their administration on domestic issues. Washington helped build a victorious but infant nation while Eisenhower helped move forward a victorious but war-weary nation. George created the role of president, setting standards for the future, the most important of which was the two-term limit. He brought together several states that had once viewed themselves as individual nations into one nation of many states. Ike established the Interstate Highway System, used the National Guard and the 101st Airborne Division to enforce desegregation in Arkansas, and admitted Alaska and Hawaii into the Union. However, as leaders of a nation in the world, neither man could ignore foreign affairs either. Washington focused on remaining neutral and chose not to help the French during their own revolution. Eisenhower ended the Korean War and sought to contain Communism without breaking the federal budget through an increased reliance on nuclear deterrence.

Left- President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1967) by James Anthony Wills. Credit: The White House Historical Association. | Right – President George Washington (1803-5) by Gilbert Stuart. Credit: National Portrait Gallery.

At the conclusion of their time in office, both men gave memorable Farewell Addresses. In fact, both speeches are considered two of the greatest given in our nation’s history. As part of his legacy, Washington warned against political parties as paths to division. He expressed worry about creating too close of an alliance with another country, fearing it could drag the nation into conflict. He stated that “overgrown military establishments” were a threat, and stressed the need for “peace and harmony”. For Eisenhower’s part, he warned against a too powerful “military industrial complex”, discussed the need to cultivate positive foreign relations, and said that “America’s prestige” would be defined by “how we use our power in the interests of world peace”. These two great men who gained their fame from war and had seen war’s horrors up close both hoped the country would not have to face another conflict.

While their lives certainly contain many parallels, perhaps the greatest similarity between Washington and Eisenhower was their leadership style. Both men were optimistic in the face of adversity, lead with exemplary character and morality, and were willing to accept the blame for failure entirely on themselves. They both respected and admired the soldiers who fought under them. They were able to control their emotions and exhibit remarkably strong will. But, in the end, perhaps the one quality that allowed both of them such success was their general likability.

Beth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services


[1] Cooke, Alistair, “Adlai Stevenson: The Failed Saint” in Six Men. London: Penguin, 2008.

Billy at the Door

In our ongoing series of investigations into the lives of Historic Kenmore’s enslaved community during the Lewis era, we recently uncovered another full identity behind what was once just a name.  Once again, close examination of long-forgotten documents and analysis of hidden clues revealed this man’s story, and in a rare turn of events, gave us some extra details about his life. 

If you read the previous posts in this series, you know that our hunt for information began with four basic primary documents – 1) Fielding Lewis’s 1781 probate inventory, 2) the 1782 Divvy List written by Betty Lewis, 3) the Vendu (public auction) List compiled in 1798, and 4) the Final Disposition list also written in 1798.  Each provides a list of enslaved persons associated with the Lewis family at key moments in their history (for further discussion of these documents click here).

One of the first quirks we noted in these four documents was that each began with the same name: Billy.  The rest of the names are often in similar, but not quite the same, order from document to document.  But, Billy is always the headliner. What could that mean? Did it really mean anything?

1781 Probate Inventory of Fielding Lewis’s property showing Billy listed from amount the enslaved people.

The obvious assumption is that Billy’s position as the first named indicates importance – the top of any list is usually someone of importance.  However, different people wrote these four documents, and importance may not mean the same thing to all of them. For example, the Divvy List written by Betty Lewis was her account of which enslaved persons were to stay at Kenmore and which were to be divided among her sons following her husband’s death. As the mistress of the house, Betty was aware of  who she felt was most important to the operation of her household and who she preferred to keep.

Conversely, the person conducting a probate inventory might not be familiar with the enslaved people on a property and might not know their comparative significance.  We know the 1781 probate inventory was written to follow the inventory-taker’s path through the house. It starts with the chamber (immediately inside the entrance door), proceeds through the passage into the dining room, then into the drawing room and ends in the office, which is the last room you encounter before leaving the house through the side door.  Perhaps the inventory-taker was listing the people on the property as he encountered them, just as he was doing with the contents of the rooms.  Therefore, perhaps Billy was the first person he came across when entering the house.

On both the Vendu List and the Final Disposition, Billy is listed first and is valued at £99, suggesting he had skills or traits that were valued by auction bidders. While the Vendu List recorded the trade for some people, Billy was shown simply as a “house servant.”  Any of these reasons could explain Billy’s primacy on the documents.

Without further clues, divining why Billy was always listed first was all speculation.  The odd repetition of Billy’s name at the head of every list was noted in his file, and we moved on.

As our project progressed, we found more references to Billy in other documents and fragments in Kenmore’s manuscript collection.  The Billy that is the focus of this particular research was 38 years old in 1782. (There were actually three people named Billy living on the Lewis properties, but we were able to separate the references based on age.  Betty Lewis recorded ages next to every name in the Divvy List.)

One of the earliest references to Billy may indicate how he came to be in the Lewis household.  In 1755, Fielding and Betty Lewis made a land purchase from Fielding’s brother Charles.  In addition to 1,800 acres, the purchase also included 40 enslaved individuals.  The names of those individuals were listed in the land deed, and Billy appears among them.[1]  He was approximately 11 years old.  Because this land purchase was made only a year after Fielding’s father died, it is possible that Billy and the other enslaved people on the property originally belonged to Fielding’s father at Warner Hall in Gloucester, meaning Billy was owned by the Lewis family for his entire life.

Charles Calvert and his Slave (1716) by John Hesselius. This portrait is particularly evocative because it depicts a relationship that might have been similar to Billy and young George Lewis. Credit: Baltimore Museum of Art / Wikipedia

The other reference to Billy occurred during the Lewis era at Kenmore and was on a fragmentary list of textile rations allotted to enslaved individuals.[2]  Bundles of either cotton or linen yardage were distributed to 26 people.  As with the four main enslaved community documents, Billy is again at the top of this list of rations.  He is one of only two people to receive both cotton and linen, and the amount of yardage distributed to him is more than for any other person on the list.  The list is undated, but by process of elimination we have placed it between 1786 and 1797. Billy was between 42 and 53 years old.

Portrait of a Youth in an Embroidered Vest (1785) by Marie-Victoire Lemoine shows a young enslaved man wearing an example of the fancy livery often worn by the house servants n wealthy households like the Lewis one. Credit: Cummer Museum

 Interestingly, all other references to Billy found in Kenmore’s manuscript collection deal with his post-Kenmore life.  The Final Disposition document shows that Billy stayed within the Lewis family after leaving Kenmore. He was sold to George Lewis, Betty and Fielding’s son.  George Lewis owned Marmion plantation in Westmoreland County, and so Billy went to live there, along with the 8 additional people George purchased from his father’s estate at the vendu.  Prior to the vendu sale, perhaps after Betty’s death in March of 1797 but before her estate was settled, it appears that actually Billy was already working in George Lewis’s household.  In that year, George paid for rather expensive shoes to be made for Billy, as well as for two other men he would eventually purchase at vendu.[3]  Billy also appeared to be trusted to handle money and run financial errands for George. In 1797, he delivered payment for George’s debt with merchant Clement Burrass.  Burrass referred to him as “Old Billy” on the receipt.[4]  These references in 1797, prior to the vendu sale, may indicate that George Lewis already had a significant relationship with Billy and knew that he would bring him into his household once his mother’s estate was settled. 

Taken together, these fragments of information found throughout the manuscript collection on Billy seem to indicate that he was a man of significance among the enslaved community at Kenmore.  His name at the head of every list of individuals on the property, his comparatively large textile ration, his high value at vendu, his association with the Lewis family from a very early age, his early and trusted relationship with George Lewis, and the notation that he was a house servant all combine to indicate that Billy was among the enslaved people who lived and worked within the Lewis house itself. In fact, he was probably the head of that enslaved household staff, a position we know today as a butler.  He is now one of only three people positively identified among Kenmore’s house slaves.

But Billy’s story doesn’t end there.  The next references leap ahead to 1803, when shoemaker Jessee Davis requested George Lewis  send payment on his account “by way of Billy.” Apparently, by this time it was accepted practice among local merchants for Billy to act as George Lewis’s representative.[5]  This continued through 1809, when an account ledger from the shop of William Johnston shows cash paid out to “Old Billy” on George’s account.[6]  Unfortunately, no additional references to Billy were found in the manuscript collection until sometime shortly after George Lewis’s death in 1821. That’s when an already interesting story gets even more interesting.

Although George Lewis died in November of 1821, a probate inventory of his home at Marmion was not conducted until 1823.  That inventory, filed with the King George County court, survived and shows “Billy, Old” in the list of enslaved persons on the property. His monetary value is listed as zero, indicating that he is past the age of useful labor.[7]  However, Billy’s name is enclosed in a bracket with three others – Kizzey, Fanny and Bob.  In fact, there are several other groupings of people enclosed with similar brackets in the inventory. All were labelled to indicate the relationship, such as “James and Sylvia’s children,” except for Billy’s bracket.  Luckily, another document explained it. 

Apparently sometime before his death in 1821, George Lewis spent considerable time putting his affairs in order and making lists of various personal assets.  One such list was written on a page from a ledger book, divided into three columns headed “Names,” “To Whom Sold,” and “Price.”  It was a list of enslaved persons at Marmion that were to be sold at vendu.  Although only the first column –“Names” – was filled in, the page provided some crucial information.  The names were divided into lots.  Billy shows up in the 2nd lot as “Old Man Billy”, along with Kizzey, Fanny and Bob.  Billy isn’t listed for sale, however. His name is in a note written under the lot that reads,

“In this lot, Old Man Billy must be attached.  Whoever purchases this lot, Old Man must be supported as he has always been the balance of his life – that is, to be indulged in having one of his grandchildren to wait and attend on him, the old man to be well clothed with one good suit of clothes compleat every year so long as he may live.”[8]

That sentence both confirms Billy’s special status in the Lewis family, and reveals a huge piece of information: evidently, Kizzey, Fanny and Bob are Billy’s grandchildren.

Portions relevant to Billy of an 1821 list of enslaved people drafted by George Lewis.

The revelation that Billy had grandchildren is a rare bit of information not often found when researching the lives of the enslaved.  Among those individuals living on the Kenmore property, references to family relationships are almost always made from mother to child. Fathers and husbands are never noted.  It wasn’t until George Lewis set up his household at Marmion, that he began to occasionally note male family members among the enslaved community there.  Billy was the only holdover from Kenmore to receive such attention.  Of course, if Billy had grandchildren, he must have also had at least one child of his own, and that most likely means that he had a wife, as well.  Who could these missing members of Billy’s family tree be?

Unfortunately, this is probably the end of the documented trail for Billy – anything further we can surmise about his family is complete speculation.  In the 1823 probate inventory of George Lewis’s estate – the one that initially showed Billy’s name in a bracket with Kizzey, Fanny and Bob – there is a couple, Tom Brown and Becky, enclosed in a bracket, listed directly above Billy.  They are the only people on the list that don’t have an identified family relationship.  There is no notation to explain this couple, but it is possible that they are related to Billy and his grandchildren in some manner – possibly their parents?[9]

Another possibility involves the group of people who George Lewis purchased from his father’s estate.  The only female among the group was Nanny, a woman who we know very little about from her time at Kenmore.  We do know that her mother was named Fanny.  Is it possible that Nanny was Billy’s wife, and that his grandchild Fanny carried on a family naming tradition?

In any case, by the time George Lewis was arranging for Billy’s sale at the age of 79, neither his wife nor a child was identified or likely existed among the Marmion enslaved community, indicating that Billy had likely been separated from them at some earlier time.  Although we don’t know when the actual vendu for the George Lewis’s estate took place, or who purchased the individuals on the list, we do know that by 1830 Billy and his grandchildren were gone from the Marmion property.

If you were to visit Kenmore as a guest between the years of 1775 and 1796, the first face you encountered at the door was Billy’s. He was a daily visitor to the bedchamber, where he received the day’s menu and instructions for the household from Mrs. Lewis. He oversaw the setting of the table. He was silently present in the dining room during meals. He served the madeira in the drawing room after dinner. He oversaw the turning back of beds and laying of fires at night.  If you were an overnight guest, Billy might have been the last person you saw before retiring for the night.  Billy had his own life, too – a wife and family living somewhere on the property. Friends and neighbors within his community who also followed his instructions in the house. When running daily errands in town, he was a recognized figure walking on Fredericksburg’s streets.  Eventually, he even had his grandchildren with him, when all others were gone away.  Billy is now one more name and one more life made less mysterious by our ongoing research into Kenmore’s enslaved community.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations


[1] “Indenture (Deed of Sale), Charles Lewis to Fielding & Betty Lewis,” October 9, 1755; Spotsylvania County Deed Book E, Pg. 299.  Photocopy from the original, Kenmore Manuscript Collection (PH 707).

[2] “List (fragment),” Kenmore Manuscript Collection (MS 1073).

[3] “Account with Major George Lewis,” October 30, 1794 – January 2, 1797; Kenmore Manuscript Collection (MS 868).

[4] “Account, Major George Lewis in Account with Clement Burrass,” 1797; Kenmore Manuscript Collection (MS 866).

[5] “Account, Major George Lewis to Jessee Davis,” 1803; Kenmore Manuscript Collection (MS 892).

[6] “Account, William Johnston in Account with George Lewis,” 1807 – 1809; Kenmore Manuscript Collection (MS 924).

[7] “Inventory and Appraisement of the Estate of George Lewis, D’sd,” February 7, 1823; King George County Will Book, Pg. 296.  Photocopy from the original, Kenmore Research Files (Wills and Inventories of Lewis Descendants).

[8] “List of Negroes” by George Lewis, ca. 1821; Kenmore Manuscript Collection (MS 1049).

[9] “Inventory and Appraisement of the Estate of George Lewis, D’sd.”

“I have the honor to be, your obedient servant”: Why Did Washington End His Letters this Way?

How many times have you watched Hamilton? It’s okay, I’ve lost count too. In my most recent viewing, when Burr and Hamilton each proudly proclaim their letter-ending valedictions in the song “Your Obedient Servant”, I began thinking “Where exactly did this phrase come from, why did they use it, and how did it fall out of use?” Even though I am a historian, I have always taken the phrase for granted. It has always been there at the end of letters by Washington and his contemporaries, but I never really gave it much thought.

When was the last time you sat down to write a letter? – Better yet, an email? How did you “sign off”? Today, we mostly use short phrases like “sincerely”, “regards”, “best wishes”, or simply “yours” when we end written communications. However, in the 18th century, writing was not only a form of communication; it was also a method of entertainment, personal expression, and the preservation of events and thoughts for posterity. Simply put, longer, more expressive valedictions were more popular because writing letters was more popular.  For example, in 1541, Spanish conquistador, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, wrote to the King of Spain and signed the letter “Your Majesty’s humble servant and vassal, who would kiss the royal feet and hands.”  Could you imagine someone saying that to someone like Queen Elizabeth II today?

The truth is that our letter writing skills have all but gone by the wayside considering modern conveniences of instant communication. Making a phone call, texting, and sending an email are much more informal than sitting down and writing out a letter – or even typing out a letter. When George Washington put pen to paper, like he so often did, he put much more thought into his words than we do when we send a quick “lol”.

During the 18th century, the most common valedictions – defined as statements made as farewells – were variations on the letter’s author referring to themselves as the servant of the recipient. To determine the popularity of this “servant valediction” and its variations, I used Google Books Ngrams to search their database of books and see how many times various valedictions were used over time. While Ngrams searches books and not all letters from the time, it can still give us a good idea of how common each phrase might have been.

In the first graph, for example, we see that the shortened “your servant” appears quite a bit over time. It seems to fade from fashion briefly around 1700 before coming returning to popularity around 1800. It then begins to fall out of favor again and was rarely used in the 1900s.  However, there appears to be an uptick in recent years and, perhaps we can credit this, at least partially, to the Hamilton-effect.

In the second graph, we see the phrase “your humble servant” was most popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Looking to Washington’s writings, we see him use this phrase in a letter to George Beall, a shopkeeper, in 1756.

Next, I entered the phrase “your obedient servant”. This phrase was also in its heyday at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries. Again looking to Washington’s papers, he does use the “your obedient servant” variation and often adds the word “most” as seen in a1755 letter to Robert Orme, a British soldier he fought with during the French and Indian War.

Ultimately, Washington’s most common servant valediction combined all of these variations into the lengthy “your most obedient and most humble servant” as seen in this letter to Governor Fauquier from 1758.

If you search the phrase “obedient servant” in the entirety of Founders Online, a digital repository of documents written by Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin and other early American luminaries, it will return over 16,000 results! That number wouldn’t include all of the instances where the words were abbreviated, which was also common. Indeed, even in the letters referred to in the Hamilton song; Alexander Hamilton writes “your obed. Servt”, abbreviating both key words in the phrase.

The use of the servant valediction didn’t fully fade from popularity until well after Washington’s life. By 1883, however, a different variation of the servant valediction had become popular. On page 43 of The Art of Correspondence, John Staples Locke instructs authors to use “respectfully yours” as a way to convey the same sentiment. It is still commonly seen today. Ultimately, even our simple “Yours” at the end of an email can be traced back to the flowery valedictions of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington.

I have the honor to be, your obedient servant,

E. Hosier
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services

True or False? Test Your Knowledge of Mary Washington

Mary Washington Monument in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Credit: Beth Hosier/The George Washington Foundation

True or False?

Mary Washington had a set of false teeth like her son George?
FALSE – Mary did not have a famous set of dentures like her son George.

All of Mary’s children lived to adulthood?
FALSE – Mary and Augustine Washington had six children together, five living to adulthood.  Their youngest child, Mildred, born in 1738, died at the age of 16 months and is buried at Ferry Farm.

Mary often traveled to Mount Vernon for extended visits with her son George and his wife Martha?
FALSE – In fact, George dissuaded his mother from living with them in her later years, arguing that Mount Vernon was much too busy with constant travelers and guests for someone such as his dear and aged mother who deserved peace and quiet.

Mary lived in Virginia her whole life?
TRUE – Born and raised on the Northern Neck, Mary moved with her husband throughout their marriage to different family farms located in Westmoreland County, Fairfax County, and then King George County. She lived at Ferry Farm, then called the “Home House”, from 1738 until 1772, when George purchased her a house – the Mary Washington House – in the town of Fredericksburg. She lived there until her death in 1789.

Mary Washington’s Fredericksburg home was almost sold and moved in its entirety to Chicago for The Colombian Exposition of 1893?
TRUE – Plans were made to disassemble the Mary Washington House and rebuild it at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities stepped in and purchased house in 1889. They restored and opened it up to the public.

Chicago World’s Fair looking west from Peristyle, Court of Honor and Grand Basin, 1893. Credit: C. D. Arnold (1844-1927); H. D. Higinbotham; Wikipedia

Mary remarried after her husband Augustine died in 1743?
FALSE – It was commonplace during the Colonial era for women to remarry after the death of a spouse. Mary did not, however, preferring to manage the family properties and raise her five young children herself without committing to another marriage that might have restricted her parental control.

Mary did not live to see her son George become president of the new United States of America?
FALSE – George visited his mother at her home in Fredericksburg on the way to his presidential inauguration in April 1789 in New York City. Mary died later that same year in August at the age of 81.

Mary died of breast cancer?
TRUE – Two doctors treated Mary during the last months of her life in 1789. They could do nothing for her cancer beyond making her comfortable with palliative remedies.

Mary did not know how to read or write?
FALSE

Mary Ball Washington had a ship named after her?
TRUE – The SS Mary Ball was a “Liberty ship” built during World War II.  Liberty ships were a class of mass-produced cargo vessels simple in design, cheap in cost, and constructed in just a few months.  Built and launched in 1943 as a tank carrier and aircraft freighter, the SS Mary Ball was eventually sold for scrap in 1972.

SS John W. Brown as an example of a “Liberty Ship” similar to the SS Mary Ball.
Credit: Wikipedia

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Co-Field Director

We’re Digging!: A Preview of This Year’s Archaeology Excavation at Ferry Farm

It’s that time of year again!

Actually, it’s past that time of year but better late than never! The annual summer archaeological dig at George Washington’s Ferry Farm – delayed like so many other things by the COVID-19 pandemic – has finally begun!  Ferry Farm’s summer archaeological excavation has become a fall dig too as it runs from August to October this year, instead of in the more typical April to July window.

In 2019, we began excavating a 30 foot by 30 foot square in the work yard in search of outbuildings from George Washington’s time. We know there was a kitchen, slave quarters, store houses, barns, and other buildings on the farm, but we have yet to locate them all. Without these outbuildings, which will eventually be reproduced like the Washington House, we can’t accurately represent what the landscape looked like during George’s childhood.

Archaeologists Lizzie O’Meara and Frank Amico cleaning last year’s dig area for the final photo of 2019.

Last year, we were tasked with excavating the 30 foot by 30 foot area, where we suspect there are still remains of and artifacts from undiscovered buildings. We completed about half of the total area. We dug the soil level down to the colonial-era level in half of our square before we had to close for the year. We also lost a few weeks of time last summer because of the nearly 2 feet of gravel that first needed to be removed. You read that right. 2 FEET! This gravel was from the construction of the Washington house replica in 2017 was leveled directly on top of the area where we needed to excavate.

This summer, we begin the other half of the 30 foot by 30 foot square. We are very excited to continue to dig this area.

Last year we excavated thousands of amazing artifacts including several Washington era wig curlers, Civil War bullets, and Native American projectile points of all shapes and sizes. You can read about last year’s discoveries here.

If visit Ferry Farm during the next several weeks, you can watch us dig on weekdays. My fellow archaeologists and I will be happy to talk with you (while masked and at a 6-foot distance) about our excavation work and some of our recent discoveries.  There will also be occasional updates on the excavation’s progress on our Facebook and Instagram. Then, after the conclusion of the 2020 excavation, watch this space for a summary of our work!

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Co-Field Director