Visitors to Kenmore’s Drawing Room may have noticed an unusual pairing of glassware and ceramic pieces displayed on the gaming table – a beautiful, air-twist stem wine glass sitting next to a Westerwald pottery jug. At first glance, this small vignette may simply appear to depict a wine jug at the ready, waiting to fill the glasses of those seated for the card game. But a closer inspection reveals that there’s more to the story.
In addition to its delicate air twists and balusters, the cup of the wine glass is etched with intricate designs. On one side, there’s a rose, and on the other is the word “Liberty.” The rose refers to the Scottish House of Stuart and their exiled claimant to the Scottish throne, the Bonnie Prince Charlie. The word “Liberty”, in this case, refers to the Jacobite Uprising of 1745 – 1746, in which the Scottish clans attempted to overthrow the English king and re-install the Bonnie Prince, thereby ending the English occupation of Scotland. The Uprising ended in a bloodbath for the Scottish forces at Culloden Moor, and the Bonnie Prince remained in exile for the rest of his life. The defeat at Culloden ushered in a period of extreme violence and repression of Scottish Highland culture known today as the Clearances. Thousands of Scots were forced from their homes and prosecuted in English courts for crimes against the Crown. Those found guilty were often sentenced to “transportation,” which meant they were crowded onto prison ships and sent to the American colonies.
The stoneware jug is decorated in typical Westerwald-style cobalt blue glaze patterns, with the addition of a sprigged central medallion bearing the letters “GR.” Those initials stand for Georgius Rex, the Latin for King George of Britain, probably George III in this case. Westerwald ceramics produced in what is now Germany for export to Britain in the 18th century were often decorated with the GR emblem in honor of King George. Most British households, including young George Washington’s home at Ferry Farm, would have had a piece or two exhibiting the GR motif.
Both items are included in Kenmore’s furnishings today because fragments of similar pieces were found archaeologically on the site during excavations in the 1990s, so we know that both were used by the Lewis family at very nearly the same time. The juxtaposition of their messages, though, illustrates what a very strange and confusing time the Lewis family were living in. Literally up until the very eve of the American Revolution, Fielding Lewis saw himself very much as a proper English subject. His business relied almost entirely on good relations with English counterparts. He built Kenmore to emulate in every way the proper English manor house, and apparently he owned ceramics that honored King George.
Almost overnight, however, the Lewis’s world completely changed. They were no longer English subjects, but rather traitors to the Crown. Fielding’s income and business were gone, and his very English house was now a liability. Those transported Jacobites living in the American colonies, many of them neighbors to the Lewises like Hugh Mercer, were among those who advocated for war with Britain. The symbols and ideals of the Jacobite Uprising were adopted into the American revolutionary movement. And so our placement of the Liberty glass next to the GR jug on the gaming table is both a wink and a nod to the idea of rebellion hidden in plain sight, and a recognition of the complicated times in which the Lewis’s found themselves.
Celebrate the 245th anniversary of liberty from the King during the Fourth of July at George Washington’s Ferry Farm from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday, July 4, 2021! Tour the Washington house, learn about archaeology at Ferry Farm, enjoy a patriotic flag retirement ceremony at 1:00 p.m., interact with historic reenactors, listen to festive music, view living history demonstrations and theatre performances, make crafts, play games, and enjoy other activities for the whole family. $5.00 per car for a combined parking and event admission pass. Advance purchase of parking and event admission pass is strongly encouraged. Visit kenmore.org/events to learn more and purchase pass.
Meghan Budinger Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations
Visitors to George Washington’s Ferry Farm will once again be able to meet and talk to our staff archaeologists as they work at our archaeological dig this summer. The dig opened this past Monday, June 7 and runs through Friday, August 20. Archaeologists dig Monday through Friday.
The dig is located on the east side of the Washington house in the work yard. The work yard is where the everyday activities associated with the running of an 18th-century household took place. These activities including food preparation, cooking and cleaning, washing laundry, animal husbandry, dairying, household storage and wig maintenance. Eventually showing and interpreting these activities as well as incorporating our findings into Ferry Farm’s history are the reasons we dig.
We are looking for the remains of outbuildings in this area of the site. Luckily for us, last fall we uncovered a large post mold and hole which we suspect is a structural part of one such outbuilding. This first week we are opening up multiple 5’x5’ units to the south of our posthole feature in anticipation of finding more of this structure.
Our crew will consist of four paid interns in addition to Elyse Adams and myself as co-site directors. COVID-19 has again eliminated the possibility of university archaeology students joining us for a six-week field school this year, but we hope they can finally return next year.
Over the next 12 weeks, we’ll post some of our more interesting discoveries during on Ferry Farm’s Facebook and Instagram so everyone can stay up-to-date our progress. When you visit Ferry Farm, please stop by the excavation site to ask questions and watch us at work. We are happy to share our daily findings and explain the process of digging into the Washington family’s past!
Archaeologists have one pretty big hang up, and that is when people ask us if we dig for dinosaurs. We’re so obsessed with making sure that people know we don’t dig dinosaurs that you can find shirts, coffee mugs, keychains, and other merchandise that all say “Archaeologists Don’t Dig Dinosaurs.” But we get it: dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals are super cool- just ask my 4-and-a-half-year-old son or my nine-year-old nephew. Still, we archaeologists go to great lengths to emphasize that archaeology and paleontology are pretty different. Archaeologists study historic and pre-historic human cultures by examining the artifacts they left behind. Basically, we obsess over dead people’s broken stuff. Paleontologists, however, study ancient plants and animals using the fossil record. Now, that being said, archaeologists do frequently happen to uncover fossils while excavating for artifacts. We’ve made our share of fossil finds while digging at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and we’re going to share some of those finds with you today.
First, it should be noted that what we call Virginia today looked a lot different when the creatures our fossil finds represent were alive. During the Cretaceous and early Paleogene periods, which lasted from 145 to around 56 million years ago, much of this part of Virginia was at times completely underwater as part of the newly formed Atlantic Ocean, while inland areas were very swampy with high temperatures and humidity (Yes, even more so than today’s notorious Virginia climate. Back then, it got up to around 100 degrees most days). Hence, most of the fossils we recover are from marine environments or swamps.
Let’s start with one of my favorites: the turritella, a species of spiral-shaped gastropods or mollusks that still exist today. The turritella we find at Ferry Farm, however, are around 50 million years old. We don’t usually find the shell, but rather the ‘cast’ which forms when sediment fills the inside of a dead mollusk’s shell and then turns to stone, leaving an impression of the inside of the animal. The resulting fossil cast resembles a corkscrew. They’re pretty common in this area. In this picture, you can see a turritella that still has its shell and fragments of the interior case. Usually they can be found in clusters, representing mass die-off events in which a lot of the turritella met their demise all at once.
Bits of turritella excavated at Ferry Farm.
Turritella casts from the author’s collection.
Other marine fossils we’ve found include pelecypods. These bivalves resemble modern day scallops and are estimated to be around 60 million years old. We have two fragments found at Ferry Farm next to a whole example unearthed by my husband Joe Blondino, who is also an archaeologist, while on another excavation. We believe these to be Chesapecten jeffersonius pelecypods, which is the Virginia state fossil. Tuck that back in your brain for future trivia nights!
This little guy above is another one of my favorites. It may not look like much, but this is a ray mouth plate fragment. Rays, which also still exist today, used these specialized ‘teeth’ plates to crush the shells of their favorite prey. It may have shared the waters with some of this fossilized coral, of which we’ve excavated only a few tiny pieces that are as yet unidentified with regard to species.
We also uncover quite a bit of petrified wood. These trees would have lived during the periods of the Cretaceous when Virginia was a hot and humid swamp. After falling into the waters, they were covered and, over millions of years, petrified as the trees’ organic tissues were slowly replaced by minerals. This example is our largest specimen.
Crocodiles also swam where the George Washington’s boyhood home replica now stands when the land was covered in a warm, shallow sea. We think the tooth pictured below belongs to one of those crocs, although likely a juvenile one. Unlike a shark tooth, it is conical, with a depression at the top.
We’ll end with everyone’s favorite: shark teeth! They’re the most common fossil found at Ferry Farm due in no small part to the fact that sharks continuously shed their teeth throughout their lifetime. Some sharks go through up to 50,000 teeth in their lifetimes! Most of our shark teeth belong to a species of sand tiger shark, which still exists today (they’re also called the gray nurse shark). Starting at the beginning of the Cenozoic Era, approximately 66 million years ago, sand tiger sharks swam near the coast in the warm shallow sea waters that covered this part of Virginia. Their teeth are not large, but quite numerous. They have a distinctive shape with a long very ‘pointy’ crown, small sharp bumps called cusplets on either side, and relatively long root lobes. The only shark’s tooth we have that doesn’t resemble the sand tiger at all is one we think may be from a species of white shark (related to the great white).
Even though archaeologists do not dig for dinosaurs, we certainly do find fossils in our excavations. Since we are obsessively focused on the human cultures of the past, these fossils are not our primary interest. We do not dig for dinosaurs but maybe we actually do sort of DIG them and all fossils from ancient times in a “Wow, fossils are really cool!” sort of way.
Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist Archaeology Lab Supervisor
During the 18th century, the city of Fredericksburg was described as “a considerable town of trade, furnishing the country around.” As such, it was deemed a rather important town and was the site of one of two schools for enslaved children established in Virginia during the Colonial period. The school was located somewhere downtown, likely near St. George’s Church. Two of the trustees in charge of operating the school were the Reverends James Marye, Sr. and later his son James Marye, Jr. Another trustee was none other than Historic Kenmore’s own, Fielding Lewis.
The school was funded and established by a group of English clergymen and philanthropists known as the Associates of Dr. Bray. Thomas Bray was an Anglican minister who had grown up without wealth. Due to his family’s financial situation, Bray found certain doors, specifically education, closed to him. Through his time in the ministry, however, he was able to gain the knowledge needed to become a great influence and practitioner of philanthropy. Towards the end of his life, he established The Associates of the Reverend Dr. Bray. Its eventual goal was to create avenues of religious and secular education for black children. While never condemning slavery, Bray felt that the souls of enslaved people needed to be saved in the Anglican faith. In order to be able to worship properly, they would need to be able to read and write. By the end of the 18th century, the Bray Associates had founded 41 libraries, donated over 22,000 books to different Anglican parishes in the colonies, and established a handful of schools across British North America.
The first Bray Associates colonial school was established in 1758 in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania’s Quaker population was decidedly anti-slavery even in the 18th century so Philadelphia already had a sizable population of free blacks. By 1780, the state of Pennsylvania completed the process of gradual emancipation and did not allow slavery, though there were loopholes in the law, one of which allowed President George Washington to use enslaved men and women at the executive mansion situated in Philadelphia. Slavery in an urban setting like Philadelphia looked different than on plantations in southern colonies. Most urban enslaved people typically performed domestic labor. This meant different expectations for enslaved people in cities, i.e. knowing how to read and write was more important. Due to these circumstances, the Bray school in Philadelphia operated quite successfully. A location for the school was procured without much effort, and a schoolmistress was also easy to come by. The school’s trustees reported full enrollment to the Bray Associates throughout its operation. The school was so successful that it reopened after the American Revolution, and the Bray Associates opened two additional schools in Philadelphia during the 19th century.
After the school in Philadelphia was established, the Associates were eager to create additional schools in the colonies. At this time, Benjamin Franklin was in London and became an Associate. He suggested several potential locations and even trustees for the next school. This second school was established in 1760 in Williamsburg. The Associates sought an enrollment number of 30, and the school opened with 24 pupils. The trustees deemed this quite successful and thought the number was a fair amount for one schoolmistress to manage. In fact, the trustees had a difficult time finding a schoolmistress at all. Their solution was that the Associates would provide additional funding for a few years but, in turn, the Associates encouraged the trustees to find charitable citizens in the town to help supplement the endowment.
Another issue at the Williamsburg school was that pupils, even those who belonged to the small free black population in town, were unable to attend regularly. They often stayed for no longer than it took to gain basic reading and writing knowledge. The goal of the Bray Associates, however, was to bring black children to the Anglican faith. This could not be realized if they left school too soon. The trustees attempted to draw up formal rules and a desired curriculum that would encourage the children to remain in the school longer, but it didn’t help the situation.
The Williamsburg school operated for a little over 13 years and was closed in 1774. The closure likely stemmed from the financial difficulties of securing a new schoolmistress after the first one had passed away as well as from the frustration over the lack of returning students year-to-year. There was not an overall lack of students, however, because a report in 1769 said the school still had a full 30 enrolled.
Due to the measured success of the Williamsburg school, the Associates began to search for other southern towns in which to continue their mission. Fredericksburg was suggested by a local minister and the supplies for the school were sent in 1764. From the start, Rev. James Marye, Sr., and Fielding Lewis were pessimistic about the school’s outlook. When the idea was presented to prominent members of the town, there was no enthusiasm. Nonetheless, in September of 1765, Fielding Lewis sent a letter to the Bray Associates informing them that the school had been opened the previous April.
There are three letters (14 September 1765, 31 October 1768, and 1 February 1772) written by Fielding to the Bray Associates that survive. They provide what little information we have about the Bray school in Fredericksburg. It appears that Fielding followed the rules and curriculum that the Williamsburg school had established. It also seems as though he faced similar problems to the Williamsburg school. He had a difficult time securing a schoolmistress for the low wages offered. Unlike Williamsburg, the Bray Associates did not offer additional money. Again, enslaved children were only permitted to attend until basic literacy was obtained, and then they were removed back to work by their owners. The school in Fredericksburg struggled with enrollment numbers. It opened to 16 pupils and dropped to nine by 1768 with only four of those attending in summer. A smaller population of black children (whether enslaved or free) and even less support from local slave owners probably affected the school’s attendance more than Williamsburg. In Fielding’s final letter to the Associates, he stated “learning them to read is rather a disadvantage to the owners, we having had some examples of that sort.” These concerns hint at what led to Virginia passing extremely restrictive ‘slave codes,’ which included a law forbidding enslaved people to be taught to read and write, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
It is unfortunate that more information regarding the Bray schools throughout the colonies did not survive. What is clear though is that these schools led to the literacy of a significant number of enslaved and free blacks throughout the colonies. Recently, Colonial Williamsburg determined that the building that housed the school is still intact and had been moved to William & Mary’s campus. They added a historical marker honoring the school and the children who attended it. As we gain knowledge and rediscover the past, stories like those of the enslaved and free children who gained a new foothold in a literate world are stories that demand to be told.
Elizabeth Hosier Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services
 Oscar H. Darter, Colonial Fredericksburg and Neighborhood in Perspective, (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1957), 62-63.
There were exciting arrivals at Historic Kenmore at the end of March! Two new additions made their debut in Fielding Lewis’s Office – a reproduction map on hanging rollers, and a long-awaited floorcloth.
Fielding Lewis owned 6 maps, which we assume he stored in his office. One of those maps may well have been what we know today as the Fry-Jefferson map (first produced in 1755, and titled at the time A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina). The Fry-Jefferson map was considered the definitive depiction of the Virginia colony throughout the 18th century. The surveyors and cartographers who created its accurate depiction were Joshua Fry and Peter Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson’s father). The George Washington Foundation owns an original copy of the map.
Over the past several years, we investigated the possibility that Fielding Lewis’s Office had a floorcloth covering its floorboards, much like the Passage. Floorcloths were popular floorcoverings in colonial American households. They were far more affordable than carpet and durable enough to protect floors in high-traffic areas. These decoratively painted sheets of sail canvas could be mopped when dirty, re-varnished when they began to wear, and simply repainted with a new design to keep up with changing fashion.
Evidence shows, however, that floorcloths were sometimes used in less traffic areas of a house, as well. They are sometimes listed in probate inventories as being in chambers, and private rooms on a house’s second floor. Even in formal rooms, like the Dining Room, a floorcloth might be put under a dining table to catch food and spilled drinks. In areas where a floorcloth was seen by more than just family members, it was probably decorated in a more ornate pattern. Fielding’s office was both a utilitarian, working office and a space in which Fielding might meet with business associates and other gentry who needed to be suitably impressed. Would it have had a floorcloth?
Kenmore’s most recent restoration in the 2000s provided us with two clues as to the existence of a floorcloth in the Office. First, a small fragment of painted textile was found wedged under one of the baseboards in the room. Microscopic analysis of the fragment found that it was composed of hemp with some wool and cotton fibers mixed in. Although this was not the usual make-up of canvas from the 18th century, historic textile consultants suggested that it could represent the natural fibers of padding placed under floorcloths on occasion. The paint attached to the fibers represented at least 5 layers of paint and varnish. The textile had been painted, varnished, worn through, repainted and re-varnished multiple times, which is exactly what one would expect to find on such a fragment. Unfortunately, the fragment was so small and degraded that no determination to original color could be made. The existence of the fragment, however, strongly indicates that the Office had a floorcloth at one time.
The second clue found during the restoration was a group of larger floorcloth fragments under the attic floorboards. These fragments were large enough that we could see a pattern and color scheme. While obviously from a floorcloth, dating them was a little harder. Floorcloths were used in American households from the mid-18th century through the mid-19th century. Was this floorcloth old enough to have been used during the Lewis era at Kenmore? To narrow down the date range, samples from the green painted areas on the fragments were once again put under a microscope. Prior to 1816, green pigmented paint did not have chrome yellow in its composition. Analysis confirmed an absence of chrome yellow, meaning the floorcloth dated to before 1816. While not a conclusive date, it certainly moved the possible date range closer to the Lewis occupation of Kenmore.
After this initial analysis of the fragments recovered during Kenmore’s restoration, we progressed under the assumption that the fragments came from a floorcloth in the Office. The same studio that produced the Passage floorcloth (Black Dog Gallery in Yorktown) undertook the project. Their first task was to look at the fragments and reconstruct the pattern. We thought this would be easy, after all the fragments were large and showed a lot of clear decoration. Surely that was enough to piece together the original pattern!
In fact, the specialists working on the project began to doubt whether all of the fragments were from the same floorcloth. The decorative elements – namely medallions, scalloped shells and “basket weave” cross hatching – simply didn’t line up in any logical way, at least not like any typical floorcloth patterns from the time. But the paint analysis clearly showed the same generations of paint on all of the fragments, strongly indicating that they were from one floorcloth. Additionally, the way in which the fragments were found – all on top of each other, as if the floorcloth had been rolled up, then left to sit for a century and eventually cracked and broke at the rolled edges – strongly indicated one original unit, too.
In the end, the specialists turned to the only other pattern source from the period that might provide some clues – wallpaper catalogs. For some reason, the decorative elements on the fragments made much more sense when compared to 18th century wallpaper patterns. Perhaps the original floorcloth had actually been block printed, the way wallpaper was, with some handpainting done afterwards to highlight certain details. Perhaps the person who made the original floorcloth was simply more familiar with wallpaper than with floorcloths. Perhaps the Lewises requested a floorcloth inspired by some wallpaper. We’ll never know, but the wallpaper connection provided the bridge needed to recreate a reasonable pattern from the surviving fragments.
Once the pattern was determined, production began. The floorcloth was made in the same manner that floorcloths have been for hundreds of years. A sheet of canvas was cut to size, stretched out on the ground, painted with several base coats, handpainted with a “show layer” (the pattern) and then coated with clear varnish. It was left to cure for several weeks. Then, the entire thing was rolled up and transported to Kenmore for installation (which was relatively easy, in comparison to the huge floorcloths installed in the Passage years earlier).
The floorcloth and map have added the final touches to Fielding Lewis’s Office, making the room all the more like it was in 1775. Purchase your ticket to tour Kenmore now, and see these new additions for yourself!
Meghan Budinger Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations
In this video, curator Meghan Budinger updates us on the latest arrivals in the final steps of furnishing the Washington house replica at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and of re-furnishing Historic Kenmore.
Historic Kenmore is known for many things; for being the home of Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis, for its Georgian-style brick architecture, its famous ornate decorative plaster ceilings, and, last but not least, for its beautiful gardens. Unfortunately, today only three out of Kenmore’s nearly 1300 original acres remain but with the help of The Garden Club of Virginia, dedicated volunteers, and generous donors, the remaining landscape surrounding the house was cared for over the last century.
There is a very exciting centennial celebration coming up for Kenmore. The Kenmore Association (presently known as The George Washington Foundation) was established in 1922 to save the historic home from destruction. Kenmore will celebrate its 100th anniversary as a historic house museum next year in 2022.
Similarly, The Garden Club of Virginia was established when eight garden clubs across the Commonwealth of Virginia were invited to attend a conference in Richmond on May 13, 1920. Last year was the club’s 100th anniversary.
Fielding and Betty Lewis, for whom Kenmore was built in the mid-1770s, left no historical records of what gardens they had or where they were located. Even though there is little archival or archaeological evidence of original garden plans or planting, we do know that tobacco, wheat, and corn were grown in Kenmore’s surrounding fields. Furthermore, the terraces on the river side of the house, which are still there today, were hand-built by enslaved laborers. Without precise archival and archaeological data, however, Kenmore’s gardens over the years were based on a general understanding of 18th century gardening styles.
The creation of the present-day gardens began in 1929 when The Garden Club of Virginia raised funds for their organization’s first project, Kenmore’s gardens. Indeed, as written about previously, Kenmore inspired Historic Garden Week in Virginia, which was held for the first time that same year.
This initial establishment of Kenmore’s gardens was led by landscape architect Charles F. Gillette with contributions by James Greenleaf and Alden Hopkins. Colonial Revival-style gardens were planted with boxwoods around the foundation of the house, along paths, and on the terrace. The west lawn, which faces present-day Washington Avenue, was treated as the “front of house” since carriages entered from that side in the 19th century. This lawn was planted with stately trees. On the east lawn, at the rear of the property facing the Rappahannock River, a four-square garden edged in boxwoods was added.
In 1941, The Garden Club of Virginia brought back Gillette to create what was called Betty Washington’s Flower Garden and to add an enclosing brick wall around the property.
Kenmore’s gardens saw further changes throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, when a decision was made by the Kenmore Association to more accurately demonstrate general 18th century garden styles and ideas as well as to introduce more native plants. The boxwoods were removed from around the house’s foundation and from most paths.
On its 70th anniversary in 1992, The Garden Club of Virginia undertook another extensive redesign of Kenmore’s gardens with landscape architect Rudy Favretti. Included in this replanting was another revamping of what was called Betty Washington’s Garden, the creation of an Herb Demonstration Garden, the addition of the Wilderness Walk, and a refurbishment of the east terrace. A kitchen garden was added in 1993 and a redesign of the parterre was completed in 1994. A parterre, or four-square garden, means “on the ground” and indicates the geometrical arrangement of garden beds. The four-square arrangement is a reflection of the late 18th century move toward simplicity of design.
Colonial Faire, an 18th century music group, recently performed at Historic Kenmore. In this video, they play a medley of “Rakes of Mallow” and “Yankee Doodle.” Read about the history behind “Yankee Doodle” in this blog post.
On September 10, 1748, sixteen-year-old George Washington paid 3 shillings, 9 pence to a “musick master for my entrance.” Young Washington recorded these sparse details in Ledger Book Zero, a personal account ledger listing credits and debits with family, friends, and business associates between 1747 and 1750. This, as far as we can tell, is the first reference to music in the life of George Washington. By no means, would it be the last. Music was an important part of Washington’s life, just as it is with many of us today.
What was teenage age George paying for when he paid the “musick master for . . . entrance”? Well, the lack of details makes it impossible to say with certainty. The most obvious possibility is that he was paying for music lessons. However, letters written by George himself and a friend indicate that Washington had little to no musical talent. Francis Hopkinson, a colleague during the war, composed a series of songs for harpsichord or piano and dedicated them to Washington. In a letter to George dated December 1, 1788, Hopkins explained his dedication even though George could “neither play Musick nor sing Songs.” In a reply on February 5, 1789, Washington agreed, writing “I can neither sing one of the songs, nor raise a single note on any instrument.” Despite a professed musical inability, it is still possible young George was paying for music lessons in 1748. Often, you might pursue lessons only to discover that you do not have the aptitude.
Another Washington family member with an interest in music was George’s niece Harriot Washington, daughter of Samuel. The first letter in the record between Harriot and her guardian and uncle George was written on April 2, 1790. Harriot was 14-years-old and living at Mount Vernon while President Washington was in New York. The niece asked her uncle to send her a guitar since she wanted to take lessons for “all the young Ladyes are a learning musick.” Harriot was confident “that five or six lessons would be sufficient for any body to learn.” The records consulted reveal no response from Washington. Eventually, Harriot would come to Historic Kenmore to live with her aunt Betty Washington Lewis. She again asked uncle George for a guitar in May of 1792. About a month later, he paid $17 for one. Harriot’s capabilities with the instrument are unknown.
Besides family, another major source of music in Washington’s life was the Continental Army. Music was crucial to 18th century militaries. Fifes and drums issued commands during battle and put a spring in the step during weary marches. Much like the army’s initially amateur soldiers, its fifers and drummers (who were often boys serving with their soldier-fathers) took time to practice and professionalize.
On June 4, 1777, General Washington issued a set of orders. One order dealt with the army’s music, which the General bluntly lamented was “very bad.” He ordered “that the drum and fife Majors exert themselves to improve it, or they will be reduced, and their extraordinary pay taken from them: Stated hours to be assigned, for all the drums and fifes, of each regiment, to attend them, and practice.” Washington concluded, “Nothing is more agreeable, and ornamental, than good music; every officer, for the credit of his corps, should take care to provide it.”
We’ve seen that music was definitely a part of Washington’s life but it was played by others mostly. George could not play an instrument nor sing. He may have paid for music lessons only to discover his inability. Another reasonable theory, however, is that he paid the “musick master for my entrance” to dancing lessons. Later in life, Washington uses similar phrasing – “Mr McKay entrance to Dancing” – to record a payment of 10 shillings for lessons for stepson John Parke Custis.
Maintaining social status and the appearance of good breeding skyrocketed in importance to George and the Washington family after the death of father Augustine in 1743. His death created financial hardship and jeopardized the family’s social standing. Without a father, George’s life changed radically. Assisted and supported by both mother Mary and half-brother Lawrence, George was forced to acquire the refined skills and customs of the upper class in Fredericksburg instead of in England while at boarding school.
One of those skills was dancing and the mystery “musick master” perhaps taught teenage George that skill. Over the course of the 18th century, as Stallings notes, “a market developed for professional instructors, or dance masters, who were expected to know the latest dances from Europe.” Virginia’s urban centers with their greater populations and high number of visitors “often boasted multiple dancing schools . . . Dancing masters operated in at least Yorktown, Williamsburg, and Hampton by 1739.” Traveling dance instructors served Virginia’s far-flung rural population. These masters usually “taught the sexes separately, at different hours or different days of the week.”
If Washington was schooled in dancing by the “musick master,” he probably learned the era’s popular minuets, allemandes, and hornpipes. These fancy dances typically began any ball and were the best opportunities to show off one’s dancing abilities and good breeding. The minuet was the most important. As Stallings explains, “A man’s prowess at the minuet—an especially complicated dance, requiring excellent balance and coordination with one’s partner—could buoy his social position, whereas a poor minuet might leave him out of favor.”
“His Excellency . . . and Mrs. Greene . . . danced upwards of three hours without once sitting down.” – General Nathanael Greene to Colonel Jeremiah Wadsworth, Middle Brook, New Jersey, March 19, 1779.
“His Excellency General Washington was unusually cheerful. He attended the ball in the evening, and with a dignified and graceful air, having Mrs. Knox for his partner, carried down a dance of twenty couples in the arbor on the green grass.” – General Nathanael Greene to Joseph Reed, Morristown, New Jersey, Tuesday, February 29, 1780.
“The General danced every set, that all the ladies might have the pleasure of dancing with him, or as it has since been handsomely expressed, get a touch of him.” – James Tilton to Gunning Bedford Jr., Annapolis, Maryland, December 25, 1783.
“He . . . attended the ball of the 22nd of February; opened it by dancing a minuet with some lady, and then danced cotillions and country dances; was very gallant, and always attached himself, by his attentions, to some one or more of the most beautiful and attractive ladies at the balls.” – Judge Francis T. Brooke (1784).
And finally a word on his dancing from George Washington himself, written on November 12, 1799, just a month prior to his death and turning down an invitation from to a grand function in Alexandria. He wrote,
Mrs Washington and myself have been honoured with your polite invitation to the Assemblies in Alexandria, this Winter; and thank you for this mark of your attention. But alas! our dancing days are no more; we wish, however, all those whose relish for so agreeable, & innocent an amusement [emphasis added], all the pleasure the Season will afford them. and I am Gentlemen Your Most Obedient and Obliged Humble Servant
George saw music and dancing both as “agreeable.” From the mostly taciturn Washington, this is high praise indeed.
Join us on Saturday, April 10 for The Arts at Kenmore: Music on the Lawn and hear 18th century music group Colonial Faire performs music from all walks of colonial society – the music of the taverns, the manor houses, on the streets and on the battlefields. The evening’s opening act will include a short talk exploring the importance of music to George Washington and a theater scene depicting Washington’s first dancing lesson. For more information and tickets, visit kenmore.org/events.