Making 18th Century Glass & Ceramic Reproductions: An Update

The replica Washington house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm has been open for tours for one year now but we still continue to add reproduction furniture and objects to the rooms inside. Since the house is a replica built using archaeology, historic research, and expert knowledge, we are using the same three foundations to create replica objects to display inside the house so that visitors may have a hands-on interactive experience.  Guests may sit on chairs, lie on the beds, pick up tumblers, hold tea pots and much more! Here in the archaeology lab at Ferry Farm, we’re always hard at work making new reproduction ceramic and glass items for the Washington house, as seen in this video.  Let’s take a look at some of our newest additions!

This adorable little teapot is a reproduction of a ware type called Littler’s Blue which had a very short run between 1750 and 1765.  These pots were often gilded with gold so we found a tiny blue teapot and made it fabulous.

We needed a decanter for the Washington house and while the shape of this one wasn’t perfect we were able to engrave it with a tulip motif based on artifacts recovered archaeologically at Ferry Farm. And because we caught gilding fever one of our very talented interns embellished it further to match eighteenth century examples. We also whittled down the ridiculous cork, although we’re searching for a more appropriate glass one.

We’ve excavated a lot of Chinese porcelain with what is called at ‘Imari’ palette, which is defined by under the glaze blue hand-painting, over-the-glaze red painting, and gilding.  Reproduction Imari is hard to find so we turned this plain white teapot into an Imari.  Our inspiration was the 18th century teapot below featuring cute little silkie chickens!

Our staff then set out to turn this colonial revival basin into a tin-glazed serving bowl.  Our excavations have turned up quite a bit of hand-painted polychrome tin-glaze so it was a must have for the new house.  We decided to copy the eighteenth century bowl below. A little bit of paint and presto!  Bye basin and hello serving bowl!  Can you spot the tiny bee hidden among the flowers?

We’ve been very fortunate to have a few extremely artistic interns, one of whom decorated this milk glass tumbler with an eighteenth century design from the vase below.  Some artistic license was taken and we decided to leave out the odd crab/lobster/crayfish….thing at the feet of the lady.  We think she turned out pretty nicely and since we’ve excavated a lot of painted milk glass at Ferry Farm she is a good fit for the house!

If you’d like to see any of these in person, please come take a tour of the Washington house replica at Ferry Farm!  Where, unlike most museums, touching the (reproduction) objects is highly encouraged!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

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LiberTEA

With hindsight, the events of history often seem inevitable.  America was destined for independence from Britain.  All colonists were patriots who saw themselves as a nation and a people separate from the mother country.  This was absolutely not the case.  Colonists’ views on the appropriateness of independence evolved with events.  Over time, British identity gave way to American identity.

US and UK flags

The American Stars and Stripes and British Union Jack, the present-day flags of the United States and the United Kingdom. Credit: Hellerick / Wikipedia

We have written several blog posts about how colonists, including members of the Washington family, clung to their Englishness.  They expressed this identity through Westerwald mugs emblazoned with ‘G.R.’ for Georgius Rex in homage to three British kings named George, including George III who would be the foe of the American independence movement. They expressed their English identity through pipe bowls emblazoned with the British royal coat of arms.  Even as protests against their lack of representation in Parliament increased, colonists still hung onto their English roots through, in the Washingtons’ case, wearing cuff links emblazoned with an image of King William III, who “came to represent the right of subjects to resist a king who was abusing power.”

The shift from a British identity to an American identity took time as colonists gave up aspects of British culture while they resisted, first, governmental overreach and, then, ultimately embraced full national independence.

Tea was one aspect of English culture given up as a political act to protest British rule and to show support for the American cause.  Abstention from tea drinking began with the Tea Act of 1773.  Parliament passed the Tea Act to bailout the financially troubled East India Company (EIC).[1]  The government told the Company that it could ship tea directly to the colonies, duty-free.  The EIC could get rid of loads of tea piling up in their London storerooms.  Colonists could get tea that was cheaper than the illegal stuff smuggled in.  Everyone should have been happy.  But everyone wasn’t.  The tea the Company sold to the colonists was to be taxed under the Townshend Acts.  If colonists purchased it, they indirectly accepted Parliament’s right to tax them without representation.[2]

Tea became an emblem of British oppression and a boycott of the drink became a revolutionary act.  John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that “Tea must be universally renounced and I must be weaned, and the sooner the better.”  Rejecting British culture, patriotic associations gave less than hospitable “tea parties” in Boston and Yorktown for merchants who continued to sell the politically incorrect brew.[3]  Less well-known was a tea party of sorts organized by the women of Edenton, North Carolina, who came together on October 25, 1774 and pledged to boycott tea and other British goods.  Whether politicians or housewives, Americans up and down the colonies joined these protests and vowed to never serve tea in their homes.[4]

A Society of Patriotic Ladies

“A society of patriotic ladies, at Edenton in North Carolina” printed for R. Sayer & J. Bennett on March 25, 1775 in London. This satirical print shows American women pledging to boycott English tea in response to Continental Congress resolution in 1774 to boycott English goods. Credit: Library of Congress.

By at least May of 1774, Virginians near Fredericksburg had given up their tea.   Philip Vickers Fithian, tutor to the Carter family at Nomini Hall, visited some neighbors on May 19 and noted in his diary that he “Drank Coffee at four, they are now too patriotic to use tea.”[5] Indeed, as Fithan indicates and as we’ve previously explored in this post, coffee became Americans’ go-to substitute for tea.

Fithian did not seem all that enthusiastic about the tea boycott, however. A few months later, he got very excited when “Something in our palace this Evening, very merry happened—Mrs Carter made a dish of Tea. At Coffee, she sent me a dish—& the Colonel both ignorant—He smelt, sipt—look’d—At last with great gravity he asks what’s this?—Do you ask Sir—Poh!—And out he throws it splash a sacrifice to Vulcan” [meaning the Roman god of fire, of course, and not Spock’s homeworld on Star Trek].[6]  While “the Colonel” Robert Carter III “did not volunteer for political or military service during the Revolution. He did, however, sign the Virginia loyalty oath and supported the non-importation agreements drawn up by the First Continental Congress.”  He patriotically did not partake of the British beverage but Fithian clearly missed his tea.

For those who disliked coffee or simply still wanted tea, there was a black market to provide one with British tea but there were also American-grown substitutes that adhered to the boycott and came to be known as “Liberty Teas.”  Dr. Leonard Perry, extension professor at the University of Vermont, provides an excellent summary of tea substitutes used by early Americans during their tea boycotts…

“One of the most common substitutes was the native American shrub New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), also known then as Indian tea or Walpole tea.  Leaves of raspberry also were commonly used for these colonial teas, as were sweet fern and spicebush. Bark from some trees such as sassafras and willow were used.

Common flowers used for the Liberty teas were sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora), red clover, chamomile, and violets.  Leaves of herbaceous plants such as bergamot (bee balm or Oswego tea), lemon balm, and mints were brewed as many are today.  Many herbs were brewed in the 18th century including parsley, thyme, marjoram, rosemary, and sage. Native Americans introduced the colonists to many of these plants which they often brewed to use medicinally.  Even some fruits were used in colonial teas, including those of dried strawberries, blueberries and apples.  Rosehips, rich in vitamin C and used today in teas, were used then as well.  “Indian lemonade tea” was made from boiling the berries of the red sumac.

Often ingredients were combined, such as a common tea recipe of that time including equal parts sweet goldenrod, betony, clover, and New Jersey tea.”

New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus)

New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus). Credit: John Oyston / Wikipedia.

Tea would return to American tables following the successful War for Independence.  There are several receipts from the 1790s that show Betty Washington Lewis purchasing tea, including a type of imported Chinese green tea, at Kenmore.  But, for the most part, these imported teas as well as the herbal liberty teas were ultimately eclipsed by coffee, which became, like tea for the British, the drink synonymous with American culture.

Betty Lewis receipt for tea copy

Receipt showing Betty Washington Lewis’ purchase of some “young hyson tea,” a type of Chinese green tea, on February 8, 1797.

Visit Historic Kenmore on Saturday, May 4 for “Tea and Tour: The Ladies of Kenmore” focusing on the many generations of ladies who have called Kenmore home! Enjoy Kenmore tea and gingerbread while experiencing eighteenth-century tea service first hand. See the first floor of the mansion, learning the history of the grand 1775 home through vignettes, and meet a few of the extraordinary ladies of Kenmore along the way as part of this dramatic tour.

Event admission is $20 Adults and $10 under 17.  Reservations required and there are only a very few spaces left. For more information and reservations, please call (540) 370-0732 ext. 24 or email events@gwffoundation.org.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

 

[1] Breen, T. H., The Marketplace of Revolution, Oxford: University Press, 2004: 298-301.

[2] Breen, 235-239.

[3] Clark, F, “Chocolate and other Colonial Beverages” in Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage, 2009 (eds L. E. Grivetti and H.-Y. Shapiro), John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ: 276.

[4] Root, Waverly et al., Eating in America, New York: Ecco, 1981: 127

[5] Diary entry, May 19 1774 by Philip Vickers Fithian, Journal & Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian, 1773-1774: A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion, Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg, 1943, 147.

[6] Diary entry, September 26, 1774 by Fithian, 257.

Glass Guns: A Late 19th/Early 20th Century Phenomenon

Recently, archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm came across an odd glass fragment in our collection.  We poured over it, passing it from person to person trying to figure out what it was.  Then came the ‘ah-ha’ moment: it was a gun barrel.  That’s odd, right?  Turns out it isn’t.

Glass Gun Barrel Sherd

Glass gun barrel sherd excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

This story starts in the late 19th century when machines to blow glass were developed and glass finally became a fairly cheap commodity.  Add to this the discovery of natural gas, an inexpensive fuel, on the East coast and boom…a revolution in glassmaking.  Previously, a team of glass blowers made all glass objects by hand one at a time. Now, machines could crank out dozens of bottles a minute and American households (and landfills) began filling up with glass.

Glass novelties exploded in the early 20th century, with their heyday hitting during the Great Depression.  Figurines and bottles were pressed into novel shapes like telephones, fire trucks, boats, hats, every animal imaginable, chairs, dust pans, and the list goes on and on.  Much of this glass was given away as incentives or premiums to buy products like flour, movie tickets, toothpaste, detergent, an oil change, you name it.  Much of these glass is now termed ‘Depression glass’, which most commonly refers to the brightly colored yet cheaply manufactured tablewares common in antique stores today.

Most of the glass guns of this era were bottles that held either candy or whiskey (big disparity, there).  These guns were small with the consumable of choice poured from end of the barrel.   The candy guns were filled with brightly colored hard candies and could be given out as prizes at carnivals or purchased cheaply at a five and dime store.  The gun-shaped whiskey bottles were frequently either purchased as souvenirs or given out as promotional samples.  Once emptied, many of these guns became toys.

Our barrel, however, is solid.  Solid glass guns are far less common.  Most exhibited a non-glass grip and were modeled after actual guns available on the market.  Ours appears to mimic a snub nose revolver.  It is unclear whether this was intended as a toy or a curio, although we suspect those lines frequently blurred.  Regardless, during the 1940s and ‘50s with great advances in chemical technology most glass novelties were replaced were replaced by the newest cheap material…plastic.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Rooms at Rest

Visitors to Kenmore on the evening of April 13th will have the opportunity to see the Dining Room in a very different light, both literally and figuratively.  In preparation for our evening program Letters from the Past, we will be putting the room “at rest,” an arrangement that would have been very familiar to the Lewises during their time in the house, but may look a little odd to us in the present day.

As we have discussed on several previous occasions, household furnishings in the 18th century were thought of as completely mobile.  Almost nothing had a permanent location.  If the large dining table was needed in the Passage for a casual summer supper, then it was moved there.  If the sofa was a favored reading place, it could be moved in front of a cozy fireplace on a cold night, or it might be placed directly in front of an open door to catch a breeze on a hot summer day.  Furniture was even constructed with this mobility in mind.  Tables were drop leaf or tilt-top, so that they could fit through doorways, and could be placed flat against a wall.  Castors were added to the feet of some pieces to aid in their movement from one room to another.  And of course, all of this movement was aided by the fact that gentry households had small armies of enslaved labor to see to it.

And when a room was not in use (or at rest), most of its furnishings were pushed against the walls, leaving the center of the room open and available for any spur of the moment need.  We are used to seeing beautifully appointed rooms, like Kenmore’s famous Dining Room, perfectly staged with a table set with silver and china, the chairs arranged around it, the sideboards loaded with auxiliary glassware and decanters, all at the ready to serve a formal meal.  In reality, these entertaining rooms were probably very rarely in this state of readiness.

Kenmore's Dining Room at Rest

Kenmore’s Dining Room at rest.

On any given day, the Lewis Dining Room was largely empty.  The 15 dining chairs listed in Fielding Lewis’s probate inventory were lined up against the walls.  The two drop leaf dining tables, one oval and one square, would have their leaves down, and would be lined up with the chairs.  All of the silver, china and glassware would be carefully locked away in the room’s closet.  The empty cellarette and wine cooler would be shoved under the bare sideboard.  Anyone passing through the room could take advantage of the empty space in the middle of it to admire the Brussels carpet in its entirety, and to view the dazzling plasterwork ceiling from directly under its center.  While a room was at rest, the open space could be used for any variety of purposes, from hanging laundry to having lessons for children in the family, but by and large it would have simply remained closed up and quiet, especially at Kenmore, where the cost of heating such a cavernous room was a real consideration.

Often it was necessary to immediately transition a room to its resting state following a formal meal, such as in preparation for dancing (as we show in our annual holiday Twelfth Night at Kenmore performance) or for an entertainment, such as a musical performance or a dramatic reading.  Guests might leave the room temporarily to share a drink in the Drawing Room, while house slaves cleared the remains of dinner and moved the furniture, but they might also simply pick up their own chairs and move them out of the way while the switch to entertainment mode took place.  As an English traveler in America noted in his diary, while he and other guests watched, the servants “in the manner of the country, carried away the table when they carried away the cloth, and drove loiterers away with an army of brooms…the men had previously carried their chairs to the wall, the women to a window.”[1]

During the Letters from the Past event, guests will have the opportunity to enjoy a candle-lit dramatic reading in Kenmore’s Dining Room, just as their 18th century counterparts might have done.  The room will be at rest, allowing our visitors the chance to sit directly under the plasterwork ceiling and view the space in an entirely different, but very typical for the 18th century, way.

In honor of National Siblings Day, Letters from the Past will read between the lines of George Washington and Betty Washington Lewis’ personal correspondence. Only a small portion of the letters between the siblings still exists. This program will focus on a series of seven letters written in 1789 and 1790 in which brother and sister grieve the loss of their mother, and bicker about the things all siblings bicker about. Not sure eighteenth-century English is your favorite style of reading? We will have twenty-first century “translators” to help us put all of it into some modern perspective.

This dramatic presentation takes place at Historic Kenmore on Saturday, April 13 from 5:00 p.m.- 6:30 p.m.  A reception with light refreshments will be held from 5:00 – 5:30 p.m., and the program will begin at 5:30 p.m.

Admission is $20 for adults and $10 for children under 17.  Reservations are encouraged as space is limited, but walk-ins are welcome.

For more information and reservations, please call (540) 370-0732 x24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[1] Kendall, Edward Augustus. Travels Through the Northern Parts of the United States in the Years 1807 and 1808 (New York, 1809). Vol. 1, Pg. 327.  As quoted in Garrett, Elizabeth Donaghy.  At Home: The American Family 1750-1870 (New York, 1989), Pg. 80.

The Legend of Mary Washington and the Deadly Lightning Strike

Lightning striking the Washington Monument, July 1, 2005.

Lightning striking the Washington Monument on July 1, 2005. Credit: Kevin Ambrose

Originally, this post was going to explore colonial America’s fear and fascination with lightning and the practical tools created to help prevent destructive lightning damage.  During my research, however, I encountered a tale about Mary Ball Washington and a close encounter with lightning that supposedly traumatized her for the rest of her life.  If true, this story would be a fabulous illustration of the destructiveness of lightning as well as of the anxiety colonial Americans felt about these random bolts from the sky.

According to the story, one summer evening, Mary was having supper with friends when a bolt of lightning struck the house, traveled down the chimney, and instantly killed the woman sitting next to Mary.  This alleged event was said to be so traumatizing for Mary that it affected every facet of her life from then on.  She trembled at the approach of thunderstorms, she never traveled far from home, she discouraged her children from taking risks, and her nervousness had a negative effect on her relationships with her family.  If true, this story is indeed disturbing and would definitely have been a seminal moment in the life of Mary.

I began researching the story to try and establish its legitimacy and accuracy.  This began a deep descent down the rabbit hole of historical myth versus truth.  All of which had absolutely nothing to do with lightning.  So I set Benjamin Franklin and his lightning rod to one side in a quest to prove or disprove this tale about Mary.

My goal was to find primary source documentation that would support this story.  I wanted direct or firsthand evidence about the event from documents like newspaper articles, journal or diary entries, letters or other accounts of the incident from the time.  If I was unable to find primary sources that recorded the incident, then my secondary objective was to trace the story to its point of origin.

The most recent reiteration of the story comes from a biography first published in 1997.  The author writes, “When [Mary] was pregnant with George Washington, she experienced a shock that may have shaped her relationship with the large child taking shape in her womb.  One summer Sunday afternoon, while the family was having dinner with guests from church, a thunderstorm rolled in.  A bolt of lightning struck the house and traveled down the chimney and hit a young girl . . . .  The electric current was so strong it fused the knife and fork she was using to cut her meat.  She died instantly.  The lightning hit with such force that it severely jolted the pregnant Mary Washington, who was sitting only a few feet away.”  The author theorizes that “Mary Ball Washington never recovered fully from the shock she had seen and felt.  She rarely traveled any farther than church on Sunday and her timorousness touched off a number of dashes with her family, especially her son, who she discouraged from taking any risks . . . she could not understand; in fact she resented [George’s] desire to stray from her side and leave the safety of the farm to go off to war.”[1]

I was quite excited to find such a detailed account of the event so I flipped to the book’s bibliography to find the author’s source but there was none listed.

Disappointed, I continued my work to trace the story to its origin.  Eventually, I found six different accounts of Mary’s traumatic lightning story with the earliest appearing in 1850.  Margaret Conkling was the first to recount the tale in Memoirs of the mother and wife of Washington stating that Mary’s “almost constitutional timidity, was occasioned by a singularly distressing incident of her youth – the instant death, from the effects of lightning, of a young friend, who was at the moment when the accident occurred, sitting close beside her.”[2]

This account has none of the details of the 1997 account and makes no mention of Mary being pregnant with George at the time and instead states the lightning strike occurred in “her youth”.  Subsequent accounts from 1852 to 1892 recount the tale but none of them provide a primary source.[3]

And that is where my search ended.  There are no primary sources or references about Mary and the lightning incident before 1850, nearly 120 year after the incident supposedly took place.

This must lead us to ask if the story is even true and, if it isn’t, why would writers continue to use it as a pivotal and personality molding event in Mary’s history?

We do not know much about Mary Ball Washington’s youth.  We know that by the time she was twelve both her parents had died and she became the legal ward of her uncle.  In 1731, she was introduced to recently widowed Augustine Washington and the two married and moved to Pope’s Creek, Virginia.[4]  Mary left relatively few written records and many letters from various family members at the time barely reference her, let alone give us detailed stories from her life.

Mary’s enigmatic past has led to many different interpretations of her personality over the years.  In the different lightning stories I found, it seems that each writer was trying to use the story to explain their own ideas of who Mary was as a person. The earlier versions use the story to illustrate a woman of courage and intelligence who, despite being strong, still had flaws. The later version uses the story to show a nervous, harsh woman who tried to hinder her son’s greatness due to her own fears.  While traumatic for Mary, this alleged lightning event also serves as a kind of prophecy or superhero origin story for her future son, turning George into a demigod worthy of becoming the father of a nation.  Each writer used the story as an illustration to fit their own narrative but none of them provide evidence that the event really happened.  The temptation to include a story as dramatic and potentially consequential as a fatal lightning strike and, for Mary, a near death experience is indeed hard to resist.

This is not to say these authors knowingly falsified the story. They simply are relying more on legend than on fact.  Mary’s reputation and, for that matter, Washington family history has always been steeped in much legend.   So was Mary present when one of her friends was struck and killed by lightning while eating supper?  It’s not impossible but it is highly improbable the event ever took place.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Randall, Willard Sterne. George Washington: A Life. Galahad Books, 2006.

[2] Conkling, Margaret Cockburn. Memoirs of the mother and wife of Washington. Derby, Miller and company, 1850.

[3] Hervy, Nathaniel. The memory of Washington. Boston, J. Munroe, 1852; Custis, George Washington. Recollections and Private Memoir of Washington. J.W. Bradley, 1859; Lossing, John Benson. Mary and Martha, the mother and the wife of George Washington, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1886; Walter, James. Memorials of Washington and of Mary, his mother, and Martha, his wife. New York, C. Scribner’s Sons, 1887; Harland, Marion. The Story of Mary Washington. New York, Houghton, Mifflin & Co, 1892.

[4] “Mary Ball Washington.” George Washington Digital Encyclopedia. George Washington’s Mount Vernon, 2019, www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/mary-ball-washington/ [accessed March 22, 2019].

George’s First Job

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

Ferry Farm Aerial View

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

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

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

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

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

Young George Washington, Surveyor

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

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

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

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

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

Surveyor's Compass

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

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

Surveying Chain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs