True or False: Test Your Knowledge of George Washington!

True or False…

George Washington was born in England in 1732?
FALSE – Although technically he was born a subject of the King on “English” soil, George was born on his father’s farm on Pope’s Creek in Westmoreland County in the English colony of Virginia in 1732. The site is now the George Washington Birthplace National Monument.

George Washington wore a white wig?
FALSE – As an adult, Washington did not wear a wig, as was the fashion at the time and even though contemporary portraits make it seem that he did.  He chose to pull his hair back in a queue and powdered his hair white to make it look like he was wearing a wig.  Based on the number of wig curlers excavated archaeologically at Ferry Farm, we do suspect that he and his brothers wore wigs as boys. Read more about wigs and wig curlers.

Portrait of George Washington (1795) by Gilbert Stuart

Portrait of George Washington (1795) by Gilbert Stuart. Credit: Public Domain/Metropolitan Museum of Art

George Washington was the only President not to reside in the White House?
TRUE – The Federal government did not move from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. until 1800 when John Adams was the President. Washington did pick the location of the President’s House and approved the architectural design by Irish-born James Hoban.

Washington visited only one other country during his lifetime?
TRUE – In September of 1751 at the age of 19 he traveled to Barbados with his step-brother Lawrence, who was ill with tuberculosis and advised to spend the winter in a warmer climate.  George only stayed until December, but it was during this time that he contracted smallpox. This trip was the only time Washington ever traveled outside the borders of what would become the United States. Read “Three Military Adventures that Inspired George Washington” to learn more.

George Washington chopped down his father’s cherry tree?
FALSE – This story was written by Mason Locke Weems in the first biography of Washington’s life to encourage readers to emulate what Weems, a parson, saw as admirable qualities (truthfulness and physical strength) expected from a great and patriotic leader.

George Washington signed the Declaration of Independence?
FALSE – Washington was in New York City on July 4, 1776, anticipating and preparing for an attack by the British army. On July 9th, he assembled his troops to listen to a reading of the proclamation from the Continental Congress which declared independence from Great Britain.

George threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River as a young man?
FALSE – The earliest version of this legend claims that George threw a piece of slate the size of a silver dollar across the Rappahannock River when he lived at Ferry Farm.  Over the years, it somehow became an actual silver dollar (dollars did not exist when George was a boy nor would he have wasted one by throwing it) and got moved north to the Potomac at Mount Vernon.  Although the Rappahannock at Ferry Farm was wider in George’s day, a few baseball players have achieved the feat. Read “George Washington, Baseball Player?” to learn more.

George Washington’s first job was as a surveyor?
TRUE – George learned how to survey as a teenager and was hired in 1748 at the young age of sixteen to survey land in western Virginia. The following year he was appointed surveyor for Culpeper County.  Surveying was his main occupation until 1752 when he was commissioned as a district adjutant for the Virginia militia by Governor Dinwiddie. Washington made a survey of Ferry Farm in 1771 titled “the fields where my mother lives.” Read more about “George’s First Job.

George Washington did not have a middle name?
TRUE.

George Washington uttered the famous words “Give me liberty or give me death!”?
FALSE – this quote is attributed to Patrick Henry from a speech he made to the Second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775 at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia. George Washington was a delegate in attendance at this convention when a resolution was approved to supply troops from the Virginia militia to the Continental Army.

George Washington was the first person to sign the Constitution in Philadelphia?
TRUE – On September 17, 1787, Washington signed the document as both “President” of the Constitutional Convention and as a delegate from Virginia.

Signatures on the Constitution

Signatures on the Constitution of the United States by delegates to the Constitutional Convention. George Washington’s is visible at the top of the right-hand column. Credit: National Archives

Washington signature closeup

A closeup of Washington’s signature on the U.S. Constitution.

George Washington was tall and had reddish brown hair?
TRUE – George was 6’2” and, yes, he was a ginger!

George Washington’s false teeth were made of wood?
FALSE – His dentures or false teeth were not made of wood, as is commonly supposed. One of his denture sets (he had many throughout his life) on display at Mount Vernon is made of human, cow and horse teeth held together in a lead frame with wires. When Washington was inaugurated as President in 1789, he had only one real tooth remaining in his mouth! Read more about “George’s Troublesome Teeth.”

George Washington’s Secretary of Treasurer was Alexander Hamilton?
TRUE – And he was in the room where it happened, the room where it happened, the room where it happened!

When Washington became the first President of the United States, our federal government was based at its current location of Washington, DC?
FALSE – When Washington was inaugurated President in 1789, New York City was the seat of the government.  In 1790, it was moved to Philadelphia.  Ten years later in 1800, it moved to the purposely-built city of Washington where it has remained ever since.

Washington's Inauguration at Philadelphia by Ferris

“Washington’s Inauguration at Philadelphia” (1947) by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. Credit: Library of Congress

Washington once had his clothes were robbed by two women while he swam in the Rappahannock River?
TRUE – The women, Ann Carrol and Mary McDaniel, were arrested and tried in court. Charges against Ann Carrol were dismissed when she gave evidence for the prosecution. Mary McDaniel was found guilty and punished with “fifteen lashes on her bare back” at the whipping post.  Read “‘Not Having Been Wett All Over at Once, for 28 Years Past’: Bathing in Early America” to learn more about this incident.

As a boy, George Washington helped run the ferry service that ran between his family’s property (now called Ferry Farm) and the town of Fredericksburg?
FALSE – Though located riverside on the Washington farm, the ferry was not actually owned by the Washington family.  The moniker “Ferry Farm” was not ever applied to Washington’s boyhood home until the late 19th century.  To the Washington family, it was called the Home Farm.

Ferry Farm, the boyhood home of George Washington in Stafford County, VA, was actually owned by George, not his mother?
TRUE – Eleven-year-old George inherited the farm upon his father Augustine’s death in 1743.  As he was not of age yet, his mother Mary decided to manage the farm for him until he turned 21.  In the end, Mary lived at and managed the farm until 1772, when George sold the property and moved her into a new home across the river in Fredericksburg.

Judy Jobrack
Co-Field Director, Archaeology Lab Assistant

Washington’s St. Patrick’s Day General Order

Saint Patrick’s Day honors St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, who was born in England and lived during the 5th century. Early in life, he was kidnapped, sold into slavery, and ended up living in Ireland. He is credited with converting the Irish to Christianity, as illustrated in the legendary tale that says he drove the snakes (a metaphor for pagans and druids) from Ireland.  He established many churches and was honored with a feast day in his name.

Over time, Saint Patrick’s Day shifted from a religious holiday to a secular celebration of Irish culture and history. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade was held in Boston in 1737. By the time the Revolutionary War started, there was also a parade in New York City and the holiday had become a meaningful celebration to Irish-Americans. Subsequently, during a cold winter encampment in 1780 in Morristown, New Jersey, General George Washington, then commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, noticed his men were having a bout of particularly low morale. The soldiers were low on food, had very shabby shelters, and the winter was harsh.

Washington, a man of many curiosities, became interested in the political goings-on in Ireland, which was also ruled by the British. He could see that Ireland, like the colonies at that time, was struggling to find common ground with the Crown in England. He found the Irish struggle relatable, and also useful. Perhaps, if England could be distracted enough by unrest in Ireland, they would falter in the war against the colonies.

Recognizing the need for a boost, and the opportunity to resonate with specific groups, Washington issued an order on March 16, 1780. Today, it is known as the St. Patrick’s Day General Order. It reads in full:

Head Quarters Morris Town March 16th, 1780
General Order

The general congratulates the army on the very interesting proceedings of the parliament of Ireland and the inhabitants of that country which have been lately communicated; not only as they appear calculated to remove those heavy and tyrannical oppressions on their trade but to restore to a brave and generous people their ancient rights and freedom and by their operations to promote the cause of America.

 Desirous of impressing upon the minds of the army, transactions so important in their nature, the general directs that all fatigue and working parties cease for tomorrow the seventeenth, a day held in particular regard by the people of the nation. At the same time that he orders this, he persuades himself that the celebration of the day will not be attended with the least rioting or disorder, the officers to be at their quarters in camp and the troops of the state line to keep within their own encampment.

St. Patrick's Day General Order

Copy of Washington’s St. Patrick’s Day General Order. Credit: National Archives

The celebration in the camp was the only day the men had off throughout the winter of 1780. According to Washington, the army was in a perilous state well into May. However, the day of rest and celebration certainly helped the troops soldier on. It seems that March 17th was meant to become a day of happenings for George Washington and his army, because 4 years previous to the Morristown order, Washington and his men watched the British retreat from Boston during the opening act of the Revolution.

Irish George Washington

So, this year as you don your shamrocks and green top hats, think of: Hercules Mulligan, a spy for the continentals born in Derry, Ireland; Henry Knox, artillery master extraordinaire and a Boston-native with Irish parents; General Richard Montgomery who before “he caught a bullet in the neck in Quebec” for the cause and had a father in the Irish Parliament; and all the other Irishmen who helped create a free and independent nation here before their own nation could gain that same freedom.

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

Little George Goes Back to Pittsburgh [Photos]

A staff member who works at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore recently visited Pittsburgh.  Little George accompanied her and visited places related in some fashion to George Washington’s life in the 1700s, the world he lived at that time , or his long legacy as a historic figure national and internationally.  Here is a collection of photos documenting Little George’s travels!

First, on the road to Pittsburgh, Little George stopped a place that does not hold fond memories for him. The battle of Fort Necessity took place in 1754. Washington and a group of Virginia Militiamen were sent to the area to meet with Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, the leader of the French detachment of troops nearby. While there are not clear descriptions of what happened, there was clearly some miscommunication and Jumonville was killed. Within a few months, the French retaliated, attacking Colonial and British forces in this clearing known as Great Meadows. Washington had built Fort Necessity but the design, a circular fort surrounded by tree-lined high ground, led to a swift defeat.

Fort Necessity

A replica of Fort Necessity

A year after the disaster at Fort Necessity, George joined yet another expedition to “the Forks of the Ohio”, this time under the command of renowned British General Edward Braddock. During the march towards modern day Pittsburgh, the British were ambushed and after a three hour bloodbath, Braddock was carried from the field with fatal wounds. A few days later, Braddock was buried about a mile from the old site of Fort Necessity. Several years later, Braddock’s remains were moved to a nearby knoll. Little George decided to stop and pay respects to a man he admired, saying “…Thus died a man, whose good and bad qualities were intimately blended. He was brave even to a fault and in regular Service would have done honor to his profession. His attachments were warm, his enmities were strong, and having no disguise about him, both appeared in full force.”

Braddock 1

Original burial site of General Braddock.

Braddock 2

Current site of General Braddock’s grave.

After a few stops that tugged at Little George’s heartstrings, we decided to continue on into the city. Little George was looking a bit famished so I decided to take him to a place he hadn’t seen on his last trip to Pittsburgh. Little George thought Primanti Brothers was top notch!

Pirmanti

Pirmanti Brothers sandwich shop

Next, Little George thought a trip to the top of Mount Washington would make for a great view of the city. As he began to prepare for a hearty trek up the mountain, I drove us to another modern development. Little George decided that the Duquesne Incline would have been handy in the 1750s!

Duquense Incline

The Duquense Incline up Mount Washington

As we got to the top of Mount Washington, we walked along, admiring the city and came to a spot where the people of Pittsburgh had memorialized George Washington and Guyasuta, a leader of the Seneca people who met and traveled with George Washington in 1753 but ultimately sided with the French during the French and Indian War. Later, he would take the side of the British during the American Revolution thus, making the two men constantly at odds with each other.

George Washington and Guyasuta

Statue of Guyasuta and Washington

Looking down over the confluence of the Alleghany and the Monongahela brought back a lot of memories for Little George. Even with the new buildings and bridges, he recalled his march to Fort Duquesne. However, he did seem very interested in this “football” that modern Americans seem to like so much. After I explained it a bit, he didn’t think he could pick a single team to root for, but thought the field of play here was in a beautiful location.

Three Rivers

Downtown Pittsburgh and the confluence of the Allegheny and, Monongahela Rivers, whose meeting forms the Ohio.

Heinz Field

A view of Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers

After admiring the view from above, I took George down to the site of where Fort Duquesne once stood. He recalled the assault on Fort Duquesne. The battle was fierce, and despite the French victory, they withdrew from the area due to the fact that the British force was more than ten times the size of the French force. Thus, the British rebuilt the remains of Fort Duquesne and reinforced it, calling it Fort Pitt, in honor of the English Prime Minister at the time.

Fort Duquense

Site of Fort Duquense, later renamed Fort Pitt

While down by the water, I convinced Little George to also take a picture next to the River. He was a little nervous getting too close to the Allegheny River and I asked him why. He explained that in 1753, when travelling through the area, he attempted a crossing. At the time, the water was very cold with large chunks of ice flowing through it. George fell into the water and nearly froze to death overnight while waiting on a small island for the river to freeze and he could finally cross safely the next morning.  I told him not to worry as the river wasn’t that cold just yet.

Allegheny

The Allegheny River

Wigle's

Visiting the Wigle Whiskey Distillery

After all the talks of battles and falling in icy rivers, I decided we should warm up a bit. I remembered just down the river was a spot where Little George might also like to reminisce. During his Presidency, George Washington enacted a whiskey tax that led to the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. During this time, he sent representatives to attempt to collect the taxes, and even led organized troops to march against the insurrection. However, the rebels were no match and they folded. Only two of them were convicted of treason: John Mitchell and Philip Wigle. The men were sentenced to hang, but Washington later pardoned the men. In 2011, Wigle Whiskey was reopened to keep Philp Wigle’s legacy alive. Little George enjoyed the visit, noting that he too owned a whiskey distillery at the end of his life. He bragged only slightly to the folks at Wigle about producing 11,000 gallons in 1799. At the time, it was one of the largest distilleries in the country.

How George Ended Up on the $1 Bill

When you hear the name George Washington, what is the first image that pops into your head? For many people, it is the picture of the first president that adorns the U.S. paper dollar, but have you ever wondered how he ended up there? Since today is National Dollar Day commemorating the day in 1786 when United States Congress established the dollar as the official unit of account for the federal government, we thought we’d briefly explore the history of George on the dollar.

Current US $1 bill

The current $1 bill featuring George Washington. Credit: Public domain / Wikipedia

Although paper currency has been around for centuries, the practice was first used in western world around the 17th century. During the colonial era, physical money was quite scarce in the American Colonies; instead, the economy operated on a barter system using goods as payment for services. With the advent of the American Revolution, the Continental Congress began issuing paper money to help fund the war effort but the bills were not worth much and depreciated in value quickly. After the war, when writing the new U.S. Constitution, the form of currency for the new country would prove a priority. In fact, Article I, Section 10 of the Constitution gives only the United States Federal Government the power to coin money for the country and, by 1792, the U.S. Mint was established.

At the same time, states were still allowed to issue their own currency as well but they lacked accountability so many of them were worthless.  Leading up to the Civil War, there were around 10,000 different kinds of paper money in circulation in the United States. Thus, throughout the early years of our country, foreign money and bartering were still widely used.

In fact, it was during the early 19th century that the slang term “buck” began being used. Henry Howe, an American author and traveler, wrote of his time on the Ohio frontier where “a muskrat skin was equal to a quarter of a dollar; a raccoon skin, a third of a dollar; a doe skin, half a dollar, and a buck skin, ‘the almighty dollar’”[1]. Thus, when referring to the price of something, many people referred to it as a “buck”.

During the Civil War, the United States government funded its war effort by printing new forms of currency. It was at this time that the first official paper currency was created. The federal government even printed fractional notes during the time because the metal normally used to make coins was needed for the war. One of the bills created at the time was the official one dollar bill in 1862. This early version of the bill featured then Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase.

The money printed during this time period became known as “greenbacks” because it was not backed by anything. The worth was simply given to it by the government saying it had worth. This meant that the government had to closely control printing and also find a way to prevent counterfeiting.  Today, many people think of the U.S. Secret Service as the people who protect the President but the service was actually formed at this time to deal with counterfeiters.

US $1 1880

An $1 note from 1880 featuring George Washington. Credit: Public domain / Wikipedia

After the Civil War, the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing took over production of U.S. Currency. It was in 1869 that George Washington’s face first appeared on the one dollar bill. The design of the dollar changed quite a bit up until 1963 when the bill we recognize today was first created. Unlike most of the rest of our paper money, the one dollar bill has not been redesigned since then and there are no plans to do so.

Currency is redesigned at intervals to forestall counterfeiting. As recently as 2016, then Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew planned a complete redesign of the twenty dollar bill to replace Andrew Jackson with a picture of Harriet Tubman. Lew planned the design to be released in 2020 but it has been delayed until 2026.

Regardless, Tubman will not be the first woman featured on U.S. currency. We have had women (including Susan B. Anthony, Sacagawea, and Helen Keller) featured on U.S. coins.  In the 1860s, Pocahontas was featured on the twenty dollar note. In the 1880s, Martha Washington was featured on the $1 silver certificate. This bill with the portrait of Martha Washington is the only time a woman has ever been on U.S. paper money as the primary portrait.  Another series released in the 1890s was called the Educational Series and featured Martha next to her husband. Many coin collectors and currency experts consider it to be the most beautiful currency ever created by the United States Government. It was shortly after this that our paper money shifted to what we know it as today with denominations of one, five, ten, twenty, fifty, and one hundred becoming the most commonly used bills.

US $1SC 1886

The $1 silver certificate from 1886 featuring Martha Washington. Credit: Public domain / Wikipedia.

The U.S. Currency Education Program says around twelve billion one dollar bills are in circulation as of 2017. That’s a lot of Georges. Ironically, the portrait appearing on the bill, is one that the man himself was likely not particularly fond of. Painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1796, it is often referred to as The Athenaeum Portrait. Today, the original painting is on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. Despite being the most recognized painting of George, it is an unfinished work. In the painting, George’s cheeks are puffed out and his lips pursed in discomfort. Around the same time he complained about his new set of dentures not fitting him correctly and causing him pain. Due to his constant concern for his appearance and demeanor, he would probably not appreciate our widespread use of this portrait. He probably much preferred the bust created by Jean-Antoine Houdon, something even his family said was the most accurate likeness of him.

Athenaeum Portrait vs One-Dollar Bill

Gilbert Stuart’s “Athenaeum Portrait” (L) vs the $1 bill portrait (R). Credit: Anna Frodesiak / Wikipedia

Houdon's Washington Bust

Bust of George Washington created by Jean-Antoine Houdon and widely considered the most accurate likeness of Washington. Credit: National Portrait Gallery

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

[1] Howe, H. (1851). Historical collections of Ohio. Cincinnati: H. Howe at E. Morgan & co’s.

Summer Vacation, 18th Century Style

Despite issues of poor roads, lack of transportation, financial considerations and simply an absence of places to go, colonial Virginians fancied a summer vacation just as much as we do today.  In fact, getting out of the city, or away from hot, steamy climates and hordes of mosquitoes in the summer months was actually necessary for health.  In the late 1760s and right through the Revolution, Fielding Lewis and his brother-in-law George Washington joined a number of other Fredericksburg locals in making regular summer visits to one of the few getaways locales in existence at the time – the warm springs in (at the time) Frederick County.

Now known as Berkeley Springs in present-day West Virginia, the bubbling natural springs and their reputed medicinal powers have attracted visitors since long before Europeans came across them.  Native Americans visited the springs to take advantage of its healing waters, and told settlers about the spot, as well.  The site is labeled as “Medicinal spring” on the famed 1747 Fry-Jefferson map.

A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina, 1747

“A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia containing the whole province of Maryland with part of Pensilvania, New Jersey and North Carolina”, 1747 (the Fry-Jefferson map) by Joshua Fry & Peter Jefferson. Credit: Library of Congress.

Enlargement of Fry-Jefferson Map showing Medicinal Spring

Enlargement of the Fry-Jefferson map showing the location of the Medicinal Spring frequented by the Washington and Lewis families. Credit: Library of Congress.

Sixteen-year-old George Washington made his first visit the following year, as part of Lord Fairfax’s wilderness surveying crew.  At that very early date, a visit to the springs really was purely for medicinal purposes, as there certainly were no other amenities to attract vacationers, and getting there was a feat in itself, being tucked away in the remote mountains.  To say that conditions were primitive would be an understatement, and young George was…unimpressed. In his diary, which he began on this trip and would continue for nearly the rest of his life, George wrote, “We this day call’d to see y. Fam’d Warm Springs. We camped out in y. field this night. Nothing remarkable happen’d…”[1]

Indeed, early reports about the situation at the “fam’d Warm Springs” conjur some interesting mental images.  Native Americans “took the waters” by simply hollowing out shallow pools in the sandy ground and squatting in them, allowing the natural spring water to bubble up around them.  They also built temporary saunas to steam in, and apparently allowed ailing white visitors to share.  Although, the shallow pits were eventually lined with stones found nearby to make them more or less permanent, one still pictures fully-clothed, wig-wearing colonists sitting miserably in tepid water, hoping their fever, cold or rheumatism would be cured.  As there were no structures built on the site, visitors hauled their own provisions, tents and even household staffs with them in wagons and camped out on the steep hillsides.[2]

And apparently, this state of affairs went on for quite a while, perhaps testifying to the desperation of the sick and injured in the 18th century for some sort of relief.  On a return trip to the springs in August of 1761, George Washington described a similar situation to what he had witnessed more than a decade earlier.  “We found of both sexes about 250 people at this place, full of all manner of diseases and complaints…They are situated very badly on the east side of a steep mountain and enclosed by hills on all sides, so that the afternoon’s sun is hid by 4 o’clock and the fog hangs over us till 9 or 10…I am of the opinion that numbers get more hurt by their manner of lying, than the waters can do them good. Had we not succeeded in getting a tent and marquee from Winchester, we should have been in a most miserable situation here.”[3]

Yet, despite the less than ideal accommodations, George did return to the warm springs.  And so did many other members of the Virginia gentry, including Fielding Lewis.  They did seem to believe that the waters there had a positive effect, and so the trip was worthwhile…but, gee, it sure would be great if they could have a bit more fun while doing it!  And so they set about turning the place into a more comfortable spot, a resort really, where they could not only take the waters but enjoy entertainments, visit with friends, have good food and drink, and generally have a good time for a few weeks every summer.  By all accounts, they succeeded.

George Washington's Bathtub

“George Washington’s Bath Tub”, a monument constructed to represent bathing conditions in Washington’s time in present-day Berkeley Springs State Park. Credit: Warfieldian / Wikipedia

The first effort to civilize the warm springs was by Fredericksburg resident James Mercer, a good friend of both Fielding Lewis and Charles Dick.  He apparently was given permission by Lord Fairfax to build a rather large summer cottage at the site, and it quickly became the center of Fredericksburg’s summer social scene.  The group of Fredericksburg friends, all young men in their 30s and early 40s, along with wives and children, journeyed to Mercer’s cottage for vacation.  In 1769, George Washington brought Martha and Patsy to stay for several weeks, and described the many visitors in and out of the cottage, including Lord Fairfax himself and his family members, and several former military friends from Pennsylvania.[4]

With the building of a new road to the area in 1772, James Mercer got some neighbors.  Inns and taverns sprang up (including Washington’s favorite, Throgmorton’s Sign of the Liberty Pole and Flag) other houses were built (although still mostly cabins and one room shanties) and the influx of vacationers increased.  It was a kind of hodge-podge, though, with no systematic plan for building or improvement.  The Fredericksburg friends (and associated relatives) saw an opportunity, though, and in 1775 they convinced Lord Fairfax to allow the laying out of a proper town, and Samuel and Warner Washington were put in charge of it.  Town lots were quickly bought up, mostly by the Fredericksburg contingent, and the building of cottages commenced.  The group decided to give their new town the rather aspirational name of Bath, after the popular spa resort in England.

The Comforts of Bath

“King Bladud’s Bath” from The Comforts of Bath series (1798) by satirist Thomas Rowlandson. Credit: Wikigallery.

So what was daily life like for a colonial Virginian on summer vacation? By the 1770s, life in Bath had changed drastically from the early days of squatting in shallow pits.  In addition to sampling the local mineral water, vacationers could enjoy public balls that happened twice a week, tavern nightlife, gambling, horse racing, daily teas at 5:00 and a number of options for food and drink.  By 1784, an advertisement in the Maryland Gazette describes the town as having five bathhouses, each with their own dressing rooms, an assembly room, and even a theater, where the travelling performance group The American Company of Comedians was expected to perform that summer.[5]

Noted early Virginia diarist Philip Vickers Fithian wrote of his visit to the springs in 1775, “In our dining Room Companies at Cards, Five & forty, Whist, Alfours, Callico-Betty &c. I walked out among the Bushes here also was—Amusements in all Shapes, & in high Degrees, are constantly taking Place among so promiscuous Company.” Fithian also goes on to describe the gentlemen of the village serenading the ladies from outside their lodgings until 4:00 in the morning, following a large ball.[6]

Fielding’s eldest son, John Lewis, and his cousin Warner Washington, who were in their 20s, were among the young gentry who suddenly found the springs interesting as entertainment opportunities increased.  The cousins eventually bought lots and built cottages, although it’s probably safe to say they weren’t there for the waters.  The little village had become so raucous in the summer months, a Methodist minister referred to it as an “overflowing tide of immorality.”[7]

But the curative properties of the springs were still the primary focus of visitors’ time.  Depending on the ailment that visitors were seeking to cure, they might “take the waters” up to three times a day at one of several actual bathhouses that had been built over the natural springs.  We have some description of these bathhouses from a French traveler, who vacationed at the springs in 1791, “…a plain and large frame structure, divided into eight small rooms made of badly joined boards where the bathers go in the morning. There is a staircase in each small room so that when the bather wishes he can gradually change the water line.”[8]  Both men and women used the bathhouses, but they did so at separate times of day.  At European spas of the day, men generally went swimming in the nude, while women wore bathing gowns, so that was perhaps the convention used at the American Bath, as well.

Fielding Lewis made an annual visit to the springs every August for several weeks, as early as 1772 and possibly much earlier.  When the town lots were laid out, he purchased #45 which fronted on Liberty Street.  His next door neighbor was Charles Dick, and James Mercer’s big cottage was just a few doors down.  Fielding’s mentions of his visits are few.  We don’t know whether the entire Lewis family travelled with him, although due to mentions in Philip Fithian’s journal, we know that in 1775 son George was with his father (George had attended the College of New Jersey with Fithian years earlier and Fithian enjoyed the chance to catch up with an old friend).  Most likely Fielding was among the springs vacationers who was there almost entirely for medicinal reasons, as his health had begun its long decline, and already the stresses of wartime were weighing heavily on him.

So there you have it.  It was cold, muddy and filled with hordes of sick and injured people, but the company was good and the party never ended – it was summer vacation, 18th century style!

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

 

[1] “A Journal of my Journey over the Mountains began Fryday the 11th. of March 1747/8,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed June 4, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-01-02-0001-0002.

[2] Mozier, Jeanne. The Early Days of Bath.  Accessed June 4, 2019, http://berkeleysprings.com/history-berkeley-springs/early-days-bath

[3] The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 7, 1 January 1761 – 15 June 1767, ed. W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990, pp. 68–70.

[4] Felder, Paula.  Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family.  The American History Company, 1998, pp. 186.

[5] Flexner, James Thomas.  Steamboats Come True: American Inventors in Action. Fordham University Press, 1992, pg. 67.

[6] Fithian, Philip Vickers. Journal, 1775-1776: Written on the Virginia-Pennsylvania frontier and in the army around New York. Robert Greenhalgh Albion and Leonidas Dodson, eds. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1934.

[7] Mozier.

[8] Bayard, Ferdinand M. Voyage dans l’intérieur des États-Unis: à Bath, Winchester, dans la vallée de Shenandoah, etc., etc., pendant l’été de 1791. As quoted in Mozier, ibid.

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