We’re Still Digging!: An Update on 2021’s Archaeological Excavation at Ferry Farm [Photos]

The 2021 archaeological dig season at George Washington’s Ferry Farm is over two-thirds complete. Here’s a collection of photos taken in the field of a few artifacts discovered thus far.  You can read an overview of our expectations and goals for this year’s dig here.  Visitors can ask archaeologists questions and observe their work Monday through Friday at Ferry Farm. The dig continues until August 20.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Co-Field Director

National Parks, National Historic Landmarks, and the National Register of Historic Places, Oh My!

Throughout my time as a museum professional, I have worked at several different museums each with different classifications, rules, and operating procedures. Before entering the museum world, I used to think that most museums operated in a similar way. However, that could not be further from the truth. One of the most common questions I have gotten since leaving the National Park Service for the private sector has been some variation of: “Why can’t I use my National Park Pass here?” It is an understandable question that I am here to answer.

Museums can be categorized by many different subjects. For example, there are art museums, history museums, science museums, zoos, gardens and more! There are also different categories on how museums operate, fundraise, and are preserved. For example, George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore are both historic house museums. They are owned by The George Washington Foundation, a private, non-profit organization that is charged with caring for the properties. Ferry Farm and Kenmore are funded by your donations, admission fees, and fundraising events. However, the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. is a National Park Service (NPS) property, operated by the government and funded, in part, with tax-payer dollars.

Aerial view of the Washington Monument

In addition to the NPS sites, the United States government also created the National Register of Historic Places. The National Register of Historic Places is a list of places that are worthy of preservation but are not necessarily and, in fact, are not usually operated by the U.S. government. Sites on this list are able to apply for certain grants and funding through the NPS. They also receive certain tax breaks and can work towards becoming a National Park Site. Fun fact, there are almost 100,000 properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places!

Of those 100,000 National Register properties, some also have the distinction of being National Historic Landmarks. Landmarks are sites that are again, not necessarily government-run, but have been recognized by the federal government as being nationally significant, meaning they correlate to a significant part of our nation’s history. These properties are also able to apply for certain grants and tax breaks. Not all properties on the National Register of Historic Places and not all properties listed as National Historic Landmarks are museums and not all of them are open for public visitation. However, being on these lists adds a layer of protection should the owners of that property need assistance in preserving the site.

Marker noting Historic Kenmore’s designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1970.
Marker noting George Washington Ferry Farm’s designation as a National Historic Landmark in 2000.

Along with National Register and National Historic Landmark status, there are also several types of Easements that can be put in place to protect historic sites. Two types of easements often used in the museum world are Conservation Easements and Preservation Easements. These easements are agreements between the government and a property’s stewardship organization that allow for the government to step in and take over the operation of a property if the private owners are not caring for it properly or it becomes endangered in some fashion. Easements also allow the government to have approval over major changes to the properties to ensure they maintain their historic or natural significance. Private easements can also be created between two parties such as a historic site and a local conservation organization to protect the natural areas of a historic site.

The George Washington Foundation is a 503(c) (3) non-profit. This designation gives our organization certain tax exemptions. We are a private foundation that operates the two historic sites. These sites are not National Park Service sites and do not receive direct taxpayer funding from local, state, or federal governments. Both Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm are on the National Register of Historic Places and also are both National Historic Landmarks. Additionally, Ferry Farm is under a conservation easement with the National Park Service. All of this means that while we still operate as a private foundation, there are several layers of protection to ensure these treasured historic properties are preserved and protected for decades to come.

Ferry Farm
Kenmore

As a private organization, we rely on admission fees and your generous donations to fund our sites. We are not part of any National Park or state park pass system. Your ticket purchase helps preserve and promote the legacies of these two sites. Perhaps that is why we are so appreciative for each and every guest who visits. If you would like to support The George Washington Foundation, please consider a donation. We hope to see you at the National Historic Landmarks of Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm soon!

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

The Fifes & Drums of York Town at George Washington’s Ferry Farm [Video]

The Fifes & Drums of York Town played and marched today at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. The group will also perform on the lawn at Historic Kenmore this Sunday, June 27. There will be three 15 minute performances between 12:30pm and 1:30pm. No admission required, but we encourage you to make a day of it and purchase a guided tour of Historic Kenmore. Buy tour tickets at kenmore.org/visit-kenmore.

We’re Digging!: A Preview of 2021’s Archaeological Excavation at Ferry Farm

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.

Approximate location of the 2021 archaeological dig at Ferry Farm.

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.   

Large post mold and hole located at the southern edge of the 2020 site.

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. 

The 2021 dig will be located directly beneath our visitor’s feet in this photo.

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!

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Co-field Director

Five International Influences on George Washington’s Early Life

An Essay of a New and Compact Map, Containing the Known Parts of the Terrestrial Globe by Jacques-Nicolas Bellin was published in 1750 when George Washington was 18-years-old. Credit: Wikipedia.

Ferry Farm was a unique place to live in the mid-1700s. Situated where farm, frontier, city, river, and road converged on the edge of English empire, young George Washington, his family, and the farm’s enslaved community found their daily lives governed by Britain’s global economy and imperial culture.  Ferry Farm, nearby Fredericksburg, and the colonies more broadly were international places made up of a host of different European, African, and Native American ethnicities and nationalities in the 18th century.  Accordingly, we present a list of “Five International Influences on George Washington’s Youth.” This is by no means an exhaustive list but each influence helped shape young Washington into a man capable of commanding the Continental Army and serving as the new nation’s first president.

1) The Rappahannock River

The Rappahannock River as viewed from a window in the Washington house replica at Ferry Farm.
Voyages of British ships in the last half of the 18th century. Created by Geographer James Cheshire, PhD, on his Spatial.ly blog and used with permission.

Young George could look from a window in the family home at Ferry Farm down the bluff to the Rappahannock River. He saw ocean-going, sailing vessels being loaded and unloaded at the wharves and warehouses of Fredericksburg. These vessels were part of a global trade network, which we’ve written about here and here, that stretched to Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, India and China. These vessels were not large but traveled the world nonetheless.  They took the corn, wheat, and timber of places like Ferry Farm to Europe or the Caribbean and returned with Westerwald mugs from Germany, tea from India, porcelain from China, and enslaved laborers from Africa. The sailors on these ships probably represented numerous ethnicities and nations. One easily can imagine young George, so prone to a thirst for adventure, finding any excuse he could to visit the docks and ships down on the river and, by doing so, traveling the world without leaving the Rappahannock.

2) Westerwald stoneware

Those ships carried numerous manufactured goods from all over the world to Ferry Farm. Westerwald ceramics were one such import. Produced in the Westerwald region of what is now Germany beginning in the 1500s, archaeologists have excavated numerous bits of decorated stoneware tankards, jugs, and other drinking vessels used in the 1700s at Ferry Farm.  Several of these excavated vessels sported the initials ‘G.R.’, meaning Georgius Rex, the Latin for King George. The three British kings of the 18th century were all named George and came from the House of Hanover, a German royal family placed on the British throne in 1714. A gentleman sporting a ‘G.R.’ on his Westerwald tankard or jug advertised his loyalty to the Crown with every draught of ale. The presence of these initialed drinking vessels at Ferry Farm show that, until the Revolution, Washington, like most Americans, viewed himself as a loyal subject of the British Crown (ironically worn by a German head).

G.R. medallion on a Westerwald jug fragment.
A nearly complete Westerwald drinking vessel in the collection at Historic Kenmore.

3) Venetian glass

The vast majority of ceramics in the Washington household came from England. The same can be said about the family’s table glass, but the fanciest glassware owned by the Washington family actually came from Venice, Italy.  Found by our archaeologists, this piece of a pincered and buttressed handle is likely part of an elaborate hand-blown Venetian piece, made of finely crafted colorless soda lime glass with a barely visible bead of opaque glass running through the center.  A Venetian glass goblet such as this was a show piece displayed prominently within the house to emphasize that, despite their colonial location, the Washington family strived to maintain a level of European refinement appropriate to their gentry status.

Archaeologists excavated this small fragment of Venetian glass at Ferry Farm.
Wine goblet made in the 16th century in Venice, Italy. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

4) Barbados

In 1751, George Washington made his only trip off the North American continent, traveling with his half-brother Lawrence to Barbados. Visiting the island’s fortifications and meeting members of its military garrison fed George’s growing desire for a military career. As Jack Warren concludes, “After returning to Virginia, he dedicated himself to advancement in the military more completely than any of his Virginia contemporaries. And unlike most of the prominent colonial militia officers of the 1750s, he sought a commission in the regular British military establishment – an ambition that was probably prompted, and undoubtedly stimulated, by his experience in Barbados.”

Needham’s Point, Barbados. Credit: Reinhard Link.

5) The Frontier

Military service eventually took George into the frontier wilderness of the vast Ohio country. Tasked by Governor Dinwiddie with delivering a demand to the French to leave lands claimed by Virginia and the British Crown, young Major George Washington embarked on a thousand-mile, ten-week trek to and from Fort LeBoeuf on Lake Erie. He was accompanied by the Dutchman Jacob Van Braam, who served as his French interpreter, and by Tanacharison, known as Half-King, as well as other men from Native American nations. Along the way, he met several French officers and soldiers. Although confined to North America, this trip in late 1753 and early 1754 was, in reality, a foreign trip that exposed Washington to different peoples and cultures. It provided vital diplomatic, military, and intelligence gathering experience to the future Continental Army commander and first president. Washington, notes Paul Royster, “practiced diplomacy to keep the Native leaders allied to the English cause; he interviewed French deserters and reported on the extent of French military posts between New Orleans and the Great Lakes; he reconnoitered the Forks of the Ohio with an eye to the proper site for building a fort; and he inspected and reported on the construction of the new French forts and made estimates of their strength . . . .”

Portrait of George Washington, 1772 by Charles Willson Peale. Credit: National Portrait Gallery
The Ohio region from Cumberland to Fort LeBoeuf through which Washington journeyed, overlayed onto the famed map in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1787). Credit: Paul Royster / University of Nebraska.

Conclusion

Although a fourth generation American, George Washington grew up in a time and place – 18th century Ferry Farm and British North America — where international economic and cultural influences on his life were quite numerous. Through the five international influences we’ve briefly examined, we’ve seen how these influences helped Washington maintain his gentry status, which ultimately set him on a path to military and political greatness.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Appearance is Everything: Mary Washington and Her Specialized Ceramics of Gentility – Some Seriously Fancy Dishes!

The story of Mary Ball Washington is one of overcoming a lifetime of adversity.  Often overshadowed by her larger than life son George, Mary’s place in history fluctuated from saint to shrew with many historians ignoring the obstacles she faced and overcame.  The archaeological record sheds light on some of the strategies Mary used to navigate her way through mid-18th century life as a widow while trying to maintain her own social status and that of her children.  Fragments of highly-specialized ceramics excavated at Ferry Farm, the plantation Mary called home for much of her life, speaks to her efforts.

Specialized dishes are those designed for a very specific job unlike, say, a bowl which is multi-purpose.  We have uncovered evidence of many dishes Mary owned that fulfilled single tasks.  These type of ceramics are a sign of gentility. Most households could not afford these items and likely did not possess the resources to make the food and drink that they were designed to hold. 

As the 18th century progressed, so did dining habits. Increasingly, people of means gravitated toward dinners with multiple courses of entrees, appetizers, beverages, and deserts. Previously, most meals consisted of large one-pot creations with multiple ingredients.  In order to pull course cooking off, one required the specialized dishes designed for serving multiple courses. 

One prime example of such specialized dishes from Ferry Farm is Mary’s elaborately decorated creamware sauce boats.  The sauce boats are a luxury in and of themselves. They’re highly decorated and were very fashionable at the time.  Not only were they expensive, but they showed that Mary had the refinement to serve her guests the fancy sauces being introduced into colonial cooking.  They also indicated that she had a trained kitchen staff of enslaved workers capable of executing these new and intricate recipes. You never thought a sauce boat could hold so much meaning, did you?

Portion of a highly-decorated creamware sauce boat that belonged to Mary Washington.

Fragments of an extremely fancy white salt glazed fruit dish are further examples of Mary’s calculated purchasing of dishes.  Previously written about here and here, this dish was meant to display fruit, another luxury in the 18th century. Being able to afford non-local or out-of-season fruit was a status symbol and necessitated the proper dish to proudly display the fruit.  To put the rarity of fruit in perspective, in colonial America, pineapples were so expensive you could rent one for display at parties in the holiday season because most people couldn’t afford to buy one outright.  While renting a fruit may seem ridiculous to modern readers, the action highlights just how important being seen to own certain items was during the colonial era. Of course, we still engage in this same behavior today, but just not with pineapples.

Fragments of a white salt-glazed fruit dish excavated at Ferry Farm and a complete example from the collection at Kenmore (above).

Ferry Farm archaeologists also excavated fragments of two creamware condiment dishes.  Once again, the ability to serve various condiments to dinner guests conveyed status.  Condiments could include relishes, dips, mustards, ketchups (mushroom ketchup being the preferred type), and pickled vegetables such as capers.  Castor sets were also a way to serve other condiments such as olive oil, vinegar, pepper, etc. Generally, these castor sets were only owned by well-to-do households in the colonial period. The base of a creamware castor was recovered at Ferry Farm.

Creamware castor base excavated at Ferry Farm.

The fact that so many of Mary’s specialized ceramics are made of creamware should also be noted.  Creamware was invented in 1762 and wasn’t the most expensive type of ceramic (that was porcelain) but it was highly fashionable.  Mary, as a widow with five children and a diminished income following her husband’s death, likely couldn’t afford much porcelain. She opted for the less expensive but still highly-desirable creamware, instead.

The Washington family went to great lengths to demonstrate their status and refinement to visiting friends, neighbors, and relatives.  At Ferry Farm, this burden fell solely on Mary after the death of her husband.  Her specialized ceramics served to illustrate her place within the gentry class despite her diminished income and refusal to remarry after being widowed.  Her goal was to remain independent while raising five children to be successful adults and members of the Virginia gentry class.  In doing so, she likely realized that the socioeconomic security of her children would ensure her own into the future as well. Consequently, it was important that Mary cultivate a refined household with appropriate table and teawares. Ceramic artifacts from Ferry Farm reveal a woman who carefully selected choice ceramics to perform very specific tasks, while at the same time not overextending her budget.  These ceramics contributed to her goal of remaining a part of the gentry class and teaching her children genteel habits so they could do the same. It was a task in which she overwhelmingly succeeded.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

We Really Dig History!: 2020 Excavation at Ferry Farm

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

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

Location of the 2019-2020 archaeological dig.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Co-Field Director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist


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

[2] Smith, 172.

[3] Vickery, 273.

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

[5] Smith, 173.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Smith, 174.

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

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