Abraham and The Ropewalkers: Finding Large Stories in Small Details

The staff of Historic Kenmore & George Washington’s Ferry Farm regularly conducts research into the enslaved communities that existed at both Kenmore and Ferry Farm during the Lewis and Washington family occupations.  Most of the surviving information about the enslaved is of a statistical nature – numbers, ages, locations, and luckily, names.  In comparison to the amount of documentation surviving about the Lewis family at Kenmore, however, the records pertaining to that site’s enslaved residents are scant.  And yet, Kenmore’s enslaved community is remarkably well-documented in comparison to other historic sites.  At Kenmore, we started our project with four known primary documents which survive in our manuscript collection:

  1. “The Probate” – Fielding Lewis’s probate inventory, conducted in 1781
  1. “The Divvy List” – a list written by Betty Lewis, outlining the division of slaves between her children as directed by Fielding Lewis’s last will and testament (list is dated 1782 and provides the age of each enslaved person listed, as well as some familial relationships)
  1. “The Vendu List” – a page from an account book that lists the names of enslaved people, as well as the skill or trade for some, and some familial relationships, on the Kenmore property that are to be sold at vendu (public auction or sale) following Betty Lewis’s death in 1797 (list is dated 1798, the author is unknown)
  1. “The Final Disposition” – a similar page from an account book that lists the names of slaves who were actually sold at the vendu in 1798, as well as the price paid for each and in some cases, the person who purchased them (the author is unknown)

Initially, these documents provided us with a timeframe for slavery at Kenmore, and a way to calculate the number of people owned by the Lewis family (in total, we believe that Fielding Lewis owned approximately 132 people in 1781, spread between his two primary plantations in Fredericksburg and in Frederick County, Virginia).  But, as we began to read the documents with a more critical eye, other details began to emerge – tiny notations and symbols, words crossed out by an unseen hand 200 years before, and abbreviations with an unknown meaning.  We noted every single one of these pen strokes.  There was actually a great deal of information hidden in plain sight on these documents – we just had to decipher it.

Abraham RW

Portion of The Divvy List showing Abraham with an “R.W.” after his name.

One such mysterious notation appeared on the document we refer to as the Divvy List.  One name, Abraham, appeared in the column for enslaved persons going to Robert Lewis.  Abraham was listed as being age 25, and the letters “R.W.” were written after his name.  What did R.W. mean? No other name in the document showed the same notation, and there didn’t appear to be any other clues in the Divvy List, so the mysterious “R.W.” was simply noted in Abraham’s file (we have developed a file for each enslaved person identified in the project) and we moved on.  But Abraham’s odd notation would come up again, with some interesting significance.

In the Vendu List, we were presented with unambiguous, cut and dry information.  Names of the enslaved, their skills, and children identified with their mothers.  It didn’t require a great deal of interpretation.  However, there were three enslaved people who showed some rather unusual skillsets.  Bob, George, and Randolph were all listed as being “ropemakers.” While ropemaking was certainly an important trade in the 18th century, having three people with that skill in a group of 25 adults seemed somewhat unusual.  Again, the information was noted in each individual’s file and we made a mental note to come back to it at some point.

Bob 2 and 3

Portion of The Divvy List showing Bob #2 with “Fredbg” after his name and Bob #2 with “Ropewalk” after his name.

The enslaved individual named Bob in the Vendu List was one of three Bobs who showed up throughout the four original primary documents, but only in the Divvy List did all three Bobs show up at the same time, which afforded us the chance to distinguish between the three individuals.  Bob #1 was age 27, Bob #2 was age 50 and Bob #3 was 23 years of age.  Bob #2 and #3 were listed as going to Lawrence Lewis, while Bob #1 was to stay with Betty.  Using a device that she employed throughout the Divvy List to differentiate between people with the same name, Betty added a word after each Bob.  Bob #1 had “(long)” written after his name, probably referring to a physical characteristic as “long” often meant “tall.” Bob #2 had “Fredbg” after his name. Obviously, this is simply an abbreviation for Fredericksburg where Bob lived (as opposed to the Lewis property in Frederick County). Bob #3 had “ropewalk” written after his name.  Initially, we thought it was a misprint and that Betty had intended to write “ropemaker”, since one of the ropemakers on the Vendu List was a Bob.  But, what if it wasn’t a misprint? What if, like “Fredbg”, “ropewalk” indicated the place where Bob 3 lived? And if that was the case, what if the notation of “R.W.” following Abraham’s name also indicated a place? What if that place was a “ropewalk”?

Prior to the invention of steam power, ropewalks were quite literally the places where rope was handmade throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.  They were most often found in port cities, like Liverpool, England, Norfolk, Virginia, and Boston, Massachusetts (where the earliest colonial ropewalk is documented in 1642)[i], to serve the endless need of maritime vessels for incredible lengths of rope (the British Navy required that a single rope be no less than a 1,000 feet and the HMS Victory required 26 miles of rope).[ii]  Once the American Revolution was in full swing, and the fledgling American Navy had come into existence, the colonies were on their own for producing enough cordage to supply the fleet, and smaller ropewalk operations began popping up in river towns and military supply centers.

Wright's Rope Walk, 1770

Wright’s Rope Walk in Birmingham, England about the year 1770.

Large commercial ropewalks, like those in Boston, were comprised of low, one-story, incredibly long sheds (Gray’s Ropeworks in Boston was 934 feet long – more than 3 football fields), usually with only a roof.  These structures housed a ditch in the ground, in which long hemp fibers were laid out and twisted together by “spinners” who had to walk the length of the building, backwards, while twisting and pulling hemp fibers, hence the name “walk.”  A ropemaker could walk the equivalent of 20 miles in one day’s work.[iii]  Spinners wore bundles of hemp fibers wrapped around their waists, which they fed into the twisting rope in front of them.  Spaced at regular intervals along the ditch were wooden posts, with hooks mounted on them.  The spinners would loop the freshly spun rope over the hooks as they proceeded down the ditch, to keep the tightly wound fibers from snapping backwards or coiling in on itself.  Ropewalks were also known as incredibly dangerous places, as the air was filled with the fine dust of hemp fibers which easily ignited and could cause uncontrollable fire.

This back breaking work was done mostly by free tradespeople in northern cities.  In fact, one of the first three men killed in the Boston Massacre was Samuel Gray, a ropemaker at Gray’s, who had been involved in several street fights with British soldiers, along with a gang of his fellow ropemakers, in the days leading up to the Massacre.  Ropemakers were known agitators for the revolutionary cause and fomented sedition in the ropewalks of Boston.

In a complete contrast, in southern ports, ropemaking was performed almost entirely by enslaved labor.  In Virginia, there were at least 18 ropewalks in operation by the end of the war.  Three of them were government-sponsored and used public funds to purchase hemp from local farmers.  The rest were private ventures, run by merchants and entrepreneurs who saw the growing need.[iv]  The largest of the public operations was the Public Rope Walk in Warwick, near Richmond.  It had become the primary rope producer for the Continental Navy after the British destruction of their own ropewalks at Norfolk, which had been confiscated by American forces after the war began.[v]  At its height, Warwick employed 28 enslaved laborers.  In 1781, Benedict Arnold led British forces against Richmond, with one of their main objectives being the destruction of the Warwick ropewalk, which they achieved.  Fifteen of the enslaved workers were captured (or perhaps chose to leave with British forces).  The Virginia government sold the remaining 13 ropemakers to private ropewalks around the colony.[vi]  The catastrophe at Warwick was a huge blow to Virginia naval forces and for the duration of the war it was up to the smaller ropewalks to meet demand.

So, if Fielding Lewis owned enslaved persons who appeared to be living at or employed in a ropewalk, was there a ropewalk in Fredericksburg? Fredericksburg was a primary depot for supplies being shipped out to the Continental Army and to the Virginia militia.  Fielding Lewis himself oversaw many supplies distributed out of Fredericksburg and, of course, he was one of the two owners of the Fredericksburg Gunnery, which manufactured and supplied weapons to the Continental Army.  Additionally, Fielding owned several transatlantic trade ships, which he converted into naval patrol vessels once the war broke out.  Those ships required rope before and during the war. Perhaps ropemaking was another war-time activity that Fielding participated in?

Ad for Atkinson & Hanewinkel, Virginia Gazette, September 1776

Advertisement for “dressed FLAX and HEMP” placed by John Atkinson and Alexander Hanewinkel in the September 6, 1776 edition of Purdie’s Virginia Gazette.

It turns out that there was indeed a local ropemaking industry with three separate ropewalks documented in the Fredericksburg area.  According to an ad placed in the Virginia Gazette in September of 1776, Alexander Hanewinkel and John Atkinson had opened a hemp and flax factory that made textiles, sail cloth and rope, and included a school to train laborers to break and dress hemp for rope.  It read, in part, “Gentlemen may have their negroes, etc. instructed in Flax Dressing, for six months of their labour.”[vii]  However, it appears that Hanewinkel and Atkinson ran out of money for their venture by the end of the year and petitioned the House of Delegates to provide them funding.  Hanewinkel and Atkinson specifically mentioned the high wages charged by laborers skilled in ropemaking and weaving as being among the reasons they were running short of money.[viii]  Another ad in the Virginia Gazette in 1777 indicates that another ropewalk had been set up in nearby Falmouth by John Richards and James Long, who were seeking to hire a manager, but almost no record of this ropewalk exists beyond the ad.[ix]  Lastly, John Frazer started the Fredericksburg Ropewalk, which appears to be the largest of all the local ventures.  In fact, the Fredericksburg Ropewalk is documented as sending cordage north to supply the rope merchants in Alexandria, despite the presence of several ropewalks in that city.[x]  Additionally, James Hunter (Fredericksburg merchant and business rival of Fielding Lewis) purchased 11,000 pounds of cordage from the Fredericksburg Ropewalk in 1779, indicating a rather large operation.[xi]

Likely because of the chaos of war and the ad hoc way in which the Americans were trying to supply the war effort, documentation for these ventures is hard to find, and therefore we don’t even know where in Fredericksburg the ropewalks were located.  The smaller ropewalk operations begun to help the war effort were usually much less formal than their pre-war counterparts, like Gray’s Rope Works in Boston.  Instead of actual sheds or roofed buildings, most were just the long, straight ditch in the ground, bordered by occasional wooden posts on either side, situated on flat stretches of land, like fields or flood plains.  With so little actual structure, archaeological evidence for these sites is sparse.  The Jones Point Ropewalk site in Alexandria, Virginia has been excavated, but archaeology revealed only post holes in long rows, with a stained stretch of ground between them (the stain may have been caused by the tar that was poured over the rope to make it resistant to rot).[xii]  Such a site would be hard to locate without any indication of where to look.

The Fredericksburg Ropewalk probably did not have actual sheds or roofed buildings. It was most likely just a long, straight ditch in the ground, bordered by occasional wooden posts on either side, situated on a flat stretch of land similar to this Dutch ropewalk.

The likeliest candidates for the places where the Lewis family’s enslaved ropewalkers Abraham, Bob, George and Randolph were employed are either the Hanewinkel & Atkinson factory and school, where Fielding might have sent them to learn a profitable (for him) trade, or the Fredericksburg Ropewalk, which was clearly the largest operation in the area.  But, the petition for funds put before the House of Delegates by Hanewinkel seems to indicate that he and his business partner were having no luck in attracting owners to provide slave labor to their ropewalk.  On the other hand, would Fielding have been willing to supply labor at his own expense to business rivals like James Hunter and John Fraser?

Interestingly, it may be that a major clue about enslaved ropemakers at Kenmore was right in front of us all along.  Among the “odds and ends” of assets and instructions for their disposition listed at the very end of Fielding Lewis’s will is “my share in the Chatham rope walk in Richmond” (which Fielding directs to be sold and the proceeds divided between his sons).  Prior to learning that three, and possibly four, of the enslaved persons at Kenmore were ropemakers, this reference seemed to be just one of many rather insignificant business matters.  But suddenly it became a more important notation.  What was the Chatham ropewalk? Obviously it was in Richmond, but could we learn anything more about it? In fact, we could.

The Chatham ropewalk (sometimes called the Chatham Rope Company, sometimes the Chatham Rope Yard, and also the Chatham Ropery) was owned by a consortium of businessmen led by Archibald Cary, who also had part ownership in one of the ropewalks destroyed by the British at Norfolk in 1776.[xiii]  It didn’t take him long to regroup however, and less than a year later, in August 1777, Cary and associates were advertising in the Virginia Gazette for trained spinners to work at the Chatham site, which was located on Shockoe Hill.  Fielding Lewis is not mentioned as one of the founding investors in the venture, but he certainly knew Cary, as they served in the House of Burgesses together and both were tasked with procuring military supplies in central Virginia.

Rope, or line, was an 18th century essential, rather on Atlantic sailing vessels or a Virginia farm.

There appears to be some debate about the fate of the Chatham ropewalk.  In January of 1781, when Benedict Arnold and his British forces raided Richmond, many industrial buildings were intentionally destroyed, aimed at critically injuring the American war machine.  Arnold identified a ropewalk as being among the facilities that he and his men destroyed in Richmond (in addition to the ropewalk at Warwick, outside of Richmond), and since most of their destruction took place in and around Shockoe Hill, some historians maintain that the Chatham ropewalk seems the likely candidate.[xiv]  However, the Marquis de Lafayette apparently quartered his troops inside the ropewalk “on the east side of the city”[xv] (which would also describe the location of the Chatham ropewalk) when they marched through Richmond a few months later, which would seem to indicate that the ropewalk structure was still standing.  And of course, Fielding Lewis seemed to feel that his share in the Chatham ropewalk was still worth something when he wrote his will in October of 1781.  No additional family documents shed any light on whether or not the share was sold as directed.

So, the question now becomes, did Fielding Lewis send Abraham, Bob, George, and Randolph to work and possibly live at the local Fredericksburg ropewalks or did he send them all the way to Richmond to work and live at a ropewalk in which he had a financial stake? Arguments for both can be made, but at the moment we haven’t found any documentation to conclusively say which it was.  One final clue, although its meaning is still unclear, was discovered in a fragmented receipt in the Kenmore archival collection.  The receipt, dated 1794, shows that Betty Lewis paid off her account with the Fredericksburg general mercantile store Callender & Henderson by hiring out the labor of Bob, George, and Randolph for one year to David Henderson.[xvi]  As all three were ropemakers, we have to assume that Henderson was interested in them for that skill and was aware that they had it.

As to the ultimate fates of Abraham, Bob, Randolph, and George, we know some things.  Abraham was intended to go to Robert Lewis when he came of age, and so we assume that he did.  However, estate records for Robert Lewis show no Abraham on his property at the time of Robert’s death.  Bob was apparently intended to go to Lawrence Lewis, but instead he must have stayed with Betty Lewis, as his name and occupation of ropemaker appear on the Vendu List in 1797.  However, his name does not appear on the Final Disposition, so we do not know with any certainty who purchased him at the sale.  Randolph also stayed at Kenmore and is listed on the Final Disposition document as being sold to George Lewis for £121.  As property of George Lewis, he would have gone to Marmion Plantation on the Northern Neck.  Interestingly, George was also sold to George Lewis in the Final Disposition, for £122, meaning that Lewis had purchased two of the three ropemakers listed.

Abraham’s mysterious “R.W.” notation was initially just a fragment of information to be cataloged as part of the larger project to research the enslaved communities at both Kenmore and Ferry Farm.  While we know almost nothing else of this man, that tiny two-letter notation revealed a story that he was a large part of – what trade he may have had, where he may have lived, and which members of his community he may have been closest to.  We will continue to search for these larger stories in the smallest of details.

Meghan Budinger
Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations

[i] Samuel Gray.  Boston Massacre Historical Society. http://www.bostonmassacre.net

[ii] HMS Victory, The National Museum of the Royal Navy. https://web.archive.org/web/20120501012634/http://www.hms-victory.com

[iii] The Long Story of the Jones Point Ropewalk, 1833 – 1850. National Park Service Historical Marker. https://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=127774

[iv] Swenson, Ben. Hemp & Flax in Colonial America. Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Winter 2015.

[v] Ward, Harry M. and Harold E. Greer, Jr. Richmond During the Revolution: 1775 – 1783. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA. Pg. 136.

[vi] Herndon, G. Melvin. A War-Inspired Industry: The Manufacture of Hemp in Virginia During the Revolution. The Virginia Magazine of History & Biography, Vol. 74, No.3 (July, 1966).  Pg. 309.

[vii] Ibid, Pg. 305.  Virginia Gazette, September 5, 1776.

[viii] Journal of the House of Delegates, Anno Domini 1776. Library of Virginia. Pg. 8.

[ix] Herndon, 307.  Virginia Gazette, June 6, 1777.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] John Frazer to James Hunter, August 25, 1782. ALS. Hunter Family Papers, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, VA.

[xii] The Long Story of the Jones Point Ropewalk, 1833 – 1850.

[xiii] Ward, 136.

[xiv] Ibid, 137.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Receipt, January – December, 1794.  Kenmore Manuscript Collection, MS 716.

Time for Some Trash Talk: The Social Role of Garbage at Historic Kenmore

Editor’s Note: Looking back in time, people’s personal hygiene, fashion choices, medical treatments, and more sometimes look, at the very least, bizarre, if not outright disgusting.  When confronted with these weird or gross practices, our first reaction can be to dismiss our ancestors as primitive, ignorant, or just silly.  Before such judgments, however, we should try to understand the reasons behind these practices and recognize that our own descendants will judge some of what we do as strange or gross.  Here at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore, we’ve come to describe our efforts to understand the historically bizarre or disgusting as “Colonial Grossology.”  The following is the latest installment in Lives & Legacies’ “Colonial Grossology” series.

Today, we would find trash disposal in the 18th century to be pretty horrifying.  Garbage of all sorts – sharp-edged broken household objects, putrefying food scraps, and odoriferous human waste – was simply dumped in the street, the back yard, or, when available, nearby holes or ravines.  Often, it was literally tossed out the nearest window or the back door.

Believe it or not, archaeology is very concerned with the garbage disposal habits of people in the past.  Sites of disposal called middens are treasure troves of artifacts that excite archaeologists the most because people’s trash can reveal so much about their lives and sometimes even a bit about their personalities.

Archaeologists have excavated a sizable portion of George Washington’s Ferry Farm for decades.  These excavations revealed how the Washington family and their enslaved workers disposed of household items, food scraps, and human waste in the area immediately behind the house. Color-coded maps showing the intensity of artifact concentrations illustrate how they simply stepped to the edge of the back porch and tossed trash into the back yard.

Animal Bone Concentration behind Washington House

Map showing the concentration of animal bones excavated from the midden at the rear of the Washington house at Ferry Farm.

At Historic Kenmore, some archaeology has been done around the kitchen site and these excavations reveal more complex habits of trash disposal compared to Ferry Farm.

Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis successfully manipulated the landscape immediately surrounding the house and kitchen and designated certain areas for certain tasks.

An insurance plat of Kenmore from 1797 shows the house as well as the nearby outbuildings in relation to the house.  In the 1700s, wood-built kitchen and laundry buildings stood on the spots were two recreated Colonial Revival-style brick outbuildings stand today.

Insurance Plat of Kenmore, 1797

A drawing done in 1797 for insurance purposes showing the location of outbuildings in relation to the main house at Kenmore.

The earliest photo of the kitchen taken during the mid-1800s when Kenmore was owned the Harrison family shows a sizable wooden structure with two enslaved workers – a man named Cary and a woman named Brittania – in the front of the kitchen.

Kitchen at Kenmore in the mid-1800s

The earliest known photo of Kenmore’s wooden kitchen taken sometime in the mid-1800s and showing two enslaved workers believed to be a woman named Brittania and a man named Cary.

The kitchen was just 30 feet from the house.  Rachel, an enslaved cook for the Lewises back in the late 1700s, carried food from the kitchen, across the kitchen yard, and entered the main house through an exterior door that opened into the slave passage, a short but extremely narrow hallway leading to both the master bedchamber and to the dining room.  After a meal, enslaved house servants cleared the dining room table or wherever else in the house that the family might have taken their meal and reversed the trip, carrying food waste back outside through the slave passage.

Slave Passage from Bedchamber to Dining Room

Passage in Kenmore used by enslaved workers to travel between the kitchen, dining room, and master bedchamber.

As archaeology has shown us at Ferry Farm, it would not have been unusual for the enslaved workers to simply dump the food waste into the yard between the kitchen and the house.  Excavations at Kenmore, however, show an extraordinarily clean kitchen yard with few artifacts.  The things like animal bones and broken ceramic dishes or glass cups that you would normally find in an 18th century midden, or trash disposal area, are not there.  The area is very clean, which indicates that it was kept very clean.

Excavated kitchen yard 1

Yard at Kenmore between the kitchen (shown) and the house (behind photographer) under excavation.

Excavated kitchen yard 2

The kitchen yard was relatively clean archaeologically.

Archaeologists at Kenmore did find the kitchen midden, however.  It was located just to the west.  While there is a window on the west side of the kitchen, there is no door.  If the waste couldn’t be tossed out the window, enslaved workers walked over to that side of the building to dump it.  This midden is full of artifacts: a pig jaw, for example, and an amazing amount of other animal bones, a knife with a bone handle, as well as architectural material and much more.

Midden at Kenmore

The midden discovered at Kenmore contained a large amount of architectural debris.

Pig jaw found in Kenmore's midden

Pig jaw found in Kenmore’s midden.

Bone handled knife found in Kenmore's midden

Bone-handled knife found in Kenmore’s midden.

The relative lack of artifacts in the clean area between the house and kitchen along with the centralized location of artifacts in the midden gives some idea of the level of control and surveillance enslaved workers were subjected to by Fielding and Betty Lewis.  Betty, for example, could sit at her desk in the master bedchamber (her “command central”) and with the slave passage doors open see directly into the kitchen yard.  From her seat, she ran the household and, in Fielding’s absence and then after his death, the plantation itself.

View of Slave Passage from Bedchamber

View from Betty Washington Lewis’s desk into the slave passage. The closed door visible in the passage opened into the kitchen yard.

The land on the kitchen’s north side was used still another way.  Excavations show it was a kitchen garden.  A cutaway view of the soil layers or the soil stratigraphy reveal subsoil formed before humans, then plowed soil in a large field of corn before the house was built, followed by redeposited clay from the house construction between 1772 and 1775, and finally soil indicating a kitchen garden.  Kitchen garden soil is marked by plow scars that go in all kinds of different directions as many different crops are planted over the years.

Kitchen garden stratigraphy

Diagram illustrating the soil layers excavated in the kitchen garden area at Kenmore.

Finally, the kitchen’s east side was dominated by the formal gardens and terrace.  While the present garden at Kenmore is Colonial Revival in style, archaeological clues to what the original 18th century garden looked like remain under the soil.

Archaeology has shown us that at Ferry Farm, the disposal of trash was something of a free-for-all within the area behind the Washington house.  At Kenmore, however the yard on each side of the kitchen building was carefully controlled for a different use.

Land Use around Kenmore's Kitchen

Aerial photo of Historic Kenmore with different land uses around the kitchen marked.

No matter where the garbage was disposed, however, finding the trash middens on the landscapes has revealed much about the free and enslaved residents of George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore.

Dave Muraca
Director of Archaeology

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Lecture – The Social Role of Garbage in Colonial Virginia [Video]

On Tuesday, May 21, 2019, Dave Muraca, Director of Archaeology at The George Washington Foundation, presented “The Social Role of Garbage in Colonial Virginia,” the final talk in this year’s annual lecture series. Dave presented three case studies in 18th century garbage disposal at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, Colonial Williamsburg, and Historic Kenmore.

Thanks to the Fredericksburg branch of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library at 1201 Caroline Street in Fredericksburg, Virginia for hosting the series once again this year. To learn about other events and happenings, visit kenmore.org.

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.

I Cannot Tell a Lie But I Can Tell a Fable: Aesop’s Fables and the Cherry Tree Tale

If you’ve been to Historic Kenmore, you’ve likely been awestruck at the beauty of the plaster ceilings throughout the first floor. Although the identity of “The Stucco Man” is lost to history, he left behind a lesson above the fireplace in the Dining Room. The plaster work inlay there depicts several stories from Aesop’s fables, easiest to recognize is “The Fox and The Crow.”

Aesop's Fox and Crow in Dining Room

Plaster inlay depicting the Aesop’s Fable “The Fox and The Crow” above the fireplace in Kenmore’s Dining Room.

Fables are as old as time itself. A type of story passed down in folklore, the fable appears all over the world and is often the stuff of myth, legend, or flat out falsehood. When exactly people began telling fables can’t be pinpointed. They appear in ancient Egypt, India, Rome, Greece, and many other early civilizations.

Fables appear across religious boundaries too. They are prevalent in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. These stories lend themselves to religious teachings because throughout history, fables were used to teach lessons and morals to children by pointing to a flaw or weakness in human behavior. These stories usually have characters who are not human; mainly animals that speak and behave like humans.

Aesop, one of the most famous authors of fables, came from Ancient Greece and his fables have become so widely published that the man himself has become sort of legend. Aesop lived sometime around the 6th century BCE. There are over 700 stories accredited to him today, but we can’t truly be sure if he actually wrote any of them.

Aesop has become a sort of fable himself. What little information about Aesop we have comes from an episodic called The Aesop Romance. According to this work of fiction, he was a Greek slave who was very clever. People like Aristotle wrote about Aesop’s cleverness being so great that he was able to overcome his enslavement and position himself in the company of kings.

The stories known as Aesop’s Fables have changed a lot over the centuries.  They have been published countless times, each version a bit different than the last. Many editions have a completely different set of stories. This is because, again, no one is really sure what is or isn’t an Aesop’s fable.

That has not stopped his stories from being used by almost every generation since to teach children moral lessons. In fact, a lot of familiar phrases come from the morals of Aesop’s fables. Anyone who has listened to the soundtrack from the Broadway musical Hamilton might recognize the line “I swear your pride will be the death of us all. Beware, it goeth before the fall.” This is the lesson from “The Eagle and the Cockerels,” a fable about two roosters who fought constantly. When it looked as though one had finally beaten the other, he crowed to tell the world of his victory, but an Eagle swooped down and took him. The once defeated rooster was now the king of the farm.  There are also stories that we all have learned that are attributed to Aesop that you may not realize, like: “The Tortoise and the Hare”; “The Ants and the Grasshopper”; and “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.”

Aesop’s fables were used during George Washington life to teach children as well. In fact, Aesop’s Fables by Sir Roger L’Estrange appears in two different inventories of Washington’s books, once in 1759, and again in 1764. Moreover, when doing the inventory in 1759, the book is listed twice meaning that George Washington owned a copy as did his step-son John “Jacky” Parke Custis.

When inventory was done again in 1783, both copies are gone. Jacky’s copy was probably at his own estate, Abingdon, which was destroyed but would have rested on the property of Reagan National Airport today. Jacky died in 1781 from a camp disease he contracted at Yorktown and his probate inventory lists his copy of the fables, showing it was still part of his library at his death. Conversely, we do not know where George Washington’s copy went.

While George learned much of his genteel behavior from his famous penmanship exercise of The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, we can also guess the lessons of Aesop’s fables impacted his life. Certainly, these fables were read and taught throughout his childhood in school and at home. The Rules of Civility focused more on proper physical behavior whereas the fables focused on moral behavior.

Later in his life, as Washington grew from boy to man to legend, he too became inspiration for myths and parables that would teach lessons to others. The most famous of these stories was created by Parson Mason Weems about young George cutting down a cherry tree.  Even today visitors to Ferry Farm are sometimes surprised to hear this story is a made up tale to teach children not to lie.

Parson Weems' Fable

“Parson Weems’ Fable” (1939) by Grant Wood. Credit: Amon Carter Museum of American Art / Wikipedia

Interestingly, an Aesop’s fable entitled “Mercury and the Woodman” has the same lesson. In this story, a woodman loses his axe in a pool of water. The Greek god Mercury comes and pulls a golden axe from the water, but the Woodman tells the god that it is not his axe. Mercury then pulls a silver axe from the water; again the Woodman denies owning such an axe. Finally, Mercury pulls the ordinary axe from the water and the Woodman takes the axe as his own. Mercury is impressed with the Woodman’s honesty and lack of greed, so as a reward; he gives the Woodman the gold and silver axes.

The Woodman’s story spreads through town and several others attempt to summon Mercury by losing their axes. When they all greedily claim the golden axe, Mercury hits them over their heads and refuses to give any of them their own axes back.  As you can see, not only does this fable have the same moral (honesty is the best policy) as the cherry tree myth, Weems even used the same hand tool! Perhaps, this Aesop’s fable was the real muse for writing the cherry tree tale?

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

 

References and Further Reading:

“19 Everyday Expressions That Came from Aesop.” Mental Floss. September 03, 2014. Accessed January 18, 2019. http://mentalfloss.com/article/58530/19-everyday-expressions-came-aesop.

An Ornate, 1551 Edition of Aesop’s Fables. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://wlu.edu/office-of-lifelong-learning/online-programs/from-the-collections/aesops-fables.

Carlson, Greg. “Fables.” Creighton University. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://www.creighton.edu/aesop/.

Clayton, Edward W. “Aesop’s Fables.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://www.iep.utm.edu/aesop/.

“Custis, John Parke of Fairfax, VA 2/20/1782 — Elite.” GUNSTON HALL PLANTATION PROBATE INVENTORY DATABASE. Accessed January 18, 2019. http://www.gunstonhall.org/library/probate/wbvaxxtl.htm

“Founders Online: Appendix D. Inventory of the Books in the Estate, C.1759.” National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-06-02-0164-0026#GEWN-02-06-02-0164-0026-fn-0002

“Founders Online: List of Books at Mount Vernon, 1764.” National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-07-02-0216#GEWN-02-07-02-0216-fn-0008.

“Search Results for Aesop.” Library of Congress. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://www.loc.gov/search/?in=&q=Aesop&new=true&st=

Weems, Mason Locke, and Peter S. Onuf. The Life of Washington. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996.

“Twelfth Night at Historic Kenmore” 2019 [Photos]

Each January, Historic Kenmore presents Twelfth Night at Kenmore, a dramatic theater presentation that imagines the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis spent in their newly built home. The play is set in January 1776 and that year is not a time for the usual celebration. War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family and their friends.

The 2019 edition of Twelfth Night at Kenmore took place January 11 and 12. Here are a few photos from the performances.

Coming Soon! “Twelfth Night at Kenmore” [Photos]

On Friday, January 11, Saturday, January 12, and Sunday, January 13, Historic Kenmore will again present Twelfth Night at Kenmore, a dramatic theater presentation set in 1776.

This production depicts the first Christmas that Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis celebrate in their newly built home. It is not the usual joyous atmosphere, however. The Revolutionary War brings fear, doubt, and frustration to the Lewis family, their friends, and Kenmore’s enslaved community.  Here are some photos from last year’s performance.

Performance dates: Friday, January 11, Saturday, January 12, Sunday, January 13
Performance times: 3:30 p.m., 4:00 p.m., 4:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m., 6:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

Reservations required. Call 540-370-0732 x24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org

Cost: $12.00 adults, $6.00 ages 3-17; under age 3 free.