The Wild Game on the Washingtons’ Table

The holiday season is beginning!  No matter how you celebrate the next several weeks, you’re likely spending extra time thinking about food. We archaeologists are no different, only we also want to know what the Washingtons and their enslaved laborers ate, whether at the harvest, the holiday season, or simply a regular meal. Historians know about the past because people wrote things down in diaries, letters, receipts, legal records, and other documents.  Of course, not everything was written down, especially when the things as mundane as what people ate for dinner. To find out more about the diets of those living at George Washington’s Ferry Farm in the 18th century, along with research in historical documents, we also turn to archaeological analysis.

We previously published a blog post detailing floral remains excavated in 2015 from a storehouse cellar abandoned in the mid-1700s. This cellar feature contained floral remains (seeds and wood) which were analyzed by a microbotanical expert.  We are currently using this information to recreate the Washington era landscape and to plant in our garden examples of what the Washingtons grew.

Historical documents, namely the probate inventory of Augustine Washington compiled in July 1743, show that the livestock owned by the Washingtons included 6 oxen, 29 cattle, 19 pigs, and 11 sheep. Rather than consume this livestock themselves, however, the Washingtons most likely raised most of these animals for market.  Many of them would be butchered by enslaved workers, the meat loaded onto small ocean-going vessels ported at Fredericksburg, and then shipped to the British West Indies or even to England.

The Residence of David Twining, 1785 by Edward Hicks

“The Residence of David Twining, 1785′ by Edward Hicks. Although Twining’s farm was located near Newtown, Pennsylvannia, this painting includes great example images of livestock typically found on a colonial farm or even on a plantation like Ferry Farm. Credit: The WikiArt Visual Art Encyclopedia

To add to the probate inventory’s livestock picture, we also explored a root cellar feature under the Washingtons’ house as well as a root cellar feature associated with a nearby enslaved laborer’s dwelling.  In these cases, we hoped to determine what kinds of animals – or fauna – each group actually ate. These diets would be revealed by archeologically recovered animal remains, usually bones, called “faunal remains.” Then, we had an expert in faunal remains analyze what came out of these two root cellars.

Excavated Bone

Archaeologist excavating an animal bone at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Assortment of Faunal Remains

An assortment of faunal remains excavated at Ferry Farm.

The results for Ferry Farm were unusual compared to other 18th century sites.  The Washingtons weren’t only dining on typical domestic livestock like cows and pigs, they ate a variety of wild game and in much higher amounts than expected. Results from other studies show that typical 18th century Virginia households consumed a little under 4% wild game on average. Another study of planter households in Maryland and Virginia showed faunal remains only ranging from 4-15% wild game. The percentage of wild game recovered from the Washington house root cellar was a whopping 25%.

Mammal remains recovered from the Washington family root cellar include cows, pigs, sheep, rabbits, raccoon, white-tailed deer, fox squirrels, and grey squirrels.  Birds that were prepared and eaten include chicken, turkey, Canada geese, mallards and other ducks, bobwhite, and the now-extinct passenger pigeon. Fish eaten include longnose gar, stripped bass or rockfish, white perch, yellow perch, and carp. Shellfish consumed include oysters and crabs. The Washingtons also ate turtles, which were 18th century delicacies.

Passenger Pigeon by Mark Catesby

Passenger Pigeon by Mark Catesby from his famed Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands published 1729-1747. Credit: Wikipedia

Longnose Gar by Mark Catesby

Longnose Gar by Mark Catesby from his famed Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands published 1729-1747. Credit: Wikipedia

The species recovered from the slave quarter root cellar include cow, pig, chicken, possum, four types of fish, and an unidentified bird. Beef and pork account for almost 78% of the faunal remains.  What meat Ferry Farm’s enslaved people consumed came in the form of mostly beef, pig, and chicken. The relative absence of wild animals, with the exception of fish, shows that the occupants of the slave quarter did not significantly supplement their diet using hunting or trapping.  No lead shot, gunflints, or fish hooks were recovered in the slave quarter, the lack of which supports this conclusion. The enslaved laborers however were providing food for themselves by raising chickens, which account for over 7% of the meat recovered in the slave dwelling.

The prevalence of wild animals being served on the Washington table may be related to the makeup of the four Washington boys: George, Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles.  The youngest Washington male, Charles, left home around 1761, meaning that the Washington boys hunted, fished, and trapped for up to 23 years at Ferry Farm. Farm life meant there were also frequent opportunities requiring the dispatching of varmints. At the time, hunting and fishing were considered fun and great practice for adult gentry life. There was also an economic benefit to provisioning one’s table with game. This supplemental meat source replaced domestic animals that could be steered toward the market, increasing the profits of selling livestock and poultry.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Co-Field Director / Archaeology Lab Technician

What’s Growing in Ferry Farm’s Garden?

As many of you know, the Washington house replica at George Washington’s Ferry Farm was reconstructed and furnished as accurately as possible using historic documents, paintings, letters, and, of course, archaeology. Now that the challenge of getting the house built and open to visitors has passed, it’s time to turn to the rest of our plan for interpreting Ferry Farm’s landscape. This will eventually include constructing outbuildings, finishing the work yard, and improving the garden.

Even though the present garden is located at Ferry Farm’s Visitor Center and not yet near the Washington house replica, we used archaeological discoveries to decide what goes into the garden this spring. Using data from past excavations on Washington-era contexts, we drew some conclusions on what the Washington family and their enslaved workers cultivated here. While most organic material left behind over 250 years ago is long gone, as archaeologists, we sometimes get lucky and find biological and botanical remains that have withstood the time in the ground. We get especially lucky when we do find botanical remains like seeds and wood because, depending on the elements, they usually decompose easier and faster than bone.

Visitor often ask how we find some of our tiniest artifacts such as seeds. For important contexts and Washington era features, we don’t want to miss a single (tiny) thing, so we use a water screen. Instead of the usual quarter-inch screen we use for dry sifting dirt, we use a gentle stream of water from a garden hose and spray away the dirt through a window screen. We then use tweezers to pick out the tiny artifacts left behind.  Objects like the straight pin in the photo below and seeds could otherwise fall through the standard quarter-inch screen.

GWF_FF20-Waterscreen-Cate-Courtney-24May2013H

Water screening

GWF_FF20-Waterscreen-16May2013

Picking out the artifacts after water screening.

GWF_FF20-Waterscreen-StraightPin-17May2013

Straight pin

In 2015, we had flora remains from a mid-18th century storehouse cellar feature that had been captured by our fine mesh water screens sent to Justine McKnight, an archaeobotanical consultant for analysis.  Without getting extremely technical, I will say that we gained some very useful data to use to plant our garden this year. Seed specimens discovered archaeologically and used in cultivation consisted  of peas, green beans, wheat, and corn. Seeds included hackberry and, of course, cherry. The only nut uncovered was a hazelnut shell.

Along with this archaeological evidence, we also know that some tobacco was grown on the Washington farm because of court records. In the 17th and 18th centuries, tobacco was Virginia’s premier export and most valuable cash crop but places along the Rappahannock River like Ferry Farm were not great tobacco land.  In these areas, as our excavated seeds show, planters moved onto corn, wheat, and other crops, knowing they would never get rich on tobacco.

Using all of this information, we planted similar crops in the demonstration garden along with other crops widely grown in 18th century colonial America.

While seemingly insignificant at first glance, these tiny charred remains of flora give us a snapshot in time of the diets of the Washington family and enslaved workers at Ferry Farm. These definitely are not the only plants they were eating, but we do know via archaeology that these were stored by the family in the mid-18th century. Using the other archival resources listed above, we will continue to fill in the gaps and enhance our garden and landscape according to the historical and archaeological records.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Technician

Lecture – Foodways in the 18th Century [Video]

On Tuesday, May 14, 2019, Park Ranger Deborah Lawton of George Washington Birthplace National Monument presented a lecture titled “Foodways in the 18th Century” that explored the new dishes and changing tastes of the time.

Join us on Tuesday, May 21, 2019 for “The Social Role of Garbage in Colonial Virginia” with Dave Muraca, Director of Archaeology at The George Washington Foundation. Dave will explore some of the aspects of colonial waste disposal and put these practices into a larger context that in turn may make modern persons question their own sense of normalcy. Talk begins at 7:00 p.m. The lecture is FREE and hosted at the Fredericksburg branch of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library at 1201 Caroline Street, Fredericksburg, Virginia. To learn more, visit kenmore.org.