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out more about the diets of those living at George Washington’s Ferry Farm in the 18th century, along with research in historical documents, we also turn to archaeological analysis.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Historical documents, namely the probate inventory of Augustine Washington compiled in July 1743, show that the livestock owned by the Washingtons included 6 oxen, 29 cattle, 19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

The Mystery of the Mane Comb… SOLVED!

A little more than a year ago we published a blog post highlighting a horse’s mane comb excavated years ago at George Washington’s Boyhood Home at Ferry Farm. Though the rusty iron mane comb was incomplete, a lone, decorative “G” located along the top of the comb hinted at a longer name we hoped might be “G.[eorge] Washington.”

Mane comb excavated at Ff

Mane comb excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Fortunately, two outside sources soon came to our attention that confirmed our suspicions. A reader of the blog sent a note disclosing his family has a mane comb very similar to ours.  This comb is more complete than ours but more importantly, it has “G.Washing” inset above the teeth!

Blog reader's family mane comb

Blog reader’s family mane comb.

A second source turned up in an online auction in which a horse mane comb was listed for sale with other early 19th century items.  This comb is a wonderfully complete specimen with “G. WASHINGTON” clearly inset with hollow cut lettering in the upper section of the comb above the teeth.

Complete mane comb

Mane comb in an online auction listing. Credit: LiveAuctioneers.com

Our blog reader was not sure how old his mane comb was, and the auction listed theirs as “Federal Period” (early 19th century).  All three examples have similar rope molded decoration along the upper edge of the comb and on the lettering, and only our comb has a slightly different spacing in front of the first letter.  Considering everything, we think that’s enough proof! “G.WASHINGTON” it is!

Washington memorabilia is ubiquitous, commemorating everything including his birth, his death, and his Revolutionary War and Presidential experiences.  Statues, medals, buttons, paintings, ribbons, and hundreds of other products have been made to honor our first president over the last 220 years since his death in 1799. It makes sense that these mane combs are part of that heritage, made as homage to his memory. Why there aren’t more of them out there, I don’t know. But I love the fact that one of these combs made its way back to the farm on the Rappahannock River where George grew up.  Ferry Farm is where he spent his formative years learning not only how to ride his horses, but  also developing those leadership skills he would need to one day lead the Continental Army and eventually the United States of America.

Judy Jobrack
Co-Field Director, Archaeology Lab Assistant

The Mystery of the Mane Comb

Before there were planes, trains, and automobiles, and other engine-driven devices, people of the 18th, 19th and early-20th centuries used horses, mules, and other four-legged draft animals to transport themselves, pull their wagons and carriages, and help manage the chores of farm and rural life.

Just like the time and expense we currently spend on car, truck, and small engine maintenance to keep those running smoothly, an equal amount of attention is essential to keeping horses healthy, clean, and physically fit so that they can perform the tasks we ask of them. The process of grooming a horse not only improves the health of their skin, coat, hooves, mane, and tails but it also allows the groomer to notice any health issues or problems that aren’t apparent until seen up close.

A mane comb, an essential horse grooming tool, was excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm from an early nineteenth-century context. This rusty iron alloy comb is incomplete, measuring two inches high with a broken width of 1 ¼ inches.  The finished width might have been between 3 and 4 inches.  What makes this find interesting is that there is a decorative “G” inset above the comb’s teeth.  This letter was obviously followed by others, but what the complete word or initials indicate is a complete mystery.  Was the word a favorite horse’s name or just the name of the comb maker?  Was it actually a person’s name? And, of course, if it is a person name, could it possibly be George Washington’s name?

Mane comb

Mane comb excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Mane combs are just one piece in any essential grooming kit for horses, which also includes curry combs, brushes, hoof picks, and grooming cloths.  The mane comb is used to comb out the tangles and remove debris from the mane and tail of horses.  It can be very simple and utilitarian in looks, similar to a common hair comb, or more ornate and decorative, such as this example that is stored on a leather backing. Our mane comb falls between these two extremes. It does not have an elaborative top but it is still decorated within the handle area with a swirled scroll, raised beading along the outer band, and the letter “G–”.

CT-5774-5_W-1520

A simple modern mane comb. Credit: MyEquineStore.com

original

A more ornate antique mane comb with decorative handle. Credit: Roger Jones & Co.

DRAWING OF COMB inked1

A drawing of the mane comb excavated at Ferry Farm clearly showing the decorative inset “G”.

Ferry Farm archaeologists are curating a number of artifacts related to animal husbandry, an assemblage dominated by utilitarian buckles. Such buckles may have been part of harnesses but these fasteners had many uses around a farm. Horseshoes are the next most frequently recovered item, and they date from throughout the 1800s and 1900s. A few are of a style of manufacture that reliably derives from the colonial era. Bits, stirrups, curb chains, and harness rings were also lost or discarded by their owners. A mid-1800s iron alloy brace for a saddle was also discovered. Ferry Farm archaeologists found evidence for mules as well, as our collection includes a few mule shoes. A few bolts for carriages or wagons were recovered. Perhaps our favorite animal husbandry objects are the brass ornaments used to embellish leather horse tack. Several of these have been recovered and all date from the colonial period, when these early New World equestrians relished showing off their fine steeds.

So if there are any horse-loving readers out there who recognize this style of mane comb or have a clue as to what “G” could be the start of, please let us know.  We may never know but we do hope that maybe the “G” is the beginning of the name of our site’s most famous horseman, George, who was certainly well known for his horsemanship skills!

Juby Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Lab Supervisor

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst/Field Director