Where Are the Human Remains?: Fielding and Betty Lewis

You might remember the discovery of Richard III’s grave under a Leicester parking lot back in 2012 and how shocking it was that a former King of England’s gravesite had been lost. For archaeologists, missing gravesites aren’t that uncommon.

When put into perspective, it’s not surprising that we can’t locate the graves of many famous Virginians, including some members of the Washington and Lewis families. In Fredericksburg fires, flooding, war, and neglect have all contributed to the loss of historic graves and other important sites during our nearly 300 year history.

Professional and amateur researchers alike have dedicated years of their lives to gathering the lost history of Fredericksburg, including lost graves of famous Virginians. Thanks to this dedication, we have saved possible sites for the future. This includes George Washington’s Ferry Farm itself. Can you believe there was almost a Walmart built directly on top of the Washington house cellar before it was discovered?!

In the Washington edition of “Where Are the Human Remains?” we talked about Mildred Washington, George’s youngest sister who died before the age of 2.  She is the only known family member to be buried somewhere at Ferry Farm. In this edition, we will discuss the remains and burial locations of Fielding and Betty Lewis.

The approximate location of Betty Lewis’s grave is actually known.[1] She struggled financially after Fielding’s death in late 1781 and, following the Revolutionary War, it was especially difficult for Betty to keep Kenmore afloat. Eventually, she went to live on small farm outside Fredericksburg called Millbrook where she spent the rest of her life. Betty passed away, however, while visiting her daughter, Betty Carter in 1797.  She was buried at her daughter’s home, Western View Plantation in Culpeper County, Virginia. The gravestone in the photograph was added later, so the exact location of the Betty’s burial site isn’t known for sure, but it is somewhere on the property.

Portrait of Betty Washington Lewis by John Wollaston, c. 1755. Credit: Mount Vernon Ladies Association
Betty Washington Lewis’s grave stone. Credit: Trice Glancy / FindaGrave.com
Burial site of Betty Washington Lewis. Credit: Marvin Sport / FindaGrave.com

So, what about Fielding Lewis? The short answer, again, is that we aren’t sure. We have an idea but it may not be what you think or may have heard! Local lore mentions St. Georges Church as the location of Fielding’s grave, as he was a vestryman there. However, he is most likely NOT buried in this location.

Portrait of Fielding Lewis by John Wollaston, c. 1755.

St. Georges Episcopal Church in downtown Fredericksburg is a local icon, seen in several paintings as one of the tallest buildings in our town’s skyline. The church’s first structure was built in 1730, and the Lewis family would attend services in this wooden structure. Then, with the major fire in Fredericksburg in 1807, the replacement of the original church building with a more substantial brick building in 1815, and further alterations to the layout of the church over the years, it’s understandable that burial sites and other features around the church were lost.

St. George’s Episcopal Church. Credit: Virginia Department of Historic Resources

Furthermore, if you have taken any local ghost tours of Fredericksburg, you may have heard the story of Fielding and three of his grandchildren being buried “under the church steps”. This particular tale came from a book called The Ghosts of Fredericksburg… and nearby environs by L. B. Taylor, Jr.  Over 30 years ago, this book was used to create the script for Fredericksburg’s annual Ghostwalk sponsored by the University of Mary Washington Historic Preservation Club. While it’s clear that the author spent a great deal of time collecting stories about ghostly Virginia locations, it should be noted that there aren’t any sources or citations listed in the book.  Taylor was a storyteller, and his main focus was ghostly tales, not historical facts. As a result, we now have this chilling, but likely untrue information, intertwined with the Lewis family history.

In reality, like wife Betty, Fielding died far away from Fredericksburg on a property he owned located in what is Frederick County around Winchester, Virginia today. In a letter written by one of his children, Robert, to his sister Betty Carter, Robert tried to convince his sister to move to the area, stating; “You would be in the neighborhood where the venerated remains of our dear decd. Father lie.”[2] While this indicates Fielding’s burial is in Fredrick County, the exact location was never recorded.

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


[1] Find a Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed 26 May 2020), memorial page for Elizabeth “Betty” Washington Lewis (20 Jun 1733–31 Mar 1797), Find a Grave Memorial no. 22154, citing Western View Plantation, Culpeper, Culpeper County, Virginia, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave.

[2] Letter from Robert Lewis to Betty Lewis Carter, 1826 quoted in Paula Felder, Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family: A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg, American History Company, 1999: 300n10

Where Are the Human Remains?: The Washington Family

Ferry Farm’s tens of thousands of years of human habitation has provided archaeologists with nearly 800,000 artifacts to date, consisting of discarded items left by the people who lived on, worked, or visited this land. A question we often receive from visitors is where are graves of the PEOPLE who left behind these discarded items?

Well, nearly all of the Washington family, who lived at Ferry Farm from 1738 to 1772, are buried elsewhere. George is in a burial vault at Mount Vernon, where he died 220 years ago.  If you are a Fredericksburg local, you likely know George’s mother Mary is buried on Washington Avenue near Kenmore, her daughter Betty’s home. Although he died at Ferry Farm, George’s father Augustine is buried at Pope’s Creek where George was born. A Washington family cemetery had already been established there years before. George’s brothers Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles and sister Betty are accounted for in various other cemeteries in both Virginia and West Virginia.

George Washington's Tomb

George Washington’s Tomb at Mount Vernon. Credit: Tim Evanson

Washington Family Burial Ground

Augustine Washington, George’s father, is buried in the Washington Family Burial Ground at Popes Creek, where George Washington was born. Credit: National Park Service

2016MaryWashingtonMounment

Mary, George’s mother, is buried near The Mary Washington Monument on Washington Avenue in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

So, are any Washington family members buried at Ferry Farm? The only Washington buried here is George’s youngest sister Mildred, who was born shortly after the family moved to Ferry Farm in 1738, and died at only 16 months old. Her cause of death is unclear, but the infant mortality rate in the 18th century was far higher then it is today.

The topic of burials at historic sites like Ferry Farm can be both exciting and panic-inducing for archaeologists. In general, we are pretty well-versed in identifying grave shafts long before we reach actual human remains and measures are always taken to know as much as possible about where we are going to dig before we actually initiate an excavation.

Human burials leave telltale signs when they are accidentally disturbed if you are paying attention. When soil is removed from the ground and then returned during the digging of a grave, the now mixed composition of the soil doesn’t look the same as the undisturbed soil surrounding it.

In any case, how to approach the care of a burial site is a serious subject and a legal subject too. In Virginia, if archaeologists discover human remains, a permit or court order is required to continue the excavation. Once permits are in place, forensic archaeologists who specialize in excavating human remains are called in. They must determine if the burial is old or new, and whether or not we may have stumbled into a possible crime scene. Usually (thank goodness), there is no crime scene but a whole new can of worms is opened in determining what to do next.

We don’t know exactly where the remains of Mildred Washington are located on the Ferry Farm property. All we have to locate the burial site is a survey of the property conducted by George himself in 1771, where he uses “the little gate by the tombstone” as his beginning reference point to lay the boundaries of what George called “the fields where my mother lives”.

Along with the survey is an 1833 painting by John Gadsby Chapman of the Washington property facing the Rappahannock River that shows foundation stones where the Washington House stood and, in the approximate location of the grave on George’s survey, the silhouette of an object that resembles an arched headstone.

In 2009, we brought in experts to conduct a geoscientific study to assist in locating but not excavating the grave of Mildred. It would help the foundation planning effort if we knew where this important grave was located. William Hannah, Claude Petrone, John Imlay, and Dale Brown conducted non-destructive remote sensing surveys in and around the area identified in George’s 1771 survey. These remote sensing surveys included ground-penetrating radar (GPR), electromagnetic induction (EMI), and vertical magnetic-gradiometry.

Ground-penetrating radar survey of George Washington's Ferry Farm by Bill Hannah and John Imlay.

Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) survey of a portion of George Washington’s Ferry Farm conducted by Bill Hannah (R) and John Imlay (L).

GPR by DaleBrown and PetePatrone

Dale Brown (L) and Pete Patrone (R) assisted with the GPR survey.

The researchers kept in mind that while finding Mildred’s grave was like searching for a needle in a haystack, there were some clues to hold onto while conducting the search. First, they considered the 1771 survey and the Chapman painting, and then they focused on the probable size of the grave. To prepare themselves for what kind of anomalies to look out for on their equipment, they looked at a modern growth chart for a 16 month old child. The composition of the container holding the body was also considered. It was determined the size of the anomaly should be around 29.25 to 33.25 inches in length, and though it had been 270 years, any iron elements such as coffin nails might be detected with these methods.

Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) uses electromagnetic radiation in the radio spectrum to reflect signals off of anomalies below the surface. In short, radar waves bounce off of objects of different densities in the ground, providing an image of differences in the surrounding area. You can see voids as well as objects. The image created comes back like this:

Electromagnetic induction (EMI) measures changes in electromagnetic fields, and the magnetic susceptibility of both metal and non-metal materials to provide a sub-surface image (below). The resulting image maps areas of more and less resistivity, revealing patterns and shapes that archaeologists can use to identify any possible features.

EMI by Bill Hannah

Bill Hannah begins an electromagnetic induction survey at Ferry Farm.

Vertical magnetic-gradiometry senses total magnetization of ferrous (iron) materials and produces imaging similar to EMI, but using just magnetization instead of electrical conductivity. Patterns and shapes that archaeologists recognize are still present.

SONY DSC

Bill Hannah conducted a magnetic gradiometry survey of Ferry Farm.

Once plotted on a map, there were a few areas in the expected region that had “grave-like” qualities based on the 2009 remote sensing survey.

Diagram from remote sensor survey report show "grave-like" echoes.

Diagram from remote sensor survey report shows “grave-like” echoes.

Armed with evidence from surveys old and new, we theorize that this area is the possible location of Mildred Washington’s grave. But without a full excavation, we can’t be certain if this is Mildred’s gravesite, or if this area even contains a grave at all. Conveniently shaped anomalies can throw off researchers, but these geophysical surveys provided useful evidence. There are indeed a few anomalies that are the right length, width, and depth of a grave for a young child. We have not conducted any ground-truthing, or surveys that involve coring or probing the ground, nor have we dared to move dirt in this area for fear of disturbing Mildred’s final resting place. The area remains undisturbed, even while the surrounding excavations and the construction of the replica Washington House took place from 2016 to 2018. Due to the destructive nature of archaeology, avoiding the grave site is best for now, and there are no plans to disturb or excavate the area.

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