A National Treasure’s Life: A History of The Declaration of Independence

Join us for our first Movie on the Lawn event at Historic Kenmore on Friday, September 17 as we show National Treasure starring Nicholas Cage and the Declaration of Independence!

FACT: George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring used codes, ciphers, and invisible ink (among other tactics) to outwit the British during the American Revolution.

FICTION: There is a map in invisible ink on the back of the Declaration of Independence. 

You are probably wondering what the connection to George Washington is, right? He did not write the Declaration. He did not debate it. He did not sign it.  Ah, but he read it and more importantly, he read it to his troops on July 9, 1776. He was sent a copy hastily printed by John Dunlap, a printer in Philadelphia.

Much like Washington, the document is one of America’s treasures. The Declaration has a fascinating history on its journey to the National Archives, where, in National Treasure, Nicholas Cage’s character steals it in order to save it. Think about it! Just how did the document we all celebrate every July survive these past 200+ years?

National Treasure poster. Credit: Disney/Fandom

After it was signed, sealed, and distributed, the official version remained with Charles Thompson, Secretary to the Congress, until he retired in 1789.  The person who next took responsibility for the document was Roger Alden, deputy secretary of foreign affairs (The U.S. briefly has a Department of Foreign Affairs before it became the Department of State).  By March of 1790, Thomas Jefferson would become Secretary of State and protector of the document he spearheaded in drafting.  Talk about full circle!

In August 1800, the Declaration was moved to newly-built Washington, D.C., residing briefly in the Treasury building.  It was sent to the War Office in May 1801 where it would stay until 1814.  Thanks to the quick thinking of Stephen Pleasonton, a senior clerk at the State Department, the Declaration (among other critical documents. Ahem! The Constitution!) were secreted out of the City to a farmhouse in Virginia during the British attack on Washington on August 24, 1814.  The documents were returned to the Capital after three weeks, once the British had left town. 

While at the State Department, the document was mounted and displayed (with Washington’s Continental Army commission!) at the Patent Office (today the National Portrait Gallery) at the suggestion of then Secretary of State Daniel Webster in 1841. Preservation techniques were not considered, as the document was placed in direct sunlight and exposed to all manner of elements.  It remained on display for the next 35 years!

Memorial certificate attesting that the holder visited the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. Credit: Picryl

When it traveled to Philadelphia for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, the public was exposed to the dire state of the parchment caused by sunlight.  The good news was that it was better cared for during this time and was even kept in a fireproof safe. The bad news was that its condition was widely reported in the newspapers. In response to the resulting public outcry, Congress adopted a joint resolution that the Secretary of the Interior, Secretary of the Smithsonian, and Librarian of Congress figure out a way to save the Declaration.

Despite the commission, nothing was done for 17 more years. The document was exposed to even more light until 1894, when the State Department decided to shield it in a steel case. The Declaration was then examined by the National Academy of Science in 1904 to determine how best to preserve it.  The conclusion?  Keep it in a dark and dry place, never to be displayed again.  So, the State Department did just that and locked the document up for the next twenty years!

Between1904 and 1920, Herbert Putnam, then the Librarian of Congress, campaigned for the State Department to turn over the founding documents to the Library of Congress (LOC), with no luck. He would not see any movement on his mission to preserve and house the Declaration until Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby formed a committee to review necessary preservation steps and recommended the Declaration be sent to the LOC. President Warren Harding issued and signed an Executive Order on September 29th, 1921 to that effect. Putnam was ecstatic and used the official library vehicle, a Model T mail wagon, to transfer the document from the State Department to the LOC.

The question remains, though. How did it eventually end up at the National Archives?

During the tumultuous years of World War II, Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish was on a mission to protect the documents from potential damage. His solution? Stored them at Fort Knox!  It was perhaps one of the most “hush-hush” operations ever carried out by the LOC. George Washington probably would have been very proud to witness the operation carried out with a military precision worthy of Henry Knox’s (the Fort’s namesake) mission to move cannons from the Great Lakes to Dorchester Heights in Boston during the American Revolution.

Finally, the documents were transferred from the LOC to the National Archives building on December 13, 1952 (the cornerstone was laid in 1933). Congress created the Archives in the 1930s to care for government records and made the Declaration the Archives’ responsibility in 1952. Representatives of all the armed forces carried out the transfer, including military police, a color guard, the U.S. Army Band, the U.S. Air Force Drum and Bugle Corps. They used a Marine Corps armored personnel carrier, two light tanks, and a motorcycle escort.  Lining Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues were members of all the service branches. At the National Archives since 1952, the Declaration has been (and continues to be) preserved so that visitors can view it daily. Ultimately, it also inspired a fun action-adventure film!

Film footage of the transfer of the Declaration of Independence from the Library of Congress to the National Archives on December 13, 1952. Credit: National Archives.
The Declaration of Independence on display at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Credit: National Archives

While mostly fiction, National Treasure is one of those movies that excites people about History.  The number of times visitors to the National Archives have asked “Is there actually a map on the back of the Declaration of Independence?” and they hear “Nope” is not a bad thing.  It is clear that something brought them to that museum and it shows they took an interest and asked a question, which is a great start to studying History.

Interestingly, a line of the riddle from the movie:

The legend writ, the stain affected, the key in Silence undetected, fifty-five in iron pen, Mr. Matlack can’t offend

refers to Timothy Matlack, who while considered a “boisterous, swashbuckling personality,” was also known to be “a man of intellectual vigor, a fine writer and public speaker.” He was selected by the Continental Congress to write out the official document (the one now residing in the National Archives) that measures 24.25 by 29.75 inches.  He also — fun fact! — wrote out George Washington’s commission to lead the Continental army!

So, gather some friends, grab chairs, blankets, and whatever movie snacks will make you happy, purchase a ticket and join us on the lawn of Historic Kenmore on Friday, September 17 for an epic adventure starring the Declaration of Independence! Oh, and that guy Nicholas Cage too.

Amy N. Durbin
Director of Education

Puleo, Stephen. American Treasures: The Secret Efforts to Save the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address. Picador, 2017.

Photos: The Fourth of July at Ferry Farm 2018

Scenes from last week’s Independence Day celebration at George Washington’s Ferry Farm!  Read “Celebrating the Fourth and what makes America great” by Kristin Davis for The Free Lance-Star about the Ferry Farm and other area celebrations.


Last Year’s Fabulous Fourth at Ferry Farm [Photos]

One week from today, celebrate Independence Day at George Washington’s Ferry Farm! Tour the replica Washington house, learn about this summer’s archaeology dig, enjoy a patriotic flag retirement ceremony, interact with colonial and Civil War reenactors as well as members of the Patawomeck tribe, listen to festive music, view living history demonstrations and theatre performances, and participate in educational programs, crafts, games, and hands-on activities for the whole family.  Check out these photos from last year’s celebration! Important event details are after the photos.

Date & Times: 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., Wednesday, July 4, 2018
Cost: $1 per person
Parking: Eagles Lodge – 21 Cool Springs Road Fredericksburg, VA 22405
Shuttles run between the Eagles Lodge and Ferry Farm.

Thank you to event sponsors:
Lewis Insurance Associates
Hirschler Fleischer
Paragon Theater/Splitsville
B101.5 WBQB/NewsTalk1230 WFVA

Learn more at ferryfarm.org/events.

Photos: The Fourth of July at Ferry Farm 2017

Scenes from last week’s Independence Day celebration at George Washington’s Ferry Farm!

The Fox: A Bygone Symbol of Liberty

There is no man who hates the power of the crown more, or who has a worse opinion of the Person to whom it belongs than I.” – Charles James Fox, letter to Edmund Burke, 24 January 1779. Quoted in L. G. Mitchell, Charles James Fox (1997:41).

It is intolerable that it should be in the power of one blockhead to do so much mischief.” – Charles James Fox referring to King George III. From a letter to Mr. Fitzpatrick, 9 September 1781. Quoted in John Brooke, George III (1974:363-364).


The Right Honourable Charles James Fox, MP, wore buff and blue apparel for this 1782 portrait by Joshua Reynolds. Credit: Wikipedia.

Charles James Fox was contrary. He gambled excessively, drank heavily, and he was generally irreverent. He enjoyed resisting powerful people, supported unpopular causes, and expressed his disdain for high society by adopting a disheveled appearance later in life. His colorful British Parliamentary career spanned decades. He was a champion of liberty: including the abolition of slavery, religious freedom, the colonists’ struggles with King George III, and he supported the French people in their quest for democracy.

Fox questioned King George III’s policies toward the American colonies and feared that the monarch was becoming tyrannical. It was parliament’s job to guard against such corruption. Fox and his supporters often wore apparel in the colors of buff and blue – the colors of Washington’s army – to show their support for American concerns. The Americans, in turn, honored their parliamentary champion with their own fashion accessory: they wore buttons that featured a fox, an obvious – and often used – stand-in for the controversial orator.[1]

Buttons featuring a fox racing across the landscape with the word “TALLIO” were intensely popular from the 1770s through at least the first quarter of the 1800s and they are common discoveries at archaeological sites. “Tallio,” “talley-o,” “talley-oh,” “talleo” and “talley ho” were all acceptable spellings for the traditional huntsmen’s shout upon spotting the fox during a chase. But this exclamation dates from the 1770s: well over a century after the sport had been brought to the Chesapeake. [2]


A close-up of a “TALLIO” sleeve button from the Washingtons’ parlor cellar, c. 1766-1772.

Fox hunting enjoyed wide popularity among Chesapeake gentlemen. The English Brook family brought their foxhound pack to Prince George’s County, Maryland when they immigrated in 1655.[3] Fox hunting continued in the Brook family for generations, and the popularity of this privileged recreational activity spread. Fox hunting on horseback was an amusement of the leisure class and the chase was considered more important than the capture of the prey. By the late 1760s, Washington himself maintained a pack of fox hounds at Mount Vernon.


Additional TALLIO sleeve buttons from the antebellum-era plowzone at Washington’s boyhood home. They are notably more weathered from its increased exposure to the elements given its shallow soil burial environment.

Many who discover these buttons today attribute their imagery solely to the popularity of fox hunting as a sport. These buttons are often referred to as “hunt” buttons, a category that includes buttons which feature favored hobbies or athletic pursuits. Some assert that these sleeve links were widespread because fox hunting was so popular. And indeed, it was. These links – historically referred to as ‘sleeve buttons’ – enjoyed great popularity in the years surrounding the American Revolution, the Early Republic, and into the antebellum period.

I believe these buttons also achieved a deeper, political meaning, however, especially in the years around the American Revolution. Due to the support by Charles James Fox of the American cause, fox imagery came to represent resistance to tyranny. A number of contemporary British political cartoons used a fox to symbolize this politician. In addition to this documentary evidence, I believe the fox imagery used on these buttons came to symbolize the fight for liberty. For those recovered buttons for which we have context, it is evident that they are especially prevalent at sites associated with the Revolutionary War and with American patriots.


Colonial discord is represented in this 1776 image showing America (symbolized as a woman in a feathered headdress, center left) attacking a defenseless Britannia (symbolized by the woman at center right). Charles James Fox is represented as a fox in the background (see arrow). Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

As the political difficulties between the British Crown and the American colonies intensified, Fox’s outspoken support of colonial concerns attracted attention on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain, some called Fox a traitor for his disrespectful rhetoric against the crown. In Britain’s North American colonies, his stoic support for their cause provided colonists a crucial ally in an unexpected, but politically powerful position. Patriots and revolutionaries enthusiastically incorporated these fox hunting-themed buttons into a celebration of Fox’s ardent support.


A 1784 image of a fox, featuring the head of British parliamentarian Charles James Fox. Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

Tallio/fox buttons have been recovered from several American Revolution-era and Early Republic era forts in Tennessee and New York. Two domestic sites associated with George Washington have yielded these buttons as part of their archaeological discoveries. Signer of the Declaration of Independence, William Paca, proudly wore a tallio/fox button. Colonial towns such as Dumfries, Virginia and Jacksonborough, South Carolina have yielded these buttons from layers dating from the Revolutionary era.

Harlem Heights Fox FolktaleAnthropologists – scholars who study people – make special efforts to identify such symbols in societies, both in contemporary studies and in analyses of past people.[4] Symbols are especially powerful because viewers do not need to be able to read, to understand language, to hear, or to speak, in order to comprehend a symbol’s message. These messages can summon strong emotional responses. Think about how you feel when you see an American flag and how your responses might change depending on how a flag might be used at a protest, funeral, or baseball game. During the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the fox symbolized resistance to tyranny, freedom, and the pursuit of liberty. Wearing a fox button proclaimed your support for American independence.

The die struck fox image on these buttons was not originally created as a political symbol for Charles Fox, however. The meaning of these buttons was adapted to that purpose after their initial manufacture. As we have seen, fox hunting was indeed a common pastime for gentlemen, and these fashionable buttons were popular among those who “chased the hounds.”  As tensions between Britain and her North American colonies increased, Smith Quotebeginning by the 1760s, the fox symbolism present on tallio buttons was malleable[5], and provided a gentleman with leeway in a politically volatile climate: its meaning could change according to a gentleman’s situation.  Among unfamiliar company, such a multivocal symbol would allow an adroit – or perhaps even a vacillating – patriot some political latitude. Uncertain if the person with whom you’re dining is a Tory? Your innocent little TALLIO sleeve link merely celebrates a popular, recreational activity, whose roots in the Middle Atlantic region went back generations. But, at the same time, comrades in the struggle for American Independence recognized their solidarity in the symbolism of the fox: honoring their parliamentary advocate of colonial resistance to the King George III.

Along with the tallio sleeve button, another apparel item as evidence for the Washington family’s burgeoning resistance to the Crown has been found at Ferry Farm. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, the Washingtons wore a mid-1700s William III sleeve button to display their resistance to George III: a monarch that many colonists deemed tyrannical in his exercise of power. On more than one occasion, Charles Fox himself compared America’s Declaration of Independence to William and Mary’s “Glorious Revolution,” and (fairly or not) drew parallels between the monarchical abuse of powers exercised by George III and James II. British subjects had the right to replace a tyrannical king with another: an example set by William and Mary, and an important precedent for the American colonists. The Washingtons’ support for the Leedstown Resolves in February 1766 provides documentary evidence for their concerns with Britain’s rule and (at the time) their loyalty to the Crown.[6]

William III sleeve link

Close-up of a mid-1700s sleeve button recovered at Ferry Farm. It features the image of King William III and reads “Gulielmus D. G.” which translates as “William by the grace of God King.” This button is another demonstration of growing resistance to George III from Washington’s boyhood home.

Together, the symbolism on each of these buttons and the Washington brothers’ participation in the Leedstown Resolves demonstrates a long and growing frustration among Virginians with Britain’s colonial policies. The material expression of these sentiments can be traced back to the mid-1700s-era male apparel buttons at Washington’s childhood home. These discoveries were possible thanks to the preservation of this site, the thorough excavation of its layers, and a contextual understanding of the social and political landscape of this period.

This fox/liberty symbolism apparently endured well into the 1800s in the United States. Archaeologists recovered a “TALLIO” sleeve button from the root cellar of a quarter for enslaved laborers in South Carolina:[7] strong circumstantial evidence that this symbol of the struggle for liberty and freedom continued beyond the American Revolution. As previous mentioned, Fox was an ardent abolitionist. The layer from which this particular button was recovered dated no earlier than 1845. In this context, this symbol of liberty underwent another change and now represented a reproach displayed by enslaved Americans to highlight the paradox of slavery in what was supposed to be a democracy. Though Charles James Fox died in 1806, the use of the fox as a symbol for the struggle for freedom endured.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

Sites where such TALLIO links have been recovered

Collectors and archaeologists have found TALLIO buttons from at least New York to South Carolina, and westward to Tennessee,[8] where they occur at a number of United States military forts, late 1700s-era towns, and at sites associated with patriots.

Bledsoe’s Station, Tennessee (1783-1795) – “civilian fort” (Context dates from c. 1783-1795).

British Officer’s Revolutionary War Hut in New York (Calver and Bolton 1950: 225, 227).

Dumfries, Virginia, “Late 18th century.” (Sprouse 1988:119-120).

Fort Southwest Point, Tennessee (1797-1807), federal military fort.

Fort Blount, Tennessee – territorial militia post (1794-1797); federal post (1797-1798).

George Washington’s Boyhood Home (1762-1772), parlor cellar and antebellum plowzone.

H.M.S. DeBraak, Delaware (1798) shipwreck. (Cofield 2012:103-104, 113).

Jacksonborough, South Carolina. Colonial town. (Smith, Dawson, and Wilson 2008:22-23, 30).

Mount Vernon, Virginia, Washington’s home (1754-1799).  Recovered from a c. 1820s garden layer.

Tellico Blockhouse, Tennessee – federal military post (1794-1807).

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Plowzone. (Fitts et al. 2012:35, 88-89).

William Paca Garden, (c. 1763-1780) Annapolis, Maryland. http://annapoliscurator.blogspot.com/2014/09/william-pacas-sleeve-buttons_12.html

Further Reading

Boswell, James
2008    Life of Johnson. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Calver, William L. and Reginald P. Bolton
1950    History Written with a Pick and Shovel.  University of Virginia Press.

Cofield, Sara Rivers
2012    Linked Buttons of the Middle Atlantic, 1670-1800. Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology, 28:99-116. https://www.jefpat.org/diagnostic/SmallFinds/SleeveButtons-Cufflinks-Studs/Linked%20Buttons.pdf

Fitts, Mary Elizabeth, Ashley Peles, and R. P. Stephen Davis, Jr.
2012    Archaeological Investigations at the Vance Site on the University of North Carolina Campus, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Research Report No. 34. The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Hastings, Anne M.
1997    Fox Hunting: History and Change in a Mountain Sport. Appalachian Journal 25(1):30-46.

Mitchell, Leslie George
1997    Charles James Fox. Penguin, London.

Noël Hume, Ivor
1961    Sleeve Buttons:  Diminutive Relics of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.  In Antiques 79(4):380-383.

Polhemus, Richard R.
1979    Archaeological Investigations of the Tellico Blockhouse Site (40MR50): A Federal Military and Trade Complex. Report of Investigations 26, Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Reich, Jerome R.
1998    British Friends of the American Revolution. M. E. Sharpe, Armonk, New York.

Smith, Kevin E.
2000    Bledsoe Station: Archaeology, History, and the Interpretation of the Middle Tennessee Frontier, 1770–1820. Tennessee Historical Quarterly 59(3):175–187.

Smith, Samuel D., and Benjamin C. Nance
2000    An Archaeological Interpretation of the Site of Fort Blount, a 1790s Territorial Militia and Federal Military Post, Jackson County, Tennessee. Tennessee Dept. of Environment and Conservation, Division of Archaeology, Nashville, TN

Smith, Steven D., Audrey R. Dawson, and Tamara S. Wilson.
2008    The Search for Colonial Jacksonborough (38CN280) Colleton County, South Carolina. South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology Report, Columbia. Presented to Lowcountry Council of Governments, Yemassee, and Francis Marion Trail Commission, Florence.

Sprouse, Deborah A.
1988    A Guide to Excavated Colonial and Revolutionary War Artifacts.  Heritage Trails, Turbotville, Pennsylvania..

Steen, Carl
2008    Archaeology on the Great Pee Dee River: The Johannes Kolb Site. http://38da75.com/professional.htm, accessed July 31, 2012. Diachronic Research Foundation, Columbia, SC.


[1] A generation earlier Fox’s father, Henry Fox – also a member of parliament – found himself represented as a fox on multiple occasions in political satire.

[2] The recovery of this artifact from a layer created between 1766 and 1772 indicates that “tallio” was a term popular before it first appeared in print in 1773 (“tally-ho, int. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Web. 31 May 2017). Since this “TALLIO” button was deposited before 1773, perhaps the Oxford University Press might consider updating their “tally-ho” entry.

[3] A nice history of fox hunting is provided in Anne M. Hastings, 1997 article “Fox Hunting: History and Change in a Mountain Sport.” Appalachian Journal 25(1):30-46.

[4] Archaeology is a subfield of anthropology. Archaeologists study past peoples.

[5] Political sleeve buttons that said “Liberty” (revolutionary) or portrayed a Crown (Loyalist) provided their gentlemen no political leeway: they betrayed the political sympathies of their gentlemen quite directly. Did gentlemen who elected to wear TALLIO buttons lack commitment, perhaps coveting the ambiguous – and potentially innocent – message of the fox imagery?

[6] Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles Washington all signed the Leedstown Resolves which, though it expresses concern, is nonetheless effusive in its expressed respect for the monarchy.

[7] Carl Steen, Personal Communication, 15 April 2013.

[8] http://annapoliscurator.blogspot.com/2014/09/william-pacas-sleeve-buttons_12.html; http://emuseum.history.org/view/objects/asitem/search@/0?t:state:flow=15c6b88c-4d16-46be-9dce-2bc1fc9f6420


“Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations”: Celebrating Independence

Johannes Adam Simon Oertel. Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, N.Y C. ca. 1859. Oil on canvas. Artist Johannes A. S. Oertel, working in the mid-nineteenth century, provides an imagined depiction of the destruction of George III's statue in Bowling Green, the first victim of New Yorkers' reaction to hearing news of the Declaration of Independence. Oertel places women, children and Native Americans among what eyewitnesses recorded as a rowdy crowd of soldiers and civilians. No true image of the statue itself survives. However, contemporary descriptions inform us that the King was sculpted in Roman garb, not the eighteenth-century royal dress shown in the painting. More accurate is the view of the statue reconstructed by Charles M. Lefferts at right.

Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, NYC (ca. 1859) by Johannes A. S. Oertel. Painting in the mid-1800s, Oertel created a thrilling but historically inaccurate depiction of  New Yorkers destorying a statue of George III after hearing news of the Declaration of Independence.  The event did happen but much of Oretel’s painting is fanciful. Public domain. Courtesy: Wikipedia.org

Writing to wife Abigail following Congress’s adoption of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams famously outlined his vision for how future generations would celebrate the historic moment. “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival,” Adams wrote in an oft quoted passage. “It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

Adams’ prediction was borne out immediately.  News of independence spread from Philadelphia across the new American states like a circle of ripples on a great lake.  By July 10, 1776, the first word arrived in Fredericksburg, Virginia, hometown of General George Washington and where his mother Mary still lived.  Indentured servant John Harrower, who served as tutor for Colonel William Daingerfield’s family at Belvidera plantation about seven miles downstream from Fredericksburg on a bluff overlooking the Rappahannock, recorded the moment in his journal. [1]

“Wednesday 10th. At 6 pm went to Mrs. Battaile’s & teach’d until sunset and then returned home & soon after hea[r]d a great many Guns fired towards Toun. About 12 pm the Colo. Despatc[h]ed Anthy. Frazer there to see what was the cause of [it?] who returned, and informed him that there was great rejoicings in Town on Accott. of the Congress having declared the 13 United Colonys of North America Independent of the Crown of great Britain.” [2]

July-4-2015 (16)

Young members of the Continental Army recreate a charge during Fourth of July at Ferry Farm!

Some days later, on July 26, when the Declaration was officially read out in Williamsburg, Virginia’s capital, the proclamation was made “amidst the acclimations of the people, accompanied by firing of cannon and musketry, the several regiments of continental troops having been paraded.”

One year later, Adams prediction continued to bear fruit, as the infant nation celebrated its First Birthday.  In Charleston, South Carolina, on July 4, 1777 “ringing of bells ushered in the Day” and “At sun-rise American colours were displayed from all the forts and batteries, and vessels in the harbour.”  There was a parade of military troops and then “at one o’clock the several forts, beginning at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, discharging seventy six pieces of cannon . . . and the militia and artillery fired three general vollies.”  The new state’s leaders gave a banquet with thirteen toasts and “double the number [of guests] that ever observed the birthday of the present misguided and unfortunate King of Great Britain.”  To end the day-long celebration, “the evening was concluded with illuminations, &c. far exceeding any that had ever been exhibited before.”.

Back north, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, ships were also “dressed . . . with the colours of the United States and streamers displayed.” The crews climbed into the rigging and stretched out across the yardarms to salute the day and each ship fired thirteen cannons. On land, a banquet was held for Congress during which “The Hessian band of music taken at Trenton the 26th of December last, attended and heightened the festivity with some fine performances suited to the joyous occasion, while a corps of British deserters, taken into the service of the continent by the State of Georgia, being drawn before the door, filled up the intervals with feux de joie.” A feu de joie, French for “fire of joy”, is the firing of guns into the air in quick succession. It is sometimes described as a “running fire of guns.”. The dinner also included many toasts.  The late afternoon featured a parade of military troops and the ringing of bells. “At night there was a grand exhibition of firework, which began and concluded with thirteen rockets.”

July-4-2015 (13)

After flying for a year over Washington’s boyhood home, one U.S. flag is retired replaced with a new flag during the Patriotic Flag Retirement Ceremony at Ferry Farm’s Fourth of July celebration.

Whether in Virginia in 1776 or South Carolina and Pennsylvania in 1777, all of these acts of celebration were quite traditional and had been used for decades to celebrate the monarch’s birthday each year.  In 1727, Willliamsburg marked the king’s birthday.

“The colors were displayed at the Capitol and salvos fired from the cannon at the Palace, at the forts, and on board the king’s ships in Virginia waters at the time.  In the evening the Capitol, the Palace, the College, and ‘most of the Gentlemen’s and other House of Note’ were illuminated and bonfires were sometimes set in public squares in the city.  At the governor’s dinner the drinking of all the loyal healths consumed a great deal of time, a variety of choice wines and liquors, and a large store of gunpowder. The populace was sometimes treated to ‘plenty of liquor’ and drank the same healths outside the Palace or at one of the taverns. The day’s festivities closed with the governor’s ball for all the ladies and gentlemen in town.” [3]

More than two centuries later, we still celebrate the Fourth of July with decorations of red, white, and blue, ubiquitous American flags, military parades, cannon fire, large amounts of food, the enjoyment of spirited beverages, music, and fireworks.  John Adams vision was far-reaching indeed!

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Celebrate Independence Day where George Washington spent his boyhood years!

July-4-2015 (5)

See more photos from last year’s Fourth of July at Ferry Farm here.

This year’s theme, “We The People” focuses on The Declaration of Independence with a variety of activities and entertainment for young and old alike. Learn about archaeology at Ferry Farm, enjoy a patriotic flag retirement ceremony,interact with colonial and Civil War re-enactors as well as members of the Patawomeck tribe, listen to patriotic music, and participate in educational programs, crafts and games, and hands-on activities for the whole family.  Visit kenmore.org/events.html to learn more.

Cost: $1 per person
Parking: Eagles Lodge – 21 Cool Spring Road Fredericksburg, VA 22405
Shuttles will run between the Eagles Lodge and Ferry Farm.

[1] John Harrower, The Journal of John Harrower: An Indentured Servant in the Colony of Virginia, 1773-1776, edited by Edward Miles Riley, Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg, 1963: xvi.

[2] Harrower, 158.

[3] Jane Carson, Colonial Virginians at Play, Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1989: 93.