A History of Trees at Ferry Farm

Cherry TreeThe moment anyone mentions trees and George Washington, you probably think of the famous Cherry Tree Story. However, this tale of young George taking a hatchet to his father’s cherry tree and, when confronted about the act, asserting “I cannot tell a lie” is probably just that — a story meant to demonstrate the integrity of the Father of Our Country. In reality, the trees of Ferry Farm have a much more fascinating history. Their story reflects, on a small local scale, vast environmental changes in eastern North America and shifting American attitudes toward the environment throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

Today, we see wilderness as a good thing that needs protected and preserved. But in the 1700s, Europeans settlers saw wilderness as a bad thing. Preeminent environmental historian William Cronon notes, Europeans described wilderness as “’deserted,’ ‘savage,’ ‘desolate,’ ‘barren’—in short, a ‘waste,’.” People did not look at forests, deserts, or mountains as places to protect and visit. Instead, they were places to be feared and tamed.

The opposite of wilderness was the managed landscape of Europe. In cities, towns, and farms, Europeans tried to control nature and make it follow humanity’s rules.  These efforts to tame the wilderness were transplanted to colonial plantations in the Americas.

The first step in building a plantation and taming the wilderness was clearing the land for farming. Huge numbers of trees were cut down to do this.  On top of that, trees were cut down to make almost everything people of the 1700s and 1800s used and owned.  Furthermore, they were also cut down to do many everyday tasks.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the wood from trees was…

  • used as the main architectural building material in houses, most other structures, farm buildings, fences, and more
  • used to build ships, boats, ferries, bridges, carriages and wagons that moved people and things from place to place
  • used to make everyone’s furniture (beds, chairs, tables, desks, cabinets, and trunks) as well as many household items and farming tools
  • used as fuel for the fires needed to cook, heat, and even to make candles and soap. A colonial home needed at least 40 cords of wood for heating and cooking over the course of a year.
5 cords of Firewood 1

Five cords of firewood. A colonial home used 8 or 9 times this amount in a year for just heating and cooking. Credit: Chris Stevenson

According to the U.S. Forest Service, the area that would become the United States had just over 1 billion acres of forest before European settlement.  By 1910, the U.S. had a total of just over 700 million acres.  The 300 million acres of trees cut down was mostly in the eastern portion of the country.

These large scale trends can be seen on a small scale at Ferry Farm.  The European settlers who lived here, including the Washingtons, cut down a significant number of trees but not so many that there weren’t still quite a few standing when John Gadsby Chapman painted Ferry Farm’s landscape in 1833.

1830s

“The Old Mansion of the Washington Family” (1833) by John Gadsby Chapman shows the foundation stones of the house where George grew up at Ferry Farm and trees along the riverbank.

We also have archaeological evidence showing the locations of trees during the Washington era.  This past summer in the yard north of the Washington house replica archaeologists uncovered “soil stains” left after trees fell in the past.  Soil stains are where the soil is a slightly different color than surrounding areas and indicate where people filled in holes created by uprooted trees. In other words, such soil stains indicate that a tree once stood there.

Uprooted Tree

A tree uprooted by a storm. Credit: ykaiavu / Pixabay

In some cases, our archaeologists found that the holes were filled in multiple episodes, indicating that the soil settled and new dirt was later added or the person filling the hole borrowed different dirt of different colors from multiple locations. By excavating the soil from these soil stains and analyzing the artifacts, we can tell around when the holes were filled.

Soil Stain

Soil stain marking the site of an 18th and 19th century tree on the landscape at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

One very large tree left the sizable soil stain – almost 5ft x 5ft – pictured above.  Based on artifacts found in its soil, the hole was filled during the mid-19th century.  We can tell by the size of the stain that the tree was quite mature. Together, these facts are evidence of a tree that grew just 40 feet north of the original Washington house during the time George and his family lived at Ferry Farm. This discovery gives us another detail about the landscape so it can eventually be accurately recreated just as we did the main house.

Finally, Ferry Farm archaeologists learned from these tree features and from the lack of other features in this yard that the area was well-kept. In the 18th century, this portion of the landscape was probably well-maintained because it was visible from Fredericksburg across the river.

This tree fell sometime in the 19th century and it was not the only one at Ferry Farm or across the country. Indeed, deforestation at Ferry Farm and nationwide grew more rapid and widespread in the 1800s as “clearing of forest land in the East between 1850 and 1900 averaged 13 square miles every day for 50 years; the most prolific period of forest clearing in U.S. history.”

In the 1860s, the Civil War exacerbated deforestation at Ferry Farm and throughout Stafford County.  Hundreds of thousands of Union Army soldiers radically altered the local environment to get the wood they needed for cooking and heating, to help build their fortifications and pontoon bridges, and even to build shelters.  During winter lulls in fighting, 18th and 19th century armies did not camp in tents. The soldiers built small log cabins.  By war’s end, Ferry Farm and Stafford County were nearly treeless as seen in the two photos of Ferry Farm below taken in the decades after the war ended.

1870s

View of Ferry Farm property in the 1870s.

1880s

View of the Ferry Farm property in the 1880s

While deforestation sped up in the 1800s, that century also began a changing of people’s attitudes toward the environment.  As Cronon explains, “The wastelands that had once seemed worthless had for some people come to seem almost beyond price. That Thoreau in 1862 could declare wildness to be the preservation of the world suggests the sea change that was going on. Wilderness had once been the antithesis of all that was orderly and good—it had been the darkness, one might say, on the far side of the garden wall—and yet now it was frequently likened to Eden itself.” Wilderness was to be treasured, not feared.

As the 19th century turned into the 20th, wilderness, nature, and the environment were increasingly seen as special and deserving of protection and preservation, sparking the creation of national and state parks, government agencies like the Forest Service, private conservation groups such as the Sierra Club, and, in 1872, the very first Arbor Day.

We can see the impact of new attitudes toward the environment at Ferry Farm in photos below. The top one from the 1930s, a period of intense conservation efforts nationwide, shows trees starting to appear once again while the other from 2017 shows trees on a portion of Ferry Farm stretching out as far as the eye can see to the north.

1930

Aerial view of Ferry Farm taken in 1930.

2017

Aerial view of a portion of Ferry Farm and points north taken in 2017. Credit: Joe Brooks / Eagle One Photography

The early 20th century saw the nadir of American deforestation in 1910. But since that year, forest acres in the U.S. have largely held steady [PDF].  The new conservation ethic symbolized in the practice of planting trees to replace those cut down, the reduced use of wood as a building material and fuel source, the need for less farm land, and the movement of people from rural to urban areas (all of which present their own challenges to the environment) have provided a reprieve for America’s forests.

While George’s mythical chopping of the Cherry Tree is the most well-known tale about trees at Ferry Farm, the more important and fascinating story is how the 300 hundred year history of trees at Ferry Farm reflects broader post-settlement environmental changes in North America and how the Americans who made those changes grew to see the world differently.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Technician

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Five Notable Americans Named George Washington

Parents, perhaps hoping to spur their offspring to similar greatness, have named their children George Washington ever since the most famous George Washington rose to prominence as commander of the Continental Army and the nation’s first president.  Few other George Washingtons ultimately achieved the original’s stature, although a few perhaps came close.  As we mark George Washington’s birth this month (Come to our Washington’s Birthday celebration at Ferry Farm this Saturday!), we share the compelling stories of five notable Americans named George Washington.

georgevanderbiltii

George Washington Vanderbilt II Credit: Wikipedia/Biltmore Co.

George Washington Vanderbilt II was born in 1862 into New York’s wealthy Vanderbilt family. At the age of 27, he began buying vast tracts of land near Asheville, North Carolina. He loved the mountains and wanted to build a grand home among the Blue Ridge.  Working with architect Richard Morris Hunt, Vanderbilt planned the house and oversaw construction of the $3,000,000 mansion.  He named the home and estate “Biltmore.”  Vanderbilt used his vast acreage to help to pioneer scientific forestry and began a forestry school on his estate.  His first superintendent of forests was Gifford Pinchot, who became the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service. Vanderbilt died in 1914 in Washington, DC.[1]

biltmoreestate

The Biltmore Estate near Asheville, North Carolina. Credit: Wikipedia

 

gwferris

George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. Credit: Wikipedia

George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. was born in Galesberg, Illinois in 1859.  He studied engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York.  He worked for a series of railroad and mining companies in West Virginia before focusing on bridge-building and structural steel construction. He started G.W.G. Ferris & Company in Pittsburgh and helped build bridges across the Ohio River in that city as well as in Wheeling and Cincinnati. For the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, he designed the Ferris Wheel.  “Rising 250 feet above the Midway, carrying thirty-six cars, each with a capacity of some forty passengers, revolving under perfect control, and stable against the strongest winds from Lake Michigan, it excited general attention.”  He died in Pittsburgh in 1896.[2]

ferriswheel

The Ferris Wheel at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Credit: Wikipedia/New York Times

georgewashingtondelong

Lieutenant Commander George W. DeLong, USN Credit: US Naval History and Heritage Command

George Washington De Long was born in New York City in 1844. An American naval officer, he organized and commanded an attempt to reach the North Pole via the Bering Strait.  His expedition left San Francisco aboard the Jeanette, a coal-burning steamer also equipped with sails, on July 8, 1879.  The Jeanette became trapped in the ice for 22 months before being crushed and forcing the crew to abandon ship.  The crew took to three lifeboats. One was lost, one made it to shore but all of its crew died of starvation and exhaustion, and one made it to shore where its crew was rescued.  De Long did not survive, dying in Siberia on October 30, 1881. Three years later, debris from the Jeanette was found nearly 3,000 miles away off Greenland’s coast, proving the polar ice was in motion.[3]

ussjeannette

The U.S.S. Jeanette in 1878. Credit: US Naval History and Heritage Command

georgewashingtoncrile

Dr. George Washington Crile in The World’s Work, 1914. Credit: Wikipedia

George Washington Crile was born in Ohio in 1864. He received his M.D. from what is known today as Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.  He was a leading pioneer in surgical medicine during the first half of the 20th century.  He dedicated much of his wide-ranging and groundbreaking career to studying the impact of shock on patients undergoing surgery and to developing pioneering ways to treat and combat that shock. He advocated for monitoring blood pressure during surgery and, most importantly, recognized the most effective way to stave off shock was through blood transfusions during operations.  He is credited with performing the first direct blood transfusion.  Surgical shock’s worst outcome was death so Crile developed resuscitation methods and, in the process, discovered the brain could be deprived of oxygen for only a very few minutes before resuscitation become impossible.  In 1921, he and several colleagues founded the Cleveland Clinic, considered one of the world’s foremost medical centers. Furthermore, a pressure suit he developed to prevent surgical shock was adapted to prevent blackout in pilots during World War II.  He died in Cleveland in January 1943.[4]

georgewashingtoncarver

George Washington Carver Credit: Wikipedia/Tuskegee University Archives

George Washington Carver was born a slave in Missouri in the early 1860s.  He attended a series of schools in Kansas and Missouri and graduated from Minneapolis High School in Minneapolis, Kansas.  He was rejected from one college because of his race but became the first black student at Iowa State Agricultural College, where he received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.  In 1896, Booker T. Washington hired Carver to chair the agricultural department at the Tuskegee Institute, where he remained for half-a-century.  As a agricultural scientist, Carver created methods to revive soil exhausted from planting only cotton year after year. These methods centered on rotating cotton with sweet potatoes, peanuts, soybeans, and cowpeas, which restored nitrogen in the soil and provided income for farmers as well.  He trained farmers to grow these alternative crops and distributed recipes using these crops to the public to spur demand.  His efforts to promote the peanut especially sparked the public’s imagination.  He died on January 5, 1942 in Tuskegee, Alabama.[5]

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] “George Washington Vanderbilt.” Dictionary of American Biography, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936. Biography in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/BT2310001556/BIC1?u=crrl&xid=3822e021. Accessed 9 Feb. 2017.

[2] “George Washington Gale Ferris.” Dictionary of American Biography, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936. Biography in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/BT2310013691/BIC1?u=crrl&xid=3144ffeb. Accessed 9 Feb. 2017.

[3] “George Washington De Long.” Explorers & Discoverers of the World, Gale, 1993. Biography in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/K1614000095/BIC1?u=crrl&xid=e0125245. Accessed 9 Feb. 2017.

[4] “George Washington Crile.” Dictionary of American Biography, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973. Biography in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/BT2310015367/BIC1?u=crrl&xid=8dcc7fd9. Accessed 10 Feb. 2017.

[5] “George Washington Carver.” Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 4, Gale, 1993. Biography in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/K1606000443/BIC1?u=crrl&xid=3bdf1f8b. Accessed 10 Feb. 2017.