When Washington Wanted to Know the Weather

Snowing at the Washington House

Snow falls on the Washington house at Ferry Farm in the midst of construction late last winter.

Winter is coming.  For the next three months or so, we face cold temperatures, blustery winds, chilly rains, occasional snow and ice storms, and regular frosts.  Living in the 21st century, accurate foreknowledge of unpleasant or dangerous weather is available at our fingertips.  It was decidedly different in the 18th century.

Just like we are today, people in the past were captivated by the weather and urgently wanted to know what it was going to do. George Washington was fascinated by the weather.  His preoccupation stemmed, of course, from his occupations as a surveyor, soldier, and planter.  Washington’s lifetime of diaries are filled with meteorological observations like this one from December 13, 1799.  “Morning Snowing & abt. 3 Inches deep. Wind at No. Et. & Mer. at 30. Contg. Snowing till 1 Oclock and abt. 4 it became perfectly clear. Wind in the same place but not hard. Mer. 28 at Night.”  This particular weather observation by Washington would also prove to be his final diary entry.  He died about 24 hours later.  Given his passion for the weather, it actually seems quite fitting that among the man’s last documented words there would be a weather report.

Accurately predicting the weather certainly would have helped Washington in his surveying, soldiering, and planting and weather forecasting was not completely impossible in the 18th century.  People in Washington’s time had some primitive tools, skills, and knowledge that they could call upon to help them guess what the weather was about to do for a relatively brief amount of time within the limited geographic area around them.

Weather vanes were one common tool used by colonial Americans to help divine the weather.  The direction and intensity of the wind can indeed provide a general idea of weather ahead.  Breezes from the south typically bring warm temperatures and increased humidity.  Winds from the north can mean colder temperatures and drier air.  A sudden shift in the wind direction with strong gusts coming from the west may mean a storm is approaching.

Mount Vernon Weathervane

Weather vane atop the cupola at Mount Vernon. Credit: Tim Evanson / Flickr.

Along with wind direction, early Americans also got an idea of what might happen with the weather simply by watching the sky.  Over the centuries, folk knowledge from this sky watching was distilled into weather lore, sayings meant to forecast the weather based on these observations of the local sky.  Indeed, some weather lore can be explained scientifically, is actually valid, and does provide an idea of what the weather will be for the short-term.

Let’s examine three example sayings (PDF)

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight
Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning

Red sky marks where high pressure is located. Dust and soot captured in the high pressure dome scatter more of the sunlight’s red wavelength while regular air molecules scatter sunlight’s blue wavelength.  An evening red sky in the west indicates an approaching high pressure bringing calm weather.  A red sky in the morning in the east means a high pressure has passed and a low pressure with unsettled weather is likely following behind.

Red in the Morning

Sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean.

When halo rings the moon
Rain’s approaching soon

At night, high thin cirrostratus clouds can create halos around the moon. These clouds forecast approaching rain.

When clouds look like black smoke
A wise man will put on his cloak

Thick clouds contain a lot of moisture which helps block sunlight and creates an appearance of black smoke in the sky.  The moisture in the clouds will often fall as rain, of course, necessitating the need for a cloak to stay dry outdoors.

In the 18th century, many weather sayings once shared through oral tradition were finally recorded in almanacs.  The 1700s was a boom time for almanacs and none was perhaps as focused on weather prediction as The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which first appeared in 1792 when George Washington was president.

Robert B. Thomas, The Old Farmer’s Almanac original publisher, created long-term weather forecasts based on a theory developed by Galileo in the 1600s. Galileo and Thomas believed that an 11-year cycle of sunspots influenced the Earth’s climate and weather.  To this day, science has not ruled out a connection although sunspot impact on weather is thought to be relatively minor.  Nevertheless, a farmer who wanted to know the best day to plant a certain crop and if that day would have good weather consulted The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

The last tool available to 18th century weather prognosticators was the barometer, which measures atmospheric pressure. Generally speaking, a rising barometer means high pressure is approaching and thus good weather is likely ahead while a falling barometer means low pressure is on the way and so is bad weather.  While they were over 100-years-old by his time, it does not appear that Washington owned barometer.  He definitely owned a thermometer but the many weather observations he recorded in his diaries do not include observations taken on a barometer.

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A snowy evening at Historic Kenmore.

With these primitive tools, skills, and knowledge, weather forecasting in the 18th century was possible but immensely flawed.  One could not know anything with certainty.  The error rate was substantial to be sure.  Forecasting was really little more than making a guess based on some vague general rules of thumb.  The advent of telegraphy in 1835 sparked the current age of modern weather forecasting with its collecting and sharing of both observations and data across large distances and its ever-increasing warning times about weather changes.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

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When George Washington Almost Joined the British Royal Navy

Not long ago, we explored Three Military Adventures that Inspired George Washington and the influence that Lawrence Washington and his wartime service played in stoking George’s interest in military matters.

Lawrence fought with the British in the War of Jenkins’ Ear in the early 1740s and spent time aboard the flagship of Admiral Edward Vernon, who commanded British forces during the Battle of Cartegena de Indias.  Lawrence returned to Virginia with stories sure to spark his 10-year-old brother George’s imagination and desire for adventure.  Lawrence’s military service and George’s interest in military things had a fascinating, if perplexing, practical outcome when, late in 1746, Lawrence proposed for 14-year-old George to join the Royal Navy.

Lawrence Washington attributed to Gustavus Hesselius (c 1738)

Portrait of Lawrence Washington attributed to Gustavus Hesselius (c. 1738). Credit: Wikipedia / Mount Vernon.

This is a relatively little known and rather mysterious incident in the life of young George Washington.  Few documents survive that address the matter directly.  There are no documents written by George, Lawrence, or Mary Washington that reveal their actions or motivations in the matter.  The three letters that do address the incident were all written by secondary figures involved.

It all began in the fall of 1746 when Lawrence sent two letters — one each for George and Mary respectively – to Fredericksburg via Colonel William Fairfax.  George was to deliver Mary’s himself and keep the one to him a secret from her.  We do not know what either of these letters said.

What we do know is only what William Fairfax told Lawrence in a report dated September 9, 1746 and sent to Lawrence at Mount Vernon.  Fairfax wrote:

“The weather being so sultry, and being necessarily obliged to go about this town to collect several things wanted, I have not yet seen Mrs. Washington.  George has been with us, and says He will be steady and thankfully follow your Advice as his best Friend.  I gave him his Mother’s letter to deliver with Caution not to shew his.  I have spoke to Dr. Spencer who I find is often at the Widow’s and has some influence, to persuade her to think better of your advice in putting Him to Sea with good Recommendation.”[1]

The Dr. Spencer mentioned may have been William Spencer, who often was involved as a witness for land transfers to Lawrence.  The secretiveness of George hiding his letter from Mary and of Lawrence apparently enlisting his business partners to argue in favor of the proposal for George to go to sea emphasize the conspiratorial nature of Lawrence’s efforts.

It appears that, for a time, Lawrence’s manipulations may have worked.  On September 18, 1746, Robert Jackson, a Washington family friend, wrote to Lawrence that “I am afraid Mrs. Washington will not keep up to her first resolution.”  This seems to indicate that she wasn’t against the idea immediately but she did change her mind.  Jackson reported that Mary “seems to intimate a dislike to George’s going to Sea and says several Persons have told her it’s a very bad Scheme.”  He condescendingly dismisses her concerns as “trifling objections such as fond and unthinking mothers naturally suggest” and expresses frustration that “one word against [George’s] going has more weight than ten for it.”

Jackson noted that William Fairfax was inclined to visit Mary and, moreover, Jackson noted that he himself would “take an opportunity to talk with her and will let you knew her result.”[2]  While Jackson may have let Lawrence know the result, no document has been found to let us know the result of these specific discussions two centuries later.

Action Between Nottingham and Mars, 1746 by Samuel Scott

“Action Between Nottingham and Mars” (1746) by Samuel Scott depicts a British-French naval battle in October 1746 when the Washingtons were debating whether George should join the Royal Navy. Credit: Wikipedia/National Maritime Museum.

At some point, perhaps feeling outnumbered, Mary decided to solicit the advice of her brother Joseph Ball in England.  Dated May 19, 1747, his reply, which is a disdainful rejection of the entire proposal, is worth quoting at length.

“I understand that you are advised and have some thoughts of putting your son George to sea.  I think he had better be put apprentice to a tinker, for a common sailor before the mast has by no means the common liberty of the subject; for they will press him from ship to ship where he has fifty shillings a month, and make him take twenty-three, and cut and slash and use him like a negro, or rather like a dog.  And as to any considerable preferment in the navy, it is not to be expected, as there are so many gaping for it here who have interest, and he has none.  And if he should get to be master of a Virginia ship (which is very difficult to do), a planter who has three or four hundred acres of land, and three or four slaves, if he be industrious, many live more comfortably, and have his family in better bread than such a master of a ship can . . .  He must not be too hasty to be rich but go on gently and with patience as things will naturally go.  This method without aiming at being a fine gentleman before his time, will carry a man more comfortably and surely thought the world than going to sea, unless it be a great chance indeed.”[3]

Mary must have ultimately and definitely rejected Lawrence’s plan, a courageous act for a woman in male dominated colonial Virginia.  George, of course, did not pursue a career at sea but turned to surveying instead.

Like many incidents in young George Washington’s life, the historical record is elusive and often raises more questions than it answers.  What prompted Lawrence to make the suggestion in the first place?  What were George’s views on the proposal and the debate?  What were Mary’s specific objections?  None of these questions may ever be answered.  Of course, the greatest question raised by the incident is the also unknowable counterfactual one.  Would history have unfolded differently if the man who was supposed to have been the commander of the Continental Army ended up spending his life on the King’s ships?

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] William Fairfax to Lawrence Washington, September 9, 1746, quoted in Moncure Daniel Conway’s Barons of the Potomack and the Rapphannock, New York, Grolier Club, 1892: 238, available at https://books.google.com/books?id=zDESAAAAYAAJ&dq=barons%20of%20the%20potomac%20and%20rappahannock&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false [accessed August 26, 2017].

[2] Robert Jackson to Lawrence Washington, September 18, 1746, quoted in Moncure Daniel Conway’s Barons of the Potomack and the Rapphannock, New York, Grolier Club, 1892: 239-40, available at https://books.google.com/books?id=zDESAAAAYAAJ&dq=barons%20of%20the%20potomac%20and%20rappahannock&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false [accessed August 26, 2017].

[3] Joseph Ball to Mary Washington, May 19, 1747 quoted in Marion Harland’s The Story of Mary Washington, New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co, 1893: 79-80 available at https://archive.org/details/storyofmarywashi00harl [accessed August 26, 2017].

George’s Hometown: Kenmore

As George Washington’s Ferry Farm prepares to celebrate the reconstruction of the Washington house, we traveled around George’s hometown – Fredericksburg, Virginia – to visit a few places important in the transformation of George from boy to man.

Fredericksburg remained important to George Washington throughout his life. It was the home of Mary Ball Washington, his mother, until her death on August 26, 1789 at the age of 80 from breast cancer. It remained the home of Betty Washington Lewis, his sister, until 1795 when she was forced by financial circumstances to leave the grand house she and husband Fielding Lewis, a wealthy merchant, had built to live at Mill Brook, a farm in Spotsylvania County.  Washington visited his mother as well as his sister and brother-in-law regularly but, as the years passed, these visits became more and more infrequent as the Revolution and Presidency required all his time and attention.  George Washington visited Betty and Fielding at Kenmore once in 1784.

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Historic Kenmore

Join us at the Washington House Celebration on Saturday, October 7, 2017 from 12:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. to celebrate the construction of the Washington house! A special ribbon-cutting ceremony will begin at 1:30 p.m. featuring notable speakers. After the ceremony, guests will be invited to view the reconstructed Washington house!

Ferry Farm opens to visitors at noon on Saturday, October 7.

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The reconstructed Washington house at Ferry Farm.

PLEASE NOTE: PARKING for the event is off site at the VRE Fredericksburg Park and Ride Lot G at the corner of Prince Edward Street and Frederick Street. Buses will transport guests to and from Ferry Farm—traveling from the VRE lot to Ferry Farm on a regular schedule from 11:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., and 3:00 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. Bus transportation will pause during the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The last bus will depart Ferry Farm at 5:15 p.m. Limited handicap parking is available at Ferry Farm.

George’s Hometown: Masonic Lodge

As George Washington’s Ferry Farm prepares to celebrate the reconstruction of the Washington house, we traveled around George’s hometown – Fredericksburg, Virginia – to visit a few places important in the transformation of George from boy to man.

In 1753, 21-year-old George Washington became a Master Mason having joined the Masonic Lodge in Fredericksburg the year prior.  In his encyclopedia on all things George, Frank Grizzard concluded that “For Washington, joining the Masons was a rite of passage, a formal entry into respectable and genteel if not elite society.”  The boy who arrived at Ferry Farm at the age of 6 was now an upper class Virginia gentleman.

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The Masonic Lodge of Fredericksburg at the intersection of Princess Ann and Hanover Streets.

The Fredericksburg lodge formed in 1753, the year Washington joined.  Its current building (pictured) was built in 1816.

Join us at the Washington House Celebration on Saturday, October 7, 2017 from 12:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. to celebrate the construction of the Washington house! A special ribbon-cutting ceremony will begin at 1:30 p.m. featuring notable speakers. After the ceremony, guests will be invited to view the reconstructed Washington house!

Ferry Farm opens to visitors at noon on Saturday, October 7.

PLEASE NOTE: PARKING for the event is off site at the VRE Fredericksburg Park and Ride Lot G at the corner of Prince Edward Street and Frederick Street. Buses will transport guests to and from Ferry Farm—traveling from the VRE lot to Ferry Farm on a regular schedule from 11:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., and 3:00 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. Bus transportation will pause during the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The last bus will depart Ferry Farm at 5:15 p.m. Limited handicap parking is available at Ferry Farm.

George’s Hometown: Julian’s Tavern

As George Washington’s Ferry Farm prepares to celebrate the reconstruction of the Washington house, we traveled around George’s hometown – Fredericksburg, Virginia – to visit a few places important in the transformation of George from boy to man.

Besides learning to survey and receiving his formal schooling, young George Washington also pursued an education in the social graces valued in gentry circles while a young man at Ferry Farm. These social graces included dancing, fencing, horseback riding, and gentlemen’s games like cards.  Card-playing was a popular pastime in the taverns that Washington frequented all across Virginia.

On one occasion – Christmas Eve 1769 – adult George passed the evening at Julian’s Tavern in Fredericksburg with Edward Jones, the overseer of Ferry Farm.  This tavern was located at the corner of present-day Amelia and Caroline Streets.

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You can ready more about when Washington returned to his hometown for Christmas in 1769 by clicking here.

Join us at the Washington House Celebration on Saturday, October 7, 2017 from 12:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. to celebrate the construction of the Washington house! A special ribbon-cutting ceremony will begin at 1:30 p.m. featuring notable speakers. After the ceremony, guests will be invited to view the reconstructed Washington house! Parking for the event is off site at the VRE Fredericksburg Park and Ride Lot G at the corner of Prince Edward Street and Frederick Street. Limited handicap parking is available at Ferry Farm. Buses will transport guests to and from Ferry Farm. The Washington House Celebration is a free event and RSVPs are not required.

Video – Lecture: “The Rooms at Ferry Farm”

Furnishings posts logo finalOn Tuesday, September 19, 2017, Meghan Budinger, Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations at The George Washington Foundation, presented a lecture titled “The Rooms at Ferry Farm.” Meghan surveyed how we plan to furnish the reconstructed Washington house using traditional decorative arts scholarship but also adopted skills from genealogists, architectural historians, material cultural experts, scientists, and even investigative reporters. Meghan discussed how the Washington house and the effort to accurately furnish its rooms is a prime example of the synthesis of all of these vocations. The lecture was given at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library headquarters in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Join us at the Washington House Celebration on Saturday, October 7, 2017 from 12:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m to celebrate the construction of the Washington house! A special ribbon-cutting ceremony will begin at 1:30 p.m. featuring notable speakers. After the ceremony, guests will be invited to view the reconstructed Washington house! Parking for the event is off site at the VRE Fredericksburg Park and Ride Lot G at the corner of Prince Edward Street and Frederick Street.  Limited handicap parking is available at Ferry Farm. Buses will transport guests to and from Ferry Farm. The Washington House Celebration is a free event and RSVPs are not required.

Learn more about the Washington House here and view other videos, photos, and blog posts about the project here.

George’s Hometown: St. George’s Church

As George Washington’s Ferry Farm prepares to celebrate the reconstruction of the Washington house, we traveled around George’s hometown – Fredericksburg, Virginia – to visit a few places important in the transformation of George from boy to man.

George Washington’s education as a boy at Ferry Farm included copying The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation to learn the correct etiquette and moral code of Virginia’s gentry class. By strictly following its advice, young Washington molded his character into that of a wealthy Virginia gentleman.  Unable to attend school in England after his father’s death, George possibly studied with the Rev. James Marye, rector of St. George’s Parish across the river in Fredericksburg.

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St. George’s Church built their first church building in the 1730s. The current church building (pictured) dates from 1849.

Join us at the Washington House Celebration on Saturday, October 7, 2017 from 12:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. to celebrate the construction of the Washington house! A special ribbon-cutting ceremony will begin at 1:30 p.m. featuring notable speakers. After the ceremony, guests will be invited to view the reconstructed Washington house! Parking for the event is off site at the VRE Fredericksburg Park and Ride Lot G at the corner of Prince Edward Street and Frederick Street. Limited handicap parking is available at Ferry Farm. Buses will transport guests to and from Ferry Farm. The Washington House Celebration is a free event and RSVPs are not required.