Five International Influences on George Washington’s Early Life

An Essay of a New and Compact Map, Containing the Known Parts of the Terrestrial Globe by Jacques-Nicolas Bellin was published in 1750 when George Washington was 18-years-old. Credit: Wikipedia.

Ferry Farm was a unique place to live in the mid-1700s. Situated where farm, frontier, city, river, and road converged on the edge of English empire, young George Washington, his family, and the farm’s enslaved community found their daily lives governed by Britain’s global economy and imperial culture.  Ferry Farm, nearby Fredericksburg, and the colonies more broadly were international places made up of a host of different European, African, and Native American ethnicities and nationalities in the 18th century.  Accordingly, we present a list of “Five International Influences on George Washington’s Youth.” This is by no means an exhaustive list but each influence helped shape young Washington into a man capable of commanding the Continental Army and serving as the new nation’s first president.

1) The Rappahannock River

The Rappahannock River as viewed from a window in the Washington house replica at Ferry Farm.
Voyages of British ships in the last half of the 18th century. Created by Geographer James Cheshire, PhD, on his Spatial.ly blog and used with permission.

Young George could look from a window in the family home at Ferry Farm down the bluff to the Rappahannock River. He saw ocean-going, sailing vessels being loaded and unloaded at the wharves and warehouses of Fredericksburg. These vessels were part of a global trade network, which we’ve written about here and here, that stretched to Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, India and China. These vessels were not large but traveled the world nonetheless.  They took the corn, wheat, and timber of places like Ferry Farm to Europe or the Caribbean and returned with Westerwald mugs from Germany, tea from India, porcelain from China, and enslaved laborers from Africa. The sailors on these ships probably represented numerous ethnicities and nations. One easily can imagine young George, so prone to a thirst for adventure, finding any excuse he could to visit the docks and ships down on the river and, by doing so, traveling the world without leaving the Rappahannock.

2) Westerwald stoneware

Those ships carried numerous manufactured goods from all over the world to Ferry Farm. Westerwald ceramics were one such import. Produced in the Westerwald region of what is now Germany beginning in the 1500s, archaeologists have excavated numerous bits of decorated stoneware tankards, jugs, and other drinking vessels used in the 1700s at Ferry Farm.  Several of these excavated vessels sported the initials ‘G.R.’, meaning Georgius Rex, the Latin for King George. The three British kings of the 18th century were all named George and came from the House of Hanover, a German royal family placed on the British throne in 1714. A gentleman sporting a ‘G.R.’ on his Westerwald tankard or jug advertised his loyalty to the Crown with every draught of ale. The presence of these initialed drinking vessels at Ferry Farm show that, until the Revolution, Washington, like most Americans, viewed himself as a loyal subject of the British Crown (ironically worn by a German head).

G.R. medallion on a Westerwald jug fragment.
A nearly complete Westerwald drinking vessel in the collection at Historic Kenmore.

3) Venetian glass

The vast majority of ceramics in the Washington household came from England. The same can be said about the family’s table glass, but the fanciest glassware owned by the Washington family actually came from Venice, Italy.  Found by our archaeologists, this piece of a pincered and buttressed handle is likely part of an elaborate hand-blown Venetian piece, made of finely crafted colorless soda lime glass with a barely visible bead of opaque glass running through the center.  A Venetian glass goblet such as this was a show piece displayed prominently within the house to emphasize that, despite their colonial location, the Washington family strived to maintain a level of European refinement appropriate to their gentry status.

Archaeologists excavated this small fragment of Venetian glass at Ferry Farm.
Wine goblet made in the 16th century in Venice, Italy. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

4) Barbados

In 1751, George Washington made his only trip off the North American continent, traveling with his half-brother Lawrence to Barbados. Visiting the island’s fortifications and meeting members of its military garrison fed George’s growing desire for a military career. As Jack Warren concludes, “After returning to Virginia, he dedicated himself to advancement in the military more completely than any of his Virginia contemporaries. And unlike most of the prominent colonial militia officers of the 1750s, he sought a commission in the regular British military establishment – an ambition that was probably prompted, and undoubtedly stimulated, by his experience in Barbados.”

Needham’s Point, Barbados. Credit: Reinhard Link.

5) The Frontier

Military service eventually took George into the frontier wilderness of the vast Ohio country. Tasked by Governor Dinwiddie with delivering a demand to the French to leave lands claimed by Virginia and the British Crown, young Major George Washington embarked on a thousand-mile, ten-week trek to and from Fort LeBoeuf on Lake Erie. He was accompanied by the Dutchman Jacob Van Braam, who served as his French interpreter, and by Tanacharison, known as Half-King, as well as other men from Native American nations. Along the way, he met several French officers and soldiers. Although confined to North America, this trip in late 1753 and early 1754 was, in reality, a foreign trip that exposed Washington to different peoples and cultures. It provided vital diplomatic, military, and intelligence gathering experience to the future Continental Army commander and first president. Washington, notes Paul Royster, “practiced diplomacy to keep the Native leaders allied to the English cause; he interviewed French deserters and reported on the extent of French military posts between New Orleans and the Great Lakes; he reconnoitered the Forks of the Ohio with an eye to the proper site for building a fort; and he inspected and reported on the construction of the new French forts and made estimates of their strength . . . .”

Portrait of George Washington, 1772 by Charles Willson Peale. Credit: National Portrait Gallery
The Ohio region from Cumberland to Fort LeBoeuf through which Washington journeyed, overlayed onto the famed map in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1787). Credit: Paul Royster / University of Nebraska.

Conclusion

Although a fourth generation American, George Washington grew up in a time and place – 18th century Ferry Farm and British North America — where international economic and cultural influences on his life were quite numerous. Through the five international influences we’ve briefly examined, we’ve seen how these influences helped Washington maintain his gentry status, which ultimately set him on a path to military and political greatness.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

George Washington, My Grandfather, and the Noble Art of Fencing

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (1796). Public domain.

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (1796). In the portrait, Washington wears his ceremonial sword. Public domain.

Editor’s Note: This is the second of two posts inspired by this year’s Summer Olympics. This week, Archaeologist Mara Kaktins reflects on the connection fencing has created between her family and George Washington. Read our first Olympics-inspired post here.

At our monthly blog meetings, post topics are floated and people grab them up, usually when it aligns with individual research interests.  George Washington as an avid fencer seemed an appropriate subject with the Summer Olympics in full swing this month.  I am no fencer, nor am I an athlete, so why write about fencing?  The spirit to volunteer for this assignment came to me because of the recent passing of my father.  He, my uncle, and my grandfather were all fencers.  It led me to ponder our first president, my grandfather, and the modern Olympic sport of fencing.

Let’s begin by examining the early history of fencing in the American colonies.  Long considered a ‘gentleman’s sport’, fencing was massively popular in Europe. Respect for the knowledge of sword play extended to the colonies, where masters from abroad set up schools to teach young men this ancient art.  These instructors did not just show their students how to fence.  Sword play was part of a larger artistic curriculum that could also include dancing, horseback riding, popular languages such as French, boxing, gentlemen’s games like cards, and knowledge of various musical instruments.   Fencing, or ‘short sword’ as it was sometimes called, was not seen as merely a sport.  It was referred to as an ‘art’.  With mastery, came not just dexterity, physical fitness, and strength but also good temperament, courtly manners, and a sense of restraint.  Teachers often emphasized that a gentleman well-versed in the sword was less likely to ever use one, having gained honor and discipline in addition to knowledge of a deadly weapon.  Sort of like the colonial equivalent of “With great power comes great responsibility”.

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart Sword

A closer view of Washington’s ceremonial sword.

As a young man living at Ferry Farm, George Washington attempted to better himself learning all of the gentlemanly arts. It is no surprise he studied fencing.  Some evidence suggests that Lawrence Washington, his older half-brother who was a Captain in the Virginia Militia may have helped him in this regard.  Schooled in England, Lawrence learned all he needed to know of being a gentleman in the mother country, as was customary for gentry children.  George Washington never attended a real school, much less an English one.  He was determined, however, and sought his gentlemanly education where he could in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Ferry Farm Sword Fragment

Fragment of a cooper-alloy hand guard from a sword dating to the late 1600s or early 1700s and unearthed by archaeologists at Ferry Farm.

The closest dedicated fencing instructor was in far-away Williamsburg so George had to make do. The early George Washington biographer, Washington Irving, suggested that Lawrence and his military friends along with an adjutant known only by his last name of Muse probably instructed George in sword play.  There was also a rather mysterious Dutch mercenary and translator, Jacob Van Braam (all good stories should have a shadowy Dutchman).  Temporarily located in Fredericksburg, Van Braam was in between wars and supplemented his income by teaching young George how to handle a blade.  They later campaigned together and fought at Fort Necessity in 1754 where a mistranslation by Van Braam may actually have contributed to the conflict that is credited with helping start the Seven Year War.  Presumably the Dutchman was more skilled with weapons than in French and George Washington went on to become a famous general, often depicted carrying a sword, a symbol of his status and military skill.  Van Braam later fought in the Revolutionary War but for the British before retiring to France.

Foil

Fencing foil belonging to the late Uldis Kaktins, my father.

Fast forward two centuries to a young man in Latvia named Zigurds, my grandfather.  Fencing remained a popular sport in Europe and a skill that educated men certainly looked to acquire.  Zigurds was tall, young, and handsome, had a law degree, and his father was a world famous opera singer.  Zigurds seemed to have a lot going for him and likely learned to fence for many of the reasons George did: physical prowess and a respected mental fortitude.  With the onset of the Second World War, Zigurds learned that the Soviets were going to deport him, his wife, and two young children to Siberia so he took his family and fled to the United States.  In America, his and his wife’s law degrees were worthless.  They moved into a rough but affordable neighborhood in Boston and worked blue collar jobs.  My grandfather’s life was completely different from what he had known in Latvia except for fencing.  He instructed fencing at the YMCA and headed a Latvian fencing club.  Normally a fairly stern figure, Zigurds once dressed as a ‘swashbuckler’ to be filmed fencing for a short film or commercial.

Mara's Grandfather

Zigurds Kaktins, my grandfather, (right) fencing in swashbuckler’s costume in the 1960s.

Zigurds passed on fencing to my father and uncle.  My recently deceased father always had a grace about him.  He carried himself easily and with confidence but was quick and nimble when needed.  Perhaps not coincidentally, he was also an excellent dancer.  I think that his early instruction in fencing contributed to this grace.  A man of grace and confidence, an excellent dancer, and a fencer.  These words prove an apt description of my father, my grandfather, and the Father of my Country.

Mara Kaktins
Archaeologist