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

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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.

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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

Ten Pivotal Moments in George Washington’s Boyhood

George Washington did not experience what we would now consider a normal childhood.  Life at Ferry Farm was filled with excitement, sadness, intrigue, and tragedy for young George. Here we present a list of “Ten Pivotal Moments of George Washington’s Boyhood.” This is by no means an exhaustive list but each of these events definitely helped shape Washington into a man capable of commanding the Continental Army and serving as the new nation’s first president.

Moving to Ferry Farm

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“View from the Old Mansion House of the Washington Family Near Fredericksburg, Virginia” (1833) by John Gadsby Chapman modified to depict the location and approximate appearance of the Washington family home, which was actually a complete ruin when visited and painted by Chapman in the early 1830s.

In 1738, Augustine Washington moved his family to Ferry Farm.   He appears to have chosen this plantation situated across from Fredericksburg to be nearer to his iron ore interests located about seven miles away.  Ferry Farm was very different than the other Washington properties.  The proximity of Fredericksburg made it more urban.  Ferry Farm was also surrounded by transportation routes including the Rappahannock River, and two roads that crossed the plantation.  The bustling nature of Ferry Farm and its surroundings played a critical role in George’s development.

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Announcement in the Virginia Gazette in April 1738 advertising “100 acres, lying about 2 miles below the Falls of Rappahannock . . . with a very handsome Dwelling house.” The property was being sold by  William Strother’s estate, would be purchased by Augustine Washington, and eventually come to be know as Ferry Farm.

The Deaths of Mildred and Augustine
George’s youngest sister Mildred was born shortly after the family moved to Ferry Farm.  She lived only 18 months, and her death when George was just seven years old was the first significant death of his youth, but not his last.

Augustine Washington, George’s father, followed Mildred in death on April 11, 1743. George inherited Ferry Farm and ten slaves from Augustine. His mother, Mary, managed this inheritance until George turned 21 years old. Augustine’s death began a period of financial hardship for the family and probably prevented George from being educated in England, a lost opportunity he remained self-conscious about for the rest of his life. It also meant George had to scramble to find a mentor to introduce him to the complex requirements associated with gentry life.

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George Washington’s handwritten copy of The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.

The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior
Young George copied The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, a guide to gentlemanly behavior in polite society, probably as a school assignment. This combination etiquette manual and moral code taught young George how to interact with his powerful and influential neighbors. By strictly following its advice, young Washington molded his character into that of a wealthy Virginia gentleman.

His Gentry Education
Washington’s diaries and accounts reveal how he mastered the pastimes of the gentry as a young man. He played for stakes at popular card games, took fencing lessons, and paid for his own dancing lessons. He frequented the theater in both Fredericksburg and Williamsburg. In a society obsessed with horse racing, equine bloodlines, and fox hunting, Mary Washington was well versed in horses and riding and appears to have been responsible for teaching George about riding.  By the time George was an adult, he was renowned as a “superb horseman.”  All of these skills, which remained with George for a lifetime, were acquired while he grew up at Ferry Farm.

The Royal Navy Episode
Following Augustine’s death, George’s eldest half-brother, Lawrence, took an interest in his future.  Lawrence conspired with Colonel William Fairfax, some of Augustine’s business associates, and George himself to convince Mary to allow 13-year-old George to join the Royal Navy. Mary eventually rejected the plan, a courageous act for a woman in male dominated colonial Virginia.  George turned to a career as a surveyor instead.  Imagine the future commander of the Continental Army serving on a King’s ship!

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Portrait of Frederick Herman  von Schomberg attributed to Adrian van der Werff. Public domain. Credit: Hampel Auctions / Wikipedia.

Introduction to Military Adventurers
On September 10, 1747, George purchased 3 books from his cousin Bailey for the combined price of 4 shillings 12 pence.  One of the books is listed as “Scomberg,” a reference to the 17th century German Protestant soldier of fortune, Duke Frederick Herman von Schomberg, who fought under the flags of France, Germany, Portugal, and England and died at the Battle of the Boyne fighting for William of Orange.  Schomberg wrote about his adventures which would have been of great interest and fascination to a young man of fourteen.  That George was willing to spend his hard earned money during a time of financial hardship reveals how enthralled he was by this subject.

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“A Plan of Major Law. Washington’s Turnip Field as surveyed by me this 27 Day of February 1747 GW” Credit: Library of Congress

Surveying: His First Job
George Washington began surveying at about age 15. His father’s probate inventory included a set of surveyor’s instruments. In 1748, at age 16, George went with Lord Fairfax’s surveying party on his first expedition into the wilds of western Virginia.  At age 17, George Washington was appointed to his first public office as surveyor of nearby Culpeper County. Surveying, like his skills in mathematics and keeping accounts, helped him manage his properties profitably throughout his life.

1749 – More Hard Times
The financial safety net set up for Augustine’s wife and minor children had almost completely collapsed by 1749.  Before the monetary struggles were over, half of Ferry Farm would have been sold, and Mary’s land near the Accokeek Iron Furnace had been lost for failing to pay taxes.  George Washington in a letter to his brother wrote “…my Horse is in very poor order to undertake such a journey, and is in no likelihood of mending for want of Corn sufficient to support him…” He remembered these hard times well into adulthood writing in 1788, during another period of financial stress, that “I never felt the want of money so sensibly since I was a boy of 15 years old as I have done for the last 12 Months.”

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“George Washington” (1997) by Walter Kerr Cooper

Trip to Barbados
In 1751, George Washington made his only trip abroad, traveling with his half-brother Lawrence to Barbados. Lawrence, suffering from tuberculosis, hoped the warm climate would prove beneficial to his health. He died from the illness, however, just a few months after his return to Virginia. Lawrence’s death set up the eventual inheritance of Mount Vernon by George.  The tropical island did little good for George’s health either.  He contracted a severe case of smallpox that left his skin scarred for life.

 

 GWs Request to be Appointed as the Virginia Militia Adjutant

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Portrait of George Washington (1772) by Charles Willson Peale. The earliest authenticated portrait depicts Washington in the Virginia Militia uniform he wore during the French and Indian War. Credit: Washington and Lee University / Wikipedia

In 1752, George Washington wrote a letter from Ferry Farm requesting that the Governor of Virginia appoint him as the militia adjutant position vacancy created by his half-brother Lawrence’s death.  The governor declined at this time, but one year later he did appoint George.  The 21-year-old Washington had no military experience at the time of his appointment.  This appointment eventually resulted in Washington igniting the Seven Years War between Britain and her colonies and France.

Dave Muraca
Director of Archaeology

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs