What’s Growing in Ferry Farm’s Garden?

As many of you know, the Washington house replica at George Washington’s Ferry Farm was reconstructed and furnished as accurately as possible using historic documents, paintings, letters, and, of course, archaeology. Now that the challenge of getting the house built and open to visitors has passed, it’s time to turn to the rest of our plan for interpreting Ferry Farm’s landscape. This will eventually include constructing outbuildings, finishing the work yard, and improving the garden.

Even though the present garden is located at Ferry Farm’s Visitor Center and not yet near the Washington house replica, we used archaeological discoveries to decide what goes into the garden this spring. Using data from past excavations on Washington-era contexts, we drew some conclusions on what the Washington family and their enslaved workers cultivated here. While most organic material left behind over 250 years ago is long gone, as archaeologists, we sometimes get lucky and find biological and botanical remains that have withstood the time in the ground. We get especially lucky when we do find botanical remains like seeds and wood because, depending on the elements, they usually decompose easier and faster than bone.

Visitor often ask how we find some of our tiniest artifacts such as seeds. For important contexts and Washington era features, we don’t want to miss a single (tiny) thing, so we use a water screen. Instead of the usual quarter-inch screen we use for dry sifting dirt, we use a gentle stream of water from a garden hose and spray away the dirt through a window screen. We then use tweezers to pick out the tiny artifacts left behind.  Objects like the straight pin in the photo below and seeds could otherwise fall through the standard quarter-inch screen.

GWF_FF20-Waterscreen-Cate-Courtney-24May2013H

Water screening

GWF_FF20-Waterscreen-16May2013

Picking out the artifacts after water screening.

GWF_FF20-Waterscreen-StraightPin-17May2013

Straight pin

In 2015, we had flora remains from a mid-18th century storehouse cellar feature that had been captured by our fine mesh water screens sent to Justine McKnight, an archaeobotanical consultant for analysis.  Without getting extremely technical, I will say that we gained some very useful data to use to plant our garden this year. Seed specimens discovered archaeologically and used in cultivation consisted  of peas, green beans, wheat, and corn. Seeds included hackberry and, of course, cherry. The only nut uncovered was a hazelnut shell.

Along with this archaeological evidence, we also know that some tobacco was grown on the Washington farm because of court records. In the 17th and 18th centuries, tobacco was Virginia’s premier export and most valuable cash crop but places along the Rappahannock River like Ferry Farm were not great tobacco land.  In these areas, as our excavated seeds show, planters moved onto corn, wheat, and other crops, knowing they would never get rich on tobacco.

Using all of this information, we planted similar crops in the demonstration garden along with other crops widely grown in 18th century colonial America.

While seemingly insignificant at first glance, these tiny charred remains of flora give us a snapshot in time of the diets of the Washington family and enslaved workers at Ferry Farm. These definitely are not the only plants they were eating, but we do know via archaeology that these were stored by the family in the mid-18th century. Using the other archival resources listed above, we will continue to fill in the gaps and enhance our garden and landscape according to the historical and archaeological records.

Elyse Adams, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Technician

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Ferry Farm’s Bird Life: An Update

Fredericksburg Birding Club

Members of the Fredericksburg Birding Club at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Between September 2017 and February 2019, the Fredericksburg Birding Club (FBC) conducted 12 bird surveys at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.  We did three in spring, one in summer, three in fall, and five in winter.  During that time, we saw 78 of the 136 species listed in the “Checklist of Birds at Ferry Farm” pamphlet and saw 3 new species for a total of 81 species spotted.  All observations were recorded at ebird.org.[i] A full list of species observed by the FBC during this time follows.

The chart below compares species listed in the “Checklist of Birds” with those seen by the FBC by abundance designations. Some species vary in abundance with season and, in those cases, these species were given the designation used during their most abundant season.  For example, Catbirds are uncommon in spring, common in summer and fall, and rare in winter.  Nonetheless, in the chart, they were designated as common because summer and fall are when they are encountered most, spring sightings are the “earlybirds” anxious for warm weather, and winter sightings are out-of-habit occurrences.

Designation Definition # of species on “Checklist of Birds” # seen on FBC surveys
Abundant

 

Very numerous 16 16
Common Likely to be seen or heard in suitable habitat 23 23
Uncommon Present, but not certain to be seen 44 29
Occasional Seen only a few times during a season 40 8
Rare May be present but not every year 13 2
New Not listed in checklist (3) 3

 

 

Total

   

139

 

81

As you can see, we observed all birds listed as abundant or common. In addition, we saw 29 of 44 listed as uncommon; eight of 40 species listed as occasional; and two of 13 as rare.  We also sighted three species not listed: the American Pipit, Red Headed Woodpecker, and Pied-billed Grebe.  These sightings bring the total of rare birds at Ferry Farm up to 16 and the total number of bird species seen to 139.

American Pipit

American Pipit. Credit: Becky Matsubara / Wikipedia

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker. Credit: William J. Majoros / Wikipedia

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe. Credit: Mdf / Wikipedia

We don’t think the low numbers of uncommon, occasional or rare species indicate a trend as we are comparing 12 field days over 18 months with former Ferry Farm staff member Paul Nasca’s eight years of intense observation.

However, we noted two differences in frequency of sightings compared with the “Checklist of Birds.”  We only sighted one Catbird and they are listed as common in spring and summer.  In contrast, we have seen Bald Eagles on five of our 12 outings and they are listed as occasional.  Again, at this point in our surveys, these are just interesting observations to follow, not necessarily trends. This year, we expect to pick up more uncommon species and hopefully some occasional species. We’ll see if any of rare ones show up.

Bird Species List

Four of the surveys were conducted during the breeding season — spring through summer — and that data was entered into the Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas 2 (VABBA2) database.  This atlas is the second for Virginia, the first being compiled from data collected between 1985 and 1989. VABBA2 will document breeding birds throughout the Commonwealth with data collected over five breeding seasons from 2016-2020.

The VABBA2 database notes specific behavior observations that indicate breeding.  By those criteria, we confirmed breeding of four species: Tree Swallow, Northern Cardinal, Chipping Sparrow, and House Finch.  We also observed probable breeding of four additional species: American Crow, Eastern Bluebird, Common Yellowthroat, and Carolina Chickadee.  While we know these and other species breed at Ferry Farm, we have to observe behaviors or actual juvenile birds to document the breeding.

Highway noise from State Route 3 and the Blue-Gray Parkway at the south end of the property may be a factor in bird observations for both birds and birders.  Studies have documented birds abandoning nesting areas or changing breeding songs so they can be heard.  Additionally, highway noise makes it difficult for birders to hear songs, which affects observations of both bird presence and breeding activity.

The club’s major goal this year is to increase field days in the spring and summer both to document bird presence, particularly of uncommon and occasional species and to observe breeding behavior for VABBA2, increasing the number of confirmed breeding species at Ferry Farm.

Maureen Daly Hamm
Fredericksburg Birding Club

[i] During the non-breeding season, all birding data is entered directly into ebird.org at “George Washington’s Ferry Farm” hotspot.  During the breeding season, the data must be entered through https://ebird.org/atlasva/home.  VABBA2 has split Virginia into geographical blocks and the breeding data must be entered in the block where the birds are observed. Unfortunately, Ferry Farm falls into two different blocks. The southern field area is in block 0380277C4SW, and the remainder of the property is block 0380277C4CW.  We submit data for the southern field area as “George Washington’s Ferry Farm 038077c4SW” The block 0380277C4CW data encompassing the majority of Ferry Farm property is listed simply as “George Washington’s Ferry Farm.”  We will investigate ways to make the data simpler to access, but it may not be possible until the breeding bird survey is complete.

 

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

Surveying the Bird Life at George Washington’s Ferry Farm

Recently, on a gray overcast March morning, four members of the Fredericksburg Birding Club bundled up against the unseasonable cold to trudge across the open fields and through the forests of George Washington’s Ferry Farm to conduct their latest bird survey. It was their fourth such survey in the past seven months.

During these surveys birding club members spotted a total of 41 species.  They recorded each species observed and compared their observations to “A Checklist of the Birds at Ferry Farm,” a pamphlet available to visitors at Washington’s boyhood home. Club members noted that they saw all of the species listed on the “Checklist” as abundant or common.  They saw 13 uncommon species defined by the “Checklist” as “present, but not certain to be seen” as well as three species listed as occasional, meaning “seen only a few times during a season.” They spotted three rare species.  Most excitingly, they sighted the American Pipit, a species not yet included on Ferry Farm’s “Checklist.”  The pipit’s habitat is shorter grasses so it was probably attracted to a freshly mown field on the grounds.

American Pipit

American Pipit. Credit: Becky Matsubara / Wikipedia

Club members also noted some early breeding activity as three tree swallows were inspecting some of the bluebird boxes in Ferry Farm’s wildflower meadow.

Ferry Farm’s abundance of bird life is due to the many favorable micro-habitats available on the 80-acre property.  This includes native grasses and a wildflower meadow, hardwood bottomlands, fallow areas, open lawn, and the adjacent waters of the Rappahannock River.

During the Fredericksburg Birding Club’s survey on March 27, club members spotted the species listed below in alphabetical order. The number following each species name represents the number of individuals seen.  This same data can also be found at ebird.org.

American Crow – 6
American Goldfinch – 6
American Kestrel – 1
American Pipit – 6
American Robin – 33
Bald Eagle – 2
Black Vulture – 1
Blue Jay – 3
Canada Goose – 20
Carolina Chickadee – 5
Carolina Wren (heard only) – 2
Cedar Waxwing – 9
Common Grackle – 8
Dark-eyed Junco – 14
Double-crested Cormorant – 3
Downy Woodpecker – 5
Eastern Bluebird – 7
Eastern Phoebe – 1
European Starling – 23
Hermit Thrush – 1
Mourning Dove – 7
Northern Cardinal – 20
Northern Flicker – 1
Northern Mockingbird – 2
Osprey – 3
Red-bellied Woodpecker – 3
Ring-billed Gull – 15
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) – 1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet – 1
Song Sparrow – 3
Tree Swallow – 3
Tufted Titmouse – 4
Turkey Vulture – 6
White-throated Sparrow – 4
Yellow-rumped Warbler – 24

American Kestral

American Kestral with a freshly killed American Pipit. Credit: Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith / Wikipedia

Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker. Credit: Mike’s Birds / Wikipedia

You can observe birds yourself at Ferry Farm during regular operating hours, which are from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Monday-Saturday and from Noon to 5:00 p.m. on Sunday.  Pay your admission inside the Visitors Center and ask for a copy of “A Checklist of the Birds at Ferry Farm.”

Furthermore, on Saturday, May 5, you can join members of the Fredericksburg Birding Club for a Birding Tour of Ferry Farm, a morning walk through the grounds during spring migration. Participants will see birds that are passing through, as well as those who have arrived at Ferry Farm for the summer.  Bring your own binoculars.  The cost is regular admission: $9.00 adults, $4.50 students.  Reservations required.  For more information and reservations, please call (540) 370-0732 ext. 24 or email hayes@gwffoundation.org.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Education Programs