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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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

Our Ever Evolving Relationship with Plants

Plants have played a critical role in human survival through the ages.  Although most people in the modern world do not rely on plants they gather themselves, we are surrounded by useful flora that Native Americans and later European colonists relied upon.  Today, some are labeled as ‘weeds’ while the more attractive ones are propagated as ornamentals, but little thought is given to their potential usefulness.  Some are native while many are introductions or ‘invasives’ brought over from Europe, Asia, or Africa.  Here are just a few plants you’ve likely encountered that played active roles in the lives of our colonial and Native American ancestors:

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus):

Not to be confused with Foxglove or Lamb’s ear, this delightfully fuzzy-leafed plant was an early introduction by Europeans.  It was considered a potent medicinal herb, the leaves of which were prized for treating a number of ailments including respiratory disorders and skin conditions, it having both anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic properties.  To alleviate coughs, the leaves were steeped in a tea or dried and smoked.  Painful or itchy skin maladies could be relieved with a poultice of leaves applied directly to the affected area.  It was also ingested as a diuretic.  In addition to being useful as a medicine, mullein’s long woody stalk could be dried and dipped in tallow or wax to create a candle or torch that would burn slowly.  Native Americans were quick to adopt mullein as a useful plant both as a medicine and as an expedient way to catch fish.  Turns out mullein seeds contain saponins, a compound that is poisonous to fish but safe for human consumption so a liberal amount added to a body of water resulted in stunned fish that would float to the surface to be easily collected.

‘Wild’ Garlic (Allium vineale)

Most gardeners have dealt with this plant, called wild garlic or wild onion by some.  Stinky and hard to pull from the ground, wild garlic has all the makings of a grade A weed.  You can thank Europeans again for this invasive plant, however.  Colonists brought it over as a flavoring for food and used it in much the same way as we use cultivated garlic today.  In addition to being useful in cooking, wild garlic contains all the heart-healthy benefits of domesticated garlic.

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)

Staghorn Sumac

Courtesy of Katya/Wikipedia

Sumac has gotten a bad reputation due to mistaken identity.  It is often confused with poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), which is actually only a distant relative that grows exclusively in extremely wet conditions (like bogs). The staghorn sumac is an upland plant that will grow pretty much anywhere poison sumac doesn’t grow.  Essentially every part of this plant was used in some way by Native Americans in what is now the eastern United States.  The roots and the bark were used in dying cloth, the leaves could be dried and mixed with tobacco for smoking, and the berries could be eaten in a number of different ways.  Whether soaked in cold water to make a lemonade or ‘sumac tea’, dried and added to cooked dishes, or eaten directly off the plant, sumac berries imparted a pleasant citrus flavor to foods and is rich in vitamin C in addition to other nutrients.  The tender young shoots of sumac trees were also cut, peeled of their bar, and eaten in the spring – that is if the deer didn’t find them first!  Although colonists did not always readily adopt plants that had been used for thousands of years by Native Americans (I’m looking at you, tomato!), the sumac was too good to ignore and was quickly incorporated into colonial life and diet.

Cedar/Juniper (Juniperus virginiana)

Eastern Red Cedar

Courtesy of Famartin/Wikipedia

The words ‘cedar’ and ‘juniper’ are often used interchangeably around here (And by around here, I mean Virginia, of course!).  But the tree most people in our area think of when they hear those words is the Eastern Red Cedar, which is actually in the Juniper family – confused yet?  Regardless of what you call it, the Eastern Red Cedar is a very handy local tree.  Colonists had equivalents in Europe and immediately recognized the utility of the tree.  Both Native Americans and colonials flavored food with the ‘berries’, which are actually cones, and the young shoots.  High in vitamin C, the berries were also used by Europeans to flavor gin and brewed into a medicinal tea by various indigenous tribes.  In addition, the bug-repellant properties of the cedar were well known and the wood itself excellent at resisting rot. It was fashioned into anything from fence posts to clothing chests.

Gradually our reliance on plants and trees immediately around us has waned and not many people nowadays realize the utility of the local flora.  Truthfully, there aren’t many plants in existence that don’t have some useful properties. Our colonial and Native American ancestors were aware of them and incorporated a multitude of ‘weeds’ into their everyday lives.

Mara Kaktins
Archaeologist

Summer Greens from the Colonial Garden

Typically, when modern Americans think of summer barbecue food, they think of meat grilled over an open flame. While that would certainly appeal to an eighteenth century audience, it is not necessarily what they considered ‘typical’ summer fare. Large livestock like pigs and cattle were usually slaughtered and butchered in the late fall/early winter when the weather was far more conducive to task. This meant that large roasts (like mentioned in our earlier blog) were not the norm in the warmer months. Instead, people of the 18th century looked to the seasonality of ingredients to inspire their summer time fare.

Eighteenth century diets were very dependent on the growing seasons. Summer was a bounty of fruits, vegetables, greens, herbs, and anything else that could not be had in the dead of winter. Much like today, there were a variety of methods, styles, and recipes used to please the numerous palates.

Garden (1)

The demonstration garden at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

With today’s weekend farmers markets and roadside stands, a salad seems the ubiquitous summer option. But what would our forefathers have thought of raw vegetables tossed in oil and vinegar? They certainly had all of the elements available to them but their tastes were different than ours. After all, we still have oysters and ice cream but most of us no longer enjoy oyster ice cream.

While the oldest references to salad come from ancient Rome (usually referred to as sallet) it was not ubiquitous in English summer cuisine. While there are some references in cookbooks and menus of the time that called for ‘salad herbs’ like lettuce and spinach to be served raw, most of their English recipes called for cooking the vegetables in some way.

The modern stereotype of English cooking insists that greens be boiled until no real flavor or texture remains. And while many of 18th century recipes for vegetables include boiling (and some for quite some time) there is also this warning in Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.

GardenThings2

Hannah Glasse cautions her readers not to “over-boil” fresh garden greens.

There was a clear appreciation for fresh vegetables even if they were prepared in some manner.  An appreciation that extended into George Washington’s own household. One recipe included in Martha Washington’s cookbook was for a ‘Lettis Tart’ which called for ‘cabbage lettis’ and prunes to be put in a crust with cinnamon and ginger and then baked like a pie.

In addition to recipes calling for fresh fruits and vegetables, early Americans were very familiar with numerous preservation methods in order to enjoy vegetables and fruit out of season. In the summer they would pickle vegetables, dry herbs, and make preserves with fruits so they could enjoy them all year long.

In September 1784, George Washington traveled west of the Allegany Mountains. He recorded some of his supplies in his diary and includeed a canteen filled with ‘Chery Bounce’. This was a drink made from cherries preserved in brandy and was a way for Washington to take the taste of Virginia summer with him on his travels.

Cherries on the cherry trees in the Demonstration Garden.

Cherries on the cherry trees in the Ferry Farm’s demonstration garden.

This summer when you are contemplating your patriotic picnic options for your July Fourth festivities, don’t pass up the greener options. They have far more in common with the summer options of our founding fathers than you may have originally believed.

Joe Ziarko
Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services