Primary Sources: Interpreting the Past in the Present

At George Washington’s Ferry Farm, we focus on archaeology as one way to learn about both the Washingtons and the other people who lived and worked on this landscape.  We rely on archaeology because many of these residents did not leave behind documentary primary sources for us to study.  A primary source is a “letter, speech, diary, newspaper article, oral history interview, document, photograph, artifact, or anything else that provides firsthand accounts about a person or event.”  Primary sources are the historian’s most essential tool and serve as windows into the past that allow us all to decipher meanings and draw conclusions about history’s people and events.

Reproduction Washington family documents

Reproduction Washington documents in the house at George Washington’s Ferry Farm. Credit: Brice Hart

Even with our focus on archaeology, written primary sources have played a vital role in understanding Ferry Farm’s history and in helping us reconstruct and now interpret the Washington house.  For example, Augustine Washington’s probate inventory is helping us furnishing the recreated family home.  Basically, primary sources help The George Washington Foundation staff to understand the Washingtons and others so we can better inform the visitor. Most importantly, primary sources help us to remember that, while the past was certainly different from today, the people of the past were human just like us and, in a way, can bring them to life.  Let’s see how!

Lawrence Washington to Augustine Washington - May 30, 1741

The letter dated May 30, 1741 written by Lawrence Washington to his father Augustine Washington while fighting in the War of Jenkins’ Ear. Credit: Raynor’s Historical Collectible Auctions.

The primary source we will use in this blog post is a letter written by Lawrence Washington (eldest son of the Washington family) to Augustine Washington (patriarch of the Washington family). The letter was written on May 30, 1741 from Jamaica where Lawrence was fighting as a loyal subject of English king against the Spanish, one of the other European powers competing for global dominance through colonization.

The letter provides the reader pertinent details in how the Colonial Era differed from the 21st Century; yet it also contains clues on how the two time periods are similar. Lawrence begins by addressing his father with “Honored Sir” and ends with “Your ever dutiful Son,” a stark contrast in how we might address our parents or relatives today. This suggests that families in the Gentry class of the original English colonies addressed their elders with an air of formality and respect. This would have been much the same in their mother country of England and a practice carried over by the colonists.

Lawrence also mentions that he had written many letters to his father, but “to [his] great concern, [he] [had] never yet received one from Virginia”. This gives us a closer look into the lives of military men of that time who were missing home and writing fervently to their families. A soldier’s timeless and ever-present homesickness can also be seen in Lawrence’s grumbling that “We are all tired of the heat & wish for a Cold season to refresh our blood.”

Lawrence also comments to his father, “I hope my Lotts are secured; which If I return shall make use of as my dwelling”. As the eldest son, he would have received inheritance in the form of land from his father. Unlike today, land was everything to the people of the Colonial Era, and it is not unusual for Lawrence to remind his father of his intentions with his land once returning to Virginia from war abroad. Like us today, he also worries about a debt he owes. Even men at war abroad today make similar statements to loved ones about worries and plans after their service is complete.

Lastly, another statement Lawrence makes to Augustine is that “War is horrid in fact.” He also relates how he and his compatriots have learned “to watch much & disregard the noise, or shot of a cannon”. This brief description of war could come from any century.

Many living in 2018 can fail to recognize the many similarities they have with persons from history. In doing so, we can forget to see the people of history as individuals living lives similar to our own. We can easily turn them into a historic figure, and forget they are a person. This often happens with George Washington and the rest of his family. However, the beauty of primary sources is that they can bring someone who has passed long ago, back to life in our imaginations.

Allison Burns
Museum Educator

Ledger Book Zero

Daily ledgers, journals, cash account books, letters, invoices – these are the kinds of documents an 18th-century plantation owner and businessman needed to manage his land and property successfully.   Tracking everyday expenses and the purchasing of items that couldn’t be produced on one’s farm was a necessary routine in daily life.  Dry good items such as clothing, dishes, and food stuffs, building materials, and medicines as well as doctor visits, cash loans to friends, tavern expenses, and money repaid for loans or for goods delivered were just a few examples of the financial transactions recorded in a daily ledger.

George Washington was a meticulous record keeper throughout his entire lifetime.  Surviving financial papers detailed daily accounts, both public and private, from when he served as paymaster of the Virginia Regiment, during the Revolutionary War, as president of the new United States, and as the long-time owner of Mount Vernon. Washington’s published record books start with Ledger Book 1, when he was 18 years old, and continue on until his death in 1799.

But George’s first effort at recording his expenses actually dates to 1747, when he was only fifteen years old and living at Ferry Farm.  “Ledger Book Zero,” our name for this document, is a personal cash account ledger in which George listed his credits and debits with family, close friends, and clients between the years of 1747 and 1750. (1)  It is organized in the double-entry accounting style, with debits listed on the left hand page and credits on the right hand page.  All of the cash monetary units are in pounds, shillings and pence.

Ledger 1

His first entry (pictured above) was Mr. Bailey Washington, a cousin.  On September 10, 1747, George purchased 3 books (debit) from 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 fifteen.

Ten days later, George listed on the credit side of Bailey’s account “a two foot Gunter” with a value of 1 shilling 3 pence.  George’s purchase of a gunter scale, a two-foot long ruler specifically designed to help surveyors quickly solve trigonometry problems, is an intimation of his early interest in training to become a surveyor.

Ledger Book Zero sheds light on many other interests and activities young George pursued in his teen years.  He won and lost money playing the card games of whist and loo with his half-brother Lawrence and sister-in-law Ann.  George also won 1 shilling 3 pence playing billiards with a Mr. Thomas Turner of King George County in June of 1748.  Earlier that same year, he lent money to his good friend George Fairfax while on an expedition to the South Branch of the Potomac.

In addition to lending and winning cash from friends and family, George regularly purchased personal items such silk stockings, shirt buttons, knee bands and shoes, as well as food and liquor, such as limes, a bowl of fruit punch, and a “bottle of Rhenish” wine.

Ledger 2

In July 1748, George purchased ribbons from a Mr. Mitchell (see above), as well as a glass ring costing but 3 ¾ pence.  He also paid 3 shillings 9 pence to a “Musick Master for my entrance” in September of the same year.  We are unsure if this music teacher taught only music or, perhaps, dancing. Both were important skills for Washington to learn if he wanted to participate in the social life of Virginia’s gentry.

What is interesting about these last three purchases is that they were all made on his mother Mary’s account, which means George paid for them but his mother later reimbursed him.  Mary repaid George in dubloon’s and pistole’s which were English slang words for different types of money.

George’s blossoming profession as a surveyor is also represented in this ledger.  On July 23, 1749, he charged Mr. Richard Barnes of Richmond 2 pounds 3 shillings for surveying 400 acres of land in Culpeper County.  On September 26 of the same year, Mr. John West paid him 12 shillings for “copying 4 deeds out of the Proprietors’ [book]”, a preliminary clerical step to surveying land.

Washington even practiced writing out an index for his ledger at the end of the book, listing all those people whose last name began with “W” and on what page their account appeared.  Handwriting samples and sums of numbers show up throughout the book, as George evidently used some individual pages as notepaper.  He later reused some of the ledger in the 1760s while residing at Mount Vernon.

As a youth, George spent many hours copying lessons on such subjects as mathematical formulas, legal documents, geography, and codes of conduct.  These were subjects that would prove useful to him as he became a soldier, surveyor, landowner and politician.  Maintaining accurate and detailed financial records, a skill necessary for any successful gentleman, was one more habit a young man with aspirations needed to accomplish and master.

As we study the contents of Ledger Book Zero, we expect to gain more insights into George’s relationships with family members, boyhood friends, and business contacts. By examining this earliest ledger, we will understand the activities Washington was pursuing during his passage to adulthood and gain a glimpse at what life was like for a young George growing up at Ferry Farm during the 1740s.

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Lab Supervisor

A copy of the ledger was obtained from the Morristown National Historic Park, Morristown, NJ., Lloyd W. Smith Archives, Microfilm Reel #63.

History’s Paper Trail: What Handwriting & Spelling Reveal about Early America

One of the aspects of a historian’s job is dealing with primary sources, the paper trail of history.  The archives here at The George Washington Foundation contain primary sources that include letters, wills, land grants, court orders, military orders, bills and receipts.  These hand-written documents are largely related to the Fielding and Betty Lewis family and provide us with a wealth of information on all facets of their lives from how much rum they bought to how much they paid in yearly taxes.  At the same time, they and other written historical records provide a glimpse into some fascinating dynamics of early American society and culture.

However, sometimes these documents can be difficult to read because, in the 18th century, writing style and spelling were still not completely standardized.

Students in early America usually learned to write by copying different styles of writing known as ‘hands’ in a copybook that showed alphabets and phrases in the ‘hand’ to be learned.  Students copied the alphabets and phrases exactly, for practice and for reference, and business forms.  For example, while attending school in Fredericksburg, young George Washington copied The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior to learn handwriting as well as proper behavior in polite society.

Above: Examples of ‘hands’ (Flourishing Alphabet, Italian Hand, German Text, Round Hand) from The Instructor, or American Young Man’s Best Companion Containing Spelling, Reading, Writing, and Arithmetick by George Fisher and published by Isaiah Thomas, Worcester, 1786

In the 1700s, writing was a skill reserved for select groups of people, mainly professionals and upper class males.  Women, artisans, lower classes, and the enslaved were not formally taught handwriting because it was viewed as unnecessary to their everyday life.  A lack of formal education did not stop people from writing.  Instead, they just developed their own system of penmanship and style.


Colonial-era writers could choose from a number of dictionaries to assist with spelling.  Many of these books, however, focused only on difficult, obscure, or archaic words.  It wasn’t until 1755 that Samuel Johnson published the influential A Dictionary of the English Language, which offered a more comprehensive lexicon of contemporary English of the time.  By the colonial period, much English spelling was recognizably modern due to the beginning movements of standardization in education and print. Dictionaries also assisted in the development of a more uniform writing style.

What if you had not been to school or had never seen a dictionary?  Well, you simply spelled a word the best you could by sounding it out phonetically.  So, ‘school’ became ‘skool’ or ‘laugh’ became ‘laff.’ A word might be spelled a dozen different ways by a dozen different people.  When read aloud, these words sound fine but, when silently reading a primary source document, the written phonetic spelling can take a few seconds to process.

An account statement from 1766 between James Winn and Fielding Lewis that includes two examples of phonetic spelling: “brest” buckle and “soop” spoon.

The Long ‘s’

The long ‘s’ was a style of spelling that generally fell out of use in print by the end of the 18th century.  It persisted in handwriting until the mid-19th century.  The long ‘s’ was an elongated version of a lowercase ‘s’.  It was often seen at the beginning of a word, in the middle of a word, and in words containing a double ‘s’.   A notable example is the spelling of Congress in the Bill of Rights.

Understandably, when we read primary sources today, the long ‘s’ is often mistaken for an ‘f’ or ‘p’ and it takes some practice to get the context of what is being said.

The word ‘Witnes’ in this document includes an excellent example of the long ‘s’ in the word and it’s close resemblance to an ‘f.’  This is a bond dated 14 September 1747 that requires George Lewis, who lives in Frederick County, to pay 3 pounds of Pennsylvania Currency to Charles Dunnahie by 1 May 1749.


Abbreviations and subscript often come up in colonial-era handwritten documents, particularly on bills, invoices and receipts. Shortening words or phrases like can’t for cannot or asap for as soon as possible is something we are familiar with today.  Commonly, abbreviations in the 18th century were indicated by beginning the word in regular-sized letters and ending with superscript letters like Recd for received.  Superscript or subscript letters are most frequently seen today in chemical compounds (H₂O) or in mathematical expressions.

This receipt, dated 25 September 1780, from Henry Rutter to George Lewis for 48 1/2 bushels of tax oats and 40 Bushels of Rye from George Lewis per Thomas Smither.  The “Recd” at the beginning of the receipt is an excellent example of both an abbreviation and superscript.

All the quirks in 18th century writing present many challenges for the historian.  Creating a system of deciphering can take time and plenty of practice.  At times, it can be more than a little frustrating.  Once the documents’ particular meanings are deciphered, the writing itself can reveal many different dynamics about early American society and culture.

One of the biggest of these dynamics is that very few people received enough education to develop a professional level of literacy.  Professional level of literacy, at the time, would mean having enough skill to conduct business.  Such a level was reserved, usually, for white middle to upper class males.

Selective education provided a powerful form of social control and a framework for society to judge and instantly understand a person’s social status, education, and occupation.  At this time, it was not thought important for women, slaves, or the lower classes to know how to write.  Some even thought that teaching these groups to write would encourage them to aspire above their allotted station in life.  Writing gives people the freedom to express themselves and their ideas in a concrete way which can easily be transmitted to others, an uncomfortable prospect for a society based on a selective hierarchy.

Though a woman, George Washington’s mother Mary Ball Washington could write.  Her spelling was extremely phonetic as seen in this letter transcription and reflects a lack of formal schooling but not necessarily a lack of intelligence as some historians have argued.  Indeed, primary sources like Mary’s letters supported by “new archaeological data has yielded a decidedly more complex picture of this influential matron than is possible using the historical record alone.” Laura Galke, an archaeologist here at The George Washington Foundation, argues (PDF) that artifacts discovered at George Washington’s boyhood home at Ferry Farm demonstrate that Mary “enjoyed the personal agency that widowhood allowed her; she was responsible for the management decisions of the Washington household and the surrounding farm. Mary’s choices reflect an ambitious woman determined to participate in the genteel society her family had enjoyed before Augustine’s death.”  This required much intelligence.

Interestingly, Mary’s daughter Betty Washington Lewis also knew how to write.  Mary ensured Betty knew how to run a household and keep in touch with family, which numerous letters written by Betty show she did effectively.

Betty Washington Lewis

Portrait of Betty Washington Lewis painted by John Wollaston in the 1750s

Her phonetic spelling in this letter transcription is an improvement over her mother’s.  The improvement in Betty’s spelling when compared to Mary’s further illustrates the increasing standardization during the 18th century and can also be seen as an example of changing beliefs in education for women at the end of the 1700s.  A movement was growing late in the century to teach writing to women.  This movement, however, did not come from a revolutionary drive for equality but, rather, from an expanded idea regarding the duties of Motherhood.  If women could not read and write, it was thought, how would they teach their sons, the future generation of leaders, to do the same?

Though difficult, at times, to decipher, the simple act of writing gives us a glimpse into the minds of people who thought about and experienced a life quite different from ours.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager