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 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.


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

The Lewis Ships That Sailed the Atlantic World


“An English Sloop Becalmed near the Shore” (mid-18th cent.) by Francis Swaine. Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

George Washington’s Ferry Farm is located on a hill overlooking the Rappahannock River.  That river connects to the Chesapeake Bay and eventually the Atlantic Ocean.  When young George Washington lived at Ferry Farm, the Rappahannock was a gateway to the entire world.  Fredericksburg was a port town on the river’s opposite bank from the farm and small ocean-going sailing vessels traveled up the Chesapeake and into the Rappahannock to dock at the bustling town’s wharves.  Ships like the brigs Stanton and Priscilla as well as the schooners Grampus and Penguin brought goods to buy, news from the rest of the British Empire, and occasionally people to settle and work in the colonies.

Growing up next to the river influenced the young Washington.  He got to experience life at sea first-hand when he left Ferry Farm and sailed to Barbados at the age of 17. Also, for a time, the family debated whether teenage George should pursue a career in the Royal Navy.  Moreover, at Ferry Farm, the Washingtons produced and consumed the goods that ships plied back and forth across the ocean.

George Washington, his family, slaves and neighbors were members of what historians call “The Atlantic World,” a global community of many different peoples taking part in the trade that traveled back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean.  Washington, his brother-in-law Fielding Lewis, and other Fredericksburg residents saw sailing ships on the Rappahannock every day and interacted with the sailors from those ships every day.  They supplied the ships with goods to take to destinations far across the sea and then bought the goods these ships carried when they returned.

In the 1600s and 1700s, tobacco was Virginia’s most important export but, at the same time, many planters along the Rappahannock chose to export things like wheat, foodstuffs, timber, and other raw materials used to manufacture goods.

Broadly speaking, these manufactured goods were made in Europe using the raw materials exported from the Americas.  Europe then sent the manufactured goods to Africa as well as back to the Americas.  In Africa, they were used to buy slaves while, in the Americas, they were used to purchase more raw materials.  This movement of goods has long been referred to as the “Triangular Trade” because of the triangle shape that the goods traveled when traced on a map.  Of course, this is a very simplistic description of a very complex network of trade that really spread across the globe.  Still, a triangle is a useful way to imagine, understand, and remember the basics of the process.

Washington’s brother-in-law Fielding Lewis and the Lewis family built and owned ships that transported goods throughout the Atlantic World. Records of these ships’ voyages help illuminate the Triangular Trade and also how Atlantic trade routes often did not look like a triangle at all.

Map of the Stanton's Voyage

In one of the earliest voyages of a Lewis ship, the 80-ton brig Stanton – owned by Fielding’s father John Lewis and captained by Richard Williams – made a roughly six month voyage in the first half of 1732. The Stanton was bound for Madeira, an island off the coast of Portugal, and then Barbados, an island in the Caribbean Sea, before returning to Virginia. Its voyage is a perfect illustration of the Triangular Trade and we’ve written about it here.

But the Atlantic trade was not always a triangular one.

During the first half of 1737, the Lewis brig Priscilla sailed directly to London and back under the command of Richard Williams and carrying 192 hogsheads of tobacco, six tons of iron, and 5,000 staves.[1] The ship returned to Virginia with “European goods” and, after a brief stop at Madeira, added some wine to its cargo.

'The South East Prospect of London from the Tower to London Bridge' 1746 by John Maurer

“The South East Prospect of London from the Tower to London Bridge” (1746) by John Maurer. Credit: Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The next year, the John Lewis-owned schooner Grampus mastered by John Briggs set sail with 300 staves, 600 bushels of corn, 900 bushels of peas, 180 bushels of wheat, 1 hogshead of wine, and 400 feet of walnut plank bound on a direct voyage to and from “New England.”  It returned with 5 hogsheads and 6 barrels of rum, some molasses, cider, oil, and “New England Ware.”

Finally, about a decade later, we find another John Lewis-owned ship departing Virginia.  The Penguin, a schooner captained by Will Whitterong with a crew of six, set sail for Antigua in the Caribbean on March 1, 1745 carrying 100 barrels of pitch, 303 barrels of tar, 35 barrels of turpentine, 100 bushels of peas, 8 barrels of tallow, and 13,800 shingles.  The Penguin arrived at Antigua on May 17 and returned to Virginia on June 5 with a cargo of 30 hogsheads and 1 tierce[2] of rum, 27 barrels of sugar, and British goods.

Did some of the items these ships brought back from across the Atlantic end up at Ferry Farm to be consumed or used by George Washington and his family (or the Strother family, the farm’s earlier occupants)?  It’s unlikely but not impossible.  Many of the items excavated by archaeologists at Ferry Farm definitely fit the descriptions “European goods,” “New England Ware,” or “British goods.”  Westerwald jugs, Bartmann bottles, white salt-glazed stoneware fruit dishes, and glass wine bottles all journeyed across the Atlantic to be used by Ferry Farm’s residents, then broken, thrown away, and buried, eventually to be recovered by archaeologists. No matter who actually used them, these recovered items represent the people and way of life of the 18th century’s Atlantic World made possible by the ships Stanton, Priscilla, Grampus, and Penguin.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] Staves are the curved lengths of wood used to make barrels, buckets, or, in this case, pipes. Yes, wooden pipes.

[2] Tierce is an archaic measure of wine that roughly equaled 35 gallons. The term was also used as a synonym for cask, which seems what is meant in this case.

Photos: Nature Walk at George Washington’s Ferry Farm

George Washington’s Boyhood Home at Ferry Farm offers a wonderful blend of woods, fields, wetlands, and riverfront.  Fox, groundhogs, snakes, lizards, turtles, and deer make Ferry Farm their home.  In the meadows, bushy heads of grass seeds provide an important source of food for birds.  Beautiful flowers and majestic trees abound across the landscape.  A few weeks ago, we set out on a nature walk around Ferry Farm to enjoy the flora and fauna.

Learn more about Ferry Farm’s natural environment here.

Photos: Our Urban Nature at Historic Kenmore

Nature shaped the lives of English colonists and enslaved Africans living and working at Kenmore Plantation 200 years ago.  Over centuries, humans changed Kenmore’s natural world from a plantation setting into an urban green space. Yet, nature remains just outside the door.

This past Saturday at Historic Kenmore, visitors had a chance to explore humans’ dynamic relationship with nature through the years during Our Urban Nature.  They discovered — in some cases, held — the wildlife living right in town with Fredericksburg Parks & Recreation. They explored the meaning behind the color of the river’s water with Friends of the Rappahannock. Visitors learned about worm composting with the Rappahannock Regional Solid Waste Management Board. They dug into the importance of dirt with the Tri-County/City Soil and Water Conservation District. Visitors also enjoyed a native plant and urban geology walk through the neighborhood and learned how to build terrariums from found objects and plants. Kids created a food web mobile, fairy houses, and built their own river.

The Civil War at the ‘Old Washington Farm’

Editor’s Note: Lives & Legacies continues to remember the Civil War as that conflict’s 150th anniversary concludes this April and May.  During the Civil War, the homes of George Washington and Fielding Lewis – both indispensable to securing American freedom in the Revolution — served as campsite and hospital in a bloody struggle over the definition of that same freedom.  This brief overview of Ferry Farm’s Civil War history is adapted from Report on the Excavation of the Washington Farm: The 2006 and 2007 Field Seasons by Dave Muraca, Paul Nasca and Phil Levy, Site No. 44ST-174, Department of Archaeology, George Washington Foundation, 2010, pg. 27-32.

On two separate campaigns in 1862, Union forces occupied the north bank of the Rappahannock River, including Ferry Farm, in an attempt to take control of Confederate Fredericksburg. The military objective of each campaign was the same; however, the circumstances under which the two were executed differed greatly.  The first occupation employed the Union Army’s strategy of ‘peaceful’ occupation while the second employed ‘hard war,’ resulting in a major impact on the social and physical landscape of the area.

In late April 1862, the Army of the Rappahannock, under the command of Major General Irvin McDowell, advanced south from Warrenton, Virginia. His military objective was to take control of Fredericksburg. This move was intended to help protect Washington, D.C., located 50 miles to the north, while the main body of the Union Army pushed toward Richmond on the James and York River peninsula. McDowell’s forward cavalry encountered, and quickly defeated, the Confederate forces defending Fredericksburg. In retreat, the Confederates burned the two foot-traffic bridges spanning the Rappahannock, as well as a vital railroad bridge. The Mayor of Fredericksburg surrendered the city to the Union Army.

The occupying Federals quickly established their encampments on the north side of the Rappahannock, including the land at Ferry Farm, and set about the task of erecting two floating bridges across the river and constructing a new railroad bridge.

Union Army wagons cross the Rappahannock River on a floating pontoon bridge at Ferry Farm. This photograph was taken from the present-day City Dock on the Fredericksburg side of the river looking across to Ferry Farm.

The Union soldiers encamped at Ferry Farm were the muscle that enforced the occupation of Fredericksburg. Their officers ordered them to respect people and property, and the men – for the most part – followed their command. Still, local residents, like the overseer living at Ferry Farm, complained bitterly to Federal authorities about barnyards raided for livestock, hay stolen for bedding, and fences dismantled for firewood.

Federal regiments hailing from New York, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts passed the spring and summer at Ferry Farm performing drills pulling guard duty, and rebuilding the structures their fellow troops sometimes damaged. When off duty, the men had time to improve their camp, wash their clothes, write letters home, play games, and even go into town to shop and see the sights.

In August, newly-appointed Union General John Pope recalled Fredericksburg’s occupiers to defend Washington. Departing Union soldiers destroyed their pontoon bridges, the railroad bridge they had just finished rebuilding, and other new structures they feared would benefit the Confederates.  Apart from the superficial harm caused by their three-month encampment, they left behind a landscape largely intact with Ferry Farm’s buildings still standing.

Four months later, Union General Ambrose Burnside brought the largest number of Federal troops ever amassed to the north bank of the Rappahannock. His plan was to cross the river and march victoriously on to Richmond. But he delayed his army’s crossing waiting for pontoon boats. This gave General Robert E. Lee time to fully entrench his Army of Northern Virginia on the opposite side of the river. Burnside’s delay set the stage for a fierce battle, which devastated Fredericksburg and ended in a staggering Union defeat. Badly mauled, the Federals withdrew, pulled up their pontoon bridges, and hunkered down for the winter, turning Ferry Farm into part of their defensive front line.

Although the Washington family’s house had disappeared by 1830, our excavations of its location have revealed not only the Washington’s cellar but also a Civil War-era trench passing within inches of the cellar.

The massive Union Army that arrived for battle in November was far different from the modest occupying force that had spent the summer here. Battle-hardened and irritated by a string of defeats, these soldiers cared little for local concerns about property. Burnside’s men did not hesitate to take whatever they wanted, including trees, fences, livestock, and homes. Anything useful was commandeered, stripped clean, or torn down over the ensuing months to sustain the winter camp – including Ferry Farm’s buildings.

William F. Draper, of the 36th Massachusetts Infantry, recalls his experience at Ferry Farm in late-November, 1862. “Our picket duty here was especially interesting from the associations connected with the spot where that duty was performed. The part of the line that it usually fell to my lot to hold was on the old Washington Farm, where General Washington passed most of his earlier years, and where he cut the cherry tree with his little hatchet but could not tell a lie.

Inkwell dating from the Civil War excavated at Ferry Farm.

Military action was renewed in the spring of 1863, culminating at the Battle of Chancellorsville. During this engagement, Ferry Farm was again the location of a pontoon bridge, and the Federal guns overlooking it roared back to life. At Chancellorsville, the Union Army would yet again sustain a crippling defeat; however, Fredericksburg would ultimately come under Federal control. In May 1864, the last of the military pontoon bridges to span the Rappahannock at Ferry Farm was in place, and would remain in this location following the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse.

After the war, attempts to restore peace and prosperity started with Ferry Farm’s first post-war occupants, the Carson family. They filled in trenches, cleaned up debris, and built a new farmstead that stood into the twentieth century.

‘Not Having Been Wett All Over at Once, for 28 Years Past’: Bathing in Early America

Editor’s Note: Looking back in time, people’s personal hygiene, fashion choices, medical treatments, and more sometimes look, at the very least, bizarre, if not outright disgusting.  When confronted with these weird or gross practices, our first reaction can be to dismiss our ancestors as primitive, ignorant, or just silly.  Before such judgments, however, we should try to understand the reasons behind these practices and recognize that our own descendants will judge some of what we do as strange or gross.  Here at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore, we’ve come to describe our efforts to understand the historically bizarre or disgusting as “Colonial Grossology.”  This the second in a series of “Colonial Grossology” posts that we’re offering on Lives & Legacies.

At least once during his youth at Ferry Farm, probably in July 1750, George Washington went “washing in the river.”  We know this because Ann Carrol and Mary McDaniel were arrested and tried and one of them was even flogged for stealing valuables from his clothes while he was in the Rappahannock.  Of course, it seems quite safe to assume that young George swam in the river on many more occasions than this one moment chronicled in court records.

The Rappahannock River at George Washington's Ferry Farm.

The Rappahannock River at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Document showing the outcome of a court case involving George Washington.  Ann Carrol and Mary McDaniel stole valuables from Washington's clothes while he was "washing in the river." Carol testified against McDaniel, who was convicted or petty larceny and "flogged fifteen lashes on her bare back."

Document showing the outcome of a court case involving George Washington. Ann Carrol and Mary McDaniel stole valuables from Washington’s clothes while he was “washing in the river.” Carol testified against McDaniel, who was convicted of petty larceny and “flogged fifteen lashes on her bare back.”  Spotsylvania County Court Records, Order Book 1749-1755, Central Rappahannock Heritage Center.

The court records say he was “washing in the river.” But was he bathing to get clean or swimming just for fun?  It’s hard to say.  In the 1700s, swimming was “rarely intended for hygienic purposes,” though, of course, it made a person clean.  Cleaning was not swimming’s intended purpose, however.  People went swimming largely to cool off during hot weather.  Still, the word “washing” in the court documents seems significant.  If Washington was bathing with the purpose of getting clean, his dip in the river was somewhat unusual for more than the fact that he fell victim to thieves.[1]

How often did Washington and his fellow colonial Americans bathe to get clean?  The question’s answer is more complicated that you might imagine.

First, the answer largely depends upon what we mean by the word bathing.  If we mean head-to-toe immersion in water and scrubbing with soap to get clean, then bathing was quite infrequent.  In the 1700s, many people feared immersing the body in water as a sure way to get sick.  American settlers came from Europe, where bathing occurred in public bathhouses for much of the early modern period.  Before the late 1800s, people did not understand that germs caused disease.  Instead, when they got sick, people sometimes blamed the bathhouses and bathing.  For much of the 18th century, this suspicion towards bathing “reflected medical theories about the dangers to a healthy body of extremes of heat, cold, wetness, and dryness.  Any extreme might disturb the delicate equilibrium of the body’s humors, temperature, and moisture.  Compared to the shock of immersion in water, dirt upon the skin seemed benign.”  In fact, some people believed dirt helped keep you healthy by “reinforcing the skin.”[2]

Second, an immersive bath was simply a lot of hard work.  Unless you had servants or owned slaves to do that hard work, you carried water to the tub from your water source, perhaps a well, a spring, or a nearby stream, two buckets at a time.  Multiple trips would be necessary.  To warm the water, you had to use precious firewood to build a fire.  Building the fire and getting it started were not simple tasks either.  The incredible effort it took to bathe also explains why, when baths did actually occur, the same water was used by multiple people in the household.  The father bathed first, the sons next, then the mother and daughters, and finally the servants.[3]  To add to these practical difficulties, “tubs specifically made for bathing did not make an appearance in America” until the very late 18th century.[4]  As a result, daily cleaning for most of the colonial era was “accomplished by washing the face and hands . . . in one’s bed chamber, with a basin and a relatively small amount of water.”  We today might refer to this method as a sponge bath.

Most early Americans washed daily using water from a pitcher and basin. Ornate sets similar to the one depicted would have been found in the homes of the wealthy like Fielding and Betty Lewis.

Most early Americans washed daily using water from a pitcher and basin. Ornate sets similar to the one depicted would have been found in the homes of the wealthy like Fielding and Betty Lewis.

“A bath in which the entire body was submerged, or showered with water, was generally taken for reasons of pleasure or preventive health maintenance, and in some cases, as a type of remedy for a particular affliction.”[5]  Immersive bathing for pleasure and health occurred in resort cities and towns at the sites of warm, mineral springs.  For example, George Washington, Fielding Lewis, and kin frequently trekked to Bath, Virginia (now Berkeley Springs, West Virginia) and both gentlemen owned property in the mountain resort.

For most of the 1700s, washing from a basin remained the most common method for getting clean on a daily basis.  Indeed, it was so much the norm that when Elizabeth Drinker, a wealthy Philadelphia women, tried the new shower her husband built in the backyard, she wrote in her diary: “I bore it better than I expected, not having been wett all over at once, for 28 years past.”[6]

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] Dorothy A. Mays, Women in Early America: Struggle, Survival, and Freedom in a New World, Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004: 190

[2] Kathleen M. Brown, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009: 19-21.

[3] Brown, 209.

[4] Mays, 190.

[5] “Bathing,” Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, [accessed February 10, 2015]

[6] Richard L. Bushman and Claudia L. Bushman, “The Early History of Cleanliness in America,” Journal of American History, Vol. 74, No. 4 (Mar. 1988): 1214.

George Washington, Baseball Player?

I find that February, though it has the fewest days, can be the longest month of the year. The novelty of winter has worn off and, often, I simply seem to be enduring until the first glimpses of spring in March. I do, however, look forward with excitement to two moments in February: George Washington’s Birthday and the day that Major League Baseball’s pitchers start their spring training. In a way, these two events are connected by more than their close proximity to one another on the calendar.

After the familiar cherry tree tale, the second most popular story about George Washington’s youth is the story of him throwing a rock the size of a silver dollar across a river. This legend has changed several times over the years but it may have some truth.

The earliest version appears in The Life of Washington by Mason Locke Weems, who notes that George’s cousin remembered seeing him “throw a stone across [the] Rappahannock, at the lower ferry of Fredericksburg.”[1] George Washington Parke Custis, Martha’s son, provides a bit more detail for this toss, noting that the rock was actually “a piece of slate, fashioned to about the size and shape of a dollar, and which, sent by an arm so strong, not only spanned the river, but took the ground at least thirty yards on the other side.”[2] Archaeologist Phil Levy estimates “that could have been a distance of anywhere from a staggering 440 feet (professional baseball fields vary from 390 to 435 feet at the centerfield wall) to an impressive 340 feet.”[3]

We’ll never have the evidence historians need to say with certainty that young George actually threw a rock across the Rappahannock. It is a plausible story, however. So, each February at Ferry Farm’s birthday celebration, visitors try and duplicate George’s feat, provided the day’s weather or any lingering snow on the ground doesn’t prevent us from traipsing down to the river.

A visitor attempts to throw a rock across the Rappahannock River during the George Washington Birthday Celebration at Ferry Farm.

The feat has actually been duplicated, most famously by Walter “Big Train” Johnson, celebrated pitcher for the Washington Senators, on a Depression-era February day in 1936. Officials in charge of that year’s birthday celebration at Ferry Farm challenged the retired Major League right-hander, raising the ire of Congressman Sol Bloom of New York, who believed the story of Washington’s toss, to be “preposterous.” Quoted in the February 18, 1936 edition of The Free Lance Star, Bloom felt the feat “physically impossible” because “Washington was about 10 years old when the miracle was supposed to have happened.” Perhaps, he forgot that George lived at Ferry Farm well into his late teens?

A few days before the celebration, reporters found Johnson training for the toss by throwing a coin at the barn on his Germantown, Maryland farm. “‘Maybe I can’t throw that far,’ he drawled, ‘but there’s one thing certain—if George Washington did it, I can too.’”

Walter Johnson poses as if in mid-throw on the icy bank of the Rappahannock.

Finally, the day came. On the front page of the February 22, 1936 edition, The Free Lance Star’s banner headline trumpeted “‘Big Train’ Duplicates Washington’s Feat.” Standing on the Ferry Farm side of the river at 2:30 p.m. that day, Johnson took two practice tosses. The first plopped into the water just five feet short of the bank while the second made it across. Then, he attempted the official throw. Johnson “drew back his famous right arm and with a powerful heave let fly a silver dollar that sailed high into the air, spanned the 273 foot stream and plunked on the opposite bank.” Bloom graciously wired his congratulations and invited Johnson to stop in Washington and celebrate with him on his way back to Germantown.

Front page of The Free Lance Star, February 22, 1936

The attempt became something of a national sensation with newspapers in Michigan, Florida, Connecticut, Kansas, Missouri, and beyond reporting the story. A live radio program on the Columbia Broadcasting System beamed a description of the throw into countless homes across the nation.

Although it doesn’t garner the attention it did in 1936, the Stone Throw Challenge remains a centerpiece of Ferry Farm’s annual Washington’s Birthday Celebration when the weather allows it. On that day, which is usually about the time that today’s aspiring Walter Johnsons are starting to prepare for their seasons, I think of a day during the Great Depression when a big league pitcher added to his own legend by duplicating the prodigious feat of the most legendary American of all. As I watch our visitors attempt their throws, I think of the “Big Train” and I also always wonder just what kind of ballplayer George Washington might have been.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Join us at Ferry Farm on Saturday, February 14 for our George Washington’s Birthday Celebration, when – weather permitting – we’ll see if anyone else can throw a stone across the Rappahannock River. Along with the Stone Throw Challenge, enjoy crafts, games, exhibits, live history performances, and birthday cake! Visit for more details about the Birthday Celebration along with Archaeology Day on Monday, February 16!

[1] Mason Locke Weems, A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington, Macy-Masius Publishers, 1927: 39.

[2] George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, Philadelphia, J.W. Bradley, 1861: 482.

[3] Phil Levy, Where the Cherry Tree Grew: The Story of Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Boyhood Home, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013: 226.