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 Spatial.ly 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.

Conclusion

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

Glass Tablewares of the Washington Household

As work continues on the reconstructed Washington family home at Ferry Farm, we archaeologists are continuing to identify items that were owned by the Washingtons so we can eventually fill the reconstructed house with plates, bowls, glasses, and many other objects based on artifacts we’ve discovered.  Our latest mending project towards this goal involves glass tablewares.  Piecing together thousands of fragments of clear tableglass is a special kind of agony but a wonderful amount of data has been collected from this painstaking exercise. And we’re not even close to being done yet!  In this post, I’ve written about three of the glasswares we have identified in our study thus far.

LEAD GLASS BOTTLE

Lead Glass Bottle Neck

Fragment of the neck of a lead glass bottle excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

This particular fragment likely belonged to a small decanter or carafe.  It could also possibly be part of a scent bottle, meant to hold perfumes.  It was created using a pattern mold.  The craftsman would have blown the glass into a simple mold with a ribbed pattern and then twisted it to get this diagonal line effect.  He would finish the bottle by adding a separate piece of glass to create the delightful ‘ruffle’ on the neck.  Below is an example of what the whole vessel may have looked like.  Hopefully, we’ll find more fragments and know precisely what this piece is soon!

Lead Glass Bottle

Lead glass bottle showing the ruffled neck on the fragment excavated at Ferry Farm.

FLIP CUP

Flip Cup (1)

Portions of a flip cup dug up by Ferry Farm archaeologists.

If you google ‘flip cup’, the first image result is a large red plastic cup commonly associated with college parties.  The original flip cups were far more aesthetically pleasing. However, they too were used to enjoy recreational beverages.  The drink called flip was the original cocktail and needed its own fancy glassware.  Colonists loved flip and made it by combining a  bizarre (by our modern standards) mixture of beer, hard liquor, spices such as nutmeg, a raw egg (a not uncommon ingredient in eighteenth century drinks), and then immersing a hot iron poker into the concoction.  This resulted in a delightfully lukewarm eggy, boozy beverage that was then decanted into a decorative tumbler – the flip cup.  While these cups were not only used for flip, the name has stuck. They are delicate and were often engraved with elaborate designs or scenes using a copper wheel.  At Ferry Farm, we have a number of archaeological fragments of flip cups.  Our examples are made of soda lime glass, not leaded glass, which is common.

Flip Cup (2)

Flip cup in the collection at Historic Kenmore. It features the same design as the fragments discovered at Ferry Farm.

VENETIAN GLASS

Venetian Glass

Archaeologists excavated this small fragment of Venetian glass at Ferry Farm.

This fragment represents what may be the fanciest glassware owned by the Washington family during their time at Ferry Farm.  It is a piece of a pincered and buttressed handle that belonged on a vessel such as the beautiful goblet pictured below.  Although the sherd may appear unassuming, it 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.  This would certainly have been a show piece and displayed prominently within the house.

91.1.1442

The portion of the handle circled in red on this 16th century Venetian glass goblet is similar to the fragment excavated at Ferry Farm. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Follow Lives & Legacies for updates on the Washington family’s glasswares we are identifying at Ferry Farm. More discoveries await!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist