Archaeology News: How They Finally Found Washington’s Boyhood Home

George Washington famously owned and lived at the plantation called Mount Vernon, which is located on the banks of the Potomac River, about 16 miles south of the eponymous US capitol. But he resided in many other locations before inheriting that estate from his brother’s widow. Washington was born in 1732, on his father’s tobacco farm along Pope’s Creek in Westmoreland County, VA. The house burned down centuries ago, and today the site is a National Monument ( link. )

Artist’s rendering by L. H. Barker © 2008

The family relocated when he was six years old, to the 600 acre Stafford County estate  known then as Washington Farm, and it was here that George Washington grew up. The  legends about cutting down a cherry tree and throwing a silver dollar across the Rappahannock are set here, across the river from Fredericksburg, but they are only myths. (If you’d like to try the coin trick yourself, a contest is held every year on Washington’s Birthday. Only one person has done it so far.) Less remarkable but true is the fact that he often swam in the river. He also took the ferry (not owned by the Washingtons) to Fredericksburg on many occasions, and gradually the site became known, as it is today, as Ferry Farm. George Washington became its owner in 1743, upon the death of his father Augustine, and maintained his home there until he was nearly twenty. His mother, Mary, remained there until moving to Fredericksburg in 1772, after which  Hugh Mercer purchased the property.

Ownership of Ferry Farm passed through many hands over the centuries, and it was not until 1993 that serious interest in preserving the property took root. Maintained by the George Washington Foundation,  the site became a National Historic Landmark, and commenced archaeological studies to discover the location of the Washingtons’ house, which had disappeared completely more than 170 years ago.

The efforts of eight seasons of digging finally bore fruit. In July, 2008, Ferry Farm’s chief archeologist, Dave Muraca, gave a lecture about the clues that eventually led to the uncovering of the foundations. One of the  most useful was a painting, “The View From the Old Mansion House of the Washington Family Near Fredericksburg, Virginia,”  by John Gadsby Chapman, which enabled researchers to narrow down the possibilities of the house’s location. Also crucial was the house inventory done in 1743 upon the death of Washington’s father, which permitted specific identification of  artifacts that matched those in the listing. Among these were numerous pieces of tea sets that belonged to his mother, with patterns that were easily identified and dated. When the foundation stones were finally uncovered, the “footprint” matched the layout as specified  in Augustine’s will. Mystery solved.  The dimensions of the house: 53 feet, 8-1/2 inches by 28 feet, 4 inches. The  family’s kitchen and slave quarters have also been found, and the team is searching for other Washington era structures. Another historical era is also well represented. Union soldiers used the grounds as a staging area at the Civil War Battle of Fredericksburg, and such relics as buttons and pieces of armament turn up frequently. The dark line cutting through the house diagram at left is a defensive trench from that war.

One of the more curious of the artifacts is a pipe bowl bearing Masonic symbols; it is well down that Washington himself was a Mason. (No little hatchets, silver dollars, or false teeth (wooden or otherwise) have been excavated to date!)

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Sources and related links:

Fredericksburg.com: news article

George Washington Foundation

National Geographic:  press release

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4 thoughts on “Archaeology News: How They Finally Found Washington’s Boyhood Home

  1. Hello,

    Thank you for giving me the proper illustration credit for my Ferry Farm image. Image is a bit washed out. Where did you get it from?

    Thanks, Les Barker/L.H.Barker

    • katknit says:

      You’re welcome , or should I say entitled?!
      The image is from the Ferry Farm website – if you click on the image, it will take you there.
      Best,
      Linda

  2. Thanks for sharing this wonderful piece of history. I wonder if kid are still being taught about his chopping down the cherry tree. Somehow, I always doubted it, even when I was taught that in school. LOL!

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