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Washington slept here

His boyhood home is excavated. Sorry, no sign of a cherry tree.

July 03, 2008|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

After years of searching, archaeologists have identified and excavated the boyhood home of George Washington, site of such legendary -- if perhaps apocryphal -- events as chopping down the cherry tree and throwing a coin across the Rappahannock River.

The find indicates that the Washington family lived in a spacious eight-room home -- a sign that the family was well-off for its day -- and provides new information about George's childhood, a period that has remained largely obscured in the mists of history.

"We all know that much of our character is formed in our early years, so to be able to have access to the very specific place and the material conditions of what life was like will help us sort out who this man Washington was," said Julia King, an anthropology professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland who was not involved in the excavation.

The house in Stafford County, Va., on a property now known as Ferry Farm, is on the banks of the Rappahannock across from Fredericksburg and is about 50 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.

Archaeologists uncovered the remains of two chimney bases, two stone-lined cellars and two root cellars, along with thousands of artifacts -- all of which convinced them they had found the Washington homestead. The size, characteristics and location of the structure were the deciding factors, the researchers said.

"This is it -- this is the site of the house where George Washington grew up," archaeologist David Muraca of the George Washington Foundation said at a news conference Wednesday.

"If George Washington did indeed chop down a cherry tree, as generations of Americans have believed, this is where it happened," added Philip Levy, a history professor at the University of South Florida and co-leader of the excavation.

Erased by time

George's father, Augustine, purchased the 600-acre parcel and moved his family there in 1738 so he could be closer to the Accokeek Creek iron furnace, which he managed. George inherited the farm at age 11 when his father died in 1743, and sold it after he moved to Mount Vernon.

Originally known as the Washington Farm, it became known as the Ferry Farm because of a ferry at the site that carried travelers across the Rappahannock.

During the Civil War, Union troops camped at the site, initially using the ruined farmhouse as their headquarters, then demolishing it for firewood. The land was also plowed in the 19th century, destroying many of the artifacts.

Over the years, development has encroached; there are now only about 113 acres preserved as a National Historic Landmark.

The team had initially identified five sites on the property as possibly being the Washington house. The first two they excavated proved to be an earlier farmhouse built on the property and a 19th century house. The third one proved to be the charm.

The house was 53 feet long and 37 feet wide. It apparently had eight rooms -- five on the first floor and three in the attic. The upper rooms, which most likely served as bedrooms, were unheated.

A kitchen and slave quarters were in detached buildings at the rear.

"This was a very elaborate house for this time and place," said architectural historian Mark Wenger of the architectural firm Mesick Cohen Wilson Baker. "You get this only at the very top echelon of Virginia society."

Many homes in the period, even among the more well-to-do, had only one or two rooms, he said.

Even Thomas Jefferson lived in a one-room home before moving into Monticello.

Clues to lifestyle

Excavation of the cellars yielded "bushels of plaster that came off the site," Wenger said. Most of it showed evidence of being applied to wooden lath that was nailed to walls and ceiling joists, indicating that the house was a wood-frame structure and not a brick one. Other remnants showed that it had wooden shingles on the roof.

The team found that a fire on Christmas Eve of 1740, once thought to have destroyed the house, had produced only minor damage. In a far corner of one root cellar, they found some burned plaster and evidence of new plaster, indicating that only a small area had been burned.

"We concluded that the fire was a fairly small event, localized on one side of the house," Levy said.

The team also found fragments of 18th century pottery and other ceramics, wig curlers and bone toothbrush handles. "We could set the table for the Washingtons," Muraca said. "There are plates, cutlery, stemware and thousands and thousands of pieces of glass."

Among those items are the remnants of "a very nice Wedgwood tea set," hand-painted in four colors. The set was probably produced during the last 10 years that Washington's mother, Mary, lived at the site and suggests that good fortune returned to the family after Augustine's death.

Also found was a "well-used pipe bowl" emblazoned with the Masonic crest. Washington joined the Fredericksburg chapter of the Masons in 1753.

"While we can't say that this was George Washington's pipe, we can wonder about it," Levy said.

Reconstruction plans

Little is known about George Washington's life at his childhood home. He was known to swim in the river and take the ferry when he grew older, and he may have been educated in Fredericksburg. He shared the home with five siblings, including a baby sister who died there. As he entered adulthood, he spent less and less time there and eventually moved to his half brother's house, which he later renamed Mount Vernon.

The team did not find evidence of an ax or the stump of a cherry tree.

The project, led by the George Washington Foundation, was funded by National Geographic and the Dominion Foundation.

The George Washington Foundation plans to construct a historic trail linking Mount Vernon, Ferry Farm and Washington's birthplace at Pope's Creek. It also plans to reconstruct the buildings that were standing in the 1740s, using tools and construction techniques from the period. That work is scheduled to begin in three to four years.

--

thomas.maugh@latimes.com

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