Ferry Farm is located along the Rappahannock River in Stafford County, Virginia, just across the water from the city of Fredericksburg. Though the site is best known for being the boyhood home of George Washington, this stretch of land has a history that dates back to approximately 10,000 BC. The first material evidence of human activity at Ferry Farm is a Clovis point, which dates back to the Paleo-Indian period. These earlier people were nomadic and most likely used the site as a place to hunt or sharpen their weapons. It is unsurprising that they would choose to utilize this land, as its ready water source, agreeable climate, and elevated location made it ideal for hunting and fishing. Later clusters of stone tools indicate that camps developed along the Rappahannock River that grew and prospered during Archaic period. Activity seemed to die down over time, however, and there is no evidence of any permanent village sites ever being established at Ferry Farm, though fragments of clay pottery and a few unique Woodland period artifacts have been recovered.
The land was settled by Europeans in the 17th Century and changed hands several times until 1738, when it was finally sold to a man by the name of Augustine Washington. Augustine moved to Ferry Farm with his wife, Mary, and their five children – Charles, John Augustine, Samuel, Betty, and George. George Washington, only 6 years old at the time, was the oldest of the children. Tragedy struck the Washington family in 1743 when Augustine suddenly died. In his will he left Ferry Farm to George, but given the fact that he was only 11-years-old at the time the responsibility of caring for the property fell on his mother, Mary Washington. She remained unmarried and continued to care for the land and her five children by herself, ensuring that they had the best life they could, despite the difficulties that followed her husband’s death. George remained at Ferry Farm until 1754, when he left home to begin a promising career in the military. Mary continued living on the property until 1772 when her children finally convinced her to move across the river to Fredericksburg into a home within walking distance to her daughter Betty.
Very little is known about George’s childhood, or the lives of his family members at this time, which is what makes excavation at Ferry Farm so significant. Were the myth of the cherry tree that George supposedly chopped down true, this is where it would have stood. The tale of George throwing a rock all the way across the Rappahannock River was also set here. Dave Muraca, Director of Archaeology at Ferry Farm, speculates that a young George would have grown up watching people constantly traveling along Ferry Road to the west, which may have inspired his great sense of adventure. George was a national hero, our first president, and the Father of Our Country. Certainly his youth was a factor in his journey to these achievements, so it is important for us to gain an understanding of his life at this site.
Artifacts recovered from Ferry Farm paint an image of daily life in the Washington home. Excavations have yielded thousands of artifacts such as porcelain dishware, ceramic figurines, shoe buckles, buttons, and straight pins. More unique artifacts include a tambour hook, a teaspoon with Betty Washington’s initials on it, a masonic pipe that may have belonged to George himself, and over 180 wig curlers. These were used to maintain men’s wigs, which George’s younger brothers were known to wear – though the reason behind the unusually large quantity of wig curlers that have been found at Ferry Farm remains a mystery… at least for now. Excavations have also led to the discovery of features, including the Washington home, which fell into ruin after George sold the property in 1774.
Although the primary research focus at Ferry Farm is the Washington family, the historical significance of the site did not end with their departure. In 1862 Ferry Farm became a part of the Civil War when it was enlisted as Union camp for its strategic location just across the river from the Confederate city of Fredericksburg. From April to August of that year, soldiers occupied the land, but were careful not to disturb the overseer who cared for the property for its current owners, the Bray family. However, attitudes quickly changed that winter and Union soldiers took control of the land, tearing down any remaining structures to build shelters and essentially stripping the land dry in preparation for battle.
The green fields where George Washington once played as a boy now marked the boundaries of a fractured nation – North on one side of the river, and South on the other. On December 11, 1862, Union soldiers crossed a pontoon bridge that stretched across the Rappahannock River from the banks of Ferry Farm into Fredericksburg. They met fierce opposition by the Confederate troops, and thus began the gruesome Battle of Fredericksburg. This battle marked a shift in the way the Civil War was fought, as civilians were no longer protected or spared from the brutality of war. Soldiers stormed and shelled the city of Fredericksburg, leaving it in ruins. Four days later, the Union withdrew and soldiers returned to Ferry Farm, sorely defeated. Echoes of this dark time can be heard through the objects these soldiers left behind at the site.
In the years that followed the war, the property was sold and traded hands several times. Toward the end of the 19th Century, a building known as the “surveyor’s shed” was constructed, possibly under the ownership of John and Jane Carson. This structure, which still stands today, was long thought to be associated with the Washington family – a claim that started with James B. Colbert, who owned the property from 1900 to 1928 and attempted to capitalize on its historic value. Over the course of the 20th Century, a series of foundations and organizations bought the property in an attempt to preserve it as an historical site, but subsequently lost it due to financial difficulties. In the 1990s the site was threatened by the proposed construction of a strip mall, but public outcry halted the project and Ferry Farm was saved. Today, Ferry Farm is a protected National Historic Landmark, cared for by the George Washington Foundation.
Extensive archaeological excavations have taken place at the site with the ultimate goal of using the archaeological record to accurately reconstruct Ferry Farm as it would have looked when George Washington lived there. A huge step toward this goal was made when the remains of the house were finally discovered and excavated in 2008. The focus has since shifted from locating the house to finding the outbuildings that would have surrounded it.
For more information, please visit the official Ferry Farm website: http://www.kenmore.org/ff_home.html