Mount Vernon and Alexandria are synonymous with the Father of our Country. Lesser known in these parts is Washington’s childhood home at Ferry Farm, just east of Fredericksburg. In 1738, the family moved there when Washington was 6 years old. His mother stayed until 1772, while Washington went to live at Mount Vernon in 1754.
In a program titled, “Lincoln’s War at Washington’s Boyhood Home,” Paul Nasca lectured yesterday morning at the free “Java Jolt” series held at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum in Old Town. Nasca supervised the large-scale excavation on the site.
Culminating years of work, the team announced their findings in the summer of 2008. With scant writings on Washington’s early years, the artifacts they found filled in some of the missing details. Previous historians thought the house was simply a rustic cottage. The new evidence shows an eight-room, clapboard house with two stone fireplaces, cellars and one and a half stories.
Using primary sources, images, diaries and the archaeological finds, Nasca provided a unique look at this site overlooking the Rappahannock River. He spoke of the nightmare scenario in this type of work. The first two digs were false leads. Another obstacle was plowing, which had mixed in artifacts from the Union Army, who occupied the site during the Civil War in 1862 and 1863.
When his father Augustine died in 1743, Washington inherited the home and property. Two years after his mother moved to Fredericksburg, Washington sold the home and property in 1774 to Dr. Hugh Mercer. The house fell to ruins sometime in the early 19th Century. In 1846, Winter Bray purchased the property and built a house there.
In 1862, the Union army set up their camp on the farm. They had the same look into Fredericksburg that Washington had when he was an impressionable lad, and would watch the port town’s activities.
The soldiers surely took some level of inspiration from the knowledge that the heroic Washington spent some of his growing years there, and owned the land. But the chasm between what took place, and what others had said took place, was as wide as the Rappahannock that streamed past the farm.
As prove, Nasca showed us diaries and reports that indicated the soldiers thought the Bray house was Washington’s childhood home. Like everyone else at the time, the Union troops also believed what they had read in Parson Weems’s 1800 biography of Washington. Right there on the farm, the myth-making author said, the young future President had chopped down a cherry tree, and then confessed to his father. And like some heroic warrior, he had thrown a silver dollar clear across the Rappahannock.
In front of a knowledgeable audience that filled the museum’s exhibit space, Brasca wove several threads in his hour plus presentation. In addition to the Civil War connection, and President Lincoln’s visit to the troops at the farm in the summer of 1862, we learned about the “contrabands” who had made their way to Fredericksburg on their way to north to Washington and beyond. One of the photos he showed us was a black lady and two children who had crossed the bridge and stood at the foot of the farm. Her name and story is lost to the ages, but it’s a good guess she and her family were three souls on that long journey to freedom.
Brasca concluded his presentation with a list of names of some of the contraband. Historical documentation like this does not come easy. Archaeologists and historians sift and sift for years to bring us these amazing stories. Thanks to their hard work, we’ve come a great distance since the days when future Presidents walked on Ferry Farm.
More info including a rendering of the home can be found at the George Washington Foundation website.