George Washington's First Home

Excavating the long-sought remains of Ferry Farm.

They didn't find the shriveled stump of a cherry tree, much less a rusty old hatchet, but archaeologists have finally discovered and excavated the remains of George Washington's boyhood home, the site of the apocryphal story of young George chopping down the cherry tree and of throwing a stone (or was it a silver dollar?) across the Rappahannock River. "We have the building that was the first home of the nation's first president," historical archeologist Philip Levy, of the University of South Florida—who oversees USF's field school at Ferry Farm, the Washington family homestead near Fredericksburg, Va.—said at a press conference this morning announcing the discovery.

It took seven years and at least two dead ends to find the home on Ferry Farm where Augustine Washington, George's father, moved his family in 1738, when George was 6, and where they remained until 1772. (The dead ends led to a building from around 1700, pre-dating the Washingtons and belonging to another family, and to one from around 1850.) On their third try, the archeologists knew, by comparing the remains to written records of Washington's childhood home and by dating the thousands of artifacts they unearthed, that they had found the long-sought home. "If George Washington did indeed chop down a cherry tree, as generations of Americans have believed, this is where it happened," said Levy. "There is little actual documentary evidence of Washington's formative years. What we see at this site is the best available window into the setting that nurtured the father of our country."

All that remains of what was once an eight-room, clapboard-covered, shingle-roofed, wooden, one-and-a-half story home (with upstairs rooms under the sloped roof) is the foundation, two stone-lined cellars and two unlined root cellars. But even that limited evidence has overturned the conventional wisdom about Washington's boyhood home. It is typically depicted as a rustic cottage. But the excavation, partially funded by the National Geographic Society, showed that the Washingtons were more like landed gentry: The house was "formidable, imposing," said Levy, and large (53 feet long by 37 feet deep) by the standards of its time and place, with two large stone fireplaces.

The archeologists also found a treasure trove of plates; cutlery; stemware; an elaborate hand-painted Wedgwood tea set that likely belonged to George's mother, Mary; thousands of pieces of ceramic and glass; pieces of small figurines that once stood on a fireplace mantle; a red carnelian bead similar to one found in the nearby grave of a slave from Barbados; pieces of the house's ceilings, painted walls and family hearth; and wig curlers and toothbrush handles made of bone, as well as a curious pipe. The pipe is covered in Masonic symbols and was manufactured in the mid-1700s, said David Muraca, director of archaeology at The George Washington Foundation, which owns the 113-acre Ferry Farm. Although it is impossible to know for sure, he says, "We do know that Washington joined the Masonic lodge in Fredericksburg in 1752."

The archaeologists have also located the family's kitchen and slave quarters and are searching for the dairy, smokehouse and, possibly, warehouses—"places where people worked, socialized and even played," says Muraca. Although the wood and other structural elements of the house are long gone (Union troops camped on the site during the Civil War and destroyed many of the buildings), enough remains to allow the foundation to reconstruct it. "We plan to rebuild the house and the outbuildings [including the kitchen and the slave quarters] so it looks as it did in the 1740s," says Muraca. Reconstruction is expected to begin in 2011 to 2012, and when completed, the buildings will be open to the public.

Besides George, Augustine and Mary's family included Charles, Samuel, Betty, John and Mildred. (Mildred died as a baby at the farm.) After Augustine died in 1740, Mary Washington chose not to remarry, which dimmed the family's financial prospects: She could no longer afford to send George to school, so arranged for a part-time tutor. George grew tobacco at Ferry Farm before switching to wheat and corn, and it was at this home that he learned surveying. He spent less time at Ferry Farm as he grew older, often taking trips north to visit his half-brother, Lawrence, at Little Hunting Creek (later known as Mount Vernon). Around 1753 he moved to that estate. Hugh Mercer, a brigadier general, purchased the farm in 1774. There's still no word on when anyone might have planted—or cut down—a cherry tree.