George Washington's Early Home

USF historian’s new book, “Where the Cherry Tree Grew” explores the changing fortunes of Washington’s Ferry Farm homestead.


 By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Feb. 18, 2013) – After working on his landmark excavation project, University of South Florida historian and archeologist Philip Levy has concluded, “We’re one bad economic cycle from losing any number of important historic sites. These are tough times for historic preservation.  It’s just so time-consuming and costly.”

Nonetheless, his work has gone a long way toward helping preserve one particularly important piece of  U.S. history – one that came very close to being turned into a Wal-Mart. It is none other than the place where George Washington spent his early life – Ferry Farm  in Fredericksburg, VA.

The rewards for the time and effort put into preserving it are priceless and will resonate well into the future.

The 107-acre farm located on the banks of the Rappahannock River has become a part of the world Levy is now very intimate with – inspiring his latest book, “Where the Cherry Tree Grew” (St. Martin’s Press) out this week. In a large sense, it is just one of the many treasures the site yielded. 

The book is a culmination of a dozen years of research and presents a unique portrait of Washington’s life and times.

Washington moved to the farm when he was six years old and stayed there until age 20. He and his family left behind a fascinating array of objects as Levy was to learn in the course of digging and digging and more digging over several years.  

As Ferry Farm’s most famous resident, Washington quite naturally attracts attention to this parcel of real estate, but Levy found there was a whole lot more to say about the world in which it existed over time.  Invoking a metaphor from filmmaking, he said, “Biographies tend to use the camera to make a tracking shot, following the main character while the places slip by in the background. In this book, the camera is fixed on the site and George Washington walks through it.” 

Levy started walking through the site in 2001 with his longtime partner in excavation David Muraca. Before getting to Ferry Farm, they previously conducted archeological searches in Colonial Williamsburg, where they worked on a wide array of Colonial-era sites in and around Williamsburg and at Jamestown. They shifted to Ferry Farm in 2001 when Muraca became director of archaeology at the George Washington Foundation, a private non-profit organization which owns the Ferry Farm site.

For Levy, just as important as doing any excavation work is having students gain hands-on experience. Ferry Farm turned out to be the perfect place for that. As co-leader of the project, working side-by-side with more than 100 undergraduate and graduate students since 2001 – he and Muraca taught them the joys and rewards of tireless digging and sifting which are part of the “ways and wonders of historical archaeology.” 


Levy knew what he was looking for. He had gleaned the basics about the house from known archaeological data like the tax inspection documents filed after Washington’s father died in 1742. Following the first six years of careful and painstaking work on one five-by-five-foot section at a time, Levy, Muraca and their team finally were able to announce an historic find: the remnants of the foundation of Washington’s house and a treasure trove of household objects. The cornerstones, hearths and several cellars were all there. 


Why six years?  It actually took more years than that. Others had tried and failed to find what Levy’s team found after striking out twice themselves.


“It is a very tough site,” he said. 


Unlike digging into the ancient variety made up of mounds that reveal layer upon layer of one civilization after another, working on the Ferry Farm site is more like, “a game of pick-up sticks,” Levy said. “There was enormous activity on this site. There were six consecutive farmsteads on the same piece of land, two before the Washingtons and three after. Everything was pretty much on the same level and mixed together – from old coins to spark plugs.”


Noting the kinds of things that have turned up in the more than half-million plus artifacts collected at the site, such as sewing needles, buttons, fish bones and the like, Levy said, “Archeology brings us in contact with the rejects and moveable material of life, look hard enough and we will find them.”

Several items from Ferry Farm stand out. The only large carnelian bead of its type to be found in North America, inscribed with markings typical to Africa, was discovered there. Beads like this have been found buried with African people enslaved in the colonial Caribbean. There’s a pipe with masonic markings, a set of oyster shells that suggest someone in the house was interested in folk magic, plus wine bottles, tableware, punch bowls, buttons, pins and even gun parts.

“The problem with objects, as wonderful as it is to find them, is you don’t know the full story about how they got there,” he said. “It’s still exciting to find them though.”

And that’s just the beginning. Each item has to be cleaned, identified, labeled and catalogued.

The most surprising finding for Levy was a large cache of wig curlers dating from Washington’s time in the mid- to late-1700s. “We have no idea why there would be a manufacturer’s amount of these things at this location,” he said.


As far as the house itself is concerned, the team’s discovery settled the matter of what type of home Washington grew up in, which had been in question. Over the years some people wanted to believe it was something of a palace. Others – including artists – liked to think of it as more of a rustic cabin and painted such concepts accordingly. Levy said it was neither. “It was modest and in line with a family that was part of the lower gentry, not the super-rich. Still, his family was better off than 90 percent of the people in that community.”

Once Levy had gone through all of the team’s findings and digging through countless records as well – land surveys, court transcripts, business records, Civil War letters and diaries, lists of things bought and sold or catalogued – “archive after archive after archive” – Levy realized the surrounding community contained a rich and extended chapter of American history. 

The times of famed colonist John Smith, various Native American groups – the Iroquois, Algonquin, Rappahannock, Sioux and others, dating well before Washington’s arrival, were just as compelling as what happened after, through the Civil War and up to the present day.  

For Washington’s part of the story, Levy points out that the childhood years fall into a neglected period of the first President’s history. “They usually get only a few pages in his biographies, because there is so little documentation.

“With this new retelling of his childhood story, we knew we would be speaking to that silence. What we found – all of the archeological evidence – tells us a lot about the dynamics within the household. Something as simple as the locks – which side of the door they’re on – explains who could come and go as they pleased, as well as who could not. There were enslaved Africans living in his house. This is where Washington and his siblings gained their first lessons about property – human and land-based – how the world operated, and how to live the life of the gentry.”

Of course, Levy had to get to the root of Parson Weems’ famous cherry tree story, “probably the best-known moment in Washington’s life (rivaled only by his crossing the Delaware)…” he writes. “Few think this story is actual history, but what Ferry Farm teaches us is that the story certainly made history.”


Levy also delved into the deeper meanings behind everything he could get his hands on including Washington’s original survey of the property, written when he was a young adult. It’s a document he read with great attention to every item Washington mentioned and every word he chose.

“He begins the survey not with the main house but with his sister Mildred’s grave site,” Levy said, describing the document as “a private act, highlighting the most meaningful parts of the land. This reveals a lot about the role death played in his feelings about the farm. This and other things he singles out may explain why he was willing to part with the place when he put it up for sale. 

“Life was very fragile on Ferry Farm and he suffered many losses, his sister, his father, two enslaved Africans who were as much a part of the household as everyone else, and later his older brother Lawrence.”

The farm itself was almost lost. The George Washington Foundation came into being when a bevy of local preservation groups and activists acquired the site after waging a national campaign to save it from development as a Wal-Mart-anchored shopping center in 1996.

What would Washington think of his land being sold to Wal-Mart?

“Ironically perhaps, in the end, he saw this land as property to buy and sell,” Levy said. “No sentimental ties for him. I think he’d be surprised by all the fuss.”

Washington might not have thought the land was all that special. But fortunately, the George Washington Foundation doesn’t see it that way. It is looking into building a replica of the house. If one is built, its final form will be reviewed by the National Park Service, which holds an easement to the property, and Muraca and Levy will help construct and oversee it.

Ferry Farm is a popular tourist destination. About 16,000 people tour the farm and its visitor center each year. There’s an archaeology lab there as well as nature trails and the ferry landing. 


While Levy’s book contains the colorful narrative details of this story for popular consumption, he has a parallel book in the works for fellow scholars and students that tackle the technical and theoretical sides of his research.

When not digging through documents, archives and excavating landmark sites, Levy teaches early American history, public history and historical archaeology in the USF Department of History. He is the author of the book Fellow Travelers: Indians and Europeans Contesting the Early American Trail. He is also coordinating a cooperative museum and collection cataloguing project with the history department and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office . 

Two special interests of Levy’s are being woven into his work life. Being a prize-winning Appalachian fiddler is helping him as he prepares to teach a course on the history of Southern traditional music he has in the works. And piracy is another area of interest. He is conducting seminars on the subject and using his work for a project in conjunction with Wikipedia “to create a whole new Wiki space on Atlantic pirates.”

As with all of his projects, Levy is enthusiastic about providing his students with opportunities to become engaged in research. “We are all stewards of the past. We owe it to the future to keep what we can of our past and hand it off to the next generation. That is true of our landscape, and it is true of our laws and traditions as Americans. When we teach students to respect the past, we teach them to live well in the future.”

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.