On George Washington’s childhood farm in Virginia, archaeologist Phil Levy is telling me the famous folk tale about young George confessing that he’d destroyed his father’s favorite cherry tree with his hatchet.
But Levy’s nowhere in sight. It’s just me, an iPad and a whole lot of cicadas in the middle of a dewy field, which was part of the Washington family’s 580-acre estate near Fredericksburg in the mid-1700s.
Thanks to an interactive iPad tour, I’m taking the experts along with me on my Saturday morning ramble around Ferry Farm. It’s a place I’ve wanted to visit since 2008, when I heard that archaeologists had unearthed the foundation of the Washington house, where George lived from age 6 until his early 20s. Since then, scientists and historians have been slowly piecing together the most elusive side of our first president: his early years.
But because Ferry Farm has few visible remnants of the Washingtons’ time, it’s hard for tourists to relate to what life was like back then.
“There’s a disconnect between our resources, our collection and our landscape,” said David Muraca, the George Washington Foundation’s director of archaeology when I talk to him before my tour. We’re sitting at a table covered with pieces of pottery in the visitor center’s archaeology lab, where a lot of the science happens. “There are elements of the Washington landscape out there, but you can’t explain them in the 15 words that people are normally used to reading in signs.”
So in March, the foundation, which manages Ferry Farm as well as the nearby Kenmore plantation (home of George’s sister, Betty Washington Lewis), launched the iPad app “Uncovering George Washington’s Youth.” It includes 10 interactive stops around the property, many accompanied by narrated videos, photographs, old maps, paintings, drawings — even George’s geometry homework. (Alas, non-Apple people are out of luck; there are no plans to make an app for other devices.)
I picked up an iPad at the visitor center — you can also bring your own and download the app if you prefer — and started my tour in a vibrant garden just outside. It wasn’t here in the 1700s but displays the plants that a well-to-do colonial family would have grown: tobacco, cotton, potatoes, herbs, and yes, cherry trees, among others. I clicked through the app for a photo gallery of plants and their historic uses. (Rosemary sweetens foul breath, for instance.)
Leaving the garden, I looked out over the main part of the roughly 80-acre historic site, mostly a grassy plain dotted with a few buildings built after Washington’s time. I liked that the app has a “then and now” button so that you can toggle between a view of the grounds now and a drawing of what the place looked like as a thriving farm in the 1700s.
As I walked the grounds, I listened to a story about George’s father, Augustine, his sudden death from unknown causes in 1743 and the blow it was to the 11-year-old; his mother, Mary; and his four younger siblings. Suddenly without a breadwinner, the family had to scramble to make ends meet and keep up appearances at the same time. In a video, archaeologist Mara Kaktins showed me a cherry-adorned punch bowl found at the site that bears traces of glue — suggesting it had been mended when times were tight.
Stop 5 took me to a bluff overlooking the Rappahannock River. The house was perched here, according to the app, so that people living in Fredericksburg, just across the river, could easily see the building and the family’s prosperity. The house’s foundation was filled in and covered with dirt after the 2008 dig to protect it for future archaeologists, but there are still active excavations of the farm’s many outbuildings.
These areas were covered up during my visit — the archaeology season had just ended — but luckily, I could watch some of the scientists at work on the iPad. I also virtually explored a floor plan of the 11 / 2-story house, whose large hall and parlor were once hot spots for genteel entertainment. Washington’s sister, Betty, would conduct tea ceremonies here in the hopes of attracting a wealthy suitor.
I walked down a long staircase to the quiet, tree-lined river, the site of another myth: that George once threw a rock the size of a silver dollar across it. (Both this story and the cherry-tree folk tale were written by Washington’s first biographer, Mason Locke Weems, in the early 1800s.) Many have since tried to replicate the feat, to no avail: On the iPad, I watched Muraca hurl a rock that plunked into the water far from the other shore.
The other visitors to Ferry Farm that morning seemed to have skipped this part of the tour — I brushed away spider webs on the stairs — but it was worth the extra steps: Hearing about the river in the past and seeing it now really brought the history home. For instance, this lazy spot was also once a busy ferry crossing — giving Ferry Farm its name — and was where our future president listened to captains’ stories, stoking his zeal for adventure.
Muraca had told me that one of Ferry Farm’s goals is to “humanize George,” who over time has gotten a reputation for being as wooden as those legendary teeth. For instance, watching the app’s segment on wig curlers — clay pieces that are common artifacts at Ferry Farm — I learned that the independent-minded Washington powdered his hair instead of wearing wigs, which were considered the “high heel” of 18th-century men’s fashion, according to Muraca.
What’s more, the app emphasized Washington’s perseverance: After his father died, his family didn’t have money to send him abroad for schooling, so he got a job as a surveyor in his teens and used that money to take fencing and dancing lessons, two requisites for any successful gentleman of the time.
Luckily, the tour wasn’t only about Washington. Near the river, the app suggested that I walk into the woods and find a tiny stream where enslaved people at Ferry Farm had collected water for the house. I stood silently for a minute watching the stream, an important reminder that it wasn’t just the Washingtons who struggled here.
Stop 8 focused on slavery at the farm, including showing a virtual model of a slave cabin. I was particularly captivated by archaeologist Laura Galke’s description of a fiery red carnelian bead discovered on the farm grounds. Such a bead was a symbol of importance in West Africa, and this one was very probably a precious belonging lost by one of the farm’s enslaved Africans.
Nearing the end of the tour, I caught up with tourists Richard and Eileen Soper of Westminster, Md., as they rested on a bench behind the house foundation. The couple told me that they liked exploring the site by tablet — “You don’t have to be a wizard of electronics to do this,” Eileen said — and that they’d done similar interactive tours in other places, such as the Vicksburg battlefield in Mississippi. Then Richard said something that yanked my head out of its digital cloud: “We’re sitting and standing where Washington lived.”
This whole time, it hadn’t even occurred to me that just being here is cool — and there’s no app for that.
Dell’Amore is a freelance writer in Washington. Her Web site is christinedellamore.com.