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Digging Up George Washington

Archaeologists continue to uncover more about the nation's first president

As one of the archaeologists who unearthed George Washington's boyhood home at Ferry Farm this year puts it, the nation's first president "is hot right now." In recent years, excavations have also revealed interesting imprints of Washington's life at these sites:

Mount Vernon
This estate on the banks of the Potomac River was once owned by George Washington's half-brother, Lawrence Washington, who died of tuberculosis in 1752. George took over Mount Vernon when he was about 24 years old (first leasing it from Lawrence's widow, then officially inheriting it). By the time he died in 1799, he had quadrupled the size of the plantation—it included five farms, a fishery and whiskey distillery—and turned the farmhouse into a mansion that is now a popular tourist attraction.

Several generations of archaeologists have explored Mount Vernon over the past century, providing the clues needed to restore parts of the mansion and reconstruct several outbuildings. Recent projects have focused on the distillery, blacksmiths' shop and gardener's house. Last year, the nonprofit group that runs Mount Vernon also added a log cabin to represent typical living quarters for some of the more than 100 slaves Washington kept there. (His will stipulated that they all be freed and equipped with pensions or vocational training after his death.)

Learn more about Mount Vernon

Valley Forge
During the winter of 1777-78, George Washington and the 11,000 members of his Continental Army camped here along the Schuylkill River northwest of Philadelphia. It was a tough time for the army, which had just lost two battles and was suffering from a shortage of food and supplies compounded by nasty weather.

Recent excavations of the site (now a national historic park) have turned up details that offer a bit more nuance to this popular story. It seems that many of the soldiers stayed active despite their woes: fixing uniforms and weapons, firing their muskets at a practice range, and even playing games with dice (despite their general's ban on gambling).

Read about a 2000 dig at the Valley Forge site.

The President's House
Before the White House existed, the presidential residence was a mansion located near Independence Hall in Philadelphia. When Washington lived there in the 1790s, he commissioned a dubious addition: quarters for his household slaves, which he kept through exploiting a loophole in Pennsylvania's 1780 gradual abolition law. At least nine slaves lived there during his presidential tenure, though evidence suggests that two of them escaped.

The house and slave quarters were eventually demolished, and the site is now a national historical park on Independence Mall. Archaeologists got a chance to excavate there last summer as part of a plan to create a memorial to the slaves. Among other things, they dug up the foundations of the kitchen and an underground passageway that connected it to the main house.

More information and photos of the 2007 dig.

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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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