Bottles of 250-Year-Old Cherries Discovered Beneath George Washington’s Home

Researchers at Mount Vernon say that the stash still “bore the characteristic scent of cherry blossoms”

Two cherry-filled bottles
The two intact bottles were found in Mount Vernon's cellar. Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

George Washington’s legacy is famously colored by myths: He never did wear wooden dentures, for instance, and he didn’t skip a silver dollar across the Potomac River.

One of the most widely known myths is about a young Washington damaging his father’s cherry tree. As the story goes, he bravely confessed to the act: “I cannot tell a lie … I did cut it with my hatchet.”

While the cherry tree story is fictional, a real cherry storage artifact was recently unearthed at Mount Vernon, Washington’s home in Virginia. In the historic mansion’s cellar, archaeologists found two glass bottles full of 250-year-old cherries.

The dark green bottles were sealed, and both still contained liquid. Cherry remains—such as stems and pits—were “preserved within the liquid contents, which still bore the characteristic scent of cherry blossoms familiar to residents of the region during the spring season,” according to a statement from Mount Vernon.

Researchers at the lab
Researchers used a clear plastic tube to remove the bottles' contents at Mount Vernon's archaeology lab. Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

The intact bottles were transported to Mount Vernon’s archaeology lab, where they were unsealed and emptied. Researchers determined this would help stabilize the glass, which hadn’t been exposed to the atmosphere for centuries.

Jason Boroughs, Mount Vernon’s principal archaeologist, thinks the cherries were preserved this way so that they could be eaten later.

“There are 18th-century accounts that talk about proper ways of preserving fruits and vegetables,” he tells the Washington Post’s Michael E. Ruane. “One of the most common, especially for berries, is to dry them as much as possible … put them in a dry bottle, cork it … and then bury them.”

The cherries weren’t picked by Washington, but by one of the hundreds of enslaved individuals living at Mount Vernon at the time, according to the Washington Post.

“Somewhere between 1758 and 1776, someone dug a small rectangular pit—probably an enslaved person—in this room, in the cellar,” Boroughs tells WTOP’s Dick Uliano. “These bottles were placed in there, and the soil was returned.”

Initially, the researchers wondered if the bottles’ contents could be the remnants of Cherry Bounce, a drink of choice for Washington that was made with brandy, spice, sugar and cherry juice. That drink, however, was usually stored in larger bottles, so the team concluded this theory was unlikely.

The discovery came during Mount Vernon’s Mansion Revitalization Project, a three-year effort to “safeguard the mansion’s original building fabric and ensure its structural integrity for generations to come.”

Washington moved to Mount Vernon with his wife, Martha, in 1759, though he didn’t officially inherit the property until 1761. Over the years, he initiated several expansions of the house, and he died there in 1799. Today, the residence, restored to its 18th-century appearance, is open to the public, and approximately one million visitors tour the site each year.

Boroughs tells the Washington Post that preserved fruits have been found at several other historic sites in Virginia: In 1966, wine bottles containing cherries were uncovered in Williamsburg. In 1981, six similar bottles were discovered at Monticello, the former home of Thomas Jefferson.

The newly discovered bottles at Mount Vernon are “a significant archaeological find,” says Boroughs in the statement. “These bottles have the potential to enrich the historic narrative, and we’re excited to have the contents analyzed so we can share this discovery with fellow researchers and the visiting public.”

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