The archaeologists were delighted to find the remains of George Washington's boyhood home but got stumped when they looked for evidence of the cherry tree and rusty hatchet.
“This was the setting for many important events in Washington's life,” David Muraca, director of archaeology for The George Washington Foundation, said Wednesday.
Most biographies offer little detail of the first president's youth, so the discovery may provide insight into his childhood, he said. The site is located at Ferry Farm, just across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, Va., about 50 miles south of Washington.
Philip Levy, associate professor of history at the University of South Florida, found evidence that the house was a one-and-a-half-story residence perched on a bluff overlooking the river.
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“If George Washington did indeed chop down a cherry tree, as generations of Americans have believed, this is where it happened,” said Levy.
Three likely locations were excavated over seven years. The site where the foundations of Washington's home were discovered was built during the first part of the 18th century – Washington was born in 1732 – fit the type of house in which Washington would have lived and also yielded artifacts likely linked to his family.
“Now that we have identified the home, we can begin understanding Washington's childhood,” Muraca said, as well as dispel some of the folklore surrounding his life. For instance, the tale of Washington's chopping down the cherry tree with a hatchet and confessing to his father has never actually been proven.
The eventual goal, Muraca said, is to rebuild the home.
Levy and Muraca spoke at a teleconference organized by the National Geographic Society, which helped fund the work.
Most of the wood from the home was reused by builders on other structures or was damaged in the Civil War, and part of the foundation eroded away, the researchers said.
But after digging through layers of dirt, the archaeologists found two chimney bases and stone-lined cellars and root cellars.
The cellars held a large number of artifacts including fragments of pottery and other ceramics, glass shards, wig curlers and toothbrush handles made of bone.
Washington was known to swim in the Rappahannock and to take the ferry to Fredericksburg and grew to adulthood at the farm.
He eventually moved to his half-brother's estate at Little Hunting Creek, south of Alexandria, Va., later renamed Mount Vernon.