Colonial Fredericksburg, VA

November 21-22, 2021

I lived in Fredericksburg, VA from 1974 until 1978. But at that time, as a newly minted enginerd, I wasn’t too interested in its history. Forty-three years later, I spent a week exploring the town and the surrounding area, enjoying its restaurants, and learning quite a bit about its Colonial and Civil War history. This post focuses on the Colonial period.

Hugh Mercer Apothecary

Hugh Mercer Apothecary

Want to learn about the latest advances in Colonial medicine? Want to learn more about Scotsman Hugh Mercer and his descendants? Then this living history spot is the place to go. Two staffers dressed in period costume spent quite a bit of time talking about Colonial era medicine, surgery, and dentistry.

Medical science at the time thought a body’s health was dependent on balancing the four humours: black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. Many treatments were intended to make you poop, pee, bleed, or barf. A lot.

If a patient had a fever that implied he had too much blood and might be bled to put things back in balance. One common method was to use leeches. But local leeches were too small so they used much larger imported ones. And up to a quart of blood could be taken. George Washington died not long after a quart of blood was taken from his body.

Not every Colonial era treatment could kill you. They did know quite a bit about herbal medicines. Chamomile tea was used to settle an upset stomach. Senna was used to relieve constipation. Both are in common use today.

As for Hugh Mercer, he fled his native Scotland and eventually settled in Fredericksburg where he opened his apothecary and set up his medical practice. When he wasn’t practicing medicine he was soldiering, fighting in both the Severn Years War and the Revolutionary War. He rose to the rank of Brigadier General in the Continental Army and was mortally wounded at the Battle of Princeton in January 1777.

Another famous general was a descendant of Hugh Mercer. Hugh’s daughter Anne married Hugh Patton. Their grandson, George Patton, begat several generations of George Pattons. The last of those was General George Patton of World War II fame.

Rising Sun Tavern

Rising Sun Tavern

George Washington’s youngest brother, Charles Washington, built his Georgian-style home on this site in the 1760s. The property passed through several owners before being leased out as a tavern in the 1790s. Restoration began in the 1930s and is now filled with period-style furniture.

Our tour guide, dressed in period costume, took us throughout the house, explaining what each room was used for. But photography was not permitted inside the house.

Georgian architecture was based on symmetry. If there was a door on the left there had to be a door on the right, even if that door didn’t go anywhere. The doors were also shorter than modern doors but our guide told us it wasn’t because people were shorter then. The average height was only two inches less than today’s average.

First Floor

Second Floor

The first level had four rooms, an office, dining room, parlor, and tap room. The tap room was the most interesting room. Our guide gave us one explanation of where the word “bar” originated. Bar fights were (and still are) common and usually involved throwing objects such as pewter mugs and chairs at opponents. At that time, glass liquor and wine bottles were all hand blown and very expensive to produce. To protect the tavern keeper’s investment, he stored his bottles behind a “bar cage”, a closet-sized space walled off with panels of wooden bars. Eventually, the bars came down, stools were placed in front, and the modern bar was born.

Upstairs, the tavern had five rooms and could accommodate up to 10 visitors.

Ferry Farm

Ferry Farm

Ferry Farm is located on the opposite side of the Rappahannock River directly across from the city of Fredericksburg.

George Washington’s family moved here in 1738 when he was six years old. George’s father, Augustine, grew tobacco, corn, and wheat, later expanding into wool production and iron manufacturing. Augustine died in 1743. George lived here until 1754 when he moved to Mount Vernon. His mother, Mary Ball Washington, lived here until 1772.

The house is a reconstruction of the original and has only been open for tours for a few years. Everything about the “new” Ferry Farm was based on extensive archaeological excavations – the home’s footprint, structure, building materials, number of rooms, etc. A detailed inventory of every item in every room, made shortly after Augustine’s death, helped the builders figure out how to furnish the home. It still smelled new.

Despite his mythological status, George Washington was still human. When he was 16, he went swimming in the river. When he wasn’t looking, someone stole his clothes. Unable to find the thieves or his clothes, he had to walk back to the house buck naked and, I suspect, quite embarrassed.

Mary Washington House

Mary Washington House

After Mary Ball Washington almost died from pneumonia during the winter of 1771-72, George bought this house in Fredericksburg so she would be closer to her daughter, Betty Washington Lewis, who lived at Kenmore (see below). He paid the astounding sum of $275.

His mother lived here from 1772 until her death on August 25, 1789. George’s last visit was in March 1789 when he stopped by to ask for her blessing before his inauguration as our first President.

She was known to be an avid gardener. One story has it that the Marquis de Lafayette paid her a visit and found her gardening in the back yard.

As at Rising Sun Tavern, indoor photography was not permitted.

Kenmore

Kenmore

A short distance away, Mary’s daughter, Betty Washington Lewis, lived at Kenmore.

The real story here was not so much about the house but about Fielding Lewis, Betty’s husband. In the mid-1700s ocean-going ships could sail to Fredericksburg. Fielding was a very successful merchant and real estate investor. He was also the president of the Dismal Swamp Land Company. (Seriously.)

Fielding and Betty began construction of Kenmore in 1769. It was finished in 1775. It was situated at the top of a slope where they could look down on the town and the river. It was to be the go-to place for the rich and famous.

But the Revolutionary War got in the way.

Although Lewis never fought in the war, he played a big part in it. And it broke him, financially and physically.

Virginia’s government asked him to build a gun manufactory, which he did. He purchased supplies, such as saltpeter, lead, gunflints, gunpowder, flour, bacon, and clothing, for the Continental Army and the Virginia militia. He paid to outfit a warship used to patrol and protect the Rappahannock River.

During the war he borrowed £30,000-40,000 for the manufactory and poured £7,000 of his own money to keep it running. The stress of managing the factory and his mounting debts, almost $2,000,000 in today’s dollars, likely contributed to his failing health.

Lewis died in December 1781 shortly after Washington’s victory at Yorktown.

The state of Virginia never repaid its debts to him or his heirs.

Again, indoor photography was not permitted either in the house or the museum.

James Monroe Museum

Exhibit Room in James Monroe Museum

The James Monroe museum has a treasure trove of artifacts from the life and times of our fifth President, the fourth to come from Virginia. Monroe is best known for the Monroe Doctrine. Boiled down to its essence, it told the European powers to stay out of the political affairs of independent countries in the Western hemisphere and we would stay out of European affairs. We all know how well that worked.

Most American presidents can be linked to a specific home – Washington to Mount Vernon, Jefferson to Monticello, etc. Not so with Monroe. His political career took him to Fredericksburg, Charlottesville, Richmond, Washington DC, London, and Paris. His also had an extensive political resume – Virginia Assembly, Revolutionary War soldier, US Senator, Ambassador to France, Governor of Virginia, Minister to France, Secretary of State, Secretary of War, and President.

One of the most interesting artifacts was the desk where he allegedly wrote the Monroe Doctrine.

Desk where James Monroe Wrote Monroe Doctrine

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