Maurice Clark House - The First House at Ferry Farm

1680s house dig site
Excavation of ca. 1700 house
In 2002, archaeologists began a 2-year excavation of an area that contained the dwelling associated with the earliest colonial occupation at Ferry Farm. By the end of the 17th century, English colonists had settled just below the fall-line of the Rappahannock River in Virginia. This transitional area acted as Virginia's western frontier from 1680 to 1720. Ferry Farm's proximity to the Rappahannock River may have allowed its inhabitants more access to material goods and cultural norms than their frontier counterparts located in the colony's interior.

The 84 acres that are now called Ferry Farm were once just a tiny part of a 2000-acre land patent claimed in 1666 by land speculator Colonel John Catlett. Historical documents reveal a number of landowners from 1666 until the 1720s. The first reference to a house on the property occurs in the 1710 will of Maurice Clark, most likely a former indentured servant, who had recently purchased this land. This plantation was owned by a series of planters until William Strother purchased the property in 1727.

Ferry Farm's Earliest Dwelling House

Maurice Clark House
Model of Maurice Clark's house, developed
using artifact distribution patterns
View a larger image
The spartan structure that was the plantation's original house overlooked the Rappahannock River on a terrace situated above the river's floodplain. Measuring 20 ft. by 30 ft., the house was originally constructed entirely of wood. The post-in-ground structure featured two rooms downstairs and a loft upstairs. A wattle and daub (stick and mud) chimney was situated on the southern gable end of the structure, leaving the smaller north room unheated. The south room, with its packed dirt floor, measured 20 ft. by 20 ft. and contained a root cellar. This was the main living space for the residents. The smaller north room measured 20 ft. by 10 ft. and featured a 5 ft. deep, 13 ft. by 10 ft. rectangular cellar. This room was probably used as storage and as a workspace.

The plantation's master undertook a major renovation of the house midway through its short life, beginning by filling the north room cellar and removing the wattle and daub chimney. Construction of a substantial stone fireplace followed. The chimney, probably made with brick, was located between the two rooms, with its stone base firmly established on top of the recently filled cellar. The fireplace, made up of locally available sandstone, directly heated the south room and indirectly heated its northern counterpart. The house did not stand long after its renovation.

It is difficult to determine who originally built the house. By 1710, a working plantation existed at Ferry Farm and the house was on the property at that time. The renovation appears to have taken place sometime between 1710 and 1720. By the time William Strother purchased the property, the structure was either in dire need of repair or already gone. Artifacts indicate that demolition took place sometime after 1720.

Maurice Clark House
Exterior representation of
Maurice Clark's house
Although crude and small, the house did feature some architectural niceties and comforts. A large and sturdy lock graced at least one of its doors. Hardware including hinges, pintles, and clenched nails (nails bent back on themselves) testify to the presence of formal doors and shutters. A small amount of window glass was recovered, indicating at least one glass window.

The dwelling would probably have housed all of the site's inhabitants, including servants. Chances are no slaves were present on the property during this time. If still standing when the Strother family arrived, it did not meet the domestic needs of this large and affluent gentry family. William Strother's 1732 inventory identified a six-room structure as his dwelling; this is clearly not the three-room house excavated over the last two summers.

Material Life

Cuff Link
Cuff Link
While the house was poorly designed and badly executed, the objects used to adorn the house and its occupants, such as the cuff link shown here, show that considerable effort was expended in making the interior of the house and its occupants comfortable, attractive, and even fashionable by English standards. Examination of the artifacts shows one overarching trait – the owner tried to be comfortable and fashionable on a budget. Very few of the artifacts recovered over the past two summers represent large expenditures—jewelry featured paste instead of precious stones, and items were made of pewter and copper instead of silver or gold. While the desire to be fashionable survived on the frontier, the circumstances of being a small planter in Virginia prohibited spending large sums of money for these things.

Conclusions

The early years of what was to become Ferry Farm were marked by a transition in the type of owners. At first, financially well-off land speculators controlled this land as part of much larger tracts of wilderness. Eventually these large tracts were broken into smaller pieces that passed into the hands of small and middling planters, most of whom had risen out of servitude. Later, the stirrings of what was to become the town of Fredericksburg increased the appeal of this land, attracting regional elites like William Strother and Augustine Washington.

The house uncovered during the 2002-03 excavation represents life at Ferry Farm during the small-planter stage. Because this property was one of the first settled in the area, its architecture reflects its “frontier” status. However, the property's proximity to the Rappahannock River allowed its owners access to material goods and cultural norms more sophisticated than those usually associated with traditional interpretations of frontier communities. Ships navigating up the Rappahannock allowed for the latest goods and ideas from England to reach this part of the frontier.