Land for Sale: Inquire Within

George Washington’s ties to the land –to Mount Vernon and his other farms, and his extensive knowledge of Lord Fairfax’s extensive Virginia properties–are widely known. But far less has been written about the details of his land speculation far to the west, in the Ohio River valley extending into modern-day West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky. In his will, Washington left vast tracts of what was then western Virginia to the future owner of Tudor Place, Martha Peter, and her siblings and cousins. Even less has been recorded about the disposition of these inheritances.

In this deeply researched essay, Archivist Wendy Kail tracks dealings by Washington, his executors and heirs, and their agents to find the answer to a long-standing mystery about the origins of Tudor Place: What was the land sale that paid for it? Specifically, to what property did Thomas Peter refer when he said he bought Tudor Place in 1805 with a “… sum of money received by me upon the Sale of certain real property belonging to my Wife Martha Peter devised to her by her deceased relative Genl. George Washington”?

The source of this nest egg was long thought to be a bequest to Martha Parke Custis Peter from Washington, her step-grandfather, of land in what is now West Virginia. Ms. Kail’s thorough dig through archives including and well beyond the one at Tudor Place identifies that land as 1,425 acres along the Ohio River in Ravenswood, West Va. Placing them in the context of the War of 1812 and the Panic of 1819, she narrates the dealings of Peter, his sons, and their appointed agents to show definitively that Martha Peter’s “Ravenswood Tract” was ultimately sold–and then only with great difficulty–long after Tudor Place was completed.

Along the way, the author unearthed details about Washington’s attitudes, beliefs, and western travels, early American Federalism and the turmoil that surrounded its decline, and the Peters’ real estate savvy and travails. The story, with “cameo appearances” by Presidents Jefferson, Madison and Monroe; the tragic death of young Columbia Pete;, and the early Riggs Bank; has as many twists and turns as the river itself.


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What Lies Beneath? Dower House Dig

In a site as well preserved as Tudor Place, history and artifacts are not just all around, but underfoot. Archaeology offers unique insights into how past occupants used and occupied the land, which inform our understanding and interpretation of the estate today. A recent excavation near the 1867 Dower House on the property’s northern boundary uncovered not only relatively recent (19th-century) domestic artifacts and architectural debris, but also remnants of prehistoric tool-making.

Before any project that might disturb soil on the site, Tudor Place studies the substrata to preserve its hidden layers of history and material culture. An award-winning site-wide Phase I archaeological survey conducted in 2010 guides staff in targeting areas for investigation. The Dower House fieldwork, conducted from August 17 to 27 by Dovetail Cultural Resources Group under the supervision of Tudor Place Director of Preservation Jessica Zullinger, anticipates maintenance work to be undertaken around the building’s foundations.

The project completed the 2010 site survey by extending it to this lot on the site’s northern perimeter, which was by Tudor Place’s owner in 1866 and “bought back” by her grandson 95 years later. An initial grid of 13 circular, investigative “shovel test pits,” each about 12 inches (“shovel width”)  in diameter, helped determine where to dig eight three-foot-square “test units” providing an in-depth look at the foundation and yard. Because it abuts the fence separating the Dower House lot from the remainder of the property and was part of the original estate, this area was of high interest. Objects turned up included many small domestic artifacts, such as a shard of transfer print china showing indications of burn marks; fragments of blown and polished glass; a possible piece of a child’s toy; a metal object that might be part of a hinge; and an 1865 Indian Head penny. A piece of stoneware bearing a rare intact maker’s mark dates from a local 1820’s manufacturer in Alexandria, Virginia.

A surprising find, in one of the test units, was rare in-situ prehistoric flake tools – tools made by breaking pieces of stone. Finding prehistoric material in context in an urban setting like Washington, D.C., is rare, because city soils are so often disturbed by density, construction, and other landscape changes.

The excavation’s initial findings comport with the land’s 18th-century transition from wilderness to farmland, followed by its use as a home site from the late 1860s. As we continue to analyze data gleaned from the dig, the distribution of artifacts and the mapping of the soil layers that held them will help us better understand the early Capital City, Georgetown, and Tudor Place, possibly in ways yet to be discovered.

Tudor Place is grateful to a private foundation for the grant that enabled this project and to the many visitors, members, and donors whose support enables current and future archaeological investigations. An Annual Fund donation today of any amount helps Tudor Place continue learning and educating the public about the stories these grounds still hold.