George Washington’s Blacksmith Shop

During 1930s, Morley Williams, a landscape architect from Harvard University, was conducting historical and archaeological research at the plantation and he supervised the initial excavations at George Washington’s Blacksmith Shop. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association was interested in the smithy as a possible candidate for reconstruction in the early of this decade. Williams and the Association were interested in identifying structures and other features present during 1799, the year of George Washington’s death, to enhance the authenticity of the historic house museum. Besides numerous documentary references to the shop, the structure was depicted on the Vaughan plan drawn in 1787. At some point a brick Ice House was constructed at the site of the Blacksmith Shop and debate over the age of this structure, the date of the demise of the smithy, and the Blacksmith's Shop size and appearance were the goals of this and subsequent excavations conducted over the next half-century.

Morley Williams excavated at the Blacksmith's Shop during the 1930s.

The Association sought physical evidence for the exact location and appearance of the Blacksmith's Shop, as well as about the activities undertaken at the Blacksmith's Shop to support a reconstruction of the building and interpret blacksmithing at the museum, an important component of the plantation economy. Besides Morley Williams’s work in the 1930s, restoration architect Walter Macomber excavated at the site during the 1950s and 1960s as did the Virginia Research Center for Archaeology during their survey and archaeological assessment of the plantation in 1984 -- 85. Dennis J. Pogue, Mount Vernon’s first Chief Archaeologist, completed this final excavation in 1989.

The base of the brick blacksmith's forge.

The archaeological excavations revealed considerable structural evidence for the shop. This included a fragmentary brick foundation that is interpreted to be the base of the forge, and two sections of masonry, running east-west and 16 feet apart, that are remnants of the foundation for the long walls of the shop. The forge base has a characteristic void in the center, marking the location of the fire box. A portion of the forge base and most of the shop’s foundations were disturbed by later construction, including erecting a mid-19th century ice house overlapping with the shop’s footprint.

Postholes such as these show the location for fences near the Shop.

The archaeological evidence indicates that the shop was 16 feet in width, but the other dimension cannot be determined. On the Vaughan plan the building measures roughly 12 by 40 feet, but this is clearly an example of artistic license. The depiction of the shop shown on the earlier Vaughan sketch appears more likely to be closer to the actual dimensions, as it is shown as roughly 18 by 24 feet.

The Vaughan plan depicts the Blacksmith Shop (top left) as 12 x 40 feet. Click image to see the 18 x 24-foot Shop on Vaughan's earlier sketch (#13).

Two rows of post holes and molds mark the location of two fencelines, each of which intersected with a corner on the east end of the shop. The fenceline connecting with the southeast corner turned to form a work yard on that side of the building, turning again to run parallel to the north lane and ultimately connecting with a corner of the Servants Hall, 160 feet distant, just as indicated on the 1787 Vaughan plan. The distance between the square post molds was six feet, and the view of the site shown in a painting executed by Edward Savage circa 1792 indicates that the fence was well finished and painted white. The other fenceline ran from the northeast corner of the shop to the north along the edge of the lane. The round postmolds marking this fence were nine feet apart, suggesting that it was a more rustic, post-and-rail fence. This fence appears to have been replaced by the time that Savage made his painting, as his depiction shows a white fence connecting with the northwest corner of the building, matching the one on the other side of the shop.

This painting from c. 1792 provides important evidence for the Blacksmiths'' Shop and the two fences.

The resulting picture of the Blacksmith's Shop is of a modest structure, supported by a brick foundation, upon which a wooden frame, clapboard siding, and shingled roof were erected. The Savage painting and plantation records indicate that the shop was unpainted, suggesting that it was considered to be a more utilitarian structure than the other outbuildings along the lane, with their white-painted walls and red-painted shingles. The adjoining fenced yard would have served as a handy general work area, being especially useful when repairing large items such as wagons and carriages, and bulky agricultural equipment. Great quantities of coal, slag, and other refuse were found within the yard area, testifying to the common practice of the day of disposing of rubbish, even very messy materials such as smith’s waste, very near their source.

An artist's rendering of what the Blacksmith's Shop may have looked like.

The bottom courses of a robbed brick wall footing were found abutting what is interpreted as the northeast corner of the Shop. This is likely the terminus of the brick Ha-Ha wall that encircled the east lawn of the Mansion, and which is known to have been in existence by 1785. This portion of the Ha-Ha wall was removed and relocated in the 1890s during its reconstruction. At that time the route of the wall was altered to terminate at the corner of the brick Ice House. When the Blacksmith's Shop was demolished, the Ha-Ha would have ended in space, necessitating its extension to the west, where it probably connected with a fence or wall running along the north lane. The Currier plan of 1855 shows the north Ha-Ha connecting with a short section of wall or fence just north of the ice house.

The foundation of the earlier Ha-Ha wall.

Based on the archaeological evidence Mount Vernon reconstructed the Blacksmith Shop in 2009. Today, this important plantation craft is once again practiced at the site. The numerous artifacts and historical information discovered during the investigations help interpret the space for our visitors.

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