Read an Excerpt
ALONG THE RAPPAHANNOCK
“MOVE BACK! Move back!” shouted the sheriff. “They’re about ready to roll!”
The crowd on the shore moved back, but not enough to suit the sheriff. “Do you want to be killed?” he shouted. “Move back!”
The sheriff walked toward the crowd to push some of the people back. He pointed toward the hogsheads, or barrels, of tobacco ready to come rolling down the hill.
“Move back!” the sheriff shouted to the people again. “Move back!”
This time they obeyed. They knew the danger, for they came to Augustine Washington’s plantation every year on “Loading Day.” Many came from the little town of Fredericksburg, across the Rappahannock River. Others came from plantations round about.
It was a sight to see—those tobacco hogsheads rolling down the steep bank. It was exciting, too. Sometimes a barrel would “go wild.” It would get loose from its ropes and go crashing down like a great monster. Faster and faster! Wilder and wilder! And then with a great splash it would plunge into the deep river.
Field hands up on the bank had placed strong ropes around a hogshead. Now they were holding these ropes—ready to roll when their master gave the signal. But Augustine Washington didn’t give it.
He wasn’t satisfied. He examined the ropes again. Any hogshead that “went wild” was a bad loss for him. The barrels were packed with his tobacco, raised on his Virginia plantations.
They were to be loaded on the vessel waiting at his wharf and taken to England. The tobacco would be sold there, and the Washington family would live this year on whatever money it brought.
No wonder Mr. Washington examined the ropes carefully. No wonder Mrs. Washington watched closely a little distance away.
A little boy watched with her—a slender, handsome boy, tall for his seven years. His hair was a reddish light-brown. His eyes were gray-blue and very keen. He was watching now as closely as his mother.
“Father won’t let them roll,” he said. “What’s the matter, Mother?”
“He’s telling the workers something, George. He’s very careful. Everything has to be exactly right.”
“Oh! I see what it is!” cried George. “He told them to put on their leather gloves.”
“He’s afraid the ropes will cut their hands,” said Mrs. Washington.
“Look!” cried George a moment later. “Father is lifting his hand!”
“Ready!” shouted Mr. Washington. “Roll!”
“Move back!” shouted the sheriff. “Move back! She’s coming!”
George almost held his breath until the hogshead was down the bank, across the wharf and aboard the ship. He was as anxious as his parents. And no one was happier than he when the last cask was on the ship.
He hadn’t had new boots last winter. Too much tobacco had been lost, both in the field and in the river. But this year everything was just right. There was no bad tobacco, and not a barrel had been lost.
“Now I know I’ll get new boots,” he told his little sister Betty. “Mother said I could have brass tips, too.”
“I’m going to have new shoes,” said Betty. “And I’m going to have brass tips if you do.”
There were boats on the Rappahannock all day long: rowboats, sailboats, sloops, brigs, brigantines, barges. Sometimes there was a sailing vessel from England. There were often trading vessels from Boston and New York.
All these boats passed by Ferry Farm, and the younger Washington children watched them from the bank.
There was George, now seven and one-half years old. There was Betty, one and one-half years younger. And there were the still younger boys, Samuel, John, and Charles.
The older boys, Lawrence and Austin, were away at school in England. They were the sons of Augustine Washington and his first wife. The younger of these two sons had been named for his father but was called Austin.
George had been born on February 22, 1732. At that time the Washingtons were living on their Wakefield Plantation. This plantation was near the Potomac River.
Later, when George was six years old, they had moved to their farm on the Rappahannock River. This plantation had three names: “Pine Grove Farm,” “Cherry Tree Farm,” and “Ferry Farm.” Most persons called it Ferry Farm, because the ferry to Fredericksburg was under its banks, and also because Mr. Washington owned the ferry.
The passengers were mostly planters from distant plantations. They rode horseback to the river. Some left their horses at Ferry Farm until they returned. Others took their horses with them.
So sometimes the ferryman rowed a skiff and sometimes a barge. Sometimes he ferried people, sometimes horses, mules, and cattle. But he was always dressed the same—high boots, blue trousers, red flannel shirt, and blue cap.
George said he looked like a king. Betty and the little boys thought he was a king, and they were always delighted when he waved at them. Just now he had waved his cap.
“He never did that before,” said George.
They were all so excited about this they almost failed to see a pretty sloop that now came sailing by.
“Oh! There’s Aunt Mildred’s sloop!” cried George. “She’s waving at us!”
Then the children waved and waved. Their Aunt Mildred Washington Willis was their father’s sister and lived in Fredericksburg.
Soon after came the Travers’ brig. And there was Aunt Hannah Ball Travers waving to them. They waved back as long as they could see her.
Presently, the Seldens’ sailboat came skimming along. “There’s Aunt Mary at the rudder!” said George. “She’s waving! Wave—quick!—before she’s gone!”
“Where are they all going?” asked Samuel.
“They’re out making calls,” said George. “It’s around ten o’clock, and that’s the time they call in the mornings.”
“Mother went calling, too,” said Betty. “But she went on horseback.”
“She’d rather ride a horse if the roads are good,” said George.
Then came a beautiful barge rowed by eight strong boatmen. George knew all about that, too. “It belongs to Mr. Fitzhugh,” he said. “There’s Mrs. Fitzhugh sitting up in front. Her maid is holding a parasol over her head. Can you see her?”
“I can,” said Betty. “Is she our aunt?”
“I don’t know,” said George. “She might be.”
“She’s waving just like an aunt,” said Betty. So they all waved to her till their arms were tired.
It had been a busy morning. But then every day was a busy day with them, for boats were always passing by. And there was always the ferry to watch, and the ferryman who looked like a king.
One day George made up his mind. “Father,” he said, “I’m going to be a ferryman when I grow up. And I’m going to wear blue trousers and a red flannel shirt and a blue cap.”
“Well, son, we’ll see,” said Mr. Washington gravely. “We’ll see.”