By MICHAEL ZITZ
The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, VA
July 18, 2010 12:35 am
Tree rings might seem to be exciting only to termites.
But last night, they had Germanna Colonies descendents atwitter over the prospect that their ancestors may have had dealings with Daniel Boone and Thomas Jefferson and that Salubria may have influenced the design of Montpelier.
Salubria is the 18th-century Georgian-style house built by the widow of colonies founder Alexander Spotswood and her second husband. Now owned by the Germanna Foundation, it still stands off State Route 3 in Stevensburg, about 25 miles west of Fredericksburg.
Marc Wheat, president of the Germanna Foundation, said samples of lumber taken from Salubria were subjected to analysis by dendrochronology, a technique that uses patterns of tree rings to date wood with great precision.
By comparing Salubria’s wood with a historical database, researchers determined that the home of the Rev. John Thompson of Little Fork Church and his wife, Lady Butler Brayne Spotswood Thompson, was built well after their marriage and as much as a decade earlier than most historians had thought.
Germanna Colonies descendents who gathered for their annual reunion this weekend learned that samples from the house matched those in the database from 1753 to 1756 and 1757.
While the foundation had placed the house’s construction in 1742, around the time of Lady Spotswood’s marriage to Thompson, most historians believed it was built in the late 1760s.
The popular wisdom had been that Montpelier–the home James Madison built in neighboring Orange County in 1764–influenced the design of Salubria. But the scientific dating process for Salubria’s lumber “places it before wood used in Montpelier,” Wheat noted.
“Maybe Salubria was the influence to Montpelier,” he said.
Wheat expects the results of the study to lead to discussions with Montpelier officials and with scholars who study architecture of that early era in American history.
Wheat said the new information also provides hints at possible connections with other well-known figures of that time.
It is probable, for example, that legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone would have seen Salubria after Cherokee attacks in North Carolina forced him and his family to move to Stevensburg in Culpeper County. Wheat said Boone hauled tobacco to Fredericksburg to make a living at the time.
“That’s pretty exciting,” Wheat said. “We have been very interested in this Boone connection, and now we have the house built earlier than what others have written.”
Wood from a recessed, winding staircase of a type never seen in Georgian architecture was dated to 1794, when the home was owned by the Barbour family.
Because Thomas Jefferson’s designs made it fashionable to hide stairwells in the early Federal period of architecture, this “raises the question of what kind of connections there might have been between Jefferson and the family,” Wheat said.
Wheat said the new date for Salubria’s construction will help guide the foundation’s future research.
“We’d like to have help from the public, if they have photographs or documentary evidence that may have been passed down in their families,” he said.
“This has also raised the question where the Thompsons lived before it was built. Did they live at Germanna? We’re hoping someone out there can help us with that.”
A MYSTERIOUS BRICK
Wheat and other Germanna Colonies descendants are specifically seeking a brick taken from the house 60 years ago by an architect from Warrenton hired to work on Salubria.
“He recorded in his notes there was a brick inscribed with ‘1757’ in the upstairs interior wall. He took it back to his office for safekeeping,” Wheat said.
“We don’t know where it is, if anyone might know what happened to it. It seems the date put on that brick is consistent with what we’ve been finding through dendrochronology.”
Kathy Ellis is a descendent of the Crigler family that helped settle the Germanna Colonies. She said Salubria is important because it “tells many stories.”
The best-known is of the the Rev. John Thompson and Lady Spotswood–who, after marrying, “had the wealth and the love of elegance to build such a wonderful place,” she said.
But Ellis, who lives on the Crigler family farm in Rixeyville, said there is also a second story: that of the “craftsmen who knew how to do the actual building, make the bricks, carve the moldings by hand, how to saw the huge attic timbers and lift them into place.
“These men may not have been literate enough to write a diary or letters, so their life stories are left to us in what they did with their hands,” Crigler said. “That is why preservation of original materials is so important in any historic building.
“Once those original materials are lost or replaced, we have lost the artisans’ part of the story. At Salubria, we are trying our best to save both stories.”
Michael Zitz: 540/846-5163
Salubria was built by the Rev. John Thompson for his first wife, Butler Brayne Spotswood Thompson. She was the widow of Alexander Spotswood, the Colonial governor of Virginia in the early 1700s. Gov. Alexander Spotswood founded the Germanna Colonies with German settlers on the banks of the Rapidan River at what was then the westernmost point of English North America. Germanna was the original seat of Spotsylvania County, which is named for him.
The Germanna Foundation–officially the Memorial Foundation of the Germanna Colonies in Virginia–represents more than 2,300 descendents of the German settlers who arrived in 1714 and 1717. It is holding its 53rd annual reunion in the area this weekend.
Dendrochronology is the scientific method of dating wood based on the patterns of tree rings. It can date wood to within a five-month period of when it was cut. The Germanna Foundation is awaiting a final report on Salubria’s wood from Dan Miles, a dendrochronology expert from Oxford, England, who was recommended by Colonial Williamsburg.