GW: In the News

Slide 3 — Then and Now: Bugs on the Farm

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Hessian fly images courtesy of Virginia Tech Entymology Department.

Since its appearance in Great Britain on March 3rd, foot-and-mouth disease has made headlines, causing panic in Europe and on this side of the ocean as well. In George Washington's time, an insect known as the "Hessian fly" (Phytophaga destructor) was responsible for alarm in agricultural circles on both sides of the Atlantic. Named for the mercenaries hired by the British to fight the Americans in their war for independence, the Hessian fly was devastating to wheat plants, GW's primary crop at Mount Vernon. Believed to have been brought from Europe in the straw to feed Hessian horses, the fly was first noticed in Long Island in 1778.

In 1788, five years after the end of the Revolutionary War, one of GW's former officers wrote to inform him that King George and the Council of Great Britain had issued a proclamation prohibiting the importation of American wheat into England because of the Hessian fly.

Over the next decade, the fly continued to move gradually southward, arriving in Virginia in the fall of 1794, when Washington was in his second term as president. Throughout his life in public service, his farms at Mount Vernon were GW's first love. He regularly sent lengthy instructions for the management of the farms to his overseer and expected detailed reports in return. Letters from 1794 to 1797 refer to the impact of the fly on GW's wheat crops.

GW also corresponded with Pennsylvania farmer Richard Peters about agricultural developments and antidotes for the fly. In June 1788, Peters wrote of the insect: "This seems as great a Curse as the British Army was, if not greater. We could combat their other Hessian Auxiliaries, but this is unconquerable."* In fact, the Hessian fly was to remain a scourge much longer than the Redcoats, who departed the country in 1783. The Hessian fly, however, remains a concern for American farmers, even today.

* W. W. Abbot, ed., The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, January-September 1788 (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1997), 358.


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