Introduction to Every Leader
Being There: Encountering America's Presidents
GEORGE WASHINGTON
1st President of the United States, 1789-1797
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AMERICAN PRESIDENTS

George Washington Birthplace National Monument
Virginia
 
George Washington Birthplace
George Washington Birthplace
National Monument
National Park Service

By the time of George Washington’s birth in 1732 on the marshy shores of Popes Creek, his family had been on the land between Mattox and Popes Creek for three quarters of a century.  The George Washington Birthplace National Monument preserves much of the character of the 18th century tobacco plantation where Washington lived until he was about four.  The birthplace house no longer stands, but its foundations have been discovered and preserved.  His half-brother, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather lie in the family burial ground nearby.  The memorial shaft erected on the property in 1896 and the Memorial House constructed in 1932, at about the time of the bicentennial of Washington’s birth, are vivid testimonies to the reverence attached to America’s first president and greatest hero.

In 1657, an English merchant ship sailed up the Potomac River, anchored in Mattox Creek, and took on a cargo of tobacco. With her new load, the ship ran aground on a shoal and sank. During the delay, a young officer, John Washington, great-grandfather of the future president, befriended the family of Colonel Nathaniel Pope, especially his daughter Anne.  When the ship was ready to set sail John stayed behind to marry Anne, thus beginning the Washington family legacy in the New World.  The bride’s father gave the newlyweds a wedding gift of 700 acres of land on Mattox Creek four miles to the east.  John Washington eventually expanded his land holdings to 10,000 acres.  In 1664, he moved his family to a property on Bridges Creek, within the boundaries of today’s George Washington Birthplace National Monument.  His son Lawrence, born in 1659, inherited the bulk of his father’s estate.  His son Augustine, born in 1694, inherited some property from his father and acquired more, including an iron furnace near Fredericksburg and a substantial plantation on Pope’s Creek.  Augustine found a small house on the Popes Creek property and began expanding it into a middle-sized plantation manor house.  It was here that George Washington, the first son of his second marriage, was born on February 22, 1732.  This is where young George lived until 1735, when his father moved the family to his Little Hunting Creek Plantation, the land that would eventually be renamed Mount Vernon.  In 1738, the family moved again, to Ferry Farm near Fredericksburg.

Tobacco at George Washington's Birthplace
Tobacco at George Washington's Birthplace
National Park Service

Washington’s American ancestors saw themselves primarily as planters, but they all also involved themselves in the public service that confirmed a planter’s status while imparting skills such as public speaking, leadership, and generosity to others.  They served as justices on the county courts, militia officers, sheriffs, vestrymen in the local Anglican Church, and members of the Virginia House of Burgesses.  When Augustine Washington died in 1743, the bulk of his estate went to the two sons of his first marriage.  George Washington did not inherit much wealth or land, but his father did pass on to him the Washington family’s status as members of the landed gentry and its commitment to public service.

George Washington’s half-brother Augustine Jr. inherited the Pope’s Creek plantation when his father died in 1743 and eventually willed it to his son, William.  George Washington frequently returned to Popes Creek throughout his adolescence to learn practical farming and to assist with the responsibilities of running the plantation.  William named the property Wakefield and owned the house until it burned down on Christmas Day, 1779.  He saved the only item thought to have come from the original house, a tilt-top tea table. It is now on display in the Memorial House.


Augustine Washington's Wine Bottle at George Washington's Birthplace National Monument
Augustine Washington's Wine Bottle at George Washington's Birthplace National Monument
National Park Service

The family never rebuilt the birthplace house, and its exact location was lost.  In June 1815, George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted grandson of George Washington, placed a commemorative stone by the ruins of a chimney thought to mark the birthplace.  During the 19th century, the land at Pope’s Creek was farmed.  Five years after the Civil War, a visitor to Wakefield observed that the freestone slab that George Washington Parke Custis placed over the presumed birth site was missing.

The State of Virginia acquired some of the land on Pope’s Creek, with plans to preserve and mark it as a memorial, but did nothing until after the Civil War.  In the 1880s, the United States acquired Virginia’s land and more.  In the 1890s, Congress donated a 50-foot obelisk and erected it on a brick foundation on the recently discovered site of what people thought were the remains of the birth house.

On February 23, 1923, Mrs. Josephine Wheelright Rust organized the Wakefield National Memorial Association “to rebuild the home in which George Washington was born, to restore the neglected graveyard of his ancestors, and to make Wakefield a place of pilgrimage for all those who venerate the name of Washington.”  The date set for completion of the task was 1932—the 200th anniversary of Washington's birth.  After relocating the memorial shaft, the association built the Memorial House over the foundation found in the 1890s.  Constructed between 1930 and 1931, and not intended to be a replica of the birth house, of which no images survived, Memorial House represents instead a typical house of the upper classes of the mid 1700s.  It is probably a bit more elegant than the original. 

Charged with administering the site since 1932, the National Park Service conducted archeological investigations that revealed a second, larger foundation not far away from the Memorial House.  Excavations confirmed that this was the actual location of the birth house. The outline of the foundation is now marked with crushed oyster shells.  The excavations of the main house and a number of outbuildings also provided thousands of artifacts, including ceramics, jewelry, glass, and clay pipes.  These artifacts have been invaluable in telling the story of the site, in furnishing and interpreting the Memorial House, and in the reconstruction of the working colonial farm.

Today, the monument includes the historic birthplace area, the burial ground, and the working colonial farm.  Livestock, poultry, and crops of traditional varieties and breeds are raised on the farm to show farming techniques common during colonial times. A colonial herb and flower garden is also included on the grounds.


Plan your visit

George Washington Birthplace National Monument, a unit of the National Park System, is located in the Northern Neck of VA, 38 miles east of Fredericksburg and is accessible via Virginia Rte. 3. It is open daily 9:00am to 5:00pm year round. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Days. An entrance fee is charged for adults ages 16 and older. 

A Visitor Center includes exhibits, film, bookstore, and restrooms. Ranger talks are offered on the hour 10:00am to 4:00pm.  The property includes a one-mile nature trail and picnic area with tables, grills, pavilion, and restrooms. The Potomac River beach offers views of the river and Maryland, walking, sunbathing, and fishing; however, swimming is not allowed.  For more information, visit the National Park Service George Washington Birthplace National Monument website or call 804-224-1732, extension 227.

 
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