By Sean Hough ‘16
This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns working on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.
The complex history behind George Washington’s birthplace revolves around the discrepancy between historical and archaeological research. When the original structure burnt down in 1779, aside from a few fragmented oral accounts and the surviving 1762 inventory, Washington’s birthplace was essentially lost to history. Attempts to rediscover such lost yet treasured history, such as George Washington Parke Custis’s placement of a memorial stone at what he thought was the appropriate site, erupted in the 19th century as the nation began to enshrine its past. With the onset of the twentieth century and the upcoming bicentennial of Washington’s birth, the Wakefield National Memorial Association (or WNMA) was created to memorialize Washington’s birthplace.
Based on historical research in the form of reminiscences, oral accounts, and what little documentation and archaeological research had been done, the WNMA was determined to rebuild the structure where Washington was born and interpret it as a memorial replica. The drive to memorialize and interpret a site with such a close tie with as an important figure as George Washington is understandable; It is also true that early archaeological investigations indicated brick foundations within the vicinity of where Custis’s stone was believed to have been, as that was also lost over time, but evidence based largely on early suppositions of an earlier supposition is hardly concrete. Yet, the only thing to counter the widely-held belief that those brick foundations were the remains of Washington’s birthplace was really a collection of local rumors. It was not until 1930 that any harder evidence surfaced, which came in the form of the excavation of a larger structure labeled Building X.
Historical sources and archaeological research can be at odds when a long held belief is contradicted by recent findings, but together, they can create a stronger, well-rounded and more factual narrative. The WNMA could have benefitted greatly from taking these archaeological findings seriously and working to correct what had been incorrect for so long, but much more practical issues were at hand than the academic dispute between archaeology and history. By 1930, the WMNA, in conjuncture with other organizations, was close to finally rebuilding what they believed to be a close replica of Washington’s birthplace on the alleged site in time for the bicentennial. With so much time and money already committed and the desire to commemorate the site by 1932, it is likely they were not interested in letting their work go to waste because of some recent findings, and the house was built nonetheless. Further investigations in later decades supported the Building X foundations as the real birthplace of George Washington and by the 1970s, the NPS, which assumed management of the site not long after the construction of the memorial building, had to accept what was now apparent. Continued archaeological research has also discovered more about the Native Americans who lived in the area before white settlement and about the enslaved Africans who worked the Wakefield plantation.
All of these new discoveries led the NPS to change the interpretation of the site. However, being that the house built in the 1930s still stands, interpreting the site can still be difficult. The reconciliation of historical memory and archaeological research can be difficult to explain to the average visitor without painting the NPS or the well-intended efforts of the WNMA as foolish or insidious. The key to a successful interpretation of George Washington’s birthplace is to add either an explanation or, even better, an exercise on the influence and flaws of historical memory. A possible exercise would be to ask the visitors to describe an object they all would have had the opportunity to see as they entered the site (something noticeable, but not necessarily of any merit). One would likely receive a variety of differing descriptions or perhaps some would not even remember the object, demonstrating the basic weaknesses of memory. This, combined with a brief but well-rounded history of the site, should create a strong program, giving visitors the impression that despite our efforts, history is not set in stone.
Beasley, Joy. “The Birthplace of a Chief: Archaeology and Meaning at George Washington Birthplace National Monument,” in Paul A. Shackel, ed., Myth, Memory, and the Making of the American Landscape (Florida, 2001): 197-220.