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 premier and most illustrious Founding Father George Washington has gone down in history as a great American hero. From sparking the French and Indian War to being the Commander and Chief of all Continental Forces in the American Revolution and eventually the first President of the United States, the man truly was inspiring. Although George Washington has the esteemed honor of having hundreds of biographies written about even just the smallest sections of his life, several key details continue to elude 21st century readers. Nobody actually knows exactly what his birthplace home looked like, and for generations the location itself was unknown. This convoluted history of George Washington’s Birthplace has not only stumped historians, but also locals, family members, and government officials for the past 200 years.
Washington’s Birthplace has been a contested subject ever since the Washington family moved from the estate in 1813 after selling the property. The house in which Washington was born, however, was burned to the ground on Christmas Night of 1779, which also created a host of problems for future historians. After this fire and the Washington family’s departure, the estate was generally left to decay; materials from the house and outbuildings were scavenged for other uses. With these circumstances in mind, the first attempts in 1815 to document Washington’s Birthplace were misled and incorrect, leading to a long term debate on where exactly the house sat in which our First President was born. Although further evidence was discovered in archeological digs during the 1890s and 1930s that could have ended the debate, personal agendas within both the original historical society (Wakefield National Memorial Association) and the National Park Service led to the site continuing to use poor evidence and non-historical replicas of the home. This reluctance to explore the possibilities uncovered in the archaeological finds as well as pressure from outside forces created a misinterpreted display of what Washington’s Birthplace could have appeared like. However, with time and effort, factual evidence of the original home was ultimately located and dedicated alongside the already standing mockup of what was assumed to be the foundation of the house.
Due to such conflicting circumstances such as the incorrect recreation of the home, newly discovered slave quarters, Native American relics, and the actual home’s foundation, giving an interpretative tour at George Washington’ Birthplace would appear to be a nightmare. However, the ability this presents to incorporate all of the inhabitants of the plantation spanning throughout history actually strengthens the interpretative opportunities at hand. Although the replica home now resides on the incorrect foundation, its presence did allow for the true foundation to be found and displayed, making it possible for interpreters to incorporate both into their programs. The replica house does represent architecture common to the timeframe of Washington’s birth, making it possible to discuss the region surrounding the birthplace, not just the Washington property. Although mistakes have been made in the past, if anyone would want us to rise from the ashes of our mistakes, it would be George Washington himself in regards to our mishaps with his birthplace.
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.