Sorting Through the Layers of History

By Amelia Benstead ‘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 confusion as to what site is truly the actual birthplace of George Washington stems from a variety of circumstances that combined to create a perfect storm of inaccuracy. In some cases, facts have been ignored in order to benefit those involved, conclusions have been drawn too heavily on eyewitness accounts which ultimately proved inaccurate, and investigations have coincided with important events, such as Washington’s 200th birthday, which would have been a controversial time to raise questions about whether the site being commemorated as his birthplace was actually the correct location.

The confusion first stems from the fact that George Washington Parke Custis wanted to place a marker on the site to commemorate where George Washington was born. Since the house had originally burned down, leaving very little evidence there had ever been a house on the site, especially not in what direction it had been pointing, he placed the marker in a location that he more or less guessed at, making conjectures that were unable to be supported by what he could see of the remaining building. From there, many people made additional conjectures based off of where Custis placed the marker. When contradictory information turned up, it was frequently downplayed or ignored because it would have caused too much upheaval at an inopportune time. This was exactly what happened when contradictory information was physically unearthed in an archeological dig just prior to Washington’s 200th birthday.

If I were to be charged with the responsibility of interpreting this site for visitors, I would strive to present all of the information known about it without placing blame on the shoulders of specific groups for the confusion and errors that have surrounded this site. I would explain first what the actual and proven site of the birth of George Washington is, and from there I would work backwards and try to explain that there have been previous places believed, erroneously, to be the birthplace of Washington. In explaining why this occurred I would try to emphasize the fact that memory can be very fluid and easily influenced, and that in many cases the information that supported the first, erroneous site as the birthplace, was based on the memories of those who had lived nearby and not documents and records.

After explaining how the confusion and misidentification had occurred I would emphasize that complete research has now been completed into the site of George Washington’s birth, trying to leave visitors with the thought that after many years of confusion, the Park Service did persevere and uncovered the correct information, even though it may have behooved their reputation to do nothing, allowing the public and scholars to go on believing the initial story, instead of risking damaging their credibility. Finally I would leave the tour with the reminder that everyone, organizations included, makes mistakes, and that what is important is that in the end the Park Service acknowledged its mistake and fixed it, proving that it cares about and has integrity concerning the preservation of accurate historical knowledge.

As part of her duties as a Pohanka Intern at Boston African American National Historic Site, Amelia Benstead speaks to a tour group in front of the Robert Gould Shaw/Massachusetts 54th Memorial on Boston Common. Photo credit Amelia Benstead.
As part of her duties as a Pohanka Intern at Boston African American National Historic Site, Amelia Benstead speaks to a tour group in front of the Robert Gould Shaw/Massachusetts 54th Memorial on Boston Common. Photo credit Amelia Benstead.

Sources:

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.

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