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.
Looking back at American history, George Washington was a monumental figure to a significant portion of our citizens. As a founding father of our country, historians and relatives of President Washington have long wanted to properly document and share his birthplace with the American public. Memorializing where President Washington was born and raised acknowledges the great service he did for our country. Over the past 150 years, there has been an ongoing investigation into where exactly George Washington was brought into the world. There have been conflicting arguments because there was no definitive proof of his birthplace. The original structure where he was born, in Popes Creek Virginia, was burnt to the ground in 1779, leaving archaeologists with minimal artifacts to work with, such as pieces of china, hinges, a candle, a silver teaspoon and a bunch of keys. The lack of solid historical evidence disabled investigations to conclude exactly where President Washington was born. The lack of proper documentation and technology in the past also made it significantly harder to keep track of the facts.
As time passed, a number of people have claimed that they know exactly where George Washington was born. The information many of these parties have provided conflicts with what others were led to believe. George Washington Parke Custis, adopted grandson of George and Martha Washington, was the first to take the initiative to mark the site of the original birth house, placing a stone slab inscribed with the date of George Washington’s birth. The problem was that without proper documentation of the actual house, Custis was escorted to the spot where there were a few bricks laid to supposedly mark the spot of George Washington’s birthplace. Unfortunately, this was not necessarily factual, but for the time being it was marked as the birthplace. As the years passed, Custis’s slab was moved numerous times and chipped away at. Later it was released by the Daily National Intelligencer in 1857 that another chimney that was part of a smaller separate structure had been found on the site. It was located in the same vicinity as the original chimney marked by Custis. While these may appear to be minor details, they are significant because those “interpreting” the site were sharing incorrect information with early visitors.
One must acknowledge that these early historians and interpreters were trying their best to preserve and share what little information they had with American citizens even though the information itself was incorrect. This misinformation continued for such a long time because historians had no other way of checking the historical data other than going off the records available to them. The questions surrounding the actual birthplace of George Washington were misinterpreted for so long was because there were few artifacts to support the authenticity of the site. It wasn’t until a nearby site was excavated that additional information surfaced reshaping the story of Washington’s birthplace. This archeological data made it clear that Custis was incorrect in locating the site of the birth home. He was working with less than perfect information so cannot be blamed for the inaccuracies. He was just trying to share what he thought to be his grandfather’s story with his county.
Using taxpayers’ resources to maintain historical treasures is important to educate both citizens and visitors to our country. However, I do not support recreating his home without definitive details regarding the size and orientation of the home. If those overseeing the construction of the memorial home had original blue prints available it would have solved this issue, but these were lost. The use of taxpayers’ money to create something that is historically inaccurate seems far-fetched to me because the building could be nothing like the original structure. The recreated house was fifty feet long and thirty-eight feet wide, aligned north and south, whereas the original house (according to the foundations discovered during an archaeological dig) was thirty-eight feet long and twenty feet wide, oriented east and west. This creates a false reality for the visitors of the birthplace.
Obviously, at the time the memorial home was constructed, there were no computers or systems that could use GIS (Geographic Information System), to pinpoint the exact location of the birth home. Technological advancements have allowed us to document our findings and provide access to the information when necessary. Taking advantage of technology and maintaining standards for data gathering and analysis will allow us to preserve and explain American history to its fullest potential with fewer discrepancies.
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.