The Original Birthplace of George Washington

By Max Zammataro ‘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.

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. Continue reading “The Original Birthplace of George Washington”

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. Continue reading “Sorting Through the Layers of History”

Opportunities for Interpretation

By Jesse Campana ‘18

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. Continue reading “Opportunities for Interpretation”

Interpretive Decisions at the Stone House

By Thomas Nank ‘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.

In her article “The Birthplace of a Chief: Archaeology and Meaning at George Washington Birthplace National Monument,” author Joy Beasley discusses the complex history of the birthplace of our first President. Beasley traces the evolution of the interpretation of the site as influenced by many diverse groups and individuals. I have seen similar interpretive confusion recently during my internship at Manassas National Battlefield Park centered on the historic Stone House.

Little definitive information survives on the specific uses of the Stone House during the two battles fought at Manassas, thus giving rise to interpretive confusion surrounding the building. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Little definitive information survives on the specific uses of the Stone House during the two battles fought at Manassas, thus giving rise to interpretive confusion surrounding the building. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Continue reading “Interpretive Decisions at the Stone House”

History Is Not Set in Stone

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.

As part of his duties as a 2015 Brian C. Pohanka Intern at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park, Sean Hough greets visitors at the Spotsylvania Battlefield exhibit shelter. Photo courtesy Sean Hough.
Sean Hough greets visitors at the Spotsylvania Battlefield exhibit shelter. Photo courtesy Sean Hough.

Continue reading “History Is Not Set in Stone”