George Washington Slept Here First

“A lot of people have signs on their property that say ‘George Washington slept here,’” Carla tells me,  “but we’re the only ones that can say ‘George Washington slept here first.’ That’s one of our little mottos here.” Here, actually, quite literally: pictured above are the white oyster shell fragments marking the foundations of the plantation home of Augustine Washington and Mary Ball Washington. “Here,” the historic marker reads, “on February 22, 1732, George Washington—farmer, general of the Continental Army, and first president of the United States—was born.”

Funny thing is, the Memorial House, constructed on what historians thought marked the site of Washington’s birth house, actually falls 100 feet away. It was built in 1931, a year before the bicentennial celebration of Washington’s birth, when the Wakefield National Memorial Association scored funding from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to secure land for the national park site. It was another six years before archeologists discovered the actual foundations above, “hidden under deepening soil and thickening underbrush for 150 years,” and realized they’d been mistaken. Oops. That house, a “U-shaped timber frame dwelling,” burned in a fire on Christmas Day, 1779. (This, I soon learn, is an ongoing theme in colonial presidential birthplaces. Jefferson’s birth house at Shadwell turned to ash in 1770. The third president greatly mourned the loss “of every paper I had in the world, and almost every book.” So years later, when he made his estate at Monticello, he demanded the kitchen be separate from the main house to prevent similar ruin. Live + learn.)

Carla works in the bookstore at the George Washington Birthplace National Monument, on Pope’s Creek, the eighteenth-century tobacco farm originally settled by the first president’s great-grandfather in Westmoreland County, VA. She’s also executive director of the George Washington Birthplace Association and has lived in the same Colonial Beach house her whole life, so it’s no wonder she’s proud. “When I’m out traveling alone, when I find myself in an airport or elevator or a plane, I quiz people,” she reveals a bit slyly. I ask her to clarify.

“I ask if they know where George Washington was born,” she explains. “Sadly, I haven’t found anyone yet who could tell me, from here to Mexico and back. So I make it a personal mission of mine to educate and invite them here. Everywhere I go.”

How, I ask, do people respond to this, ermm, unsolicited pop quiz?

“Well, some of them kind of look at me like I’m crazy because they may have come from New York, where people just don’t talk to strangers. But once they figure out that I’m not crazy, and if they’re interested, they seem pretty glad to get the information and say they’ll try to get here if they’re in the area.”

I’m pretty glad to get the information, if no one else.

Many of the Virginians I spoke to throughout the trip described their state in terms of national origin, as a “birthplace” of American history itself. Here is where America started, goes the refrain. Presidential birthplaces? America’s birthplace.

“Virginia has been a hub of this country from day one,” boasted one Staunton resident. “Virginians have shown the country’s pioneer spirit all along, always.”

“I mean, it’s where the United States started,” Sarah told me.

Hiking through John Washington’s colonial tobacco farm—past sheep, pigs, horse, cattle, a costumed blacksmith worker—I almost start to feel it. This country began with fiery revolution, with musket and gunfire, with stirring rearticulations of Montesquieu and Locke. But before all that noise, a few hundred miles south, this country began with agrarian wealth and colonial slavery, in Colonial Beach, VA. “Where our founding father was founded,” quips one travel guide—the first of six children, birthed in breathtaking natural seclusion on Pope’s Creek Plantation. (Also born on this land were George’s brother Samuel and his sister Betty.)

“It’s an awesome sense that we can walk on ground that our first president walked on,” says Pocahontas, an NPS worker who brags about having been one of the first women rangers in the Park Service. “He walked here and ran around as a little up-to-three-and-a-half-year-old, and probably went into the kitchen where the slaves were making food and such, and into the gardens where they were making vegetables . . . ” She trails off, apparently overcome at the intersection of national heritage and mundane farm life minutia. I wait for her to go on. And here is where young George first gazed over the flowing Potomac, and here is where the toddler walked his first step, and here is where he watched a sheep being sheared . . .

As for the monument itself?

There’s not much going on here today. A few senior citizens touring around. Some crops in progress. Mostly just quiet beauty, sweltering heat. In the surrounding communities, abandoned-looking clam restaurants and turkey shoot advertisements, a vicious-sounding dog tethered by a boat promising “live crabs” and “shrimp.” “We’re also growing tobacco,” adds Pocahontas. “In our present area are some chickens. They walk around and make it feel like a farm.”

Whether in 1732 or 2011, that sounds about right.


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