“Entwined in History”: An Interview with Alan at Pope’s Creek PlantationPosted: June 22, 2011
This is the second and final post regarding my visit earlier this month to Pope’s Creek Plantation, where President Washington was born 280 years prior on land graced by chickens, Devon cattle, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (say what?) ever since. This one’s an unabridged interview with Alan, the gracious and well-spoken NPS employee I met in the visitor center just overlooking the swelling Pope’s Creek estuary. (Tangentially, I cannot for the life of me seem to determine whether or not “Pope[‘]s Creek” is spelled with the apostrophe. If you’d like to spend next summer researching topics in the grammatical history of Pope[‘]s Creek Plantation, kindly fill out your Olin application here.)
Below, Alan speaks in great depth about the history of the site, the value of knowing your history, and why the George Washington birthplace attracts far more senior citizens than students (“I’m not trying to be fatalistic or anything . . . “). Click past the jump.
How long have you worked at the George Washington Birthplace National Monument?
About six months.
Were you involved in historic sites previously?
I’ve worked at other national parks, but the emphasis has been more on natural history as opposed to human history.
What makes the Washington Birthplace different from other presidential birthplaces or history sites?
Well, a really big one is that it’s run by the National Park Service. I don’t know what all of them are, but some will be run by private foundations—Mount Vernon, for example.
Can you talk briefly about the history of preservation at Pope’s Creek?
The property pretty much fell into neglect after the house burned down in 1779. And it remained that way. The state of Virginia ended up with the property. And Virginia had some plans to do something with it, I don’t know what they were, and those were interrupted by the Civil War. After the war, they ended up turning it over to the federal government and it started out with the War Department. And that’s significant because the War Department in those days handled things like historic sites and battlefields. That was kind of like their area. In 1930 it was turned over to the Park Service. So you still have federal control, but a different agency.
And it was a time of transition for the Park Service: most people, when you mentioned National Park Service, they think of national parks—like Yellowstone or Grant Canyon and those. It was around that time that the mission of the National Park Service began to broaden, and they started taking in historic sites, including ones that were being run by the Department of Defense. And this was the first site, I believe, that would make that conversion. And now there are many sites that—well, there are over 400 National Park units. And many of those are actually historic sites. So, it’s a different emphasis. Most people do not usually think of small historic parks, but that is now a significant mission of the Park Service.
Have you worked in Virginia long?
No, I’m new to Virginia. I came to Virginia for this job in November.
What have you observed about Virginia’s connection to presidential history or U.S. history more generally?
The place is just entwined in history. I think people I talk to have different levels of interest in it. Everything from “So what?” to “This really fascinating.” I have met people that can trace their roots to Washington. Not him directly, because he had no descendants, but the Washington family. In fact, we have an employee here who can trace to the Washington family. We have a volunteer here who traces her roots all the way to Jamestown. 1607. This is an old area, it’s a little bit insular, you don’t have a lot of in-and-out activity here in terms of moving. So, you do have a lot of people here who some type of connection with some of the historically significant people of the past.
What’s the value in that connection to history?
On a tangible level, it’s a huge economic value. On a less tangible level, it is our heritage. We may share a similar understanding or appreciation for history, but without our understanding and appreciation of where our country has come from, both the good and the bad, we lose a significant piece of our identity. And of course we also risk repeating past errors, maybe in different form, or we risk missing opportunities to do things right.
For example, when Washington surrendered power—which was unprecedented, you know, everybody expected that he would use that power for self-enrichment—he was imitating somebody he was aware of, which was Cincinnatus around 450 B.C. in Rome. And so there was a bit of an appreciation for history in what he did. Even thinking he was doing the right thing—“I’m a good man, I’m respected, I’ll lead my people well”—he had enough grasp of history to understand that at some point it was gonna lead to tyranny. If not him, one of his successors. I think it’s imperative that we continue with an appreciation of our national identity. And there are blemishes in our history. There are things we did wrong. Not just in hindsight, but also in foresight. There are things that should never have occurred. Everybody thinks of slavery as the obvious one, and we can’t ignore that part of our past.
How does a site like Pope’s Creek acknowledge that part of our past?
Different sites have different meanings. And some of those will address the—I mean, this site for example, we discuss slavery because it was a part of the plantation. We also discuss some of the things Washington did that we think were very commendable. And we don’t have to say the word ‘commendable,’ or ‘atrocity.’ You can state it as ‘This is what it was,’ and people can draw their own conclusions from it. That story needs to be continued accurately. And it needs to be preserved, and it needs to be taught.
Anything else worth noting about Washington’s birthplace?
I’m frankly surprised we don’t see more students here. I mean, we get a lot of kids—first graders, third graders. But I don’t see a lot of college kids studying. One thing that surprised me, though, is that most of our visitors are older. I mean, we do get the families. It’s been my observation that people older than me have more of an appreciation for history. But I have found since coming here that there are some surprisingly youthful people that have a real passion for history. And that’s kind of encouraging.
I think its part of an age thing. People your age tend to look forward. And when people get in their 60s, 70s, 80s, they begin to look at what’s behind them. I’m not trying to be fatalistic, but there’s not a lot in front of them, they’ve made their lives, they’ve made their mark in life, and they’re looking back not just at what their generation did, like World War II or the Depression, but even beyond that, like Washington, and have a deep appreciation for that. So it’s encouraging to see younger people also getting an appetite for that, but I would have expected to see more people out here for studying-type purposes.