George Washington Birthplace National Monument | GEORGE WASHINGTON BIRTH SITE

Field where George Washington's birth house might have stood, George Washington Birthplace National Monument

Field where George Washington’s birth house might have stood, George Washington Birthplace National Monument

VISITING THE BIRTH SITE

A visit to the George Washington birth site requires an easy, .2-mile walk (five minutes) from the Visitor Center. Although a road runs to the memorial area, this is for park personnel only. Disabled visitors can be transported by a park Ranger to the site upon request. If you are at the park for a picnic, you can also take a half-mile walk to the birth site from the Popes Creek Picnic Area.

Path from the Visitor Center to the Washington Birthplace memorial area at George Washington Birthplace National Monument

Path from the Visitor Center to the Washington Birthplace memorial area at George Washington Birthplace National Monument

When visiting the Washington birth site, be sure to take a tour of the Memorial House and a stroll around the Colonial Farm where you can see horses, sheep, and cows. House tour times vary per season, so be sure to check the National Park Service’s Operating Hours and Seasons web page for the latest schedule. Plan to spend between 1 to 2 hours for the visit.

THE STORY BEHIND LOCATING THE BIRTH SITE

George Washington was born February 22, 1732, on a farm situated along Popes Creek that his father, Augustine, had both inherited and expanded through marriage and additional purchases. The farm was 1,300 acres, most of which was forest and pasture. Only about 15 percent could be used for agriculture, and tobacco was the main crop. The Washingtons had approximately two dozen slaves to work the land.

The Washingtons lived at Popes Creek until George was 3 ½ years old, at which time they moved to Hunting Creek (when George later inherited that property he renamed it Mount Vernon). They still owned the Popes Creek farm, and George often returned until his father died in 1743. In Augustine’s will he gave the land to George’s half-brother, also named Augustine Washington, who later willed it to his son William Washington when he died in 1762. William added two wings to the house and named it Wakefield. He lived in it until it burned down on Christmas Day 1779. No replacement home was ever built, and most of the salvageable materials from the old house were used by William to build a new home near the mouth of Bridges Creek. The old foundation soon became lost to nature.

In 1815, George Washington’s adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, returned to the Popes Creek farm to identify the location of the house that Washington was born in. Having heard many stories about the home, he was certain that he could pinpoint its location. The only visible sign of a former residence was the ruins of a chimney. It was on this spot that Custis used some of the bricks to build a pedestal, then placed a stone slab he had brought with him, one specifically engraved for the occasion, on top.

The laying of the stone slab was the last thought given to Washington’s Popes Creek birthplace for many years. Even when his 100th birthday celebration came in 1832, there was little interest in the site. The few people who visited over the years only mentioned how overgrown the area had become. In 1856, Bishop William Meade visited and reported that the Custis stone lay in pieces and that only the chimney ruins remained.

In 1858, Lewis Washington, the current owner of the property, donated to the state of Virginia the Washington Family cemetery and a 60-square-foot lot that included the chimney marked by Custis, with the agreement that the state would enclose the lot with a fence and make it a memorial. The lot size was estimated to be the size of Washington’s house, and it thus became the de facto birth site. Unfortunately, the Civil War began and Virginia was not able to follow through on its agreement. In 1870 it was reported that the Custis stone had been stolen altogether, and in 1873 the chimney collapsed.

Following the Civil War, Virginia was in no financial condition to develop the Washington birth site into a memorial, so in 1879 the U. S. Congress appropriated $3,000 and sent Secretary of State William Evarts and a group of men to conduct a land survey. After meeting with local residents, including John Wilson, the owner of the surrounding land who had also donated a few acres to Virginia for the memorial, it was determined that the chimney was all that remained of the birth house.

In 1881, the Department of State sent a civil engineer by the name of F. O. St. Clair to the site to excavate the chimney area. No record of his work exists, but letters indicate that he found broken pieces of china and various other houseware items. John Wilson, the man who had verified the location to Secretary Evarts, spoke to St. Clair and learned that the chimney was the spot that the government had chosen to memorialize as the birth site. Wilson now insisted that the chimney was part of another building and that the Washington house was located approximately 50 feet away. He wrote letters to the new Secretary of State, James Blaine, but his protest was ignored. Wilson’s change of mind can only be attributed to some sort of misunderstanding when meeting with Evarts.

On April 21, 1882, the Virginia-owned property was transferred to the U. S. government and put under the control of the War Department. The federal government bought an additional 21 acres from Wilson in 1883. A decision had been made to erect a granite obelisk—the one that now stands at the entrance to the park—on the site of the chimney.

Original granite memorial that marked the Washington birth site at George Washington Birthplace National Monument

Original granite memorial that marked the Washington birth site at George Washington Birthplace National Monument

Surveys of the property began in 1895 to prepare for the obelisk. During this time the 60-square-foot lot was excavated and a two room building foundation was discovered. Because the building was very small—30′ x 20’—it was certainly nothing that a wealthy farmer like Augustine Washington would have lived in. Local residents, certain that George Washington lived in a larger house, began circulating rumors that the government had the wrong location. Regardless, plans to erect the obelisk on this spot went unchanged, and from that time until the early 1920s the spot was accepted as the George Washington birth site.

CREATING THE MEMORIAL

A Colonial Revival swept the nation in the late 1800s and the early part of the 1900s, fueled by wealthy women who wanted to show how patriotic they were. The purchase and restoration of Mount Vernon in the 1860s was the result of society women banding together to raise money for a cause. Their success jump started other such groups, including the Wakefield National Memorial Association (WNMA) that was formed in 1923. The group’s goal was to build a replica of Washington’s birth house on the birth house site, restore the Washington Family cemetery, and promote the site to national prominence, all in time for Washington’s 200th birthday celebration in 1932. The ladies of WNMA had their first meeting in Washington, D.C., in front of former president William Taft, who was now a Supreme Court Justice, and a few senators. Afterwards, the group raised enough money to purchase 70 acres surrounding the Washington birth site property already owned by the U. S. government.

With political allies in high places, the WNMA was granted permission by President Calvin Coolidge to build their house in 1926, with the understanding that it would be a replica of Washington’s home. The U. S. War Department and the United States Fine Arts Commission had to approve any design plans. It seemed of little concern that nobody knew what Washington’s house actually looked like. No drawings or written descriptions of it existed, and the only foundation discovered at Popes Creek was of a small, two-room building. Nevertheless, plans for the replica house moved forward.

Now that the house could be built, the argument over the correct location of the Washington birth house once again arose. The president of WNMA, Charles Moore—yes, the women had to get a powerful man to run their organization—believed that the obelisk sat on an outhouse and insisted that the site be excavated again. In the spring of 1926, the War Department sent engineer Arthur Hook to the site—he found nothing more than additional houseware items. No new foundations were discovered, and he saw no reason to change his mind about building the memorial on the original Custis site.

Moore also felt that the WNMA’s claim to be building an actual replica of a house nobody knew anything about was a bad idea and tried to distance the WNMA from the original proposal, stating that they were only building a museum and in no way implied that the house was an actual replica of Washington’s home. He wanted the foundation of the 30′ x 20′ building found in 1895, now buried under the memorial obelisk, to be preserved and outlined for the public to see and the WNMA house to be built elsewhere. However, the women of WNMA would not hear of it and continued with their claim that their house was an authentic replica on the correct site.

The War Department was also skeptical of Hook’s report and of the WNMA’s plan. In 1927, Frederick Olmstead Jr., son of famed landscape architect Frederick Sr., was sent to evaluate the site. Olmstead came to the conclusion that building a house and stating that it was a replica was an unwise decision. Even the head of Colonial Williamsburg agreed that it was a dumb move, but neither opinion swayed the WNMA to abandon its original plan.

At this time John D. Rockefeller became interested. In 1928 he purchased another 267 acres near the birth site for $115,000, promising to release it to the WNMA as soon as it raised a matching amount of money for the project. Unfortunately, this could not be done without outside help. In 1930, the WNMA’s design proposal was approved by the Secretary of War, but without raising the $115,000 the plan for the memorial park could not proceed. It just so happened that at this time the National Park Service was attempting to get into the historical property side of preservation, having up until that time overseen only natural resources. A deal was cut that deeded all WNMA property to the National Park Service, which in turn appropriated the money to move the obelisk and to build the replica house. The George Washington Birthplace National Monument was signed into law on January 23, 1930.

The director of the National Park Service, Horace Albright, knew there were no known drawings of the Washington house and that the spot marked by Custis may well be wrong, but with the 200th birthday coming up, he wanted there to be something to celebrate. There was huge public interest in all things George Washington, and the National Park Service wanted to take advantage of the publicity. After all, this would be the first history-based National Park (Colonial National Historical Park was in the works, but would not become a reality until December 1930).

Building the wrong house on the wrong spot could make the National Park Service look bad, but Albright had a loophole to exploit. The land and building would not officially become National Park property until the house was finished and dedicated, all under the management of WNMA. The National Park Service was to only become the caretaker of the property. Thus, if one day the house was proven to be way off, it was the fault of the WNMA and the Department of the Interior (which had to approve the plans), not the National Park Service.

During preparation for the replica house construction, the foundation of a chimney was found 50 feet west of the obelisk. It was determined that this was part of the kitchen, so the plans were revised to now include a reconstructed kitchen on this spot. Up through the early 1900s, kitchens were often constructed as separate buildings from the main house due to the heat they produced and the fire hazard they presented.

Kitchen at the Washington Birth Site, George Washington Birthplace National Monument

Kitchen at the Washington Birth Site, George Washington Birthplace National Monument

The architectural plans for the replica house called for a larger building than the foundation unearthed back in 1895, despite the fact that this was presumed to be the spot of the birth house, and thus the birth house foundation. The birth house replica was to be of a size representative of the highest social and financial standing that a farmer such as Augustine Washington might obtain. Its final design was supposedly based on the recollection of a drawing seen by Mary Minor Lightfoot, a niece of George Washington Ball. However, the home bears a suspicious resemblance to the childhood home of WNMA founder Josephine Rust.

The foundation on which the obelisk once stood was examined one more time, then destroyed so that construction on the new building could begin. Can you imaging destroying the remains of George Washington’s birth house so that a phony building could be built on top of it? That would never happen today, but back in 1930 nobody seemed bothered by it, other than National Park Service landscape architect Charles Peterson. He called it an “archaeological crime.”

Construction on the house began in the summer of 1930. While only a replica of a Colonial-era home, it was built with great attention to detail using techniques available in the 1700s. A kiln was set up and bricks were actually manufactured on site using local clay. The house was finished one year later in the summer of 1931, in time for the birthday celebration the following year.

BUILDING X

What went ignored during the building of the replica house is that two months prior to construction another building foundation had been discovered. Named Building X, this was much larger than the foundation that was discovered in 1895. The architect of the replica house, Edward Donn, even went so far as to sketch a house based on the new foundation size, but the idea was stifled by WNMA historian Charles Hoppin, who did not want construction delayed. Hoppin argued that the large building was nothing more than a storage facility. The foundation showed that it began as a small, single room and was subsequently expanded, so Donn accepted the idea that this was not a house built all at one time, and thus most likely not the house in which the Washingtons lived.

Despite the discovery of the new foundation and the concerns of many people that it might be worth looking into, neither the National Park Service nor any other member of WNMA did anything to halt construction on the replica house. With the 200th birthday of Washington coming up, the entire nation knew about the project. Changing the site now would only mean embarrassment for Hoppins and the WNMA. As a result, the new foundation was reburied and forgotten about.

In 1935, the Historic Sites and Building Act was passed. This made it mandatory that any archaeological finds in a federal park must be identified and preserved. This spurred park superintendent Phillip Hough to figure out a way to fund an archaeological dig of Building X in order to prove once and for all that it was not the birth house foundation and that the replica house was on the correct spot. His plan was approved, and work began in the spring of 1936. However, excavations showed that the building had been burned down, exactly as the Washington birth house had in 1779. Over 14,000 artifacts were found on the site. This was not what Hough set out to prove, and he quickly dismissed the evidence and reburied the site that fall.

Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes was not convinced that Building X should have been reburied, and requested an investigation into whether or not the new Memorial House was indeed a replica of the Washington birth house and if it was on the correct spot. The resulting reports vanished not long after the study was completed, though parts were copied by Ickes’s secretary. The conclusion was that the new house was not authentic and that construction on the house was rushed through only so that it would be completed by the 200th birthday celebration.

Charles Moore, president of WNMA who once questioned the idea of building a replica of Washington’s birth house, now brought in respected historical architect Fiske Kimball who stated that the original foundation discovered in 1895 was not of the birth house, as it was too small, and that Building X is the true birth house foundation. However, since all reports from the excavations of Building X were missing, superintendent Hough and the WNMA were still not willing to admit that the replica house was on the wrong spot and bore no resemblance to Washington’s birth house (the National Park Service itself felt that Building X was the birth house). The solution was another excavation.

Work began in 1941, with the labor force being supplied by the Civilian Conservation Corps, an organization set up after the Great Depression to put men back to work. Unfortunately, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor only four months after the excavation began, all the men were called to military duty and the work was halted. The entire outcome now hinged on lead historian David Rodnick’s interpretation of the short dig and any previous work that had been done at the site. He concluded that Building X was the birth house.

Building X began no bigger than a standard log cabin that you might find in various historical parks around the country, but by the time George was born it had been expanded to double its original size. If this were the birth house, keep in mind that in the 1760s, William Washington built two additions to the house.

Diagram of the Building X foundation at George Washington Birthplace National Monument

Diagram of the Building X foundation at George Washington Birthplace National Monument

Once it was clear that the replica house was not on the correct spot nor a replica of Washington’s birth home, plans for what to do with it were discussed. Some thought that it should be torn down, while others felt that it simply needed to be turned into a museum to display the artifacts found during the excavations on the property. Neither happened, though it was now referred to as the Memorial House. Today it stands just as it did when dedicated in 1932. In the end, the Memorial House is nothing more than a nice replica of a Colonial style home that was authentically constructed. It is open for daily tours, but these are just tours of the house for its own sake and have nothing to do with George Washington.

Potomac River side of the Memorial House at George Washington Birthplace National Monument

Potomac River side of the Memorial House at George Washington Birthplace National Monument

Another excavation of the birth site was conducted in the early 1970s, and no new conclusions were drawn. Building X was the birth site. The foundation was buried once again and outlined at ground level with stones so that visitors could visualize the building’s footprint. And that’s the way things remained until around 2017.

Outline of the Washington birth house foundation created in the 1970s at George Washington Birthplace National Monument (photo taken in 2016)

Outline of the Washington birth house foundation created in the 1970s at George Washington Birthplace National Monument (photo taken in 2016)

Outline of the Washington birth house foundation created in the 1970s at George Washington Birthplace National Monument (photo taken in 2016)

Outline of the Washington birth house foundation created in the 1970s at George Washington Birthplace National Monument (photo taken in 2016)

In 2017, the National Park Service in partnership with Philip Levy of the University of South Florida decided to reexamine the evidence from the earlier excavations, believing that advances in archeology might shed new light on whether or not Building X was the birth house. Levy concluded that the foundation was most likely an outbuilding with overlapping cellars, not the birth house. This led to a full-fledged excavation of the site in 2022.

April 2022 excavation of Building X at George Washington Birthplace National Monument (photo by the National Park Service)

April 2022 excavation of Building X at George Washington Birthplace National Monument (photo by the National Park Service)

When the excavation was concluded, the site was filled once again, though as of 2024 there is no stone outline of the foundation. In fact, visitors to the site when I visited in April wound not even know that anything existed in this field, as even the wayside exhibits have been removed. All that remains now is a camp stove with no indication of its significance. No findings from the excavation have been published at the time of this writing.

Speculated Washington birth house site after the 2022 excavation, George Washington Birthplace National Monument

Speculated Washington birth house site after the 2022 excavation, George Washington Birthplace National Monument

OTHER ATTRACTIONS AT THE BIRTH SITE

Of all the reconstructed buildings at George Washington Birthplace National Monument, the kitchen is the only one actually on its original site. It is furnished with equipment authentic to the time period and usually open for visitors to look inside. During select times of the year, actual demonstrations are held in the building. See the Calendar web page for the George Washington Birthplace National Monument for a schedule of upcoming events.

Kitchen at George Washington Birthplace National Monument

Kitchen at George Washington Birthplace National Monument

Interior of the kitchen at George Washington Birthplace National Monument

Interior of the kitchen at George Washington Birthplace National Monument

The site of a dairy that is believed to have been part of the Washington Farm has also been excavated and marked off with stones.

Site of a former dairy at George Washington Birthplace National Monument

Site of a former dairy at George Washington Birthplace National Monument

There is also a garden also located at the birth site area, another product of the WNMA’s work done in 1931. Traditional flowers and herbs are grown here, but this is not the main farm. If you walk out to where the barn and workshop are located, you will find actual tobacco being grown on a much larger plot of land.

Colonial Revival Garden at George Washington Birthplace National Monument

Colonial Revival Garden at George Washington Birthplace National Monument

Example of herbs grown in the Colonial Revival Garden at George Washington Birthplace National Monument

Example of herbs grown in the Colonial Revival Garden at George Washington Birthplace National Monument

The rest of the farm buildings were built between the 1930s and 1960s. All are historically accurate reproductions of buildings that would typically be found on a Colonial-era farm.

Barn at the Colonial Farm, George Washington Birthplace National Monument

Barn at the Colonial Farm, George Washington Birthplace National Monument

A maze of paths lead all over the historic area. There is even a path that leads down to Burnt House Point, which is the point on a peninsula that juts out into Popes Creek. While the path runs near the water, so many trees have grown up over time that you really can’t see anything until reaching the point. The map on the park brochure makes the entire area appear to be enormous, but in reality it is a small area, and the walk to Burnt House Point and back is only about a quarter mile.

Gravel paths take visitors around George Washington Birthplace National Monument

Gravel paths take visitors around George Washington Birthplace National Monument

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Last updated on April 17, 2024
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