If you want to know the truth about history, start with George Washington’s birthplace.

August 9, 2015

George Washington’s Birthplace (Wakefield) located in Westmoreland County, Virginia

George Washington would have probably scratched his head in disbelief. Let’s pretend that our first President never died, and instead he has been asleep for over two hundred years. When he finally wakes up, he decides to rent a car ( ok, I know that is a stretch). Naturally, he wants to figure out what has happened , so he decides to get back to his roots by starting from the beginning. After a few close calls on the interstate 95 Beltway going south from Mount Vernon to Fredericksburg, Virginia he spots the more peaceful and scenic road to home – the Northern Neck of Virginia. It is all coming back to him and soon he is pulling into the driveway of his childhood home and … he is SHOCKED! This is not his home. Except for the land, there is nothing that even resembles his parent’s house, including the location of the house. There is clearly a masquerade that is going on here. George Washington probably wishes he had never woken up.

Washington was born in 1732 in Westmoreland County, Virginia. The house that he knew as a child, named Wakefield, burned to the ground when he was a teenager. In the 1920’s an effort gained steam to honor Washington by rebuilding Wakefield. Here’s the problem – little information exists to describe the property. Many historians think it was a simple structure, and most likely a frame house. Evidence suggests that Augustine (George’s father) may have built the original house (1728) by himself. Since Augustine was also farming 1200 acres it seems unlikely that he would have had time to build anything but a simple and unpretentious house.

A collaborative effort was made by several groups to build the new house. All parties were constantly at odds with each other. Different historical visions surfaced from the start of construction. There was a tug of war between the National Park Service and a local women’s group called the Memorial Association. The women won. Their organizer, Mrs. Josephine Wheelwright Rust, wanted to honor Washington by making his birthplace into a lovely spot with beautiful gardens and a house that would be possibly reminiscent of one where Washington was born. Instead, the house resembles the one that she was born in and the gardens, although beautiful, did not reflect the colonial period. No historical documentation exists that suggest that any elaborate gardens ever existed.

Finished in 1932, Wakefield is a lovely red brick cape cod and has a dark grey slate roof. The interior befits a man of means, with built-in bookcases and beautiful wood paneling. The National Park Service’s own literature refers to the house as the Memorial Mansion. George’s father owned a good amount of land, but like many farmers of that era, he was cash-poor. Augustine Washington was far from being wealthy. Additionally, the new Wakefield was not even built on the correct site.

Both the historians and the park rangers had wanted authenticity. They had wanted the house and gardens to accurately reflect the property where George Washington was born. They were silenced and the women’s group were allowed to be creative with interpeting history. Eventually, however, the historians and the park rangers suggested practical methods of commemorating Washington. There’s a small museum of family artifacts in the house basement. Also, costumed interpreters try to create a sense of the times of George Washington.

Today, under the control of the NPS, they are careful to distance themselves from calling the house a replica. That is good, but think of the tens of thousands, possibly millions of school kids who did not really get that message. They saw what they saw, and it added up to George Washington being born into a wealthy family. That is so not correct.

Sadly, George Washington’s birthplace is not about history, but about the ambitions of non-historians to romanticize, and fictionalize, his childhood. History needs to be reported as it was and as it happened, not as others want to paint it.

For more information check out Seth Bruggeman’s Here, George Washington was born: Memory. Material Culture and the Public History of a National Monument.

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