George Washington Stepped Here First

It was just a little sign but it caught my attention. “George Washington Birthplace Monument →.” Since my first mystery is George Washington Stepped Here, I thought it would be cool to see the place where George took his first steps. A “monument” didn’t sound at all interesting, but I figured I’d drive down, take a picture for my website, and be on my way in a few minutes.

I was wrong.Kate Dolan shows where George Washington took his first steps

It turns out that the GW Birthplace Monument is one of the best kept secrets in Northern Virginia. The site has a visitor’s center and museum, colonial replica house, walking trails, and a full set of colonial replica outbuildings including a kitchen, weaving room, blacksmith shop, and barn. Situated on Pope’s Creek just south of where it joins the Potomac River, it’s a beautiful and peaceful setting where it’s easy to imagine the rural world into which Washington was born nearly 300 years ago. Costumed interpreters give tours of the house and grounds. And it’s run by the National Park Service so it’s all free.

The first thing I had to see was site of the actual house that Washington lived in, which is situated about thirty feet from the replica “Memorial House” built in 1930. The outlines of the original foundation have been filled in with crushed oyster shells so it’s easy to get a sense of just how big the house was (or, as it turns out, wasn’t). Archaeologists did not find the actual foundation until 1936, so the building that they refer to as the “Memorial House” was really just a guess at what Washington’s birthplace might have been like.

Washington was born on the Pope’s Creek plantation in 1732 and lived there for nearly four years before his family moved to a site initially referred to as Little Hunting Creek, later renamed Mount Vernon. He never again lived at Pope’s Creek although he did spend a great deal of his adolescent years there visiting his brother and the plantation remained in family hands. In 1779 the house burned down and was not rebuilt. By the time Washington’s grandson visited in 1815, he could only guess which ruins were the foundation of the house, and as it happens, he guessed wrong. But he was not off by much, so it actually makes the site easy to visit. If the Memorial House had been built on the actual foundation site, as they’d intended, visitors would never have had the opportunity to see the outlines of the real house.

The site’s motto is “George Washington Slept Here First,” but they don’t have Washington’s baby bed or very many articles from the family. In fact, the Memorial House displays only two items directly traceable to the site—a gold “sea-faring” wine bottle with a wide base (so it wouldn’t tip over during rough sea voyages) and a tea table. The museum has several more articles found on the site such as a wine bottle seal and farrier’s nippers. But the house is full of period articles that could have been at the site but probably weren’t. In other words, someone used them in the 18th Century, though we have no idea who. My favorite was a “shipment case,” a wooden chest full of enormous wine bottles that had a square rather than round shape to fit better in the chest for travel. I’d never seen anything like it before.

a shipment case of wine bottles coveted by history geek Kate DolanThey also have a reproduction harpsichord that visitors may play. I am so used to seeing signs that say “Do Not Touch” that I almost didn’t even read the sign on this one, which instead basically said “Do Not Touch Without Asking.” The site interpreter was happy to not only open up the keyboard for me but also to open up the case so I could see how the strings were plucked when I pressed the keys. It was great fun – I only wish I remembered how to play more than scales and few chords since much of the music I learned when taking piano lessons was actually written for harpsichord and it would have been fun to hear the notes as they were originally intended. Actually, to do that, I’d need to have brought someone who plays a great deal better than I ever did, but that’s okay. I can bring them on the next visit. It is definitely worth going back, even if only for a picnic in that pastoral setting where time seemed irrelevant.

 

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