… Washington’s early biographers succeeded only in reducing him to a cardboard cutout, immaculately perfect and dry as a tinderbox. The first book to break this trend, The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington by “Parson” Mason Locke Weems was a tremendous hit. – Edward G. Lengel, “Inventing George Washington.”
March is a cold and windy month, but for museum lovers, this time of year brings warmth when museum doors swing open for the start of another season. With that in mind, the better half and I drove down to Dumfries on Sunday to see the Weems-Botts Museum.
Located about halfway between Washington and Fredericksburg, Dumfries held a lot of promise for 18th Century tobacco planters in Virginia. Expanding their empire northward into the Piedmont, the gentry needed warehouses and ports on the Potomac north of Fredericksburg to inspect, store and ship the coveted weed to the home country.
Like Alexandria, Dumfries began in 1749 and took off like the crop itself. By a matter of a decade or so, both waterfronts bustled just as loudly as those in New York and Boston. Dumfries’ population soared to 9,000 by 1760, one of the highest in Virginia. The county courthouse symbolized the town’s status and importance. Taverns, shops, a playhouse and a horse race track sprang up. George Washington and George Mason conducted business in the town. Its future seemed so bright.
Unfortunately, the tall masts and wide sails slowly disappeared. The planters were double-dipping by also growing the crop in the Quantico Bay watershed. 1763 marked the town’s best year economically, but silt had slowly built up. It wasn’t long before this process ruined the harbor, and thereby doomed the economy.
In “Historic Dumfries, Va, 1749” (Fourth Printing), Lee C. Landing Jr., Town Historian, provides an explanation of this deleterious process.
This expansive soil toiling, with no regards towards erosion control, was the downfall of the town in years to come. The fines of the topsoil, continued to be carried down into Dumfries harbor, where the flow velocity was reduced, which allowed the particles to settle-out on the bottom, thus slowly-but-surely robbing the town of a profitable harbor and eventually sounding its death knell.
Scooting down I-95 from Alexandria, the better half and I survived the “Occoquan Crush,” and minutes later looped onto Dumfries Road (Highway 237). Hanging a right onto Route 1, we were entering the town’s northern border.
In front of us is a sight that begs the question – 250 years after that peak year, what would those pioneering folks in Dumfries make of this landscape?
Disbelief is a good guess. Almost no clues exist to those thriving early days. Passing by Dumfries Café, where Main Street takes a boomerang-shaped detour that amounts to a Business Route 1, an eagle-eyed observer might notice Canal Street on the left and Colonial on the right. The bay, however, that once bumped against the old Indian path, has long since retreated out of sight, as well 99% of the original town.
300 feet further down Main Street lies the first stop for our time traveling guests, a place they would recognize. Occupied by a handful of governmental employees, the two-story brick beauty at the corner with Colonial Street used to be “Williams Ordinary.” Built around 1760, the building went by other names such as “Stage Coach Inn, Love’s Tavern, Old Hotel and later “Albert’s Hotel.”
In terms of its historical presence, there’s nothing ordinary about it. It’s not open to the public, but a commemorative marker on the south side of the building notes, “Williams Ordinary thought to be Virginia’s only surviving Colonial building with all-header-bond brickwork.”
A nearby interpretive marker provides further information. Another tells of the town’s strategic importance during the Civil War. The South blockaded the Potomac and used Dumfries for a logistical center and camp. We would later learn that a mass of graves, something like 9,000 Confederate soldiers, has been found in the area.
Continuing down Main Street, two streets signs, Washington and then Duke provide more clues to the past. As I noted on my previous trip write up, this original part of Dumfries has street names found also in Old Town - Washington, Duke, Cameron, Fairfax, Prince and King.
The two are sister cities in some respects. John Carlyle, a founding father of Alexandria who is buried there, was born in Dumfrieshire, Scotland. In 1740 emigrated to Dumfries. William Ramsay also emigrated from Scotland to Dumfries, and then established himself as an influential Alexandrian. There is evidence that Ramsay transported his clapboard house from Dumfries up the Potomac, and re-built it at the northwest corner of King and N. Fairfax. The house was torn down later, and built to look like the Ramsay House, which serves as the city’s Visitor Center.
Our tour guide makes a right onto Duke Street. We see the neighborhood houses, fronted by a green open space on the left hand side. Our guests show disappointment at first, but are then relieved to see a commemorative marker at the corner of Duke and Fairfax. Encased in brick, it notes that 40 yards to the south, the Prince William County Courthouse stood there from 1760-1822.
The marker on the other side of the brick post reads:
Here, on June 6, 1774, the citizens of Prince William County, declaring their support of the Massachusetts Colony and their defiance of the British Crown, adopted the Prince William Resolves.
Gazing around the neighborhood, one house stands out as different from the others which were built in the 20th Century. One of our guests asks about it. We tell him it was built in 1797 in the Georgian-style. Alexander Henderson was the first occupant. An immigrant from Glasgow, he wore several hats to serve the town, including Virginia delegate to the Mount Vernon Conference in 1785. Sarah Moore Henderson and Alexander bore Archibald, who became the Commandant of the United States Marine Corps for over 38 years. The home is private, so please respect their privacy.
It’s great Prince William County has provided these historical markers and some others nearby, but there’s no substitute for the knowledge, passion and years of experience a docent can bring. After parking our car, we walked (our guests seemed to have disappeared) to the Weems-Botts Museum (tour starts in Annex Building) at the corner of Duke and Cameron. A blonde-haired lady walked in from another room and greeted us. For the next hour and a half, JoAnn gave us a wonderful, fact-filled tour of the Museum, which included information on the history of Dumfries.
The 1½ story house that fronts Duke Street was built around 1750. The vestry of the Quantico Church were the first occupants of the wooden clapboard. In 1798, Mason Locke Weems purchased the property and lived there until 1802.
What “Parson” Weems (1759-1825) lacked in accuracy, he more than made up for in his ability as the great aggrandizer of George Washington. Weems’s Washington was a mythical figure, strong enough to hurl a coin across the Rappahannock River, and man enough to admit to his father he cut down a cherry tree.
As I wrote before, Weems, born in Anne Arundel County with Scottish blood, is the type of figure that is hard to reconcile. In his jewel of a book, “Inventing George Washington,” Edward G. Lengel devotes considerable time to Weems, who parlayed his tenuous connections with Washington into a biography of the Founding Father, first published one year after his death in 1800.
Reprinted many times, “The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington” outsold every title in its time except for the Bible. Weems is easy to criticize for his hagiography and shape-shifting, but Lengel gives him credit, calling him the “father of popular history” in some respects.
The museum house is small, but is filled with artifacts and stories of its multiple occupants. I was thrilled to see a large portrait of Weems hanging on the wall in the tiny dining room, and his frayed collection of books in the living room.
Weems was “quite a character,” as JoAnn said. In a delightful chapter of “The Devil’s Lane,” co-author Catherine Clinton writes that Weems could well be the first author to promote his books by going on tour. Clinton calls him, a “one-man wonder” and “true pioneer of sensationalist journalism.”
Looking around the living room, I spotted a wonderful sight. In a corner of the room, behind the glass door of an old bookcase, is a tattered copy of, “A History of the Life and Death, Virtues & Exploits of General George Washington.” The book’s first publication was an eighty-page pamphlet titled, “The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington.”
Weem’s best-seller went through at least nine reprints. JoAnn told us it wasn’t until about the fifth that Weems included the story of the cherry tree.
Critics assailed Weems for making the story up, but Author Carl Anthony penned a piece last year that points to some new evidence that Weems followers will welcome. In addition to this, Anthony notes that Weems never said Washington chopped down the cherry tree. He said he chipped away at it.
Whether you think he is a champ or a chump, Weems holds on. In his delightful book published last year, author Philip Levy (“Where the Cherry Tree Grew, The Story of Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Boyhood Home”) credits Weems for providing “probably the best known American anecdote,” one that has helped us “touch something Washington.”
Several years ago, when Walmart wanted to build on the sacred site just north of Fredericksburg, the knowledge that, true or not, Ferry Farm was the site of Washington’s chopping and confession, helped galvanize resistance to the proposed mega store. We remember Washington’s upbringing in Fredericksburg because we remember the cherry tree story.
Weems, who sold books out of his home and wove yarns to anyone who would listen, came to pen and paper in a roundabout way. After studying medicine in England, he became a minister for the Anglican Church. Returning home, he took up the pulpit. Around 1794, his restless heart told him to switch again. Making his way to Philadelphia, he began to sell books.
After Washington’s death in 1799, Weems (married Frances Ewell, daughter of Colonel Jes Ewell) wrote Life and Times. Lengel notes the ninth edition was published in 1809, a twentieth in 1825. That year marked his passing in South Carolina. His remains were re-interred at Bel Air (six miles north near Dale City), the historic mansion he once owned. There is some indication that Weems’s death by drowning was mysterious and possibly foul play. Joann later told me Weems was on the trail of a story that would have implicated certain parties in Beaufort.
When I first learned about the Weems-Botts Museum, I have to admit I did not have a clue who these two people were. Botts sounded like something to do with the web.
Benjamin Botts purchased the house from Weems in 1802. JoAnn explained to us Botts added on the living room. After a poor upbringing in Virginia, he came under the tutelage of the famed barrister General John Minor. Botts worked hard to learn the law. His reputation soared to new heights in 1807 when he helped defend Aaron Burr. In the “Trial of the Century,” the former Vice President (1800-1804 under Jefferson) was charged with treason and found not guilty.
Sadly, this life was snuffed out on a tragic night in Richmond, his death a window into a forgotten chapter of Virginia history. On Boxer Day, December 26, 1811, Botts and his wife, Jane Tyler of Dumfries, perished in the Great Richmond Fire, a blaze that destroyed the Richmond Theatre and took over 70 souls. Meredith Henne Baker writes eloquently about this disaster, considered the “deadliest urban disaster in the early years of the United States.”
Our last stop is upstairs in the small bedroom. The Merchant family owned the home from around 1870 to 1968. JoAnn told us about Violet, who lived in the house without power or plumbing until 1968. Five years later the town purchased the property and obtained protection via the National Register for Historic Places.
After the tour was over, the three of us walked outside, where we were greeted by a passing neighborhood resident. The conversation turned to ghosts, which are said to haunt the Weems-Botts Museum. Earlier, JoAnn told us the TV show “My Ghost Story” filmed some footage there for a possible future airing.
As we drove back to Alexandria, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels between the current interest in ghost stories, which not everyone takes seriously, and Weems’s approach to writing. Footnoted research is essential to understanding the past, but you also need to get people in the door. It also helps to protect and preserve some of the old places. Otherwise, the landscape itself becomes haunting.
Historic Dumfries VA, 1749 by Lee Lansing Jr.
Prince William, A Past to Preserve, The Prince William County Historical Commission
Edward G. Lengel, “Inventing George Washington.”
New Evidence Tells Truth of George Washington’s Cherry Tree Tale, Carl Anthony
Parson Weems: A Biographical and Critical Study, Lawrence Counselman Wroth
Where the Cherry Tree Grew, The Story of Ferry Farm, George Washington’s Boyhood Home by Philip Levy
Overlay map of Dumfries and Harbor.