If you are a fan of big time commemoration events in and around Alexandria, the next two decades will be right up your alley.
In 2024, Alexandria will celebrate its 275th birthday. Two years later comes the 250th anniversary of the founding of our country.
Oops, we forgot one — 2032, the tricentennial of George Washington’s birthday.
What a celebration that one will be as we embrace the leader of the Continental Army, and our first President. Mount Vernon and Alexandria will be wrapped in red, white and blue like never before.
The spotlight might be the hottest at Popes Creek, where Washington was born. The better half and I visited there Saturday, after realizing how crazy it was that we had never been.
The drive down was a familiar one. On Saturday mornings, the Wilson Bridge is a breeze and Highway 210 is not yet bat-out-of-hell crazy. After crossing over the mighty Potomac for the second time, and landing back in Virginia, your reward is the de rigueur pit stop at Sheetz in Dahlgren. The home stretch is Route 3, where you can still drive stretches with an empty rear view mirror (Westmoreland County’s population is about 18,000).
The bummer with the George Washington Birthplace National Monument is the home burned down in 1780. And Washington spent only his first three years here with occasional visits.
But, there’s a developing story going on at the National Park Service site that interprets the family plantation and the site of where our first President drew his first breathe. Recent archaeological investigations are revealing the site of the home may not be the correct one.
Washington was born at Popes Creek (earlier known as Wakefield) in 1732, in a plantation home his father Augustine had built three years earlier. There seemed to be something almost divine about the Northern Neck, the stretch of land between the Rappahannock and the Potomac, and a place where other great national figures such as Madison, Monroe and Marshall were brought into the world.
In 1718, Washington’s father Augustine, himself born on the Northern Neck, had settled on a bucolic spread of land on the Potomac River, some twenty-five miles east of Fredericksburg (founded 1728). A year earlier, Colonel Thomas Lee (1690-1750), had acquired a hefty amount of land five miles to the east. Eight years after Washington slipped away, Robert E. Lee was born there at Stratford Hall.
Washington’s father moved the family in 1735 to a plantation hugging Little Hunting Creek, a place George would turn into Mount Vernon. George had three older half-siblings — Lawrence, Augustine and Jane — from his father's first marriage to Jane Butler, and four younger siblings — Betty, Samuel, John Augustine, Charles, and Mildred -- from his father’s second marriage to Mary Ball.
The move north was a brief stay before the Washingtons then moved to Ferry Farm, just outside Fredericksburg. A sign there proudly hails the city as Washington’s boyhood home. Correct, but Popes Creek is where Washington spent his first three years.
In the 1920s, preparations for the bicentennial of Washington’s birth reached epic proportions. Alexandria pulled out all the stops and hustled to complete the tall temple that towers over the city Washington called his second home. A hefty legion of his fans and others filled with patriotism turned out just to see the cornerstone laid. Many organizations across the country contributed to the cause. The authors of "The Preservation of History in Fairfax County, Virginia" suggest the Bicentennial was "the biggest peacetime celebration in the world during the 20th century." Meanwhile, workers along the river rushed to complete the George Washington Memorial Avenue, today’s GW Parkway.
Across the river, the capital city prepared, too. A planning event memo — “During the year let every trade, group, profession, business and church hold a great conference in Washington” — was music to the ears for merchants and businesses.
As we are witnessing today, public memory is never easy. What should go up, what should come down? What needs re-interpreting?
In some ways, the most difficult task of all is getting the story correct.
Augustine Washington Jr, George’s half-brother and somewhat of a father figure for him, inherited Popes Creek in 1743. His son, William Augustine Washington, inherited the plantation in 1773. William renamed the property "Wakefield." The home burned down in the 1780s and the family moved away from their ancestral estate.
After the War of 1812 was over, George Washington Parke Custis, Washington's step and adopted grand son, who built Arlington as a tribute to Washington, laid a memorial stone at the ruins of Wakefield. The stone later disappeared and the place were Washington was born faded away.
In the 1920s, the Wakefield National Memorial Association formed to get ready for the events of 1932. Archaeology was performed. A memorial house was built. They did the best they could but these were not trained archaeologist and lacked the equipment and resources we have to day.
Subsequent research points to the location of the original home to be incorrect. The recreated home, larger than the size of the original, drew criticism but still serves today as a peek into Washington’s first three years. At least one displayed item is from one of the digs.
George Washington was a stickler for accuracy. Therefore, he would have appreciated someone like Philip Levy. The author of several books on Washington, Dr. Levy participated in the dig several years ago that found the remains of Washington’s boyhood home at Ferry Farm just outside the city limits of Fredericksburg.
Levy has given talks on “Building X,” the site marked off and once thought to be where Wakefield stood.
An article in Fredericksburg’s Free-Lance Star quotes Levy as saying,
Building X is not one single building, and may not be the original (Washington) dwelling at all.
(Note: Building X refers to the site thought to be Washington’s original home).
Levy’s talk is available at C-SPAN. It is titled the talk “George Washington’s Birthplace: Digging Into What We Know, And What We Think We Know.”
The National Park Service is now working with Levy and others to try and determine where Wakefield was located.
Correcting and updating history is never easy either. In a fit of anger and rage, any group of people can unlawfully tear down a monument they don’t like.
The right way takes a lot of work and planning. With 2032 on the horizon, the effort at Popes Creek is already underway…