George Washington’s Birthplace Puzzles
February 24, 2019
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I have been pretty obsessed with the landscape of George Washington’s birthplace of late. I first worked with the place’s records in 2008 or so when I was still putting together Ferry Farm’s story. As I wrote about therein, there was an adversarial relationship between the 1920s backers of the Birthplace project—the one that led to the creation of what the Park Service now calls “The Memorial House Museum,” and promoters for Ferry Farm. That conflict led me to the Park Service’s Birthplace archive to check out their files.
In 2013, I conducted a review of the site’s 1930s archaeology and with Ranger Amy Muraca and Alena Pirok, now of Georgia Southern, we showed that the current understanding of the site is not exactly supported by the archaeological record. Joy Beasley wrote an excellent short review of the place’s story and the battle between two buildings and their backers for the title of Washington’s birth home if you need a catch up. Our argument’s long and short though is that what is commonly called ‘Building X’ and considered the birth home is so contradiction ridden, that at best it makes a poor case for being that home. At worst it is all wrong and the home is elsewhere on the land.
The matter of the building cannot be settled without a re-excavation of the site. What I want to share here in blog form though is what I am seeing in the old maps of the landscape. I am trying to make sense of the old road system and the fragments we see of it in survey maps and other sources. Roads bear on the ages of buildings and all it speaks to how the landscape functioned in the eighteenth century. This is a puzzle—and like all puzzles, it is pretty absorbing. I have been at this for a while, so I am going to jump in where I am. There is no easy entry point, so any one is as good as any other.
But let’s begin with a clipping from the 1897 USGS survey map. That map built on an earlier one from the 1870s and incorporated a lot of collected information—some good, some bad. By this time, there were already commemorative efforts to mark Washington’s Birthplace, and that information is on the map. Much of it is wrong—but the drafters were not worried about that. What I like about this map though is that elements of the early 19c maps are still there and presumably still part of daily life for locals. The big straight roads you see are new ones built by the commemorators. The smaller crinklier ones are the old road system—the one now covered by trees and largely forgotten. That is the system I am trying to figure out.
1897 USGS map of George Washington’s Birthplace in Westmoreland County, Virginia