Remnantology

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Category Archives: GW Birthplace

The Road to Mattox and Washington’s Birthplace.

One of the reasons I am so interested in making sense of this landscape is that its residents have centuries of dealing with the relationship between land and water. Of course much of the landscape is hard by creeks and rivers. That might just be a regular fact of life, except that the Potomac has been gaining in force driven by changes to the overall climate and ecosystem. At GeWa this means that archaeological sites like the Henry Brooks site are threatened by coastal erosion. More than threatened really–the site is falling into the river. But managing water here has been a problem for centuries. Large and deep drainage ditches are also one of the most fascinating parts of the landscape and I believe they have quite a bit to tell about where and how people lived on, used, and understood this landscape.

That is a part of why making sense of the maps is so important to me as I try to unpack this landscape.  Here is a problem though that is bothering me. Return to Samuel Lamkin’s 1813 survey and map which are a major touchstone for me. Screen Shot 2019-03-21 at 2.43.17 PMThe western border of the Washington land Lamkin surveyed was the road he called the Road to the Burnt House–it is the backwards L I have highlighted in this close up photo. The ultimate destination and name of that road is a question in and of itself, but for now, let’s focus on the spur that breaks off to its south–also highlighted here. Lamkin called this eastbound spur the Road to Washington’s Mill. Indeed, there was a mill at the head of Pope’s Creek for ages–the remains of its 20c iteration are still there to be seen. The area is now called Potomac Mills–not be confused with the giant mall on I-95 near DC. Right where Lamkin has written “Washington’s” there is another road forking with a spur headed back westward–making for a sort of backwards Z of a road.

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Upside down clip of Lamkin’s map showing his Road to Mattox.

It is that last spur–the west heading one–that is troubling me. Lamkin called it Road to Mattox. That would seem to be a reference to Mattox Creek which is the other large creek bounding this land on the west just as Pope’s Creek bounds it to the east. The problem is that it makes no sense to me for the road to Mattox to be here. The Road to the Burnt House seems to end at the head of Bridge’s Creek–the small creek in the middle of the land. The road’s westward turn–the bottom of the backwards L–runs back to King’s Highway which was the main road down the peninsula and more or less survives today as Route 3. That road itself would have run past the head of Mattox, so why then would a road headed there run south of that road when the whole creek is in fact north of King’s Highway. Take a look at the Google Maps screen grab I am posting below and see if you can follow my reasoning. There are a few options. One is that Mattox refers to something other than the creek, but I doubt that. More likely is that this Road to Mattox in fact links back to King’s Highway somewhere close by, but off the map. On Lamkin’s map, both The Road to the Burnt House and The Road to Mattox cut off before we see where they are going–but notice how they both are headed more or less the same direction. It is easy to imagine Kings Highway running up and down just to the left of this map with both roads connecting to it there.

This is the sort of unspooling one has to do when trying to make sense in detail of these sorts of landscapes. One is always working from scraps and no one is going to come in and set you straight. Part of what makes this so important to work out is that local naming practices are valuable clues to how the roads functioned as part of the larger human social network. Every road has at least two directions–two destinations. Thus, the choice to highlight one direction in a name over another says a lot about how the road functioned and how people understood these places. Why is this the Road to Mattox and not the Road to Washington’s Mill–after all it went there as well?  That was a choice. Whose eyes are we seeing through? What does it mean that The Road to the Burnt House seems to be named for something at its eastern end, while the Road to Mattox is named for something at its west? After all, the Road to the Burnt House was also a road to Mattox via King’s Highway–n’est pas? These are choices here and those tell us something about how this place worked. The past people are trying to tell us us something in this subtle way.  Maps kick ass!

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Mattox Creek is at the left and Pope’s Creek is right. GeWa is marked with the pin. You can see Potomac Mills at the head of the creek and also note that it sits on Rt 3–the old run of King’s Highway. The section of Lamkin’s map I shared is all happening between GeWa and the place called here Wakefield Corner (a 20c name). That run of Rt 3 between Wakefield Corner and Potomac Mills is what I think Lamkin’s roads are linking to.

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Surveys and Plats at George Washington’s Birthplace.

Here’s how this worked. A surveyor and his assistants would walk or ride the “metes and bounds” of a property noting the distinguishing landscape features that defined the various corners and limits of a property. Sometimes the border was a creek. Samuel Lamkin’s 1813 survey of the old Washington lands at GeWa for example, began his survey at Bridges Creek and then followed the run of “the said creek the several meanders thereof.” Other times it was a road or fence. A survey would often include notable landmarks like the “red oak at Pea Hill Gate” Lamkin singled out because any local would know just what he meant. Other times a party might make their own marks when nothing obvious was in sight.

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The opening lines of Samuel Lamkin’s 1813 survey as reprinted in 1859.

Three Chopt Road west of Richmond, Va for example is named for just such a surveyor’s mark. Not all markers survived though. Seventeenth-century surveys of the area that became Williamsburg, Va often referred to a now-long-lost large stone. No has ever located that exact spot adding a fun element of guess work to understanding property lines.

The game then was for the survey team to measure the direction and distance between each point as the team came upon them. So a survey was more in the form of what used to be called a “rudder,” — a verbal and numerical description of a walk over the land. Again from Lamkin: “Thence S 42 ½ [degrees] W 16 poles to Wakefield Gate at H.”

The next step was to “plat” the survey–to draw it as a map: to change the words to a form of art. Not all surveys were platted, but plats are among my very most favorite forms of documents around. The best have the survey written on them as well so you can sort of trace out the path yourself. These documents are full of detailed landscape information while giving us the opportunity to see the land as it was understood and prioritized in the past.

We are lucky that the Washington land had several surveys and plats over the years. These are vital tools in reconsidering the place and making it all make sense.

One of the earliest is the Robert Chamberlain’s 1683 map of the land that shows the location of John Washington’s (1631-1677) house on the right in relation to the Potomac River at the bottom of the map. The play is a masterpiece of the art form. From the compass sign to the little symbolic houses (stay tuned for a post about those), this is master craftsmanship here.

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Robert Chamberlain, 1683

Not all plats are as clear as this one though. The Library of Congress has an obscure collection of Washington related documents that bear on the GeWa story. Take a look at this crazy plat and see if you can understand it. It represents a subdivison of what should be Washington and neighboring land from sometime in the early 18c. The waterway on the right is the Potomac. Note how the drafter has used hash marks to indicate shore lines. He has made the river rather narrow and shows the Maryland shore on the far right. But look at how those hash marks work along Pope’s Creek on the bottom of the map. See the problem? I guess this is the first survey plat By M. C. Esher.

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Samuel Lamkin’s 1813 plat and survey is one of the most useful documents for trying to figure out some site mysteries. This is one we will return to again and again as I blog this project.

Photostat of survey plat Lamkin 1813 COLOR

Samuel Lamkin, 1813

George Washington’s Birthplace on C-SPAN.

George Washington’s Birthplace Map and Art.

We need some background. George Washington’s birthplace is in Westmoreland County, Virginia. It is just off of Route 3 about 40 miles east of Fredericksburg. If you drive out to visit there you can also swing by Stratford Hall a few miles farther east and see one of the most remarkable eighteenth-century Virginia homes. Washington’s Birthplace–some times called Pope’s Creek, other times called by its mid-18c name Wakefield–is owned and run by the National Park Service. The site’s NPS name is GeWa (first two letters of a site’s first two names), and I have gotten pretty used to that name. But GeWa is not an easy site to interpret to visitors. There was not much left of the old Washington homestead above ground by the start of nineteenth century. The location of the home—the Washington birth home—that so many have wanted to find has been a mystery since then. Everything built that is visible today is new–and error riddled. For a deeper background on the colonial history of the site and how the park has reported it, take a look at this Cultural Landscape Inventory. It is a good survey of the land ownership history and some of the challenges. It also embeds some of the assumptions we are now challenging.

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This is Benson Lossing’s etching of the stone Parke Custis left at the site. Lossing never saw the stone. 

In 1815 George Washington Parke Custis and friends placed a commemorative stone where they thought the home had been, but they relied on the memory of others to locate the site. Since then the focus has been on where that stone had been. Even in the 1920s as the nation was getting ready for the Washington birth bicentennial, debate still focused on a chain of memory used to locate the lost stone. Independent evidence—like archaeology—was made to fit with stories and privileged memories rather receive its just due as an authoritative and independent stream of information. The park is now working to correct the confused mix of stories that have held sway for decades, and I am glad to be helping.

Gewa paintingThis NPS commissioned painting is a fine representation of the fanciful landscape as imagined by the 1920s folks, here painted with newer understandings of outbuildings layered onto it. It is not a bad vision of an 18c Virginia plantation–it’s just that it is composed of made up parts. No such plantation existed here. The painting shows the fanciful 1920s Memorial House Museum as the Washington home. It was not. In fact, there was very little actual research that went into its building. It was a vanity project by an autonomous group of commemorators and the home looks like a cross between Gunston Hall and Twifford which was the home of the main backer’s grandmother.

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This is a Historic American Building Survey photo of Twifford in King George County, Virginia. 

Not only that, but they sat their brick version of Twifford atop the remains of a curious outbuilding—remains which were destroyed in the building process. The rest of landscape is more imagination than anything else. We saw the same thing at Ferry Farm where an iconic set of errors were reinscribed with each new rendering giving new life over and over to old error. Nevertheless, this painting captures what visitors to the site see (more or less) and what rangers work so hard to clarify. It is a difficult task since so much of the available information and art is working against their efforts to share a better understanding. The little white outline on the right has been called Building X. That is the set of brick foundation features—excavated in 1930 and 1936 and which we re examined in 2013. These have been labeled the real Washington birth home, but that is a dubious claim at best. The whole site is a work in progress.

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Returning to the 1897 USGC map shows a bit more of this site from a similar angle. What the map labels as “Monument” is the site of the Memorial House Museum. That straight road that runs away from it now extends all the way down to Rt 3. When this map was drafted though, visitors arrived by steam boat on a Potomac dock at the end of the straight road running to the left past the Granary.

George Washington’s Birthplace Puzzles

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.

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1897 USGS map of George Washington’s Birthplace in Westmoreland County, Virginia

 

Dispatches from Reportland.

There is a special joy to writing archaeological reports. In writing regular prose one thinks economically. Every line of page space is valuable real estate, and so, each idea has to make a case for its inclusion. In most writing one is wary of opening unwanted doors, or hinting too broadly at themes one does not plan on addressing. The result is that great care taken to tie up ends and not waste time. But in reports, there is no idea, no research choice, no hypothesis on the way to another hypothesis that should be silenced. If books and articles are about persuasion, craftsmanship, and artifice, then reports are their more democratic populist cousins. You ideas had better measure up to make it into article prose, but over in Reportland, everyone gets their moment in the spotlight no matter how consequential or trivial they are. Reports are great places to indulge the anal-retentive detail-mad side of one’s mind.

Revisiting the GW Birthplace

I have a team of graduate students hard at work at the George Washington Birthplace National Shrine in Westmoreland County Va.

Memorial House at the birthplace site of Georg...

Memorial House at the birthplace site of George Washington. The foundation outline in the foreground is believed to be the actual location of Washington’s boyhood home, which burned down in 1779. George Washington Birthplace National Monument, Westmoreland County, Virginia. 30px (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They are working under the supervision of Ranger Amy Muraca and are being funded by the NPS to make sense out of a series of excavations dating back to the 1930s. We call this sort of work Forensic Archaeology since it involves working with a problematic record we did not create. We might also call this particular project an example of Cold Case Archaeology. Our goal is to try to understand what has long been called “Building X” and is interpreted as being the home where Washington was born. The problems are legion as Joy Beasley outlined in what remains the best piece on the site.[1] To being with, the building is a sort of impossibility—architecture by M.C. Escher, if you can picture that. It seems clear that the outlines of what could be four or five rooms (all that survives are brick cellar footprints and nothing above ground) represent varied building episodes and could not have all stood together at the same time. Yet that is just how the building(s) has been understood—and sometimes quite smugly at that. Our job this summer is to untangle this mess and begin to speak from the data—perhaps for the first time in the site’s life.

Already I have been seeing some problems for the current interpretation. The layers in the cellars’ fill do not point to a single filling episode. Also, a major house fire is a crucial part of the current story and interpretation. The evidence for that fire is fading fast, just as did that of the Ferry Farm house fire. On top of that, the dates of the artifacts are not working either if they are supposed to match the current story. In short, it is a mess. But in a few weeks we will have the beginnings of a whole new and data-centered understanding for “Building X.” I will be presenting a paper on this all at the 2014 Society for Historical Archaeology Conference in Quebec, Canada, but I am also seeing that there is whole book to be done on this fascinating and confusing landscape. For now though, we just need to move slowly ahead and make out charts and spreadsheets and reserve judgment.

English: Artifacts on exhibit at Visitors' Cen...

English: Artifacts on exhibit at Visitors’ Center, George Washington Birthplace National Monument, Westmoreland County. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One thing that makes this very exciting, is that this is an “inside job,” that is to say that this is the park reassessing itself—we are just the labor in that task. It is great to be part of the park’s ongoing and evolving understanding of itself. It is also great for students to have such an important hands-on role in this sort of research.


[1] Joy Beasley, “The Birthplace of a Chief: Archaeology and Meaning at George Washington Birthplace National Monument” in Myth, Memory, and the Making of the American Landscape, Paul A. Shackel, ed. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001), 197-220.

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