Remnantology

Dedicated to the examination of the remnants. Phil Levy's words in reference to history, archaeology, Judaism, academe, music, outdoorsing…

Category Archives: National Park Service

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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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.

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