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
June 17, 2013
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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 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. 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’ 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.
 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.
June 17, 2013
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This last few weeks has been all about reading Washington biographies. Not the whole things mind you, and not a total list (close to 400 by one good count), but rather a wonderfully selective handling of the earliest pages from about 70 tomes. I am only interested in how the childhood years are handled, and a few crucial moments later on depending on the book. I mostly took photos of the 30 some odd pages I needed from about four libraries’ collections. That allowed me to sit in relative peace and read with headphones on and hot chocolate at the ready. I arranged them chronologically and then waded in to what began as about 15, but amounted to 70 when I was done with the list. Some were penned by the famous names including Humphries, Marshall, Ramsay, Sparks, Bancroft, Irving, Lodge, Wilson, Hughes, Woodward, Fitzpatrick, Freeman, Flexner and the newer ones as well.
A portrait of Washington Irving. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
But add to those the more understandably forgettable players such as Wister, Whipple, Hill (twice for the love of Pete!) Thayer, Norwood, and the inexplicable Randall. Of course I also dealt with the fabulists like Weems, Lossing, and the producers of a very odd early 20c genre that created a fictionalized childhood complete with dialogue, all adorned quotation marks. I have more to do before I am ready to finish off the chapter this research supports, but here are some early freebie observations. So much of this is by and large a crap literature. It is derivative, slapdash, and deeply canonical. It all hangs on certain set piece moments (that is what the chapter is arguing) and each of those takes on lives of their own. What is worse, they are desiccated moments—received concerns that even the authors have a hard time getting worked up over. It is a smug literature, filled with a cloying self-satisfied air enabled by the need to navigate “fact” and “fiction.” Nothing makes the historian, or worse, the biographer, more odious or more slap worthy than when they are self-congratulating over their ability to be wiser than those who have repeated “myths” whereas “I” have the real truth at hand. This is made worse—or perhaps made humorous and therefore made this work fun, (read ‘doable’) –by the fact that no sooner does a biographer snark over a myth here and a fable there, than they simply repeat some other cherished canard uncritically. It really is quite remarkable to see unfold over time. It has made me all the more committed to not debunking but discussing.