Here, George Washington Was Born: Memory, Material Culture, and the Public History of a National Monument
By Seth C. Bruggeman
Athens: University of Georgia Press, November 2008. Cloth: ISBN: 978-0820331775, $59.95; paper: ISBN 978-0820331782, $24.95. 280 pages.
Review by Nancy Zey, Sam Houston State University
Most driving maps and road atlases feature “points of interest” so that motorists can pick up a bit of history and culture as they make their way toward a particular destination. Some of these points are the birthplaces of famous individuals, such as the house in Mississippi where Elvis Presley made his earthly entrance. The house in Iowa where John Wayne first appeared is similarly highlighted. Many Iowa maps also mark the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk.
The future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk?
Honoring a spot where a fictional character will be “born” more than two hundred years represents an extraordinary example of a general American fascination with natal sites. But of the numerous birthplaces sanctified around the country perhaps none has inspired as much devotion or commemorative activity as the little corner of Virginia where George Washington came into existence. In his new book, Seth C. Bruggeman skillfully details the complex and highly contentious process of memorializing and then reconstructing Washington’s earliest home on the Potomac, a story that ultimately centers on “memory, ownership of the past, and the wonderfully slippery meaning of authenticity” (6).
The story begins with Washington himself. Born in 1732 on Popes Creek Plantation, the future first president spent only three years there before the family packed up and moved forty miles westward. Popes Creek subsequently passed from one relation to another until fire reduced the house to rubble in 1779. Nearly four decades later, Washington Parke Custis traveled to the location where his adopted grandfather was born and placed a stone maker there proclaiming the spot’s significance, an act that seems commonplace today but, according to Bruggeman, was quite novel at the time. A renewed surge of patriotism as well as a Romantic captivation with historical sites and relics compelled Custis to make his pilgrimage, and interest became so widespread that, by midcentury, the Washington descendant who owned the acreage gave it to the state as a permanent landmark. Lack of funds as a result of the Civil War and Reconstruction prevented the creation of a monument, and the Commonwealth of Virginia eventually passed the deed to the federal government. Finally, in 1896, Congress funded (and the War Department erected) a fifty-foot granite obelisk near the ruins of Washington’s ancestral abode.However, almost as soon as the mortuary monument appeared it seemed out of date. Americans at the turn of the twentieth century were becoming enthralled with historic house museums, particularly those associated with the Founding Fathers, such as Monticello and Mount Vernon. Groups of philanthropic ladies had orchestrated the preservation of those structures, and benevolent women would rally again on behalf of Washington’s birthplace. Yet nothing, save a few stones, remained of Popes Creek Plantation. Josephine Wheelwright Rust, a descendant of the Washington family, believed that a replica of the house represented the only fitting tribute, and she launched an association to build one, even though no one really knew what it looked like. When Rust suddenly died, the National Park Service took over and what became known as the Memorial House opened to visitors by the bicentennial of Washington’s birthday.
Questions about authenticity immediately arose among the visiting public, and the questions only became more complicated with the introduction of historical archaeology and the uncovering of “Building X,” the remnants of the Popes Creek house. In a quixotic search for the authentic, the Memorial House underwent several decorative overhauls, and a bizarre living history component was added: farming demonstrations by “Uncle” Annanias Johnson, purportedly the last slave to be born on the plantation. Indeed, living history ultimately proved a saving grace for the site by functioning as a bridge between imagined and authentic past.
When Bruggeman first visited the George Washington Birthplace National Monument in 2003, both the Memorial House and farm demonstrations remained, and an oyster shell showed visitors an outline of the original home. Bruggeman came to the site as a graduate student with the task of writing an administrative history and left with heaps of data as well as a captivating idea for a book. Each chapter reveals rich details of the numerous individuals involved in commemorating the birthplace over nearly two hundred years, as well as the historical circumstances that facilitated or hampered the ongoing project. At the same time, Bruggeman deftly paints the broader context of each development, such as the ancient roots of creating a “locus sanctorum” and of fetishizing relics, the gender politics informing the effort to construct a historic house museum during the Progressive Era, and the lingering Jim Crow tensions surrounding the place as it became a national destination among American tourists. The author inserts himself periodically, inviting the reader to observe the historian’s craft in progress.
Toward the end of the book, Bruggeman notes that current birthplace stewards still endeavor to bring visitors as close to Washington’s first breath as possible, even though research suggests he may have drawn it elsewhere in the county. The story he tells—of Custis, Rust, and others—is verifiable but unlikely to draw many visitors to the remote patch on the Potomac. For those interested in public history, however, Bruggeman’s account of Washington’s birthplace provides an engaging tour through our longstanding, perhaps innate, fixation on relics and pilgrimage sites as well as the complicated process of remembering the past.