Fires at Washington’s Homes
Separate fact and fiction about the fires that affected Washington's childhood homes.
Located in Westmoreland County, Virginia, Popes Creek Plantation (also known as Wakefield) was the birthplace of George Washington. Augustine Washington, George Washington's father, built the plantation house in the 1720s, and it was destroyed by fire about sixty years later. The property is currently owned and operated by the National Park Service (NPS).
The plantation was located on Popes Creek, less than a mile south of the creek's confluence with the Potomac River. The creek itself was named for Nathaniel Pope, an early landowner in the area.1 In the winter of 1656-57, Pope met an English tobacco trader named John Washington whose merchant ship had sunk in a storm. Washington remained in Virginia, marrying Nathaniel's daughter Anne in 1658.2 John Washington acquired hundreds of acres of land and built his home next to nearby Bridges Creek along with several outbuildings and a family cemetery.3
This original property would eventually pass to one of John Washington’s grandchildren, Augustine Washington (1694-1743) who bought more land stretching all the way to Popes Creek, where he decided to build a new home. Augustine started work on a manor house on the site in 1722.4 Scholars have debated whether this was a brand new structure or if he expanded an older house. The consensus is that there was a prior structure.5 However, no known description of the plantation house exists.6
The house was probably a simple one, though it controlled a plantation of 1300 acres with several outbuildings and twenty to twenty-five enslaved workers.7 Augustine and his family moved into the house in 1726 or 1727.8 George Washington was born in 1732 to Augustine and his second wife, Mary Ball. Within a few years, Mary had two more children at Popes Creek. George Washington would later remark that his father, "Augustine lived at the ancient mansion seat in Westmoreland County where he died and was interred in the family Vault."9
The Washingtons moved away from Popes Creek when George was only three. Washington's nephew, William Augustine, was the owner of Popes Creek when it burned down in 1779.10 Later, Washington's grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, placed a stone marker on the site in 1815 or 1816 commemorating his grandfather's birthplace, explaining, "Here On the 11th of February, 1732, Washington Was Born."11 The federal government acquired the property in 1882, though few manmade structures remained. The vault of the original cemetery had collapsed and was filled.12 Popes Creek was formally made a "national monument," managed by the NPS starting in 1932.
In 1923, the Wakefield National Memorial Association (WNMA) was founded with Josephine Wheelwright Rust as its first president. Inspired by Mount Vernon and the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, Rust and the WNMA wanted to build a replica of the house partially because of the upcoming bicentennial of Washington's birth.13 Construction soon began and the mansion opened up to the public in July 1931. However, by 1941 archaeologists determined that the WNMA and the NPS had built on the wrong foundation. Just to the south were the foundations of the original plantation.14 The new building has since been called the "Memorial House."
West Virginia University
5. Oculus, FPW Architects, and John Milner Associates, Cultural Landscape Report: George Washington Birthplace National Monument, Westmoreland County, Virginia (Philadelphia: National Park Service, Northeast Region, 1999), 2.24; Hatch et al., Popes Creek Plantation, 32–33; Freeman, George Washington, 1:36
7. Freeman, George Washington, 1:35; Hatch et al., Popes Creek Plantation, 2.21; Seth C. Bruggeman, Here, George Washington Was Born: Memory, Material Culture, and the Public History of a National Monument (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008), 9.
9. "Enclosure in letter to Isaac Heard, 2 May 1792," The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, Vol. 10, ed. Philander D. Chase, Robert F. Haggard, and Mark A. Mastromarino (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002), 335.
Bruggeman, Seth C. Here, George Washington Was Born: Memory, Material Culture, and the Public History of a National Monument. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008.
Freeman, Douglas Southall. George Washington: A Biography, Vol. 1. New York: Scribner, 1948.
Hatch, Charles E, Brooke S. Blades, Wakefield National Memorial Association, and United States. Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation. Popes Creek Plantation: Birthplace of George Washington. Washington's Birthplace, Va.: Wakefield National Memorial Association, 1979.
Oculus, FPW Architects, and John Milner Associates. Cultural Landscape Report: George Washington Birthplace National Monument, Westmoreland County, Virginia. 2 vols. Philadelphia: National Park Service, Northeast Region, 1999.
Washington, George. The Papers of George Washington. Eds. Philander D. Chase, Robert F. Haggard, and Mark A. Mastromarino. Vol. 10, March-August 1792. Presidential Series. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002.