One has to wonder if John Washington had any thoughts about what his place would be in history when he settled in Virginia’s Northern Neck in 1657. Like nearly every settler in the rural colonies he took up clearing and working the land and as was common in the Virginia Colony he raised tobacco. The family gradually expanded his farm acquiring land along Pope’s Creek in the early 1700s. A house was built and it was there in February 1732 that John’s great-grandson George was born on the plantation that would become known as Wakefield.
Washington’s family cultivated tobacco, a labor intensive process that was done with slave labor. Livestock was also raised on the farm. Young George lived here until he was three and returned for some of his formative years. It is believed to be the place where he threw the silver dollar across the Potomac (an impossibility as the Potomac is over a mile wide at this point). The farm gradually expanded until 1779 when the home burned down on Christmas Day and was never rebuilt. Just before the Civil War the Commonwealth of Virginia acquired the property with a goal of preserving it but the war put that effort on hold and in 1882 Virginia donated it to the Federal government for the same goal. Nothing serious was done with the overgrown property until the Wakefield Memorial Association was formed in 1923 to restore the property to its Colonial appearance and to acquire more land with a generous grant from the Rockefeller family.
The land was authorized as a National Monument in 1931. A new home was constructed that year as a memorial home on what was believed to be the foundation of the original house. This was the spot that Washington’s adopted grandson George Washington Parke Custis claimed to be the home in 1815. Much of what furnished the home is over 200 years old but the home is not a replica of the original as it represents a more upper class dwelling of the time. There are no representations of what the home looked like so it is not exactly like the architect had anything to go on. The park opened to the public in 1932 as George Washington Birthplace National Memorial.
A colonial era farm was also reconstructed, complete with outbuildings like a workshop and a barn for livestock. Today animals are still raised on the farm and examples of tobacco farming are on display. A garden was planted on the grounds as well.
For many years historians assumed that the memorial home was where the Father of our Country was born. Yet visitors could not help noticing the empty patch of land devoid of trees in a heavily wooded area just next to the house. Curiosity got the better of the National Park Service and archaeological digs were conducted in 1936 and again in 1974. What they found was the foundation of a Colonial era house. After careful investigation it was determined that not only was this the actual location of George Washington’s birth but obviously that the reconstructed house was not built on the location of the home. It was determined that it was actually built on the remains of the family barn or a distillery. The foundation was covered back up but is today marked with crushed oyster shells to note its location.
Much of Washington’s family is buried on the site including his father Augustine, his grandfather and great-grandfather. The visitor’s center displays several artifacts from the original plantation. The farm and home are open to the public.