In late 1656, the ketch Sea Horse of London set out for what was the wild west of its day: the plantations of the Chesapeake Bay, where it would trade its cargo for hogsheads of tobacco.
The Sea Horse was one of dozens of ships devoted almost exclusively to the growing trade for the “weed.” The ships sailed up the rivers, making every frontier plantation an international port of call.
The hundreds of miles of Bay tributaries were the highways of the time, but were poorly mapped, and often hazardous. The Sea Horse, in early 1657, met a fate in the Potomac like many others before and after: It ran aground, then was sunk by a winter storm.
There was hope that its load of tobacco could be saved. For some time, the crew, including a 25-year-old mate, John Washington, labored to save what they could. As they worked, the young man became friends with a wealthy plantation owner, Nathaniel Pope.
Encouraged by his prospects along the Potomac, Washington prevailed on the ship master to let him stay and make his future on the tobacco frontier. He was allowed to remain, and within a year married the farmer’s daughter, Anne.
That fateful Chesapeake shipwreck would shape history beyond what anyone could have imagined. Not far from from the wreck site, 344 years later, National Park Service Ranger Andrew Packett led a group of school children to a small plot, outlined on the ground by a path of crushed oyster shells. It marks the site of the small house where John’s great-great-grandson would be born in 1732.
Packett had the children kneel, and touch the “sacred soil” with their hands. “This is where freedom was born,” Packett told them. “The child born here would lead his nation to freedom.”
No successful republic had existed on the planet since early Rome, but George Washington would change that. Jamestown may have cleared the way for the English settlement of the New World, but it is the soil of Popes Creek Plantation that gave rise to the boy who would later be the glue that would hold a fragile revolution — and a young nation — together.
He was not the visionary or the writer of the American Revolution, but Washington was universally trusted. He was able to keep 13 colonies from splintering in 13 directions. He was, as biographer James Thomas Flexner called him, “the indispensable man.”
George Washington Birthplace National Monument — now part of the Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, which highlights Bay-related historic, cultural and natural sites — tells the story of how the responsibilities and values Washington learned as a plantation child helped to mold his character.
“What made Washington great was his honesty,” Packett told the children.
In fact, there may even be a ring of truth to that story about young George and the cherry tree. Most consider the story of the boy chopping down the cherry tree a myth, but Packett pointed out that the original story related in the 19th century by Mason Locke Weems — purportedly from interviews with local residents — never says George chopped down the tree, but merely “barked” it.
Then, he fessed up under questioning. Weems likely carried the tale a bit further than the local stories would have supported — including a lengthy speech given by the proud father touting his son’s honesty. “So, the ring of truth to the story,” Packett said, “was his honesty ”
If it did take place, it probably didn’t happen at Popes Creek, but rather at Ferry Farm, a plantation on the Rappahannock River where Washington spent much of his youth.
He only lived at Popes Creek for the first three-and-a-half years of his life. Yet it is what he began learning here, from the responsibilities of plantation life, that would forge his character. “We try to give a complete picture here of the influences that would have shaped the person he became,” explained Vidal Martinez, superintendent of the park.
The park recreates plantation life in the “tobacco society” that thrived around the Chesapeake in the late 1600s and 1700s and would have been typical of the Popes Creek Plantation operated by George’s father, Augustine.
As a large land owner, the plantation master would perform civic duties, including serving as an officer in the militia, vestryman in the Anglican Church, county justice, sheriff and other positions of power and prestige. Many would go on to serve in the House of Burgesses, as did Washington, his grandfather and great-grandfather.
How a man was judged would hinge upon how he performed those public duties, how he treated others and whether he could be counted on to act fairly and justly. “A lot of what Washington would become is rooted in his family duties,” Packett said.
At one point in 1755, Washington was struck and felled during an argument over an election dispute. The next day, everyone expected a duel between Washington and his attacker. Instead, Washington declared, that after reviewing the facts, he had been in the wrong. There was no duel.
A plantation owner would have to learn to be self-sufficient. At the site, rangers explain how the settlers found a way to use just about every part of the animals they raised — down to the goose feathers, which became quill pens.
The river was an important resource, too. Records indicate that 22 varieties of fish and shellfish were pulled from Popes Creek — it was “free food” for the Washingtons and other plantation owners. Fish may have accounted for about 12 percent of their diet.
Because tobacco depleted the land, plantation owners acquired large tracts to secure their future — and potential wealth. Although a plantation may contain thousands of acres, only a fraction was devoted to growing the “weed.” A slave could typically work only about 2 acres of tobacco; it’s likely that no more than 40 acres of tobacco was grown at a time at Popes Creek, based on the number of slaves available to work the fields.
The relationship between the plantation economy and slavery would lead to one of Washington’s greatest internal conflicts. Plantations depended on slaves, but as the man who led his nation to independence, Washington increasingly viewed slavery as wrong.
Ultimately, he went against the prevailing views of others in his state, and became the only founding father to free his slaves. Toward the end of his life, he told one visitor, “I clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union by consolidating it in a common bond of principle.” Should the nation ever split between North and South, another visitor reported, “he had made up his mind to move and be of the northern.”
To survive, plantation owners had to learn proper management of their land. Washington loved farming, experimented with new conservation techniques — he practiced a 7-year rotation for his crops — and promoted management techniques among others.
“Nothing in my opinion would contribute more to the welfare of these States than the proper management of our Lands,” Washington wrote in a letter in 1786. “And nothing, in this state particularly, seems to be less understood. The present mode of cropping practiced among us, is destructive to landed property; and must, if persisted much longer, ultimately ruin the holders of it.”
An expert at tree identification, Washington also expressed a preference for art portraying nature. Contrary to the style of the time, he urged artists to paint America’s natural settings, although he had little success in that endeavor. “Not everyone is aware of so much of what he did,” Packett said.
These are sides of Washington that become clearer as one explores the grounds of the Popes Creek Plantation, visits restored buildings, chats with costumed interpreters, and walks the banks of the creek and the Potomac River, which remains much the same as in Washington’s time. The river still supports eagles, ospreys and river otters.
“This is a special setting,” Packett said. “And, this is the natural setting that Washington grew up in: on the river, on the Bay, and the whole ecosystem around here. These are his roots.”
“Sooner or later, you have to address Washington’s character; you have to look at the land. The most important thing that we can do here is tell people about Washington, the man before the legend.”
[Things are changing. Although the monument seems remote today, the Park Service is worried that nearby road improvements will spur development in the park’s “viewshed.” It is working with land conservancies and others to secure easements that would keep the surrounding landscape much as young George Washington would have seen it.]
Visitors can view the buildings, fields, gardens, animals, rivers and creeks that were familiar features of 18th century plantation life.
George Washington’s actual birth house burned down on Christmas Day 1779. A new house was built in the 1930–31 to mark the bicentennial of Washington’s birth, but in the excitement to reconstruct the past, people got just about everything wrong, including the location of the house, and its size — it’s about twice as big as the house where George was born. Today, the house is called the Memorial House, and features a number of Washington family relics, including a family Bible.
A short drive takes visitors to the site of John Washington’s original house, and the family burial grounds.
The visitor’s center features exhibits and an introductory movie. And, the 1-mile Popes Creek Nature Trail takes people through forests, marshlands, and along the river. A nature guide is available at the visitors center.
George Washington Birthplace National Monument
George Washington Birthplace National Monument is on the Potomac River 38 miles east of Fredericksburg, VA, and is accessible via Virginia Route 3 and Route 204. The park is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. A nominal entrance fee is charged.
A variety of special events depicting events relating to Washington’s life and plantation life takes place during the year. For information, contact the park at 804-224-1732, visit its web site at www.nps.gov/gewa, or link to it from the Gateways Network web site, Network web site, www.baygateways.net