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Rivah Visitor's Guide



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History on the loose: Washington’s birthplace

by Reid Pierce Armstrong

To get a glimpse into the life of an 18th century planter, one need travel no further than the George Washington Birthplace National Monument in Montross where the National Park Service is keeping the colonial era alive. Pope’s Creek Plantation is maintained today as a living example of a pre-Revolutionary plantation. From the heritage breeds of sheep, pigs and cattle to the herb gardens and tobacco fields, the park rangers and volunteer docents are preserving traditions that may otherwise fade into memory.

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Lore holds that, at the age of 26, George Washington’s great-grandfather John Washington washed up on the shores of the Northern Neck after a merchant ship he was on foundered in the Potomac River in 1657. He was taken in by wealthy planter Nathanial Pope. The two became fast friends and John soon married Pope’s daughter Anne. As a wedding gift, Pope granted the couple some 700 acres on Mattox Creek in Westmoreland County.

Over the years, the young John Washington extended his land holdings and built the first house on the property.

His eldest son Lawrence was more interested in politics and the law than the life of a planter. He became a militia captain and a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses but did not expand the family’s land holdings during his lifetime.

Lawrence’s son, Augustine, born in 1694, was only four years old when Lawrence died.

When he came of age, Augustine inherited about 1,000 acres along Bridges Creek, which is halfway between Mattox Creek and Pope’s Creek along the Potomac.

He married Jane Butler in 1715 and together they had four children, only two of whom survived into adulthood (Lawrence and Augustine Jr.).

In 1718 Augustine purchased the adjacent Pope’s Creek property and in 1726 he built a new house there to be called Wakefield. At the same time, he purchased some property further up the Potomac from his sister Mildred. It was called Little Hunting Creek but would later be named Mount Vernon.

Several years later, after Jane’s early death, Augustine married 23-year-old Mary Ball of Lancaster County. They had three children at Wakefield: George (1732), Betty (1733) and Samuel (1734).

In 1735, the family moved to the Little Hunting Creek Property so Augustine could pursue his interest in iron mining. George was only three years old and it would be the last time he would call Wakefield home.

In 1738, the Washington family moved to 150 acres on the Rappahannock near the fledgling town of Frederickburg which provided Augustine with better access to both Pope’s Creek and Little Hunting Creek. He expanded his holdings there to some 600 acres. The property would some day be named Ferry Farm. Two more Washington Children were born on the new farm: John (1736) and Charles (1739).

When Augustine died in 1743, George inherited the Ferry Farm property. He was only 11 years at the time, so his mother managed it for him until he came of age. Little Hunting Creek went to his half brother Lawrence and Pope’s Creek went to Augustine Jr. When Lawrence died without children, George also inherited Little Hunting Creek.

Augustine Jr. never gave up possession of the Pope’s Creek property. As a young man George would return to visit his half brother Augustine Jr. and historians assume that he spent some of his summers there by the river. It is known that George conducted many of the earliest surveys along Pope’s Creek.

The Legacy

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Today some 560 acres of the original Pope’s Creek Plantation remain intact, including trails down to the beach where merchant ships landed several times per year in Washington’s time. Created as a national park in the 1930s in commemoration of George Washington’s 200th birthday, the George Washington Birthplace National Monument has returned to a working plantation.

Volunteers in costume, sometimes entire families, present a living history and demonstrate skills that might otherwise have slipped away: washing laundry the colonial way; shearing sheep with scissors; working a traditional loom; running a blacksmith’s forge; making linen out of flax; cooking over an open fire; basket weaving; growing a medicinal herb garden; and dying yarn with natural plants.

“All the work that went into simple tasks in those days, it’s easy to lose that knowledge over time,” said park ranger Gloria Updyke.

Behind the scenes, keeping up a colonial farm still isn’t as difficult as it was in the 17th century, but it still takes about the same number of people. The Washingtons kept 20 to 25 slaves in addition to the family members. Today about that many people are employed by the park service.

Many tasks, such as sheep shearing and gardening, are demonstrated in the old fashioned way. But, when the visitors are gone, the remaining sheep are sheared with electronic clippers and the grass is trimmed with gas powered mowers.

The park rangers, some of whom live in 1930s cottages on the property, are responsible for everything from feeding the pigs and shearing sheep, drying tobacco and teaching the history to school groups and visitors.

“There is never a dull day,” Updyke said.

In a single day, she gave a school group a tour, demonstrated 18th century land surveying techniques, fed the animals and chased down a couple escaped cows. And that was all before lunch.

Park ranger Dick Lahey also has interesting days.

“Yesterday I went to Richmond with a volunteer to pick up coal for the blacksmith forge,” he said. “The day before that I was planting tobacco.”

George Washington would be surprised to discover how the park rangers equip his family’s plantation nowadays. Rather than order the equipment through catalogs from England and waiting months for it to be shipped overseas and paying for it in tobacco, Lahey places his bids on ebay. He bought an old spinning wheel in perfect condition on ebay as well as some cast iron cookery.

When the park staff wants to introduce a new skill or venture to the plantation, they often have to start by reading about it at the library. Lahey has the responsibilities of getting the tobacco to grow, planting flax for the first time and shearing sheep with scissors – all knowledge that he gleaned from books.

Successful plantations have always required the support of a whole community and today’s plantation is no different. Aside from the park staff, Pope’s Creek Plantation relies on a herd of volunteers who arrive in costume and help demonstrate some of the special skills required to run a 17th century plantation.

A teaching garden is maintained by the Westmoreland Master Gardeners and the Westmoreland 4-H Club, one of the most active around, assists with the care of the animals and helps during special events.

Special Events

While the park is open all year for tours, both organized and self-guided, one of the better ways to experience the plantation life in depth is to attend one of the park’s special events:

  • May 30: Spring on the Plantation. 18th century activities and demonstrations such as sheep shearing, tobacco planting, blacksmithing and open hearth cooking will be offered at Pope’s Creek Plantation. 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
  • July 4: Independence Day. Special activities in conjunction with sister park, Sulgrave Manor, the ancestral home of the Washington family in England. Free admission.
  • August 22: George Washington Birthplace 4-H Heritage Club Event.  Costumed interpretation of Colonial crafts like blacksmithing, spinning and cooking will be presented.
  • September 13: Constitution Commemoration. As the presiding officer of the Constitutional Convention, George Washington played a crucial role in determining the shape of our government. A lecture by a noted scholar will be presented. 2 p.m. Admission to the lecture is free.
  • October 24: George Washington Birthplace 4H Heritage Club Event. Costumed interpretation of Colonial crafts like blacksmithing, spinning and cooking will be presented.
  • December 26: The Memorial House will be decorated for the holidays and filled with colonial music. All day the plantation will be busy with demonstrations and activities performed by costumed interpreters. 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Free admission.


The Animals

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The animals at Pope’s Creek Plantation are all heritage breeds. Here is a rundown of some of the animals you can see during your visit:

Hog Island Sheep is a breed of domestic sheep that were isolated on a barrier island off the Eastern Shore of Virginia for 400 years. In 1933, a hurricane destroyed most of Hog Island, and with the inhabitants abandoning the settled areas, the sheep were left to fend for themselves and reverted to a feral state. In the 1970s, The Nature Conservancy bought the island and most of the sheep were removed in order to prevent overgrazing. The breed is extremely rare today with fewer than 200 registered animals.

Red Devon Cattle were first brought to the Plymouth Colony from Devonshire, England in 1623 on the ship Charity. The first purebred cattle to reach North America, true Devons can still trace their lineage back to England and John Tanner Davy’s Devon Herd Book.

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Ossabaw Island Hogs originated off the coast of Georgia and are descendants of Spanish pigs brought to the new world over 400 years ago. Isolated from other populations, the feral pigs on Ossabaw Island became distinct for their small size, heavy coats and long snouts. They also have metabolisms that allow them to store a larger portion of fat than any other hog, thereby surviving difficult winters and springs with little to eat. As a result, they also have a form of low-grade diabetes, which makes them important to medical research.

America’s first Arabian Stallion was brought to Virginia in 1725 by Nathan Harrison. The horse reportedly sired some 300 foals. George Washington rode one of these Arabian horses and is famously painted riding his Arabian mount to war.

George Washington Birthplace is located 8 miles west of Montross on Pope’s Creek Drive off Route 3. Entrance fee is $4. Children 15 and under are free. The park offers a visitors center, gift shop and ranger talks on the hour from 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Also on site are the Washington Family burial ground, picnic area, one-mile nature trail loop and the Potomac River Beach.

posted 05.20.2009

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