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Rivah Visitor's Guide



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President James Monroe’s birthplace gains in stature

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The museum and visitor’s center includes portraits of James Monroe, a replica of his Revolutionary War uniform, a scale model of his home and other memorabilia. Photo by Lisa Hinton-Valdrighi

Stories by Lisa Hinton-Valdrighi

There’s an historical marker along James Monroe Highway in Westmoreland County, just east of Colonial Beach. In a brief paragraph, it marks the birthplace and importance of James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States.

Behind the marker, down a gravel road and hidden from passersby, is a new brick building chock full of memorabilia honoring the man responsible for the Monroe Doctrine.

The James Monroe Birthplace Museum and Visitor’s Center opened in April 2008 and introduces visitors to Monroe’s early life during the Revolutionary War.

The grand opening of the center was held on the anniversary of President Monroe’s 250th birthday.

“The citizens of Westmoreland County came to us and said we want you to please help us,” said G. William Thomas Jr., president of the James Monroe Memorial Foundation.

“This project is so important because tourism and economic development is so important to the county,” he added. “We want to make the Northern Neck a destination for history and tourism. It’s quite amazing that within a 40-mile radius, we had four great men born, two of them Presidents of the United States.”

Construction of the birthplace visitor’s center and museum is part of a master plan, which includes reconstruction of President Monroe’s birthplace, a modest 18-foot by 42-foot structure.

For now visitors can get a glimpse of what the building will eventually look like at the museum, which houses several busts of President Monroe, a scale model of his birthplace, portraits and a replica of the uniform he wore during the Revolutionary War. That uniform was donated by the U.S. Army Military History Center.

By seeing his home, said Thomas, “this says to young people, yes, you can come from humble beginnings and become president of the United States.”

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President Monroe’s birthplace was a modest 18-foot by 42-foot rough-cut wooden farmhouse with four rooms. Drawing courtesy of jamesmonroe.net

Background
The plantation where President Monroe was born in 1758 consisted of 250 acres and, through a purchase in 1764, the property grew to 350 acres. When President Monroe finally sold the property in 1783, the deed was recorded at 550 acres. The James Monroe Memorial Foundation was founded in 1927 by President Monroe’s granddaughter, Rose Gouverneur Hoes, and her son, Laurence Gouverneur Hoes. It was incorporated in 1947 and has a long-term agreement with Westmoreland County to develop the site of Monroe Park as an educational, historical, recreational, archaeological and environmental landmark.

In 1976, the Commonwealth of Virginia began the archaeological survey of the birthplace and uncovered ruins of the Monroe family house.

“We found an etching in a book in the 1830s of the home and have been working with William and Mary and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation on plans,” said Thomas. “We’re really very lucky. What makes our little project unique is that someone took the time to draw this picture of Monroe’s birthplace.”

According to Thomas, drawings do not exist for most of the early presidents’ homes.

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The James Monroe Birthplace Museum and Visitor’s Center (above) is open on weekends during the summer and by appointment. Photo by Lisa Hinton-Valdrighi

The Monroe home was a four-room, rough-cut wooden farmhouse with few outbuildings.

Unlike President George Washington, who also was born in Westmoreland, President Monroe spent his entire youth working the farm and did not leave until he was 16. President Washington left his birthplace at at 3.

Architects were commissioned in 2001 to prepare a master plan for the multi-phase development of James Monroe’s Birthplace. 

“The idea behind restoring the farm is to make the history lesson interesting to young people,” said Thomas.

Reconstruction of the birthplace farmhouse and related buildings will cost in excess of $500,000. Fundraising is contingent on state approval, said Thomas.

“The immediate plan is to build the house,” then continue with adding to the visitor’s center, he said. “We’re hoping to raise the money to reconstruct but the economy has been rough and we’re behind schedule.”

Monroe Park and Museum
Although the birthplace home is still only a drawing, said Thomas, the park is still a destination.

The grounds surrounding the museum and visitor’s center include a picnic area and hiking trail. A canoe launch is at the dock on Monroe Creek, which flows into Monroe Bay and the Potomac River.

The center is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays during the summer and by appointment for group tours at other times.

In April, the foundation holds a graveside memorial celebration at President Monroe’s burial site in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. On the last Saturday of April, it hosts a celebration at the birthplace which has included county and state government officials, U.S. congressmen and college and university presidents. The 2012 celebration is slated for April 28.

“We have generations of Virginians helping to honor James Monroe,” said Thomas.

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James Monroe: Fifth President of the U.S.

Famous for his Monroe Doctrine, James Monroe came from humble beginnings on the banks of the Potomac River near what is now Colonial Beach. He was the fifth president of the United States and was one of five children born to Virginians Spence Monroe and Elizabeth Jones.

At age 16, Monroe left his home in Westmoreland County for William and Mary College and shortly after that in 1775, he left college to join the Army and to fight in the Revolutionary War.

At age 24, he was the youngest elected member in the Virginia State Legislature.

In 1799, he was elected governor of Virginia and served until 1803, when he was sent to France with land negotiations. After serving for a second time as Virginia’s governor, he was chosen as President James Madison’s Secretary of State and on March 4, 1817, he took his oath of office as President of the U.S.

During his second term, on December 2, 1823, Monroe presented the Monroe Doctrine, which in short, deemed the American continents as independent and the nations of the Western Hemisphere as republics and prohibited European intervention in the affairs of nations of the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. also promised to refrain from involvement in European affairs.

Monroe died on July 4, 1831, in New York City on the 55th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He was buried in Marble Cemetery in New York but was re-interred to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, where the James Monroe Memorial Foundation holds a grave site memorial celebration annually in April.

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Adding to the visitor’s center is part of the multi-phase master plan for the park and museum. Sketches courtesy of monroefoundation.org

Before you visit:
Directions: James Monroe Birthplace Park and Museum is on Route 205 in Westmoreland County, one mile east of Colonial Beach at 4850 James Monroe Highway at the James Monroe Birthplace Historical marker.

Visit James Monroe Memorial Foundation on Facebook for more information. Phone: 804-214-9145.

James Monroe Birthplace Park and Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Admission to the museum is free. A picnic area is on the grounds and a canoe launch is at a dock on Monroe Creek.

For the history buff:
History buffs should make plans to attend the annual James Monroe Lecture at 7 p.m. Monday, October 3, in the Great Hall at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg.

College of William and Mary visiting professor of history Susan Kern will present “Before Monticello: The Virginia of Jane and Peter Jefferson.”

Merging archaeology, material culture, and social history, Kern’s talk will reconstruct the fascinating story of Shadwell, the birthplace of Thomas Jefferson and home to his parents, Jane and Peter Jefferson, their eight children, and over 60 slaves.

The Jeffersons’ role in settling Virginia provides a new perspective on Thomas Jefferson and on others—including James Monroe—who extended social and political power across Virginia as they moved west.

The program is sponsored by the board, friends and staffs of the following UMW departments: James Monroe Museum; Center for Historic Preservation; Department of Historic Preservation; Department of History and American Studies.

posted 10.06.2011

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