Betty Washington Lewis

Betty Washington Lewis
Portrait belongs to Mount Vernon Ladies Association

Monday, June 6, 2016

Do You Know Where George Washington Was Born?

     Two hundred years ago, the Alexandria Gazette published an account of George Washington Parke Custis’ trip down the Potomac River to Westmoreland County, Virginia. The purpose of the trip was to place a marker identifying the birthplace of George Washington.
Source Alexandria Gazette courtesy of Arlington Public Library
George Washington Parke Custis
Adopted Son of George Washington
On June 4th 1816, Custis traveled approximately sixty miles down the Potomac River on his ninety-ton topsail schooner called the Lady of the Lake. The journey began near his home of Arlington House located on a hill across the Potomac River from the City of Washington.[i]
Arlington House
Arlington House
View of Arlington House
He was accompanied by Samuel Lewis, the son of George Lewis a nephew of Washington, and William Grymes, son of Benjamin Grymes an officer in Washington’s Life Guard. The trip down the Potomac River took them past Washington’s Mount Vernon estate toward the Westmoreland County birthplace of Popes Creek.
A View of Mount Vernon
Upon arriving at Popes Creek, the boat was anchored and the passengers took smaller boats to shore. Custis’ own account of the event indicated the schooner anchored in eight feet of water some distance from the land. Smaller boats were taken to the mouth of the creek where the group proceeded upwards to the site of the Washington home.

The group was then escorted to a spot where brick remnants marked the foundation of the Popes Creek home. The house was destroyed by a fire that occurred December 24th 1779. The location subsequently became known by the name “Burnt House Plantation.”[ii]
Map of Birthplace along Popes Creek in Westmoreland County

Ariel view of Birthplace of Popes Creek in Westmoreland County
The bricks that previously formed a chimney were gathered and used to construct a pedestal on which to place the marker. Accounts indicate the freestone marker while transported was wrapped the in the Star Spangled Banner. The first stone marker was unwrapped and positioned on the pedestal. The historic marking occurred more than eighty years after Washington’s birth. The event concluded with the group firing a cannon in salute to Washington.
Source: Harper’s Weekly dated 24 February 1866; George Washington Parke Custis’ Recollections
Sixteen years later, the Alexandria Gazette in an article of March 6th 1832 reported passengers in steamboats still passed the birthplace unaware of the significance and proximity describing the location – remote but a mile over the water’s surface; and hid from his view by a fringe of wild shrubbery.[iii]
In 1851, Custis wrote the Editor of the Alexandria Gazette. His letter published April 16th described his recollections of the trip he took with descendants of four Revolutionary patriots to place the first historic marker at the birthplace.[iv]
The Popes Creek property remained in the Washington family until after the Civil War.[v]
Interpretation of the birthplace at Popes Creek

Custis was the first to recognize the significance and necessity for identifying and preserving the location Washington’s birthplace.
The George Washington Birthplace National Monument was originally settled by Washington’s grandfather John. It is managed by the United States Department of Interior’s National Park Service. To visit the birthplace one travels to the Northern Neck of Virginia by vehicle to 1732 Popes Creek Road in Colonial Beach. From Washington’s boyhood home of Fredericksburg, visitors travel thirty-eight miles down Route 3 East until approaching Route 204 on the left side of the road. After turning onto Route 204, the entrance to the park is located two miles down the road with the visitor center to the right.
The ancestral burial ground is also on the property not far from the Potomac River. Washington’s father Augustine Washington is buried in the cemetery along with George’s grandparents.

Custis and his sister Eleanor Parke were adopted by Washington after the death of Martha’s son John Parke Custis who died of camp fever in December 1781 following Charles Cornwallis’ surrender after the Battle of Yorktown. The children were part of Washington’s family during his terms as President in New York and Philadelphia. Eleanor affectionately called Nelly was ten and Custis was eight when they arrived in New York for Washington’s first term.
Eleanor Parke Custis "Nelly" who married
George Washington's Nephew Lawrence Lewis
In later years, both Custis and his sister were custodians of Washington relics and took pride in distributing Washington relics to friends of George and Martha Washington. The homes of Custis and his sister, in their adulthood, were shrines to their adopted parents. It was Eleanor Parke Custis who eventually sold many of the relics that now comprise the Washington collection at the Smithsonian Institution.[vi] 

On July 4th 1848, Custis attended the ceremony and laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument. He also wrote a series of essays that first appeared in the National Intelligencer and after his death were compiled and published in 1859 and 1860 in a book entitled Recollections and Private Memories of Washington.

[i] With the marriage of his daughter Mary Anna Randolph Custis, George Washington Parke Custis became the father-in-law of Robert Edward Lee. The home of George Washington Parke Custis is now the Robert E. Lee Memorial with the remainder of the plantation land part of Arlington National Cemetery and Fort Myer (Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall).
[ii] Page 116 of Harper’s Weekly dated February 24, 1866, notes “George Washington’s birthplace was destroyed before the Revolution. Upon its site George W.P. Custis, Esq., Washington’s Aid-de-camp [sic], places a slab of free-stone, represented in the above engraving. The house was precisely the same in appearance as the Residence of the Washington Family, shown in the engraving opposite. It was a plain homestead of one story and attic, situated on the ‘Wakefield Estate’, ….The stone which marks the site was deposited in its place in June, 181[6]. It was enveloped in the Star-Spangled Banner, and laid upon the spot by four Revolutionary patriots and soldiers. The pedestal was constructed of bricks from the old chimney that once formed the hearth about which Washington played in his infancy. This was the first monumental stone ever erected to the memory of Washington…” In 1858, the state of Virginia purchased the Popes Creek property. However, in 1882, the federal government purchased the property maintained by the National Parks Service.
[iii] The Alexandria Gazette, dated 6 March 1832 (transcript at Arlington House – National Park Service) reports:
“Washington’s Birth Place. At a time when all that relates to Washington attracts so much attention, and when his tomb is made the subject of a nation’s anxiety, a notice of the Birthplace of the Father of his Country will not be deemed in appropriate. We have a note from Mr. [George Washington Parke] Custis, of Arlington, which contains the memoranda of some incidents relative to the subject which have not before been published.
Gen. Washington was born on a plantation called Wakefield [called Popes Creek during the childhood of the Washington children and later named Wakefield by future generations], now the property of John Gray, Esq., of Travellers Rest lying on Pope’s Creek in Westmoreland County (Virginia) The House which he first saw the light was about 300 yards from the Creek, ½ a mile from its entrance into the Potomac. The mansion has long since fallen into ruins. [no mention of fire] some of the trees of ‘olden day’s, are yet standing around it. There is nothing there at present to interest, except the recollections which must crowd upon the mind, while contemplating the birthplace of Washington.
In 181[6], immediately after the ratification of the treaty of peace, Mr. Custis repaired in his own vessel to the birth place, having prepared a stone with a suitable inscription to be deposited on the ruins of the Mansion. Mr. Custis was accompanied in the execution of this pious duty by Samuel Lewis, Esq., great nephew of Washington and the late Wm. Grymes, Esq., the son of an officer of the revolution who held a command in the body guard. The party landed at Wakefield, bearing in their arms the stone, encircled by the star spangled banner and having gathered together as much materials from the remains of the ancient mansion, as would serve for a rude pedestal, they deposited the stone thereon, with the inscription: - ‘Here on the 22d of February 1732,” Washington was born. The duty performed, the Party re-embarked, and, hoisting their colors, fired a salute from the vessel, thus completing the interesting and surely not unimpressive ceremonial, of placing the first stone of the monument.
A late writer, speaking of this interesting place remarks: -‘…It is surprising that it [Wakefield or more appropriately Popes Creek] should be so little known and visited. Not one in a thousand of the passengers in Steamboats has any knowledge that this ‘solum natale, of him whom the whole world honors, is remote but a mile over the waters surface; and hid from his view only by a fringe of wild shrubbery.’
Will not Wakefield [Popes Creek] like Mt. Vernon, in after time, be the resort of Patriotic Pilgrims?”
[iv] George Washington Parke Custis wrote to the Editor of the Alexandria Gazette and on 16 April 1851 (transcript at Arlington House – National Park Service) the following was published:

Arlington House, April 14th 1851.
To the editor of the Alexandria Gazette:
            Observing in your valuable journal, of a late date, the notice of a STONE placed on the ruins of the House in which the beloved Washington first saw the light, permit me to offer you a brief account of that interesting event, as it occurred six and thirty years ago.
            In June 1815, I sailed in my own vessel, the ‘Lady of the Lake,’ a fine topsail schooner of ninety tons, accompanied by two gentlemen, Messrs LEWIS and GRYMES, bound to Pope’s Creek, in the county of Westmoreland, carrying with us a slab of free-stone, having the following inscription:
The 11th of February, 1732 (Old Style,)
Was Born.
            Our pilot approached the Westmoreland shore cautiously, as our vessel drew nearly eight feet water, and the pilot was but indifferently acquainted with so unfrequented a navigation.
            We anchored at some distance from the land, and taking to our boats, we soon reached the mouth of Pope’s or Brydge’s Creek, and proceeding upwards, we fell in with MCKENZIE BEVERLY, Esq., and several gentlemen on a fishing party, and also with the overseer of the property that formed the object of our visit. We were kindly received by these individuals, and escorted to the spot where a few scattered bricks alone marked the birth place of the Chief.
            Desirous of making the ceremonial of depositing the Stone, as imposing as circumstances would permit, we enveloped it in the ‘STAR SPANGLED BANNER’ of our country, and it was borne to its resting place in the arms of the descendants of four revolutionary patriots and soldiers – SAMUEL LEWIS, the son of GEO. LEWIS, a captain in Baylor’s Regiment of Horse, and nephew of Washington; WILLIAM GRYMES, the son of BENJAMIN GRYMES, a gallant and distinguished officer of the Life Guard; the Captain of the vessel, the son of a brave soldier wounded in the battle of Guilford; and GEORGE W.P. CUSTIS, the son of JOHN PARKE CSTIS, aid-de-camp to the Commander-in-Chief, before Cambridge and Yorktown.
            We gathered together the bricks of the ancient chimney, that once formed the hearth around which WASHINGTON, in his infancy had played, and constructed a rude kind of pedestal, on which we reverently placed the FIRST STONE, commending it to the respect and protection of the American people in general, and the citizens of Westmoreland in particular.
            Bidding adieu to those who had received us so kindly, we re-embarked and hosited our colours, and being provided with a piece of Cannon and suitable ammunition, we fired a salute, awakening the echoes that had slept for ages around the hallowed spot; and while the smoke of our martial tribute to the birth place of the Pater Patriae still lingered on the bosom of the Potomac, we spread or sails to a favoring breeze, and speeded joyously to our homes.
            Such was an act of filial love and gratitude performed more than a third of a century ago- such is the history of the FIRST STONE to the memory of WASHINGTON.
            Health and respect, my dear sir,
                                                                        George W.P. Custis”
[v] Eaton’s “Historical Atlas of Westmoreland County, Virginia” Page 49
[vi] Charles Moore notes in The Stepfatherhood of George Washington, V. George Washington Parke Custis, Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine, Volume LIX, Number 11, November 1925: “Arlington House (as Mr. Custis called the mansion) became a repository of a large and most interesting collection of relics of the Washingtons, that were either given to him by his doting grandmother, or that fell to his lot in the final division of the household goods, or that were purchased from less affluent possessors. First and foremost of these treasures was the capacious bed on which the General and Mrs. Washington talked and slept, and on which he died. That bed is now in the room they occupied at Mount Vernon. The tent that sheltered the General during the Revolution in after years was often pitched on the Arlington lawn for the awed admiration of Washingtonians and old residents of Georgetown, who were ferried across the Potomac to attend annual sheep-shearing festivals…”

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