WESTMORELAND County, about 80 miles from Washington in Virginia's northernmost "neck" or peninsula between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers, has been referred to as the "Athens of America" because of the contributions its sons and daughters made to our nation's history.
Born along the banks of the Potomac were two of the first five presidents of the United States, the only two brothers to sign the Declaration of Independence, the commander in chief of the Confederate forces and an early outcry against British taxation without representation known as the Westmoreland Resolves.
This Monday and Feb. 22, the birth of Westmoreland County's most famous son, George Washington, will be celebrated there at the George Washington Birthplace National Monument.
George Washington's great-grandfather, John Washington, came to Westmoreland around 1656 with cargo to trade for tobacco. Befriended by Nathaniel Pope, a notable planter in the county, he married Pope's daughter Ann and received a wedding gift of 700 acres from his father-in-law. The elder Washington soon acquired additional land in Westmoreland and up the Potomac on Little Hunting Creek -- the future site of Mount Vernon. He became a successful planter, a member of the House of Burgesses and a lieutenant colonel in the militia.
With hard work and a certain amount of luck, Englishmen like John Washington who came to Virginia in the 17th century could become a member of the landed gentry. Their sons, grandsons and great-grandsons inherited privilege and the responsibility or noblesse oblige to engage in public service.
John Washington's son Lawrence and grandson Augustine followed in the family traditions of public service and land acquisition. In 1718, Augustine purchased the 150-acre Popes Creek Plantation adjacent to property along the Potomac River owned by his grandfather.
Although not large, Popes Creek Plantation appears to have been a rather typical Tidewater plantation. The center of the farm was the manor house -- built between 1722 and 1726 -- with sloping lawns down to Popes Creek and the plantation wharf accessing the Potomac. Surrounding the house were the dependencies -- kitchen, dairy, smokehouse and slave quarters. Beyond them lay the corn, wheat, hay and tobacco fields, barns and timberlands. George, the first child of Augustine and his second wife Mary Ball, was born at Popes Creek on Feb. 22, 1732. He lived there until he was 3 1/2 years old, and returned periodically to visit his older half-brother after his father died.
The house where Washington was born burned down on Christmas Day 1779. All traces of where he spent his early days had disappeared by the time the Wakefield National Memorial Association was created in 1931 to acquire and restore the birthplace for the bicentennial of Washington's birth in 1932.
With no surviving description of the "birth" house, a typical Tidewater plantation house was built, rather than a replica of the original. The eight-room "memorial" house was constructed of brick that was hand-made on the property, and furnished with pieces typical of the period in which George Washington grew up. Only one piece in the house -- a small tilt-top tea table -- can be traced back to the original house.
Subsequent archaeological investigations have uncovered the foundations of several buildings, including the birth house, a U-shaped structure of at least nine rooms. The National Park Service operates the property -- known as Wakefield -- as a Colonial farm, recreating an 18th-century plantation. In season, the fields are plowed by oxen, planted and harvested, and costumed crafters demonstrate open-hearth cooking, candlemaking, spinning and weaving.
Up the Potomac from Popes Creek is Monroe Creek, the birthplace of James Monroe, fifth president of the United States. The site of the house where Monroe was born -- near the town of Colonial Beach -- was identified in 1975 through efforts of the Westmoreland County Bicentennial Commission.
And down the river past Popes Creek is Stratford Hall Plantation, the ancestral home of the Lee family, the magnates of Westmoreland County. Situated on high bluffs above the Potomac, and distinguished by eight chimneys grouped in two arch-bound clusters enclosing balustrated observation platforms, Stratford Hall, built around 1738 by Thomas Lee, is unlike any other house built in Colonial America.
When John Adams said that the Lee family had produced more persons "of merit" during the American Revolution than any other family, he was referring to the sons of the builder of Stratford Hall. One of them, Richard Henry Lee, in 1766 drafted the Westmoreland Resolves, a resolution against Britain's despised Stamp Act signed by 115 patriotic planters of Westmoreland County. Richard Henry and his brother Francis Lightfoot Lee were the only two brothers to sign the Declaration of Independence. Although their cousin Henry "Lighthorse Harry" Lee did not grow up at Stratford, he lived there after marrying their older brother's daughter Matilda. His son Robert Edward was the last surviving Lee born at Stratford Hall, and the cradle in which he slept can be seen in the large, first-floor "mother's room."
Robert E. Lee lived at Stratford until he was 4 years old. The estate was sold in 1822 by his debt-ridden brother, and over the years the house and property fell into a state of disrepair. In 1929, the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association purchased Stratford, and restored it as a memorial to Gen. Lee.
WESTMORELAND COUNTY -- Take I-95 south to Fredericksburg to Route 3 east. The George Washington Birthplace and Stratford Hall are located along the Potomac River on Route 3 between the towns of Colonial Beach and Montross.
WAKEFIELD -- The George Washington Birthplace National Monument is open 10 to 5 daily. On Monday (the federal holiday) and on Feb. 22 (Washington's actual birthday), there will be Colonial craft demonstrations, tours of the memorial house with costumed guides, period music and a movie on how the bricks for the birth house were made. Hot apple cider and gingerbread will be served. On Monday the memorial house will also be open for candlelight tours until 7. No admission is charged on either day. Regular admission is $1 for those 17 to 61; others are admitted free. Call 804/224-1732.
STRATFORD HALL PLANTATION -- Tours of the Great House are offered daily except Dec. 25 from 9 to 5. Admission is $5 for adults, $2.50 for ages 18 and under. From January to March the log cabin dining room is open Sundays from 11:30 to 3. Beginning March 23 it's open daily. District, Alexandria, Prince William, Fairfax and Arlington residents are admitted free on March 10. Call 804/493-8038.
WESTMORELAND COUNTY MUSEUM -- Items such as Indian trading beads, Washington family furniture and a Charles Willson Peale portrait of William Pitt, leader of the repeal of the Stamp Act in Parliament, are in this small museum at Court House Square in Montross. Open 10 to 3 daily from Nov. 1 to April 1, 9 to 5 the rest of the year. Free. Call 800/493-8440.
Linda Leslie and Bill Choyke last wrote for Weekend about Thanksgiving at Berkeley Plantation.