HOW DOES A contemporary American learn about the world in which the father of our country lived? Sometimes the buildings and landscapes of the past continue to be revealing. Even in the Virginia of today, between Wakefield and Alexandria, there are many places that George Washington knew. From them, one can get some idea of Washington the person, of the times in which he lived, and of the people who were his family friends and neighbors.
Tracking down George Washington need not be the sole focus of interest in getting to know these sites -- the physical and natural beauty of many of the buildings, their current use and the quality of their furnishings offer much to the visitor, ranging from an exposure to the decorative art, to a first-hand acquaintance with period gardens, plants, food and animals.
None of the sites is expensive and many are free. Best of all this is the off-season, and the crowds have not yet begun to form.
Washington's great-grandfather, John, arrived in Virginia in the winter of 1656-57, met and married Anne Pope and built a house near the Potomac River. Their son, Lawrence, was born in 1659. He married Mildred Warner; it was their son Augustine, born in 1694, who acquired land along Pope" Creek overlooking the Potomac and built, between 1722 and 1726, the house called Wakefield.
Augustine maried twice, first to Jane Butler, who bore four children including sons Lawrence and Augustine, and then to Mary Ball, who bore six children including four sons. The eldest of the four was George, born at Wakefield Feb. 11, 1732, or 251 years ago. In 1752, when the new-style calendar was adopted, Washington's birthday became Feb. 22.
Young George spent 3 1/2 years at Wakefield before his family moved to Little Hunting Creek in Fairfax County. The family moved again in 1738, to Ferry Farm, across from Fredericksburg on the south side of the Rappahannock. Lawrence Washington, the oldest son from his father's first marriage, acquired Little Hunting Creek farm and renamed it Mount Vernon.
In an era when there were few roads and commerce was largely outward and waterborne, the Washington riverside residence brought George, from his earliest years, into contact with the rest of Virginia, the colonies and the world.
The family's lands were rich and lush enough to provide settings of such beauty that it was natural for George to love the land. "No pursuit is more congenial with my nature and gratification, than that of agriculture; nor none I so pant after as again to become a tiller of the earth," he wrote in 1795 near the end of his life.
Washington was not formally schooled, but taught by his faimily and tutors when they were available. In spite of this, he received dotororal degrees from Harvard, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, Washington College in Maryland and Brown University.
He was an architect, businessman, churchman, contractor, educator, engineer, explorer, farmer, jurist, philanthropist, promoter, soldier, statesman, traveler and writer.
He had no children and died at Mount Vernon Dec. 17, 1799. In the Washington Burial Ground at Wakefield lie his great-grandparents, his grandparents and his father. His mother is buried in Fredericksburg. Washington and his wife, Martha, lie in a Mount Vernon tomb.
Some 100 miles and four generations separate their resting places. In those four generations, the Washingtons went from immigrant to president.
At Wakefield, near a copse of Red Cedars, the foundation of Washington's birthplace, which burned in 1779, is marked in oyster shell. Nearby are a garden of herbs, perennials and roses, a kitchen, a Memorial House and the buildings, animals and plants of a working colonial farm. From the Memorial House, the view across the marshes of Pope's Creek to the Potomac and Maryland shore some five miles away is worth the trip.
On the grounds an ox cart may be in use, and the farm has geese, chickens, turkeys, guinea fowl, pigs, cows, sheep and horses. Fences exist in great variety and the site gives one a feeling of rural peace and quiet. One senses that a boy born at such a place would develop respect for the river and the land and remain interested in both.
It was to Little Hunting Creek -- Mount Vernon -- that George's family moved when he was 3 1/2. Its site seems always to have been one of the chief attractions the place had for George. In later years, after he inherited the estate from his half-brother, he wrote: "No estate in United America is more pleasantly situated." It is difficult for today's visitor to disagree. Parkway approaches to the Mansion, sitting among the community of support buildings, in an area of landscaped gardens and less formal lawns, and its overlook to the broad Potomac and pastoral Maryland shoe make it one of America's visual delights.
What one sees at Mount Vernon is largely Washington's own creation. Its core is the 1 1/2-story cottage his father built, enlarged by George in a series of additions until 1780, when the Mansion reached its present size. It is a magnificent house to match its site. Interior restoration has recently given the mansion a new authentic look; its boldness will shock many who thought they knew the look of the colonial era. Vertegris Green and Prussian Blue dominate, with floral paper edgings and wood grained in rich red mahogany and walnut.
Sheep, brought from Wakefield, trip similar sheep made with the Washington family in George's youth, now graze at Mount Vernon.
Ferry Farm was the third residence of the young Washington and was to have been his inheritance. From the foot of Sophia Street in Fredericksburg one looks across the Rappahannock River to a large white Victorian house, which is the site -- or near the site -- of the Washington house. From about 1739 to 1747 the young Washington lived there, chopping down a cherry tree (it is said) and throwing a coin across the Rappahannock. "Rocky Lane," an ancient street used by the Washingtons, survives and gives access to a fine residential neighborhood where many houses Washington would recognize still stand.
It was a Fredericksburg Masonic Lodge No. 4 that Washington, barely 21, became a Mason in 1752. The oath was not taken in the present lodge building, but the canopy from the building where it was taken is there, along with the Bible used. Early furniture survives, along with a lock of Washington's hair and a Gilbert Stuart oil portait in its fine period frame. The tour is a grand 19th century one in a museum filled with precious objects.
"Built A.D. 1751. Destroyed by fire in 1754 and rebuilt A.D. 1757 by Mourning Richards, Undertaker, Wm. Copein, Mason," notes a stone over an entrance to Aquia Church. In a true Greek Cross plan, it is the only colonial church in Virginia with a clock and bell tower. A handsome building, it has interiors to match its exteriors. It still commands a knoll within a wood, near the road to Fredericksburg, much as it did when Washington traveled that road.
From 1762 to 1784, Washington served a member of the Trutro Parish Vestry, helping oversee the construction of Pohick Church around 1969. The building is decidedly Georgian, with lavish stone entrances and quoins, Flemish Bond brickwood and rubbed brick window surrounds. The church nearest Mount Vernon, it often served Washington, members of his family and their guests.
Washington was also a pew holder and when he did not attend Pohick, a communicant at Christ Church, Alexandria, 1767-73. The similarities of the two churches are evident, as well they might be since James Wren was the architect for both. Wren also lettered the tablets which survive substantially as he finished them. This is an urban church, a part of a site that shows its long historical and architectural continuum in contrasting building styles and eras.
In 1783 Washington attended Alexandria's Old Presbyterian Meeting House to celebrate the Proclamation of Peace ending the Revolution, and at his death the city memorial services were held there. It is said that the streets were so muddy and impassable that a majority of the celebrants were unable to reach Christ Church, so the services were moved to the meeting house. Built in 1774, rebuilt after a fire in 1835, with tower and entrance added some 15 years later, its starkness and simplicity is in bold contrast to the Anglican churches associated with Washington.
In Fredericksburg, the Mary Washington House, where Washington's mother spent her last 17 years, remains much as she left it. Many of her favorite pieces are there, and in the garden with its sundial, herbs and brick walks her boxwood still thrives. She received Lafayette here and her son often came to visit, last in 1789, just before his inaugural as president and her death.
She is buried nearby at Meditation Rock, where, it is said, she often came to pray for the safety of her son and the young nation. The Mary Ball Washington Monument, dedicated by President Benjamin Harrison in 1891, carries the legend "Mary Mother of Washington." The moss-covered brick walls, boxwood and stone caretaker's house are enough to make one yearn for the life of a 19th-century caretaker.
Kenmore, certainly one of the grand Georgian houses of America, is worth a visit just to see its ornamental plaster ceilings. The original acreage has dwindled, but the house Fielding Lewis and Washington's sister Betty built retains its secluded site among trees and gardens with a brick-walled enclosure. Washington was a frequent visitor here, as was his mother, who lived a short distance away. Today tea and Betty Washington's gingerbread are part of a Kenmore tour.
Nearer the Fredericksburg waterfront is Rising Sun Tavern, built by Washington's brother Charles as a residence. It became a tavern in the 18th century. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and a number of Lees knew the building well. Today's visitor sips spiced tea and shares tavern life with costumed guides. Among the furnishings is Jefferson's stand-up desk.
Woodlawn, just south of Alexandria, was built by Washington's nephew, Lawrence Lewis, and his ward, Nelly Custis. They were married at Mount Vernon, where both lived, on Washington's birthday. Washington gave them this land and his grist mill. The house site was one he chose and marked on his survey of the Mount Vernon lands "a most beautiful site for a gentleman's seat." The views to Dogue Creek and the Potomac, and to Mount Vernon, certainly bear out his judgment.
Washington's friend William Fitzhugh built Chatham in 1768-71. A magnificent Georgian complex, its exteriors and flanking dependencies are intact. Not only was Washington a frequent visitor, but, in the same room where he dined, Abraham Lincoln and his Cabinet met during the Civil War and Clara Barton and Walt Whitman cared for wounded Union soldiers. River views, including the overview of Fredericksburg, are among the most beautiful in Virginia.
Gadsby's Tavern, in Alexandria, is actually two buildings, the smaller one pre-Revolutionary, the larger corner one not completed until 1792. The tavern was adjacent to the city market and courts, and convenient for Washington and others transacting business in Alexandria. Birthnight celebrations in Washington's honor were held here in the grand second floor ballroom.