Rambling across historic Virginia over the course of an autumn week is a lovely aim in itself, but I did it with a mission. I’m what you might call a big fan of George Washington, and I wanted to trace the progress of his childhood – from the rural Northern Neck where he was born to the Shenandoah Valley where he launched his career as a land surveyor at age 16.
That’s how I found myself against a backdrop of sandbars and marshes at Popes Creek plantation, where Washington was born, on Feb. 22, 1732.
I like to imagine that the clouds parted and an auspicious ray of sunlight shined down that day, but in this remote landscape it hits home that Washington was, at first, just another colonist on the distant edge of the British empire.
The George Washington Birthplace National Monument stands at the confluence of a short, stubby stream and the sweeping Potomac, where the river runs nearly five miles wide, a short two-hour drive from Washington, in Westmoreland County.
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Within the park is an inauthentic but tourable reproduction home built in the 1930s during a spurt of misguided historic enthusiasm. The home is much larger than the original would have been. The real gem here is the original house’s foundation, outlined in oyster-shell fragments a few yards away. Under the wide-open sky, the empty spot where Washington was born is a good symbolic starting point for contemplating his poorly documented childhood.
Born into a family on the lower rungs of the upper class, Washington was motivated from an early age to strive for greater things. Visitors can glimpse his family roots less than a mile down the road at the ancient Washington family cemetery – also refurbished in the 1930s. At the burial ground, the resting place for several generations of Washington forebears, I think about how the people who lie there helped shape the man he would become.
Some historical sites from Washington’s life are less evocative, such as Ferry Farm, where his primary childhood home once stood.
None of the original buildings remain, so picturing the site as it was in the 1740s requires a bit of imagination, but that will soon change. Ground was recently broken on a multimillion-dollar project to construct a replica of the Washington house and outbuildings.
The site is perhaps most remarkable, though, as the place where George would have chopped down that famous cherry tree and told his father, “I cannot tell a lie,” if the whole story weren’t an apocryphal tale, created after Washington’s death by biographer Parson Weems.
A famous sign pole
My next stop was the city of Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley, where the future president arrived at age 16. The town still has a rustic edge and enough 18th-century buildings for visitors to really get a sense of the former wilderness outpost.
Although Washington first came here as a youth, it was in early adulthood that he made perhaps his biggest mark on the area, supervising construction of Fort Loudoun, a frontier bastion built during the French and Indian War on what was then the north end of town.
Downtown, on a small, green square, is George Washington’s Office, a rustic stone-and-log building where he is said to have worked while supervising the fort’s construction. Visitors can tour the structure, whose small central room was occupied by Washington – its two other chambers were added later.
Fort Loudoun itself was built about a half a mile away on a site that is now occupied by a residential neighborhood. All that remains of the fort – at least all that can be seen – is an old well, now a cement block topped by a rusted pump, located at the side of someone’s yard.
Some 12 miles south, past a kitschy roadside attraction called Dinosaur Land, is the little community of White Post, which is famous for a sign pole.
“This post was originally placed here by George Washington under the direction of Lord Fairfax” reads a plaque on the large marker in the center of the intersection. Young George supposedly installed a sign at the spot in the mid-18th century to point travelers in the direction of the nobleman’s estate.
Only outlines remain
The mention of Lord Fairfax started me thinking about the next day’s journey.
Thomas, Sixth Lord Fairfax of Cameron, was an eccentric bachelor who lived on a backwoods estate just outside Winchester. Fairfax owned a large portion of the colony of Virginia, holdings that Washington would survey over the next few years.
The last stop on my journey, the Fort Belvoir military installation some 20 miles south of Washington, is where Fairfax’s extended family lived on what was then Belvoir Plantation.
Family connections – Washington’s older half-brother Lawrence was married to a Fairfax – brought Washington to Belvoir often. But he also was in love with one of its residents – the wife of his good friend George William Fairfax.
The site where the mansion once stood is inside Fort Belvoir on a bluff overlooking the Potomac, where a brick outline marks its foundation. Although the view of the river is blocked by trees, a trail that runs along the bluff offers visitors some spectacular panoramas. No buildings remain, but an abundance of plaques explains the plot’s significance.
Though visiting crumbled historical sites such as Belvoir is primarily a feat of imagination, it’s surprisingly gratifying to picture young Washington coming here, trying to make something of himself in a world where his future was still uncertain.
If you go
Where to eat
▪ Bonnie Blue
334 W. Boscawen St., Winchester
Southern cooking, barbecue and baked goods abound. The shrimp and grits are a knockout. Entrees start at $7.
1006 C/D Caroline St., Fredericksburg
Focus is on locally sourced ingredients. Dinner entrees hover around $20.
▪ Su Pollo
8741 Richmond Hwy., Alexandria
Tasty, inexpensive Latin American fare. A quarter chicken plus a salad and side is $6.75.
What to do
▪ Belvoir Mansion Historic Area
Corner of Forney Loop and Fairfax Drive, Fort Belvoir
Belvoir plantation was home to the Fairfax family, with whom Washington spent much time. The park includes the site where the manor stood, a cemetery and hiking trails along a bluff overlooking the Potomac River. Visitors should enter Fort Belvoir at its Tulley Gate and bring a passport or state-issued ID.
▪ Fort Loudoun
419 N. Loudoun St., Winchester
Site of Washington’s regimental headquarters during part of the French and Indian War. Visitors can see where the fort once stood in what is now a residential neighborhood.
▪ George Washington Birthplace National Monument
1732 Popes Creek Rd., Colonial Beach
The Popes Creek plantation, where George was born, is run by the National Park Service. Although the house burned in 1779, visitors can see where it stood and enjoy several miles of hiking, a scenic Potomac River beach and the ancient family cemetery. Historic area open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Free.
▪ George Washington’s Boyhood Home at Ferry Farm
268 Kings Hwy., Fredericksburg
Take a self-guided tour of the place where Washington spent most of his childhood. Guests use an iPad with digital map, videos and photos to tour the area where the home and outbuildings stood. Open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday noon-5 p.m. Entry is $8, $4 for students. Children younger than 6 are free.
▪ George Washington’s Office
32 W. Cork St., Winchester
The middle room of this building served as Washington’s office during construction of nearby Fort Loudoun. The structure is now a small museum. Open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday noon to 4 p.m. Admission is $5, $4.50 for seniors, $2.50 for students or $12 per family.
▪ White Post
Intersection of White Post and Berrys Ferry roads, White Post
A post pointing the way to a nearby estate was put here by a young Washington. The tradition lives on today in the small community named for its iconic sign.
Mount Vernon’s digital encyclopedia is a great resource for information on Washington’s life. www.mountvernon.org/research-collections/digital-encyclopedia