Here, George Washington Was Born: Memory, Material Culture, and the Public History of a National Monument

By Lindgren, James M. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Here, George Washington Was Born: Memory, Material Culture, and the Public History of a National Monument


Lindgren, James M., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Here, George Washington Was Born: Memory, Material Culture, and the Public History of a National Monument * Seth C. Bruggeman * Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008 * xii, 260 pp. * $59.95 cloth; $24.95 paper

Reviewed by James M. Lindgren, professor of history at SUNY, Plattsburgh. He is the author of Preserving the Old Dominion: Historic Preservation and Virginia Traditionalism (1993).

Could the title's "here" be inaccurate? Ironically, the author wondered that in 2006. Having completed an administrative history of the George Washington Birthplace National Monument in Westmoreland County, Seth Bruggeman "was intrigued by the comment made by one participant" at a National Park Service (NPS) conference that "no one knew for sure that Washington was actually born at Popes Creek Plantation" (p. 199). Yet, he acknowledges the big "if" only in closing this book. Hired in 2003, he faced an on-going dispute there. Although rangers wanted to focus on the Pater Patriae, who had moved from Wakefield, as it was later called, at the age of three, Park Service historians wanted to showcase twentieth-century commemora- tive history because Wakefield had burned to the ground in 1779 and been replaced by a Memorial House in 1931. In their design, administrative histories probe NPS materials but generally lack a comparative and scholarly context. Bruggeman's work became the heart of not only a doctoral dissertation in American Studies at the College of William and Mary but also this book.

Bruggeman begins his story with George Washington Parke Custis, the president's adopted grandson, who placed a marker at Wakefield in 1815. That marking of a birthplace was "the first time it had been done in any formal way in this country," the author claimed, but this assertion (and many of his others) requires more evidence (p. 26). Instead of developing Custis and his efforts, the author digresses on Sir Walter Scott and medieval relics to provide a theoretical base. With the exception of the War Department's construction of an obelisk at Wakefield in 1906, Bruggeman's coverage before the 1 920s is weak.

His narrative improves with Josephine Wheelwright Rust organizing the Wakefield National Memorial Association (WNMA) in 1923 and announcing plans to build a replica of the birthplace as a shrine.

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