Northern Neck: The cradle of presidents
by Larry Chowning
The shores of the Northern Neck have the distinction of being the birthplace of three of the first five presidents of the United States—George Washington (1st), James Madison (4th) and James Monroe (5th).
For those who enjoy the history of our country, these three presidential birthplaces: Wakefield, birthplace of George Washington; Belle Grove Plantation, birthplace of James Madison, and James Monroe’s birthplace, provide interesting and dynamic lessons in Colonial American culture and in the creation of these United States.
George Washington’s birthplace is a national monument in Westmoreland County, located just off Route 3 on Pope’s Creek near the Potomac River. Washington was born there on February 22, 1732 and lived there for three years of his life, returning later to live there as a teenager.
The original house burned on Christmas Day 1779. A public national park was established there in 1930 and a year later a memorial house was built in historical style of the colonial period, and the park opened in 1932. At the entrance to the grounds, now maintained and operated by the National Park Service, is a memorial miniature Washington Monument. The park monument is one-tenth the size of the larger one in Washington D.C.
The plantation setting is located at the confluence of Popes Creek and the Potomac River. Paths are well laid out for walking and seeing the beauty of the creek and river. The 1930s restoration and construction of the home captures the flavor of a 18th-century Virginia tobacco plantation. The interior of the house also has 18th-century decor and furniture.
The walking path is complete with a footbridge over a cove where turtles can be seen jumping from logs and fish jumping and smacking the water’s surface. In the spring along the pathway, the air is filled with the sweet smell of honeysuckle and other Virginia woodland scents.
There is a colonial garden, barns, kitchen and all the amenities once found on a Virginia plantation of those times. The visitor center has a theater with a 14-minute film that speaks to the life and times of Washington when he lived there. The gift shop in the visitor center has books and information on Washington and the Northern Neck.
Picnic tables are scattered throughout the property for those wanting to bring lunch. Pope’s Creek Convention Center, on the property, can be leased for conferences and events.
The Washington family graveyard was also restored in the 1930s restoration. A marker states, “The ancient brick vault beneath this stone was rebuilt and the remains therein of possibly twelve burials and twenty adjoining graves were re-interred here April 28th, 1930 by the Wakefield National Memorial Association.”
Belle Grove, Madison’s birthplace
At Belle Grove Plantation on the Rappahannock River in King George County, located on Route 301 in Port Conway, James Madison Jr., fourth president of the United States and Father of the Constitution, was born March 16, 1751.
Madison’s mother, Eleanor Rose “Nellie” Conway was staying at Belle Grove, her paternal home, when her son was born. The Madisons lived in Orange County and that’s where Madison eventually made his home at Montpelier.
Madison was an American statesman, lawyer, diplomat, philosopher and a founding father of the United States. He is hailed as the “Father of the Constitution” for his role in drafting and promoting the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Madison was born to a prominent and wealthy family and his birthplace speaks to that wealth. Today, Belle Grove is privately owned and being used as a bed and breakfast and wedding and event location. Tours of the plantation and grounds are held Wednesdays through Sundays from 1-4 p.m.
Walk though the mansion that Union soldiers seized for use as army headquarters early in the Civil War, thus sparing it from destruction. Union solders set up camp there and nearby is where Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, rode the ferry across the Rappahannock River on his way to Garrett’s Farm, where he was found by Union cavalry and killed while resisting arrest on April 26, 1865.
A tour docent at Belle Grove said there are friendly ghost around and many people and paranormal teams have tried to verify this. Even SyFy Channel’s Ghost Hunters has investigated and all agree there are definitely spirits from the past, including ghost cats.
James Monroe’s birthplace
Located just a few miles outside of Colonial Beach is James Monroe’s birthplace. Monroe was born April 28, 1758 and was a founding father who served as the fifth president of the United States from 1817 to 1825. Born into a planter family in Westmoreland County, Monroe left the College of William and Mary to enlist in the continental army during the American Revolution. He was a close friend of James Madison and served as President Madison’s Secretary of State and Secretary of War.
Although Monroe’s homeplace site is not near as large or pristine as Washington’s birthplace, efforts are being made to make it inviting. There are several monuments honoring Monroe, including a miniature Washington-style monument, with the inscription “Birthplace of James Monroe, April 28, 1758–July 4, 1831, Fifth president of the United States, 1817-1823, Governor of Virginia, 1799 and 1811, Proclaimed the Monroe Doctrine, December 2, 1823, Declares the Americas no longer subject to European colonization.”
Monroe’s father, Spence Monroe, worked as a carpenter in addition to being a farmer. The fifth president grew up on a small middle class working farm, not a large or prosperous plantation. There is an 1845 woodcut displayed showing a typical middle class farmhouse of the 1750s. An unearthed foundation determined the house was 24’ x 58’. The farm also included an outside kitchen, barn, stable and other outbuildings.
A new structure is currently being built on the property that is similar in size and shape to the 1845 woodcut image. There is a visitors center that provides information on Monroe’s life and history. Inside the visitors center, there are portraits of Monroe and others and documents related to his life as a statesmen and American president. The visitors center is open on Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Plan your visit
The National Park Service operates the grounds and buildings at George Washington Birthplace located on Popes Creek Road near Colonial Beach. It is located at 1732 Popes Creek Road, Colonial Beach, Va., 22443. The phone number at the visitors center is (804) 224-1732.
Created to honor Washington’s 200th birthday in 1932, George Washington Birthplace National Monument commemorates the life of America’s first president. The site includes the Memorial House Museum and historic area, as well as the Washington Family Burial Ground.
Tours are offered in the historic area and the visitor center has a 14-minute film that speaks to life on the plantation when Washington lived there as a boy.
There is no admission fee for any of the programs.
The visitor center and historic area are open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. through December 31, but will be closed November 28 for Thanksgiving and Christmas day.
There are five special events at the site:
- GoneFishing Day, Saturday, June 1, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.—Learn how fishing along the Potomac River impacted the lives of the American Indians, Europeans and the enslaved.
- Consensus of the Senses, Sunday, August 11, 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.—Experience Washington’s Birthplace under the night sky as the annual Perseid meteor shower peaks.
- Constitution Commemoration, Sunday, September 15, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.—Celebrate Constitution Day with guest speakers and living history demonstrations.
- Native American Heritage Day, Saturday, October 5, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.—Traditional dances, songs and storytelling.
- Christmas at George Washington’s Birthplace, Saturday, December 14, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.—Tour the memorial house museum and historic grounds with costumed interpreters.
Note: Site hours and events are subject to cancellation or change.
Belle Grove Plantation, birthplace of James Madison, is located at 9221 Belle Grove, VA 22485. The phone number is 540-621-7340 and email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Events planned for this year are:
- July 4th, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., “Celebrate America’s History,” tickets for all ages $5.
- August 24, 1-3 p.m., “Tea with Elvis,” tickets on or before Sunday, July 28, $40, after July 28, $50.
- September 7, 12 p.m.-6 p.m., Spirits Festival hosted by the James Madison Belle Grove Foundation, tickets range from $10 to $35.
- September 14, 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., Corkin’ Shuckin’ and Art Festival, tickets range from $75 to $95.
- September 27-29, Paracon Festival, Friday through Sunday, no information on cost.
Tours of the plantation and grounds are held on Wednesdays through Sunday, from 1-4 p.m.
James Monroe’s Birthplace is located at 4460 James Monroe Hwy., Colonial Beach, VA 22443, and the phone number at the visitors center is (804) 214-9145.
The visitors center is open on Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.