The views are great, the rangers are great, the hikes are great, the tour is great and the pigs are great, but the sheep at George Washington Birthplace National Monument are assholes. They’re direct descendants of the original Washington sheep and it’s made them incredibly arrogant. I spent 10 minutes leaning over a fence rail attempting to get a decent look at them. They wanted absolutely nothing to do with me and opted instead to hide from me in the shaded front of an outbuilding.
Meanwhile, the pigs were putting on a show, oinking about their feelings and rolling around in the mud and living their absolute best pig lives. The horses too were having great time, doing horse things and peeking their sweet faces out of the barn to peer at park visitors while occasionally sticking their tongues out at random passerby.
Still, sheep be damned, I had a really fantastic time at the park. It’s nestled in Westmoreland County in Virginia’s Northern Neck, where Pope’s Creek meets the Potomac River.
George Washington’s great-grandfather initially settled the plantation, way back in the 17th century. On Feb. 22, 1732, George Washington was born on the property between 10 and 10:30 a.m., according to the historical record. He spent the first three years of his life calling the place home, visited often on his way to adulthood and later inherited the place when his older half-brothers died without a male heir.
The original house, probably built in the early 1700s, burned on Christmas Day in 1779, and today no one knows where the original site of the house is. There’s the Memorial House, built in 1931, that shows what the house could have looked like. It was built over what was once thought to be the foundation of the original home, but, turns out, it wasn’t.
Additional searching unearthed a nearby set of ruins that were again believed to be those of the original house; however, later research suggested the structure served as slave quarters, rather than the manse of George Washington and his family. Today, this site is outlined and denoted in the park as the original site of the house, but it’s a lie.
Fingers are crossed that the original home site is found by 2032, when the park will celebrate the 300th anniversary of George Washington’s birth. Even if they don’t though, the surrounding scenery and the farm that’s been established there gives visitors a solid idea of what the first president’s formative years would have looked like, although I do hope the sheep were nicer to him than they were to me.
Through a fascinating chain of custody, the property passed from Robert E. Lee to the state of Virginia in the 1850s. The state then passed it on to the federal government in the 1880s and a bunch of years later it passed to the National Park Service, in 1930, when it became the nation’s first national historic site. Two years later, in 1932, on George Washington’s 200th birthday, the park opened to the public.
In addition to the Memorial House and the barn where the meanest sheep in America hide from visitors, there’s also a kitchen house, a few hiking trails that take you along the creek and out to the Potomac, some picnic areas, an herb garden and a really lovely visitor’s center with an epic view of the creek.
VISITING GEORGE WASHINGTON BIRTHPLACE NATIONAL MONUMENT
- Stop by the Visitor Center to pick up a map and to watch a short film on George Washington’s early years.
- Ranger-guided tours happen every hour between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The tour lets you into the Memorial House and explains the history of the planation and George Washington’s relationship to it. The tour takes 30-45 minutes, depending on how many questions you have.
- Don’t even bother with the sheep. They’re jerks and they don’t care about you. Look instead for the other heritage breed critters, especially the pigs, who are hilarious.
- Keep an eye out for bald eagles – they’re often spotted in the area – and blue-tailed skinks.
- There’s also a family burial ground and a small beach on the Potomac River that are both worth a quick visit. The beach is small and quiet and would make an excellent spot for an afternoon picnic.
George Washington Birthplace National Monument is free to visit. During regular hours, the Visitor Center is open 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m., with tours of the Memorial House hourly from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. The burial ground, picnic area and beach are open daily until dusk.