Governor’s Palace

Today (3/29/17), we had planned to do another tour of historic Jamestown with the woman who was giving the Roads Scholars’ tour, but when we called Jamestowne, we were told her tour wouldn’t be until 3 (Turns out, it was a miscommunication and she wasn’t giving a tour today.)  So, with our initial plans out the window, we were left to explore new territory.

We spent the morning running errands and trying to obtain contact information for the new man in charge of Colonial Williamsburg.  As long time guests, we believe he’s making some major mistakes in direction and wanted to address them before it’s too late.  While his schedule wouldn’t allow us to meet this week, I received assurances that his chief of staff would contact me.  We’ll see.

Freedom Park cabins

So, we had time to kill before our 5:30 lecture on George Washington.  Last night, I had Googled a “Must see” list for the area to see what we had missed in our devotion to our favorites.  One area that caught my eye was Freedom Park.  While it is known for its hiking and biking trails and zip lining, it also is the site of one of the oldest free black settlements.

Reconstruction of a cabin like John Jackson’s.

The place got its start when William Ludwell Lee of Green Spring Farm not only freed his slaves in his will, but also made provisions for comfortable homes to be built for them. His executor saw to the project which allowed the former slaves to live rent free for ten years.  One of the homes represents the home of John Jackson (with his wife Nancy and two children.)  Jackson was able to purchase and develop his own property, and his descendants still live in the area!

The park guide also references an 18th century cemetery, and though there were archaeological digs on the grounds and bodies were found, they were reinterred after research was completed.  Unfortunately, there are no markers nor clues to the information archaeologists found, and the area is simply blocked off by rail fences.

Botanical Gardens

The park does, however, have a visitor center which displays a small collection of artifacts and information.  My favorite piece was a map from the Civil War simply listing the area as “Free Negro Settlement.”  There aren’t any houses marked or details, indicating the artist didn’t explore the area. I wished I’d gotten a picture of it, but alas,  I didn’t.

There is a beautiful botanical garden as well, which is run by volunteers.  Though I don’t expect Freedom Park to become a new favorite, it is definitely worth visiting, and since it’s only about five years old and a county park, I’m sure it will continue to improve.  It will be fun to see the changes that occur.

A sampling of period clothes

We left Freedom Park to head back to Colonial Williamsburg for a lecture in the building formerly known as the Dewitt Wallace–now the Art Museums of Williamsburg.  Being a reenactor and a seamstress, I wanted to check out their collection of Colonial Fashion, now on display.  There was a beautiful exhibition of clothes and quilts–well worth visiting, even though I didn’t have much time before the lecture.

The lecture by Professor Peter Henriques was entitled I cannot tell a lie. Myths about George Washington that should be discarded. In his discussion, he gave twelve myths and his reasons why they’re “fake news.”  I’ll recount them here.

Washington’s false teeth

Myth #1:  He had wooden teeth.  Actually,  Washington’s false teeth were a combination of human, ivory, and animal.  In fact, he even bought teeth from his slaves!

Myth #2:  He threw a silver dollar across the Potomac. First, silver dollars hadn’t been invented, and Washington wouldn’t have thrown money away if they had.

CW not GW

Myth #3:  He cut down his father’s cherry tree and said,  “I cannot tell a lie…” This myth was popularized in the book by Mason Locke Weems called The Life of Washington, but, though it appears in the book, it wasn’t added til 5-6 edition. There is some background, though. A vase in Germany (1770-1790) depicts Washington cutting down a tree with GW over his head. Unfortunately, on this case, “Washington” is a grown man, and the initials?  CW.

Myth #4:  Washington prayed on his knees at Valley Forge. While there is nothing implausible about Washington praying. He was a very private man, not given to such ostentatious displays. The story only was added by Weems in the 17th edition of his book. Additionally, the description of the man who supposedly witnessed this differs in accounts.  One has Potts as a Quaker encouraged by the event while others portray him as a Tory disheartened by the event.  In either case, he didn’t buy the farm in Valley Forge until after war was over, so could not have witnessed Washington there.

Myth #5:   Washington was a great curser. The reference to this comes from an account of his clash with Lee in 1778 at the Battle of Monmouth. Lee had turned his troops, and Washington had to rush in to save the day.  A quote by Colonel Charles Scott says, “He swore til the leaves shook the trees.” First of all, Scott wasn’t there, and recounted the story many years later. Also disputing this character portrayal, Alexander Hamilton said Washington never cursed. Charles Lee himself said in his testimony that Washington’s manner was stronger than his language. Finally, Washington prided himself on self- mastery and disdained use of profanity.   All of these are good reasons to doubt the account.

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Sculpture of Washington

Myth # 6:   He was cold and aloof.  Apparently, his friend Gouverneur Morris said he was remote. This stems from a story circulated that Morris had told Hamilton he thought Washington quite genial.  Hamilton apparently bet him dinner and wine if Morris would put his hand on Washington’s shoulder and say, “General!  How happy I am to see you looking so well.”  Supposedly, Morris did it, and Washington removed his hand from his shoulder and glared at Morris until he left.  As with the other myths, there is no contemporary evidence. First, the record is third hand gossip 80 years after the event. Additionally, the story is out of character for both men. Delegates who served with Washington said, “He is sensible, amiable, virtuous, modest, and brave.” To publicly embarrass someone would go against his rules of civility; therefore, it’s safe to assume the incident never happened.

Myth #7:  He had no sense of humor.  James Madison said Washington “enjoyed good humor and hilarity, though he takes little part in them.”  Additionally, Washington’s bad teeth might have given credence to this rumor as well, since most people don’t like smiling and laughing if they’re self conscious–and self-mastery was extremely important to him.

Myth #8:  Washington had a child with his slave.  This rumor has two sources.  The first was letters put out by the British during the war trying to slander Washington’s character.  The other comes from West Ford, who was the son of George Washington’s brother John’s wife’s slave.  The Ford family gave oral tradition that he was Washington’s son.  A number of facts dispute this, however.  First, West didn’t come to Mount Vernon until three years after Washington died. Additionally, there is incredible difficulty with putting Venus (West’s mom) and Washington together.  Since West was born during the war when we have very credible evidence where Washington was, the only possibility would be when John’s family visits Mount Vernon. There’s no plausible reason why Washington–a happily married man who valued duty and self discipline above most else–would do that. West is most likely the son of one of Washington’s nephews.  Doctors now think that Washington was most likely sterile. This doesn’t necessarily disprove the Fords story of having Washington DNA.  The Fords may be directly related to Washington without being directly descended from him.

Myth #9:  Washington struggled about whether to be a king. In actuality, he was fundamentally a believer in republican values. The origins of this belief may be because of a letter from a French officer suggesting it may be better for America to have a king (strong leadership in tumultuous times.). George responded with a blistering letter contradicting that view and even went as far as to have witnesses sign that he sent it. It would have caused him to be viewed as a traitor if he abandoned his republican principles.

Myth #10:  Washington added “So help me God” to his presidential oath.  First, there isn’t contemporary evidence to this.  A letter from the French ambassador which spells out the whole scene of the inauguration in vivid detail doesn’t include it.  But, 65 years later, it appears in a book. It seems out of character for Washington to tamper with the constitutional text when he’s such a stickler for the Constitution being taken literally. The tradition may come from the fact that he’d said it in other oaths.

Myth #11:  Washington is a front man for Alexander Hamilton.  This myth had its origin with Jefferson who immensely disliked Hamilton.  Unfortunately, Washington tends to side with Hamilton’s perspective more than Jefferson’s.  Jefferson’s answer to this frustration is that Washington is deceived by Hamilton, since he cannot consider Washington evil like he considers Hamilton.

Myth #12:  Washington originated the 2 term tradition. It’s important to understand the factors here.  First, Washington steps down from a combination of fatigue and a desire to establish a transition of power. He was not opposed to the idea of serving a number of terms. In fact, in a letter to Lafayette, he said that he saw no problem with serving multiple terms, and thought limiting terms stifled the voice of the people, who might desire a particular person to serve longer (or be in circumstances that would make it easier or better for a leader to continue.)

All in all, it was a fascinating evening, and I see why his lectures are so popular and well attended.