Wild and Wonderful George Washington

Map of the Washington Heritage Trail National Scenic Byway.
TOPICS: Editors in the Field, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, U.S. Civil War, Washington or Custis Family

by Kim Curtis, Copy and Production Editor/Research Editor
September 20, 2019

Map courtesy of the Trustees of the Washington Heritage Trail National Scenic Byway.

Last month, my husband, our 3-year-old daughter, and I took a road trip through sections of the Washington Heritage Trail, which goes through Berkeley, Jefferson, and Morgan counties in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. This region is steeped in history not only related to the railroad, the Civil War, and John Brown’s raid but also (and more importantly to me) to the Washington family. The Washingtons, especially George and his younger brother Charles, seem to be everywhere, from family homes and gravesites to street names and tourist spots. Pick a place on a map of this region, and more than likely, a Washington probably did sleep there at some point!

The sixth Lord Fairfax (Thomas, Baron Cameron) lived near Mount Vernon and owned property in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, in what was then Virginia. A young George Washington surveyed this land for Lord Fairfax. As George grew older, he would visit the area often, represent it in the House of Burgesses, fight there during the French and Indian War, and eventually own land in Berkeley, Jefferson, and Morgan counties.

 

CHARLES TOWN

My family’s first stop was Charles Town, located in Jefferson County, which itself is home to six surviving Washington family homes. George Washington’s brother Charles founded Charles Town in 1786. The town, which was named for him, was spelled “Charlestown” until 1912. In addition to Washington Street, many of the city’s downtown streets are named after Washington family members, including Charles, George, their brothers Lawrence and Samuel, and Charles’ wife Mildred.

We first visited Zion Episcopal Cemetery, where more than 70 Washington descendants are buried, including Bushrod Corbin Washington (1790-1851; the nephew of George Washington’s nephew Bushrod Washington) and John Augustine Washington III (1812-1861; George’s great-grandnephew and Mount Vernon’s final private owner). When Zion Episcopal Church’s first building was erected in 1818, pre-existing graves had to be moved from other sites to the church’s new cemetery. A second church, which replaced the first church, was constructed on the site in 1846 but was destroyed by fire the following year. The current structure (the church’s third iteration) was built in 1851.

Happy Retreat, home of George Washington’s brother Charles, in Charles Town, West Virginia. Photo courtesy of the author.

We next drove a few miles to Happy Retreat, the home of Charles Washington. Because the house is not open to the public, we could only view it from the outside. However, the inside is occasionally accessible for special events. A 14-year-old Charles inherited the land on which Happy Retreat was built from his half-brother Lawrence; Charles moved there with his wife and children in 1780. The home’s center section was constructed later in the mid-19th century and connects the two original wings on either side. Charles and his wife Mildred are buried nearby.

While in Charles Town, we walked past the Jefferson County courthouse, where on Nov. 2, 1859, John Brown and his men were tried for murder, treason, and conspiracy to incite a slave rebellion. While on trial, the group was kept at the county jail, which now serves as a post office. Brown and his co-conspirators were hanged on Dec. 2 in a field near the courthouse, where a house now stands. The Jefferson County courthouse is the only courthouse in America to have held two treason trials: for John Brown and his men, and for several participants of 1921’s Battle of Blair Mountain labor rebellion. I’ll come back to John Brown later in this blog post.

In the basement of the local library is the Jefferson County Museum, which presents the history of the county and its seat, Charles Town. The museum’s collection includes everything from Native American artifacts to World War II items. The highlight of the collection is one of the last letters that George Washington ever wrote. In the letter, written on Sept. 22, 1799 to Charles’ son-in-law Burgess Ball, George responds to news of Charles’ death.1 The museum also houses one of three copies of the first printing of George’s will; items that belonged to First Lady Harriet Lane Johnston (niece of President James Buchanan), who attended a private boarding school in Charles Town; the wagon that carried John Brown to his execution; documents and photographs about local businesses; and slavery artifacts.

Although we did not visit it, Harewood, the home of George and Charles’ brother Samuel, lies just outside of Charles Town. Harewood, which was completed in 1770, was the site of the marriages of Dolley Payne Todd to James Madison in 1784 and of Dolley’s sister Lucy to Samuel’s son George Steptoe Washington in 1793. While there are many other Washington family homes in the immediate area, Harewood is the only one that has remained in the family.2

Gravestone of John Augustine Washington III, George Washington’s great-nephew and final private owner of Mount Vernon, in Zion Episcopal Cemetery in Charles Town, West Virginia. Photo courtesy of the author.

HARPERS FERRY

Harpers Ferry, Va. (now W.Va.), was selected by George Washington as the site of the first federal armory and arsenal, the construction of which began in 1799. Harpers Ferry was of extreme importance because it sat at the convergence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, allowing for easier transportation and trade. The town would eventually become even more significant because of its location on the border between the United States and the Confederacy, and because of the development of the railroad.

My family and I visited Harpers Ferry Historical Park, which was designated a National Monument in 1944 and then a National Historical Park in 1963. We explored the park’s Lower Town section, which is comprised of restaurants, stores, and museums housed in buildings that have been restored to their 1859 appearances. Adjacent to the Lower Town is the original site of the armory. Meriwether Lewis came to the armory in 1803 to gather supplies for his westward expedition with William Clark that had been commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson. Speaking of Jefferson, this area of the park also includes a natural formation called Jefferson Rock, named after the third president, who visited and wrote about the site in his Notes on the State of Virginia.

John Brown’s fort is also near the Lower Town, although it has been moved a short distance from its original location. On Oct. 16, 1859, John Brown led 16 men to Harpers Ferry, with the goal of seizing weapons from the federal armory and starting a slave rebellion. The group hoped that the rebellion would spread and ultimately end the institution of slavery. However, the plan failed, and Brown and his men were captured and taken to Charles Town. John Brown’s raid has been seen as contributing to the increased division between the northern and southern states, eventually culminating in the Civil War. 

The George Washington Bath Tub in Berkeley Springs State Park, West Virginia. Photo courtesy of the author.

BERKELEY SPRINGS

Our next stop was Berkeley Springs, located in Morgan County. Although the city is called “Berkeley Springs,” its official name is “Bath” and was also known as “Warm Springs” in George Washington’s time.3 Founded in 1776, Bath was named after the spa town of Bath in England and is considered to be the United States’ first spa. George, along with his family and friends, would come to Berkeley Springs in order to soak in the warm mineral waters, which supposedly helped with health and relaxation. George first visited the springs as a 16-year-old surveyor for Lord Fairfax, who owned the site. Lord Fairfax eventually gave the springs to the Commonwealth of Virginia on the condition that they would be free and open to the public, which they still are. George eventually purchased and built on lots in Berkeley Springs but never lived there; he later sold these lots to his nephew Bushrod Washington.4

The springs themselves are located within Berkeley Springs State Park, in the middle of the historic downtown district. The water is kept at a constant 74 degrees and is reportedly the same composition that it was in George Washington’s day. The springs include a reproduction of the type of stone-lined tub that Washington supposedly would have bathed in, and is nicknamed the “George Washington Bathtub.” One local tourism magazine calls it “the nation’s only outdoor monument to presidential bathing” (which leads me to ask if there are any indoor monuments to presidential bathing).5

 


  1. See “From George Washington to Burgess Ball, 22 September 1799,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-04-02-0266. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series 4:318.
  2. Other area Washington homes include: Cedar Lawn (home of John Thornton Augustine Washington, Samuel’s grandson); Claymont Court (home of Bushrod Corbin Washington, George’s grand-nephew); and Blakeley (home of John Augustine Washington II, Bushrod Corbin’s brother who eventually inherited Mount Vernon).
  3. See “From George Washington to Samuel Washington, 27 October 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-12-02-0030. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 12:35-37 and n.2 to that document.
  4. See “Enclosure: Schedule of Property, 9 July 1799,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-04-02-0404-0002. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series 4:512-27 and n.21 to that document.
  5. See “Premier Parks,” Explore the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, 2019, p. 30.