George Washington Lived Here

George Washington’s Mount Vernon in Virginia is open to visitors year-round. 

February 20 is Presidents’ Day. Established in 1899 to honor George Washington, the holiday now recognizes all past United States Presidents.

Washington was the first President of the U.S., as well as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. The Army led the 13 Colonies to victory in the American Revolutionary War (1765-1783), securing freedom from British tyranny.

Washington, who was elected President in 1789, is celebrated for his bravery and leadership. He is credited with holding a young country together against great odds. But in recent decades, Washington’s legacy has been marred by growing awareness that he enslaved Black people at his home and violently forced American Indians from their lands.

Washington died in 1799 at his family’s home, Mount Vernon, in Virginia. Located near Washington, D.C., the former plantation is now a historic site open to visitors.

In honor of Presidents Day, I visited George Washington’s Mount Vernon, which overlooks the Potomac River. While there, I spoke with Allison Wickens, vice president of education at the Museum and Education Center. I asked her about Mount Vernon and how Presidents’ Day is commemorated there. Below are highlights from our conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Xander and Allison Wickens, vice president of education at Mount Vernon’s Museum and Education Center, stand beneath a portrait of George Washington.  

What is the importance of President’s Day at Mount Vernon? 
Although we casually refer to it as Presidents’ Day, here the holiday is called Washington’s Birthday. [Washington was born on February 22, 1732.] Washington’s Birthday was the second national holiday that the United States created. The first holiday was the Fourth of July. We take that seriously. At Mount Vernon, we take this opportunity to explain how important the office of the presidency is, and to honor Washington’s role in setting a precedent for what the national office should look like. He felt that as President, he should represent all the people, not just one political party or another. He wanted to make sure that, as President, he was making decisions that were the best for as many people as possible. 

When was Mount Vernon officially opened to the public? 
The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association purchased the home and surrounding 200 acres from the Washington family. They opened it in 1860. Even before then, people would come and visit Washington’s grave, which is located at Mount Vernon. It opened as a public site right before the Civil War started. 


In the 1700s, rivers were the chief way to travel and move goods across the country. 

Who were some of the first people who lived at Mount Vernon? 
If you go back to pre-European contact, we know that this was a place where many people of the Piscataway Nation [of Southern Maryland] had communities. But no one lived permanently here on the property. In terms of Washington’s family, it was his father who had the house built where we are now. It was a plantation called “Little Hunting Creek.” 

What is the significance of Mount Vernon’s location? 

The location was selected by Washington’s father. Washington often said that the location made this the most pleasantly-situated plantation. He felt that the view over the Potomac River was not only beautiful, but also inspiring. It symbolized the economic growth of the United States. This was before trains, cars, highways, and airplanes. Rivers were the way to move goods and travel across the country. Washington saw the Potomac and felt connected to its beauty and its ability to be part of the American economy. It was just down the river from Alexandria [in Virginia], which is still a town today. It’s a big economic hub, so ships would have been passing by all the time. Also, the land had five different farms around the plantation’s main house. 


Wickens shows Xander the location of the various buildings on the Mount Vernon estate. 

How did George Washington acquire this house? 
The house was built from the timber in the surrounding area. It was built in the 1730s at the request of Washington’s father. He didn’t do all of the labor himself. He worked with enslaved individuals who built the house and harvested the wood under his direction. That portion of the house still stands here today. Washington added to the original house instead of taking it down.

How many of Washington’s family members and visitors stayed in the house? 

Hundreds and hundreds. We know that in 1798, there were more than 600 overnight stays by family friends and guests of the Washingtons. That was just one year. The number of visitors certainly grew as Washington’s fame grew, along with his familiarity with everybody. People were familiar with Washington. Many would want to visit, consult with him, and get his advice. In the 18th century, which is when Washington lived, if you were traveling across the country and needed a place to stay, everyone would open their doors to you. It was dangerous to not be in a building or structure. A lot of people just passing through would also stay here. 



Photos © top to bottom: BackyardProduction / Getty Images; courtesy of the author; mikroman6 / Getty Images; courtesy of the author