My foray into American history started when James C. Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon, Washington’s estate, asked me whether I could re-create the way Washington, who was born in 1732 and died in 1799, had looked at three important points in his life. Rees wanted these life-size figures for Mount Vernon’s new education center, which will open in the fall of 2006. The 19-year-old Washington would be depicted in 1751, during his early career as an adventurer and surveyor. The 45-year-old would be shown in 1777, when he and his troops were bivouacked during the dreadful winter at Valley Forge, waiting for a chance to attack the British, who had occupied the city of Philadelphia. These two figures would complement a third portrayal, the 57-year-old Washington being sworn in on April 30, 1789, as the first president, a role he chose instead of the alternative he had been offered: becoming king.
My work as a forensic anthropologist for the Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, coroner’s office has augmented this experience. But nothing prepared me for the curious challenges involved in figuring out what Washington actually looked like.