Memory Travelers: Pilgrimage and Memory at Mount Vernon

  • Scott P. Libson
Keywords: definition of pilgrimage, memory, history, civil religion, American Catholicism, George Washington


Pilgrimage is fundamentally linked to memory. Scholars have presented compelling yet contradictory definitions of pilgrimage, identifying it in relation to communities or individuals, as linked to tourism or as its opposite, as about the journey or the place. None of the definitions work without accounting for memory. Places become sacred because believers link them to history. A forgettable journey could not be a pilgrimage, by any definition. Pilgrimage is fundamentally linked to memory and our understanding of history (i.e. our memory) is changing, so what does that mean for pilgrimage? That is the topic of this paper. I approach the question from the perspective of a historian. How has our changing memory changed pilgrimage? In particular, I focus on one of the most important sites of American civil religion, George Washington’s plantation at Mount Vernon. Using historical and contemporary promotional materials, descriptions, and traveler accounts, I argue that pilgrimage and memory are dialogical, but that pilgrimage itself is more static than memory.