GEORGE WASHINGTON GETTING READY TO GO!
The year is 1732. George Washington is born to his father, Augustine, and his second wife, 23- year-old Mary Ball. The home is simple, along Pope’s Creek off the Potomac River. Not far upstream is the Fall Line where our interior eastern rivers “fall” off their higher Piedmont basement rock, onto the lower-lying coastal plains. The Great Falls of the Potomac River just above Washington, D.C., and the Falls of the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg are examples. As George Washington matures into a man, this line marks the border with the frontier, and where his future began.
Several opportunities directed his early life. His father had built an iron furnace near Accokeek Creek, above Fredericksburg in Virginia. But British law forbade the export of iron from the colonies, and even the casting or manufacture of certain iron implements. So Washington became aware, at an early age, of the economic “yoke” of colonialism. In 1738, Augustine Washington moved his family thirty miles inland, to what he called the “Ferry Farm,” immediately below the Falls of the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, and closer to his furnace and Washington’s future.
Then Washington’s elder half-brother by 14 years and an earlier marriage, Lawrence, returned from his education in England. Tall, vigorous, and ambitious, Lawrence Washington became a surrogate father in place of the one so often absent. Much of Washington’s character can be traced to his relationship with Lawrence. And much else of George Washington’s character can be tied to the relationship with his mother.
The admiring George Washington saw his brother go off to join the British army in the “War of Jenkins Ear” against Spain. Lawrence saw defeat at Cartagena, Columbia, but wrote to young Washington, “War is horrid in fact, but much more so in imagination. We, there, learned to live on ordinary diet, to watch much and disregard noise, or shot of cannon.” Prophetic words for the leader of the soon-enough-to-come, American Revolution.
Washington’s father died in 1743, and the not-yet-teenaged Washington inherited the Ferry Farm and a handful of Negro slaves. His mother would live there for 30 years. Surprisingly, his mother never saw enough in her son, George, to be satisfied.
Lawrence inherited his father’s larger lands on the Potomac River at Little Hunting Creek. There, after marrying the daughter of British Colonel William Fairfax, he built Mt. Vernon in honor of British Admiral Edward Vernon, the hero of the Battle of Porto Bello.
That’s right. George Washington’s Mt. Vernon. Lawrence built it. And George inherited it only after the death of Lawrence’s wife and, later, her daughter.
Washington was not immune to the value of a “good” marriage. There was a social stratification in Virginia at the time. Slaves and political prisoners at the bottom. Next, indentured servants with grants of property, called “headrights,” upon completion of their indentures. Then there were the frontiersmen making their own way in the wilderness. Soldiers, sailors, and then above them, merchants. Finally, at the top were the small Tidewater landowners, capped by the large landholdings of the Great Estates.
The Augustine Washingtons were of the second, lower, class of landowners. Combining with the lands of his new Fairfax bride, Lawrence had entered into the top tier. That’s where George Washington wanted to be, and the lesson wasn’t lost to him as to how Lawrence got there.
The area of the “northern neck” of Virginia was part of the Royal English Fairfax Grant. Its history went back to lands given to supporters of the monarchy who succeeded in reestablishing the crown in Britain after Cromwell’s English Revolution. So now, Lord Thomas Fairfax, in England, owned all of the land from the Chesapeake Bay between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers, all the way to their headwaters. But these lands needed exploring, surveying, and settling. And, of course, dealing with the problem of the Native Americans who were already living there.
These lands narrowed, as you can see, where their rivers discharged through the Chesapeake Bay to the sea. And some of our important national history evolved out of that area. But oh my, did the lands widen mightily as these headwaters of those two rivers headed inland. And that’s where George Washington would go under the Fairfax command!
For through Lawrence, Washington met Colonel William Fairfax, the Fairfax cousin in charge of Lord Fairfax’s lands in Virginia. He took an interest in young George and hired him to participate in a thirty day surveying expedition into the Western Fairfax reaches.
Poorly educated, barely grammar school by our standards, Washington was mathematically astute, well read, and reliable. At age 17, he was appointed Culpepper County’s official surveyor, where his knowledge of the backcountry and of the Fairfax Grant would lead him out into our future.
For it was there, out in the frontier, where he would start a war and begin a startling series of misadventures that would lead him to the American Revolution!