GEORGE WASHINGTON’S FIRST JOB
He had maybe a sixth grade education. And not in the same way we go to classes. His father died when he was eleven, leaving him as the oldest child, to care for his mother and siblings. But he set about learning with a focus on fulfilling his ambition. He wanted to become a great man, as then defined by Virginia. He would become a much greater man, defining our nation.
But he first wanted to be “someone” in Colonial Virginia. Like his half-brother, Lawrence, who was educated in England and became a soldier in British Admiral Edward Vernon’s expeditions in the Caribbean. A half-brother who would inherit his father’s land along Hunting Creek on the Potomac River, where he would build Mt. Vernon to honor his British leader. A place George Washington would inherit after the death of his brother at age 34 in 1752, and then the passing of his wife in 1761.
But George Washington would never study in England, nor become a soldier in the British Army. Maybe that was a good thing. For the first army that he would lead into battle would defeat the British and form a new nation.
But that would be much later. Young George Washington was busy teaching himself the science of surveying with equipment that his father had left at the Ferry Farm near Fredericksburg that he had inherited. He began the study of measuring land, a science that clearly appealed to his mathematical ability, and the use of such survey tools as a “circumferentor” [surveyors’ compass for the measurement of angles], a magnetic compass, and survey chains. Experience that prepared him, perhaps, to analyze geography, evade the British, and then surround them, forcing their surrender at Yorktown.
By the age of sixteen, he was already practicing surveys and noting them in his copybook. He even surveyed Lawrence Washington’s turnip garden at Mt. Vernon for practice!
Washington was often at Mt. Vernon with the half-brother he admired. And that was important because his brother had married into big money. The family Fairfax, which owned all those lands granted by the British Crown in the northern portion of the colony of Virginia. Lands that would promote this eager, smart, handsome young surveyor and propel him into history as one of our founders!
It all had to do with the British “Fairfax Grant.” A huge swath of land in Colonial America between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers [both flowing into Chesapeake Bay] that had been given to supporters of the Kingly British line of Charles II after Charles I was beheaded.
The “Northern Neck of Virginia,” it was called, and it set George Washington on his course of backwoods knowledge and fame. For in 1748, having performed only several real surveys, he was taken by George William Fairfax, along with the surveyor of Prince William County, across the fabled Blue Ridge Mountains, into the wilderness beyond. Into the lands of which the Virginia Colony believed they had obtained from the Iroquois in the Treaty of Lancaster in 1744 [for merchandise and 200 pounds of gold]. Lands in the Shenandoah Valley that included the largest portion of the Fairfax Grant.
It was a month-long journey that set Washington’s interests. He mastered the trade of surveying and bonded with the wealthiest family in Virginia. He developed a life-long desire for land, owning more than 50,000 acres at his death. And he developed the experience needed to travel through wilderness to get it. He was still speculating in Kentucky property when he died.
What would you have done, being invited to explore five million acres owned by one man? In a land hidden in a far away wilderness? With little education, but with the strength of youth and a lot of ambition. Washington was only 16. One year later, Fairfax would have him appointed surveyor of Culpeper County, after receiving his surveying license from the College of William and Mary. An early version of the American dream. He would go on to survey almost 200 tracts of 60,000 acres beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains and buy some of that land for himself.
The man who owned the land was Thomas, 6th Lord of Fairfax. And unlike most Crown Grant owners, he had actually moved to Virginia. To the mansion at Belvoir [now a U.S. Army base] built by his cousin in 1741, overlooking the Potomac River within five miles of Mt. Vernon. Colonel William Fairfax was the cousin of Lord Fairfax, and was responsible to him for administering his Virginia lands. His son, George William Fairfax, accompanied George Washington on that surveying expedition across the mountains. They would become close friends.
And just as importantly for George Washington’s career, George William’s sister, Sarah Fairfax, age 15, had married Lawrence Washington and moved to Mt. Vernon. The Fairfax and Washington families had been joined, and would remain so until George William Fairfax left to return to England, and Thomas, 6th Lord of Fairfax, died just after the British surrendered to Washington at Yorktown. Washington would sell George William Fairfax’s American estate in 1774, after Fairfax determined not to return to America.
Let us briefly look at the Fairfax Land Grant that started off the career of George Washington.
The English Civil War began in 1642 and lasted nine years. It was supported by the same religious Puritans [seeking to “purify” the Church of England] who had fled to New England after the Pilgrims came over on the Mayflower in 1620 [the Pilgrims were separatists, but the Puritans not necessarily so]. About 21,000 Puritans arrived by 1641.
The Civil War in England was fought between the Royalist forces of King Charles I and the Puritan Parliamentarians led by Oliver Cromwell. Charles I was captured and beheaded in 1649.
His son, Charles II, fled to France and fought to retain the crown. In 1649, to ensure his backing, Charles II gave five million acres of Virginia, later called the “Fairfax Grant,” to seven of his supporters. After the death of Cromwell, the English Parliament proclaimed Charles II as King. He returned to England in 1660.
By 1719, Thomas, 6th Lord of Fairfax [1693-1781], had assembled all of the rights to the grant unto himself through marriage and inheritance. The colony of Virginia, however, contested the boundaries of the grant. So Fairfax brought suit in the friendly English courts [Fairfax v. Virginia, Privy Council, 1745] and reestablished his rights to the land.
Thomas had first come to Virginia in 1735, moving there permanently in 1747. He initially lived at the Belvoir Mansion built by his cousin, William Fairfax. It was there that he met the young George Washington and became his supporter.
Washington was crossing many currents of history. For not only would he lead a revolution against his English benefactors, but he would be aided by the New England Puritans who had fled English persecution to America.
He would soon enough marry the widow Custis and, with extensive new landholdings, become a plantation owner. But Virginia was changing. Tobacco production was increasing. And for the big landowners, that meant that more slave labor was needed. And more debt to the London financiers to buy them.
Washington ran a big operation, but came to object to the institution of slavery. The Treaty of Paris addressed the planter’s debts. And, at Washington’s death, the old surveyor freed his slaves from human bondage.
I wonder if Washington was thinking, toward the end of his productive lifetime, about the days of his youth when he was just an explorer. Working his first job, not on a plantation, but as an apprentice surveyor. Entering new lands across the mountains of his now new nation. Maybe he never lost the sense of freedom he gained in the wilderness of America!