George Washington – early life

George Washington, the first president of the US, was born on 22 February 1732 in Westmoreland County, Virginia, where his father, Augustine, was a leading planter in the area. Augustine’s first wife died in 1729, leaving him two sons, Lawrence and Augustine, Jr., and a daughter, Jane. Augustine, Sr. soon married Mary Ball and had six children, George being the eldest. Washington’s mother was wealthy in her own right, and by all accounts, a demanding, self-centered and formidable woman. In addition to inheriting her strong health and disposition to endure great hardships, George most likely inherited her temper, which he struggled his whole life to control.

George WashingtonBy 1738, the family had moved to a plantation near Fredericksburg, Virginia where George spent much of his youth. However, this period remains the least documented and understood part of his life. Many of the widely accepted fables of George’s youthful physical strength, honesty, and piety stem from Washington’s first biographer, “Parson” Weems.

Education

The education of a son of a wealthy planter normally included (as it did his older half-brothers) English grammar and arithmetic. Adolescent years would have included instruction in geometry, geography, booking keeping and surveying, culminating in a year or two studying abroad in England. Unfortunately, when George reached the age of eleven, his father died, and George’s formal education ended. From what little we do know of his education, Washington excelled in mathematics and surveying. As George grew into his teens, he found it increasingly difficult to tolerate his domineering mother, so he spent most of his time away from home by actively pursuing the study of surveying or spending a large part of his time with his step-brothers, especially Lawrence.

Mount Vernon

Becoming the ward of his eldest half-brother, George relished spending time at Lawrence’s Mount Vernon estate. Lawrence eagerly assumed the role of mentor, encouraging George’s studies. More importantly, Lawrence introduced his young charge to the dazzling, refined and sophisticated world of the Virginia gentry. It was also during the time that George would capture the interest and support of the powerful Fairfax family into which Lawrence had married.

With most of his late father’s estate being inherited by his older half-brother, Washington decided to pursue surveying as his profession. This was an occupation acceptable for someone of his social rank, and held at the time, the same status as a doctor or lawyer.

Lord Fairfax

In 1748, George joined a surveying expedition into western Virginia (and present West Virginia) at the invitation of Lord Fairfax, a land baron and his brother’s father-in-law. Impressed with Washington’s skills and work ethic, the Fairfax family secured Washington an appointment as a county surveyor. By the age of seventeen, Washington was operating his own surveying business. In the following years, he crossed and recrossed the Appalachian Mountains mapping the far reaches of the American wilderness for weeks at a time. He also began buying up favorable lands and thus taking his first steps toward becoming one of Virginia’s wealthiest men.

The years 1752-1753 marked a turning point in Washington’s life. Lawrence contracted an aggressive strain of tuberculosis. Hoping that the tropical climate would help his condition, he went to Barbados, taking George along.  While there, George contracted a case of smallpox, which may have left him sterile. When Lawrence’s health did not improve, Lawrence returned to Mount Vernon and died in 1752. George was made executor and residuary heir of the estate, and at the age of twenty, George became owner of one of the best estates in Virginia. With this turn of fate, he no longer needed a profession like surveying, so he turned to running his various farms and carrying out his duties as an adjutant general in the Virginia Militia.

Williamsburg

PortraitPrior to entering the military, his brother, Lawrence, held Virginia’s single position of adjutant. After Lawrence’s death, four military districts were created, each needing an adjutant that would be responsible for recruiting and training troops. Seeing a chance to enhance his status in the colony, in 1753 Washington rode to Williamsburg, Virginia’s capital, and petitioned Governor Dinwiddie for an appointment (in-part because he was his brother’s brother). George had no military training, except for reading two books on the art of warfare, but stood nearly six feet three inches tall—enormous by eighteenth-century averages, and weighed about 220 pounds. Impressed with Washington’s presence and spunk, Dinwiddie appointed him adjutant to one of the four military districts.

George WashingtonDavid B McCoy

Read more in George Washington: History In An Hour by David B. McCoy, published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats only 99p / $1.60.