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George Washington

The Boy of the Old Dominion: 1732-1799

A few miles below Mount Vernon, on the Potomac River, was the beautiful estate of Belvoir, belonging to an English gentleman of rank named Lord Fairfax. The broad Potomac wound about the base of the lawn that sloped gently downward from the old colonial mansion which sat upon a height looking out across the exquisite Virginia country.

The Potomac was not a busy river then, and the only trade that came up it was such as was needed to supply the rich planters on the shores with food and clothing. From the porch of Belvoir one might see an occasional sailing vessel dropping up with the tide, lately come from England to make a tour of the seaboard states, and to take home cotton and tobacco in exchange for the silks and satins brought out to the colonies.

A great man in both England and America was Lord Fairfax; he owned many estates in both countries, but his favorite was this of Belvoir, not only because of its great natural beauty, but because he liked the company of the Virginia planters, who joined a certain frankness and simplicity of life with all the charms of European refinement.

Lord Fairfax kept up all the old English customs in his Potomac home. He had a passion for horses and for hunting, and his pack of foxhounds was the best in the colony. Sometimes he had the company of men of his own age to hunt with him, but he was always sure that he could count upon the fellowship of a certain boy, the son of a neighbor, named Washington. Whenever the hunting season arrived, Lord Fairfax sent word to Mrs. Washington that he would be glad of the company of her eldest son George, and a day or two later the boy would appear at Belvoir, keen to mount horse and be off for the chase.

On one such winter day Lord Fairfax and his friend George were hunting alone. They had had a good run and caught their fox, and were returning home in a leisurely fashion across the rolling country south of the hills. They were a curious couple.

The Englishman was nearly sixty years old, more than six feet tall, very gaunt and big-boned, with gray eyes overhung by bushy brows, sharp features, and keen, aquiline nose. He had been a great beau in his youthful days in London, and there was no mistaking the mark of authority that sat upon him.

The boy who rode by his side was not yet sixteen years old, and yet he scarcely seemed a boy, nor would his manner have led one to treat him as such. He was unusually tall and strong for his years, and he had so trained himself in a strict code of conduct that a singular gravity and decision marked his bearing. This might have had much to do with the bond of affection between the man and the youth. Lord Fairfax was not ashamed to listen seriously to the opinions of young George Washington, and he had learnt that those opinions were not apt to be trivial, but the result of deep observation and thought.

As they rode home the man asked the boy what he was planning to do. He knew that Mrs. Washington was poor and that her son would have to make his own way in the world.

“What should you like to be, George?” he inquired. “I dare say you’ve had enough schooling by this time.”

“The sea was my first choice, sir,” was the answer. “My brother Lawrence got me a commission in the navy, but at the last minute mother asked me not to leave her. She has had hard times bringing us all up, and I felt, as the eldest, that I ought to stay at home; so I gave up my commission.”

“That was hard,” said Lord Fairfax, “and yet I think you did well. There should be openings for a young man in the colonies. It seems to me I heard that you were very fond of the surveyor’s work.”

The boy looked up quickly, and his bright eyes flashed. “So I am, sir. I have made surveys of all the fields near school, and have got the figures in my books at home. I should like very much to be a real surveyor.”

“Well, George,” said Lord Fairfax, “perhaps I can help you then. I’ve bought lands out west, the other side the Appalachians. It’s a big tract I own, but I know little about it, and I’m told that men are settling out there and taking it up themselves. I should like to have it surveyed, and I think you’re just the one to do it.”

“I should like it above all things,” said the boy, “if you think you can trust me to do the work properly.”

Lord Fairfax smiled slightly as he looked down at his companion. He was apt to be somewhat amused at Washington’s serious modesty. “I’ll show you the plans after dinner. I almost wish I could go out there with you.”

They were now nearing Belvoir, and the man put spurs to his horse and dashed across the intervening fields. The boy followed close behind, sitting his horse to perfection. Just before they reached Belvoir they came to a high hedge. Lord Fairfax put his horse at it and went flying over. A second later George had followed him. There was no feat of horsemanship to which he was not equal.

A little later dinner was served in the big dining-room at Belvoir. Lord Fairfax had his brother’s family living with him, and with one or two friends who were apt to be staying at the house they made quite a large party. The long polished mahogany table gleamed with silver and glass. Candles on it and in sconces about the white paneled walls shed a pleasant lustre over the dinner party.

It was a time when men and women paid great attention to dress. The ladies wore light flowered gowns, and the men brilliant coats and knee-breeches, with lace stocks and white powdered hair. Their manners were of the courts of Europe, polished in the extreme, and they had all been trained to make an art of conversation. Negro servants waited on the table, and the noble lord presided at its head with something of the majesty of a medieval baron in his castle. There were young people present, and George sat with them, paying gallant speeches to the girls and telling stories of sport to the boys. He was a popular youth, having a singularly gentle manner which made him a great favorite with those of his own age.

After dinner Lord Fairfax took George to his study, and spread out the plans of his western estate. He told the boy just where to go and what to do, and George made notes in a small pocketbook, asking questions now and then which showed a remarkable knowledge of the surveyor’s work.

“When can you start?” Lord Fairfax asked, as he finished with the plans.

“At once,” said the boy, “if mother can spare me, and I think she can.”

“Good. I’d like another hunt with you before you go, but when there’s work afoot a man shouldn’t tarry. The sooner you start the better.”

A little later George was sleeping soundly in the guest-room above-stairs dreaming of the adventures he hoped soon to have.

On a March day in 1748 Washington set out with young George Fairfax, a nephew of the English lord, to make the surveying expedition. Their road led by Ashley’s Gap, a deep pass through the Blue Ridge, that picturesque line of mountains which had so far marked the boundary of civilized Virginia.

When they reached the pass they found at its base a rapidly rising river. The melting snow which still lingered on the hilltops had swollen the stream and in places had made the road almost impassable. The two horsemen, by searching for fords, managed to make their way through the pass, and came out into the wide, smiling valley of Virginia, bounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Alleghanies. Here flowed that picturesque river called by the Indian name of Shenandoah, which means “the Daughter of the Stars.”

The first stop the travelers made was at a rough lodge house where one of Lord Fairfax’s bailiffs lived, and here the actual work of surveying began. Spring was rapidly coming, and young George Washington was by no means blind to the beauties of the country in that season. He tried, however, to look about him with a practical eye. He studied the valley for building sites. He examined the soil. He made carefully measured maps and drawings, after using his surveyor’s rod and chain. When he had learned all that he wanted of this locality, he followed the valley down toward the Potomac, he and Fairfax camping out at nights under the trees, sleeping beside a watch-fire, and keeping ever on the alert for attack by Indians or wild animals.

When they had reached the river they found it so swollen with spring floods that there seemed no way of crossing it. Finally, however, they met an Indian with a birch-bark canoe and bargained with him to take them across. In this way, swimming their horses, they reached the Maryland side, and set out again westward.

Shortly after they had left the river they came to a planter’s house where they stayed over night. The next day they were surprised by the arrival of a war party of thirty Indians carrying scalps won in battle. The planter knew how to treat the Indians, and soon made friends with them by offering them whiskey. George had seen little of the red men and begged them to hold a war-dance.

The white men and the red went out into a meadow and there built a fire, round which the braves took their seats. The chief made a speech telling of the tribe’s deeds of valor, and calling on the warriors to win new triumphs. Gradually one by one the reclining members of the band rose and circled about the fire in a slow swinging step. Two Indians at a little distance beat upon a rough drum made of wood covered with deerskin and half filled with water.

As the chief’s voice rose higher and higher and the music grew louder and louder, more and more men joined the dance, until finally all the tribe was dancing about the fire, and their pace grew ever faster. Now, from time to time, one would leap in the air uttering savage cries and yells, then another, and finally all seemed absolutely lost in a sort of demon’s frenzy. Suddenly, at a sharp command from the chief, the dance and the music ceased, and the warriors came up to their white friends smiling and asking for more whiskey.

The scene made a deep impression on George Washington. So far he had lived only among white people, and knew little of the Indian in his native haunts, but from the date of this war-dance he began to study the red man’s character, and before long he had become an expert in the art of dealing with these people.

For a month George and young Fairfax traveled through the land that belonged to the latter’s uncle, and at the end of that time the boy had made practically a complete survey of the region. By the middle of April he was back at Belvoir. His plans were examined and approved, and he was well paid for his services.

So pleased was the Englishman with George’s work that he used his efforts to get him the appointment of Public Surveyor. The position pleased the boy, who at once started to make maps of the whole region lying along the Potomac. He divided his time between his mother’s simple house, the big house which his older half-brother, Lawrence, had built at Mount Vernon, and Lord Fairfax’s seat at Belvoir. The strongest friendship had grown up between the nobleman and the boy, and George unquestionably profited greatly by his talks with this man, who was very fond of literature and art, and who had known the most distinguished men and women of Europe.

Belvoir had a fine library, and George spent much of his spare time there reading with special eagerness the history of England and Addison’s essays in the Spectator. His only schooling had been that which he had gained at a very primitive log schoolhouse, where an old man named Hobby, originally a bondsman, taught the children of the plantations reading, writing, and arithmetic. George, however, was not the boy to be content with such a simple education, and he had made up his mind that if he could not go to William and Mary College he would at least learn all he could from Lord Fairfax’s well-stocked library.

Young Washington’s work as a surveyor was shortly cut in upon by the outbreak of trouble with France. In looking over the youths of the neighborhood who were likely to make good soldiers, attention was almost at once attracted to him. Everybody knew he had a great sense of responsibility, and his feats as an athlete were equally well known.

As a small boy he had been unusually big and strong for his age, and had always delighted in any kind of contest of strength. He could outrun, outride and outbox any boy of either side the Potomac, and had proved it in many contests of skill. When he was at Hobby’s school he had liked to form his mates into companies at recess time, with cane stalks for rifles and dried gourds for drums, and drill them in the manual of arms. They had fought mimic battles, and Washington always commanded one side. He had really learned a good deal of the art of war in this way, and so when men were casting about for likely young officers they naturally thought of the boy surveyor.

His brother Lawrence had sufficient influence to procure him an appointment as District Adjutant General, and had him make his headquarters at Mount Vernon, where he immediately began to drill the raw recruits of the countryside. But in the midst of these military operations Lawrence fell ill and had to make a sea voyage to the West Indies, taking his young brother George with him as company.

In the West Indies George caught smallpox, but he made a quick recovery and after a short convalescence began to enjoy the tropical life which was so entirely new to him.

Unfortunately Lawrence Washington did not grow stronger, and finally came back to Mount Vernon to die under his own roof. He was very young, very high-spirited and accomplished, and immensely popular with all Virginians. George had looked up to him as to a second father, and his loss was a tremendous blow to him. Lawrence for his part must have realized the very unusual qualities of character in his young half-brother. He left his great estate of Mount Vernon together with other property to his wife and daughter, and in case they should die then to his mother and his brother George. George was asked to take charge of the estates, and although he was still only a boy in years he showed such splendid ability and judgment in business matters that the whole care of the family interests soon fell upon his shoulders.

We have already seen how deeply this boy impressed older men with his rare judgment, and it is scarcely strange to find that he was soon after picked out by the governor of Virginia to command an expedition sent through the wilderness to treat with the Indians and French. This required physical strength and firm purpose, the courage to deal with the Indians and shrewdness to treat with the French. Washington was known to have all these qualities. His youth was the only thing against him, and that the governor was glad to overlook.

It was a rough and perilous expedition, made partly in frail canoes down the great rivers, and partly by fighting a way through the unbroken woods. Washington met the Indians whom the French had tried hard to win over to their side, and by the most skilful diplomacy induced the chiefs to send back the wampums which the French had given them as tokens of alliance. He had studied the Indian character and knew the twists and turns of their peculiar type of mind. He was frank and outspoken with them, and as a result won their confidence, so that for a great part of his journey chiefs of the Delawares, the Shawnees and other tribes traveled with him.

Besides his success with the red men, George Washington, with his surveyor’s knowledge, made a careful study of the country through which he passed, the result of which study was of the greatest value in later years when he commanded an army in that region.

He picked out the place where the Alleghany and Monongahela Rivers meet as an admirable site for a fort and made a report of its advantages from a military point of view. Only a year or two later French engineers proved the correctness of his judgment by settling on the spot as the site of Fort Du Quesne, which is now Pittsburg.

Successful as he had been with the Indians, Washington was scarcely less successful with the civilized French commander. This man, like those at Belvoir, recognized at once the self-command, the extreme intelligence, and the modesty of the youth who appeared before him. The old officer and the young pioneer met as equals and fought diplomatically across the table as to which nation should win the alliance of the red men. The negotiations were extremely difficult, enough to try the skill of a man grown old in diplomatic service, but Washington completed his mission successfully, and at last set out to retrace his steps home.

Now they had much more difficulty with the Indians and with the elements. Some of their guides turned traitors, and they had to watch their arms by night and day. Ceaseless vigilance had to be used, and time and again the little band had to make forced marches and change their course on the spur of the moment to throw off bands of pursuing savages. When they reached the banks of the Alleghany River they found that it was only partly frozen over and that great quantities of broken ice were driving down the channel in the middle.

Washington knew that a band of hostile Indians was at his heels, and he had to plan some way of crossing the Alleghany. He decided to build a raft, but had only one poor hatchet with which to construct it. The men set to work with this, and labored all day, but night came before the raft was finished. As soon as they could they launched it and tried to steer it across with long poles. When they reached the main channel the raft became jammed between great cakes of ice, and it seemed as if they would all be swept down-stream with it. Washington planted his pole against the bottom of the stream and pushed with all his might, in hopes of holding the raft still until the ice should have gone by. Instead the current drove the ice against his pole with such force that he was jerked into the water and only saved himself from being swept down the roaring channel by seizing one of the logs.

They found it impossible to reach shore. The best they could do was to get to an island near which the raft had drifted. Here they passed the night, exposed to extreme cold, in great danger of freezing; but in the morning the drift ice was found so tightly wedged together that they were able to cross over on it to the opposite bank of the Alleghany.

This was but one of many adventures that befell the little party on its homeward way. Through all kinds of dangers Washington led his men, and finally he had the satisfaction of bringing the expedition safely back to Williamsburg, where he gave the governor a full report of his remarkable mission. It was practically the first expedition of its kind in Virginian history, and the story of it soon spread far and wide through the Old Dominion.

Everywhere men spoke of the remarkable skill the young man had shown in dealing with fickle Indians and crafty French. Report was made of the trained eye with which the young commander had noticed the military qualities of the country and of the courage he had shown in all sorts of perils. More than that, the governor of Virginia and other men in power realized that Washington had prudence, good judgment, and resolution to a remarkable degree, and told each other that here was a man worthy to uphold the interests of the colony. From the date of this trip George Washington became a prominent figure. It was not long before he was to be the mainstay of Virginia.

Every one knows the story of Washington’s life. From being the mainstay of Virginia and fighting with General Braddock against the French and Indians, he became the mainstay of the United Colonies and fought through seven long and trying years against the veterans of England. Who can overestimate the great patience and courage and determination that heroic struggle required of him?

We see him taking command of the raw recruits at Cambridge, leading his men in victory at Trenton, sustaining them in defeat at Monmouth, cheering them through the desperate winter at Valley Forge. Later we see him as first President of the United States guiding the new republic through its first troubled years, and later still as the simple gentleman of Mount Vernon, glad to escape to the peace of the river and fields he loved.

There are few figures in history quite so self-reliant as that of this “Father of his Country.” The qualities which made him so remarkable a boy were the same as those which made him so great a man.