George Washington, Before Revolution

On February 22, 1732, Mary Ball Washington gave birth to her son and named him George.[1] Young George was born into a wealthy Virginia family who had made their fortune through land speculation and the cultivation of tobacco. He was born at Popes Creek in the British colony of Virginia and was the first of six children born to Augustine and Mary Ball Washington.[2]

Augustine Washington was a justice of the peace and a prominent public figure, Mary Ball was his second wife. His first wife was Jane Butler, with whom he had four children.[3]

Augustine died in 1745 when little George was about eleven years old. Upon his father’s death, he inherited Ferry Farm and ten slaves.[4] Although it is safe to say that Washington had lived his young life surrounded by slaves, this would be the first time that he would physically own another human being, a practice that he would continue until his demise in 1799. The Washington’s were wealthy plantation owners that knew the institution of slavery very well. George’s older half-brother, Lawrence, inherited Little Hunting Creek and renamed it Mount Vernon.

While his older brothers went to England for a formal education, George Washington did not. He attended the lower church school in Hartfield where he learned mathematics, trigonometry, and land surveying. It was there that he became a talented draftsman and map maker.[5] With his limited education, George Washington would later become the least educated founding father.[6]

The young George Washington often visited Mount Vernon (his future home) and Belvoir, the plantation belonging to Lawrence’s father-in-law, William Fairfax. William Fairfax eventually became Washington’s patron and surrogate father. Throughout his early life, George Washington was able to use his connections to both his brother and Lord Fairfax to climb the social ladder, both personally and professionally.

George Washington spent a month in 1748 with a team surveying Fairfax’s Shenandoah Valley property.[7] A year later, at seventeen years old, he received a surveyors license from the College of William and Mary. Thereafter, Fairfax appointed him surveyor of Culpeper county, Virginia, despite the fact that he never served the customary apprenticeship for the job. Washington appeared in Culpeper County to take his oath of office on July 20th, 1749.[8] Two days later, he performed his one and only survey of the county. He resigned from this job in 1750 while continuing to do surveys west of the Blue Ridge mountains. By 1752, he had bought almost 1,500 acres in the valley and owned 2315 acres of land.[9]

n 1751, George Washington accompanied Lawrence to Barbados, hoping that the climate would cure his brother’s tuberculosis. While there Washington contracted smallpox, and although it almost killed him, he did survive. The disease left his face slightly scarred but he became immunized against the disease. Unfortunately, Lawrence died in 1752, as the cure for tuberculosis was still two hundred years away.

After returning to Virginia, George began leasing Mount Vernon from Lawrence’s widow, Anne. He would inherit it outright after her death in 1761.[10]

Lawrence Washington was a brother that young George would always inspire to be, his death never changed that ideology. Lawrence had served as Adjunct General of the Virginia militia, which inspired his half-brother to seek a commission. Robert Dinwiddie, Virginia’s lieutenant governor, appointed Washington as a major and commander of one of the four militia districts. At this time, the British and French were competing for control of the Ohio valley.[11] This was a competition that would only get more fierce as Washington took up his post.

Dinwiddie appointed Washington as a special envoy in October of 1753. He sent George to demand French forces vacate land that was being claimed by the British. Washington would later write “that so young and inexperienced a person should have been employed”.[12] Only hindsight would let Washington see just how much power he held at such a young age, hindsight that may have helped him deal with a young upstart, Alexander Hamilton.

Washington was tasked with making peace with the Iroquois Confederacy and was also instructed to gather intelligence about the French forces. Washington’s party reached the Ohio River in 1753 and was intercepted by a French patrol.[13] He and his party were escorted to Fort Le Boeuf, where Washington was received and able to deliver the British demand to vacate the French commander Saint-Pierre, but the French refused to do so.[14] Washington completed the mission in seventy-seven days during harsh winter conditions, which helped him achieve a measure of distinction when his report was published in Virginia and London, thanks to the help of Lord Fairfax.[15]

In February of 1754, Dinwiddie promoted Washington to Lieutenant Colonel and second in command of the Virginia regiment with orders to confront French forces at the forks of the Ohio.[16] Washington set out in April with his regiment where he soon learned that a French force had begun construction of Fort Duquesne. In May, having already set up defensive positions at Great Meadows, Washington learned that the French had made camp seven miles away and decided to take the offensive.[17]

Washington advanced on May 28 with a small force of Virginia and Native American allies.[18] What happened on this day was known as the battle of Jumonville Glen, also known as the “Jumonville affair”. This historical event has had its happenings greatly disputed due to conflicts in documentation. What is known is that French forces were killed outright with muskets and hatchets. French commander Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, who carried a diplomatic message for the British to evacuate, was killed. French forces found Jumonville and his men dead and scouts had assumed that Washington was responsible.[19] Washington blamed his translator for not communicating the French intentions.[20] This incident ignited the French and Indian War, or the 7 Years’ War.

After the massacre, the entire Virginia regiment would go on to join Washington at Fort Necessity with news that he had been promoted to command of the regiment and Colonel, upon the regimental commander’s death. The regiment was reinforced by an independent company of one hundred South Carolinians led by Captain James MacKay, whose Royal commission outranked Washington’s, causing a conflict. On July 3, French forces attacked with nine hundred men and the battle ended with Washington surrendering.[21] Colonel James Inez took command of the forces, the Virginia regiment was divided, and Washington was offered a capacity which he refused. Washington then resigned from his commission.[22]

In 1755, Washington served voluntarily as an aid to general Edward Braddock, who led a British expedition to expel the French from Fort Duquesne and the Ohio country.[23] The Virginia regiment was reconstituted in August of 1755, and Dinwiddie appointed Washington as its commander, again with the rank of a Colonel. Immediately, Washington and John Dagworthy battled over who had seniority.[24] A frustrated Washington continued to press his case in the hopes that Braddock would grant him a royal commission. Unfortunately, Braddock was killed in battle not long after and William Shirley became the new commander. In February of 1756, William Shirley ruled in Washington’s favor in the battle between him and Dagworthy. However, Shirley’s successor, Lord Loudoun, refused Washington a royal commission in January 1757. Loudon only offered to relieve Washington of his responsibilities manning Fort Cumberland.[25]

In 1758, the Virginia Regiment was assigned to capture Fort Duquesne via the British Forbes Exhibition.[26] Although Washington disagreed with General John Forbes’ tactics he was nevertheless made a brevet brigadier general and given command of one of the three brigades.[27] In the end, the French abandoned the fort and the town.

After fighting in the Seven Years’ War, Washington resigned his commission and returned to Mount Vernon, something that he would again do later in his life with a great amount of symbolism.

[1] John Ferling, The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of An American Icon (New York, New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009), 3.
[2] Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (Penguin Press, 2010),6–8.
[3] John Ferling, The Ascent of George Washington, 9.
[4] “Ten Facts About Washington & Slavery · George Washington’s Mount Vernon,”
[5] John E. Ferling, The First of Men: A Life of George Washington (Oxford University Press, 2010), 5-6.
[6] Randall, George Washington: A Life), 7.
[7] Willard Sterne Randall, George Washington: A Life (Macmillan, 1998), 36.
[8] George Washington, The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 1, 7 July 1748 – 14 August 1755, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983, 8–37.
[9] Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life, 22–23.
[10] Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life, 24, 26, 98.
[11] Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life, 26–27, 31.
[12] Willard Sterne Randall, George Washington: A Life (Macmillan, 1998), 74.
[13] Ferling, The Ascent of George Washington, 15-16.
[14] Ferling, The Ascent of George Washington, 15-18.

[15] George Washington, The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, ed. John Clemont Fitzpatrick (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Govt. Print. Off), 510-511.

[16] Ferling, The Ascent of George Washington, 18-19.
[17] Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life, 41-42.
[18] Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life, 42.
[19] Ferling, The Ascent of George Washington, 24-25.
[20] Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life, 42-45.
[21] Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency George Washington (New York, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 15–17.
[22] Ferling, The Ascent of George Washington, 26.
[23] Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life, 53.
[24] Ellis, His Excellency George Washington, 24.
[25] Ferling, The Ascent of George Washington, 31-31, 38-39.
[26] George Washington, The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, ed. John Clemont Fitzpatrick (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Govt. Print. Off), 512.
[27]Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life, 89-90.


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