Believe it or not, George Washington was once a kid. He rode horses. He thought about running away from home and going off to sea.
Not only does our assessment of Washington begin before he was famous, but it also starts before the distortions of mythmakers whose accounts of Washington led them to make up stories to explain his greatness. Relatively little information about his early childhood survives, but it's clear that the story of the cherry tree and that young Washington never telling a lie is itself a fabrication.
He was born in 1732 into a Virginia family of modest wealth. Although not among the richest or most politically powerful families of the day, the Washington household property included 20 slaves by 1743. Had the family fortune continued to expand, Washington might have found himself beginning to enter the top rank of Virginia society. However, inheritance was not to be his route to greatness. George's father died when he was only 11 and he ended up moving in with Lawrence Washington, his older half-brother.
Lawrence became an important role model for young George. He was particularly impressed by his half-brother's service in an American regiment of the British Army in a campaign against the Spanish in Colombia, South America.
Another important influence on George was a local boy named George William Fairfax who hailed from a prominent family. Washington's skill at horseback riding won the favor of the visiting Lord Fairfax. When a surveying party went west to measure the Fairfax's vast new royal grant of land, 16-year-old George went along for the adventure. More than just fun times, the experience began Washington's life-long interest in western lands and equipped him with surveying and backwoods skills that would serve him well in the future.
As often happened in the colonial period, early death struck the Washington family once more when Lawrence died in 1752. By the age of 20 George had suffered the death of both his real and surrogate fathers. Along with this second major loss came the end of George's hopes to get an education in England — part of the required training for elite men in colonial Virginia.
George inherited Lawrence's 2600-acre estate and 18 slaves who made the Mount Vernon plantation profitable. In a colonial world where connections to powerful people and family tradition played an important role in securing public office, George managed to win the title of major in the Virginia militia that had previously been held by Lawrence. Although lacking significant military experience, George Washington was about to ride into a public career that would carry him to national fame. But first he would have to ride to the frontier and make a name for himself battling French and Indian foes.