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George Washington

17a. Growing up in Colonial Virginia

Colonel George Washington
Charles Willson Peale portrays George Washington as Colonel of the Virginia Provincials in this oil painting from 1772.

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.

Washington as a surveyor
This early lithograph depicts young George Washington honing his skills as a surveyor.

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.

Sulgrave Manor
Sulgrave Manor in Northamptonshire, England is the ancestral home of the Washington family.

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.

On the Web
Ferry Farm & the Youth of George Washington
Ferry Farm, across the river from Fredericksburg, Virginia, served as George Washington's home from the time he was six years old until he moved in with his half-brother Lawrence. This page highlights the lessons Washington learned at Ferry Farm that led to his later success, and other links provide more on the farm itself.
The Moral Washington
George Washington is remembered as a moral leader. As true as that description may be, it's also the result of some well known myths and legends. This site from the American Studies department at the University of Virginia gets to the bottom of a few of these stories, providing hard facts to offset popular fiction. So go and get the straight scoop on some of history's tallest tales ... including that pesky "chopping down the cherry tree" story!
Sulgrave Manor
The Washington family's ancestral home in Sulgrave, England, presents a website with the standard tourist site format: You can look around the manor and learn about its history and inhabitants. No earth shattering material here, but the section on George's lineage reaches all the way back to 1180 and is an interesting read.
So George Washington's actual date of birth is February 22nd, right? But the observance of his birthday falls on the third Monday of February and it's called President's Day. What's going on?
Learn More...
Check out this list of 110 "Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company And Conversation" that young George Washington was made to transcribe. Do you think he managed to avoid "cutting bread with his Knife Greasy?"
Learn More...
The Fairfaxes and George Washington
Were it not for the historian's cover up, perhaps you would never have heard of Washington's boyhood friend, George Fairfax.
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