Ledger Book Zero

Daily ledgers, journals, cash account books, letters, invoices – these are the kinds of documents an 18th-century plantation owner and businessman needed to manage his land and property successfully.   Tracking everyday expenses and the purchasing of items that couldn’t be produced on one’s farm was a necessary routine in daily life.  Dry good items such as clothing, dishes, and food stuffs, building materials, and medicines as well as doctor visits, cash loans to friends, tavern expenses, and money repaid for loans or for goods delivered were just a few examples of the financial transactions recorded in a daily ledger.

George Washington was a meticulous record keeper throughout his entire lifetime.  Surviving financial papers detailed daily accounts, both public and private, from when he served as paymaster of the Virginia Regiment, during the Revolutionary War, as president of the new United States, and as the long-time owner of Mount Vernon. Washington’s published record books start with Ledger Book 1, when he was 18 years old, and continue on until his death in 1799.

But George’s first effort at recording his expenses actually dates to 1747, when he was only fifteen years old and living at Ferry Farm.  “Ledger Book Zero,” our name for this document, is a personal cash account ledger in which George listed his credits and debits with family, close friends, and clients between the years of 1747 and 1750. (1)  It is organized in the double-entry accounting style, with debits listed on the left hand page and credits on the right hand page.  All of the cash monetary units are in pounds, shillings and pence.

Ledger 1

His first entry (pictured above) was Mr. Bailey Washington, a cousin.  On September 10, 1747, George purchased 3 books (debit) from Bailey for the combined price of 4 shillings 12 pence.  One of the books is listed as “Scomberg,” a reference to the 17th century German  Protestant soldier of fortune , Duke Frederick Herman von Schomberg, who fought under the flags of France, Germany, Portugal, and England and died at the Battle of the Boyne fighting for William of Orange.  Schomberg wrote about his adventures which would have been of great interest and fascination to a young man of fifteen.

Ten days later, George listed on the credit side of Bailey’s account “a two foot Gunter” with a value of 1 shilling 3 pence.  George’s purchase of a gunter scale, a two-foot long ruler specifically designed to help surveyors quickly solve trigonometry problems, is an intimation of his early interest in training to become a surveyor.

Ledger Book Zero sheds light on many other interests and activities young George pursued in his teen years.  He won and lost money playing the card games of whist and loo with his half-brother Lawrence and sister-in-law Ann.  George also won 1 shilling 3 pence playing billiards with a Mr. Thomas Turner of King George County in June of 1748.  Earlier that same year, he lent money to his good friend George Fairfax while on an expedition to the South Branch of the Potomac.

In addition to lending and winning cash from friends and family, George regularly purchased personal items such silk stockings, shirt buttons, knee bands and shoes, as well as food and liquor, such as limes, a bowl of fruit punch, and a “bottle of Rhenish” wine.

Ledger 2

In July 1748, George purchased ribbons from a Mr. Mitchell (see above), as well as a glass ring costing but 3 ¾ pence.  He also paid 3 shillings 9 pence to a “Musick Master for my entrance” in September of the same year.  We are unsure if this music teacher taught only music or, perhaps, dancing. Both were important skills for Washington to learn if he wanted to participate in the social life of Virginia’s gentry.

What is interesting about these last three purchases is that they were all made on his mother Mary’s account, which means George paid for them but his mother later reimbursed him.  Mary repaid George in dubloon’s and pistole’s which were English slang words for different types of money.

George’s blossoming profession as a surveyor is also represented in this ledger.  On July 23, 1749, he charged Mr. Richard Barnes of Richmond 2 pounds 3 shillings for surveying 400 acres of land in Culpeper County.  On September 26 of the same year, Mr. John West paid him 12 shillings for “copying 4 deeds out of the Proprietors’ [book]”, a preliminary clerical step to surveying land.

Washington even practiced writing out an index for his ledger at the end of the book, listing all those people whose last name began with “W” and on what page their account appeared.  Handwriting samples and sums of numbers show up throughout the book, as George evidently used some individual pages as notepaper.  He later reused some of the ledger in the 1760s while residing at Mount Vernon.

As a youth, George spent many hours copying lessons on such subjects as mathematical formulas, legal documents, geography, and codes of conduct.  These were subjects that would prove useful to him as he became a soldier, surveyor, landowner and politician.  Maintaining accurate and detailed financial records, a skill necessary for any successful gentleman, was one more habit a young man with aspirations needed to accomplish and master.

As we study the contents of Ledger Book Zero, we expect to gain more insights into George’s relationships with family members, boyhood friends, and business contacts. By examining this earliest ledger, we will understand the activities Washington was pursuing during his passage to adulthood and gain a glimpse at what life was like for a young George growing up at Ferry Farm during the 1740s.

Judy Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Lab Supervisor

A copy of the ledger was obtained from the Morristown National Historic Park, Morristown, NJ., Lloyd W. Smith Archives, Microfilm Reel #63.