Ten Pivotal Moments in George Washington’s Boyhood

George Washington did not experience what we would now consider a normal childhood.  Life at Ferry Farm was filled with excitement, sadness, intrigue, and tragedy for young George. Here we present a list of “Ten Pivotal Moments of George Washington’s Boyhood.” This is by no means an exhaustive list but each of these events definitely helped shape Washington into a man capable of commanding the Continental Army and serving as the new nation’s first president.

Moving to Ferry Farm

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“View from the Old Mansion House of the Washington Family Near Fredericksburg, Virginia” (1833) by John Gadsby Chapman modified to depict the location and approximate appearance of the Washington family home, which was actually a complete ruin when visited and painted by Chapman in the early 1830s.

In 1738, Augustine Washington moved his family to Ferry Farm.   He appears to have chosen this plantation situated across from Fredericksburg to be nearer to his iron ore interests located about seven miles away.  Ferry Farm was very different than the other Washington properties.  The proximity of Fredericksburg made it more urban.  Ferry Farm was also surrounded by transportation routes including the Rappahannock River, and two roads that crossed the plantation.  The bustling nature of Ferry Farm and its surroundings played a critical role in George’s development.

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Announcement in the Virginia Gazette in April 1738 advertising “100 acres, lying about 2 miles below the Falls of Rappahannock . . . with a very handsome Dwelling house.” The property was being sold by  William Strother’s estate, would be purchased by Augustine Washington, and eventually come to be know as Ferry Farm.

The Death of Mildred and Augustine
George’s youngest sister Mildred was born shortly after the family moved to Ferry Farm.  She lived only 18 months, and her death when George was just seven years old was the first significant death of his youth, but not his last.

Augustine Washington, George’s father, followed Mildred in death on April 11, 1743. George inherited Ferry Farm and ten slaves from Augustine. His mother, Mary, managed this inheritance until George turned 21 years old. Augustine’s death began a period of financial hardship for the family and probably prevented George from being educated in England, a lost opportunity he remained self-conscious about for the rest of his life. It also meant George had to scramble to find a mentor to introduce him to the complex requirements associated with gentry life.

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George Washington’s handwritten copy of The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.

The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior
Young George copied The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, a guide to gentlemanly behavior in polite society, probably as a school assignment. This combination etiquette manual and moral code taught young George how to interact with his powerful and influential neighbors. By strictly following its advice, young Washington molded his character into that of a wealthy Virginia gentleman.

His Gentry Education
Washington’s diaries and accounts reveal how he mastered the pastimes of the gentry as a young man. He played for stakes at popular card games, took fencing lessons, and paid for his own dancing lessons. He frequented the theater in both Fredericksburg and Williamsburg. In a society obsessed with horse racing, equine bloodlines, and fox hunting, Mary Washington was well versed in horses and riding and appears to have been responsible for teaching George about riding.  By the time George was an adult, he was renowned as a “superb horseman.”  All of these skills, which remained with George for a lifetime, were acquired while he grew up at Ferry Farm.

The Royal Navy Episode
Following Augustine’s death, George’s eldest half-brother, Lawrence, took an interest in his future.  Lawrence conspired with Colonel William Fairfax, some of Augustine’s business associates, and George himself to convince Mary to allow 13-year-old George to join the Royal Navy. Mary eventually rejected the plan, a courageous act for a woman in male dominated colonial Virginia.  George turned to a career as a surveyor instead.  Imagine the future commander of the Continental Army serving on a King’s ship!

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Portrait of Frederick Herman  von Schomberg attributed to Adrian van der Werff. Public domain. Credit: Hampel Auctions / Wikipedia.

Introduction to Military Adventurers
On September 10, 1747, George purchased 3 books from his cousin 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 fourteen.  That George was willing to spend his hard earned money during a time of financial hardship reveals how enthralled he was by this subject.

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“A Plan of Major Law. Washington’s Turnip Field as surveyed by me this 27 Day of February 1747 GW” Credit: Library of Congress

Surveying: His First Job
George Washington began surveying at about age 15. His father’s probate inventory included a set of surveyor’s instruments. In 1748, at age 16, George went with Lord Fairfax’s surveying party on his first expedition into the wilds of western Virginia.  At age 17, George Washington was appointed to his first public office as surveyor of nearby Culpeper County. Surveying, like his skills in mathematics and keeping accounts, helped him manage his properties profitably throughout his life.

1749 – More Hard Times
The financial safety net set up for Augustine’s wife and minor children had almost completely collapsed by 1749.  Before the monetary struggles were over, half of Ferry Farm would have been sold, and Mary’s land near the Accokeek Iron Furnace had been lost for failing to pay taxes.  George Washington in a letter to his brother wrote “…my Horse is in very poor order to undertake such a journey, and is in no likelihood of mending for want of Corn sufficient to support him…” He remembered these hard times well into adulthood writing in 1788, during another period of financial stress, that “I never felt the want of money so sensibly since I was a boy of 15 years old as I have done for the last 12 Months.”

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“George Washington” (1997) by Walter Kerr Cooper

Trip to Barbados
In 1751, George Washington made his only trip abroad, traveling with his half-brother Lawrence to Barbados. Lawrence, suffering from tuberculosis, hoped the warm climate would prove beneficial to his health. He died from the illness, however, just a few months after his return to Virginia. Lawrence’s death set up the eventual inheritance of Mount Vernon by George.  The tropical island did little good for George’s health either.  He contracted a severe case of smallpox that left his skin scarred for life.

 

 GWs Request to be Appointed as the Virginia Militia Adjutant

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Portrait of George Washington (1772) by Charles Willson Peale. The earliest authenticated portrait depicts Washington in the Virginia Militia uniform he wore during the French and Indian War. Credit: Washington and Lee University / Wikipedia

In 1752, George Washington wrote a letter from Ferry Farm requesting that the Governor of Virginia appoint him as the militia adjutant position vacancy created by his half-brother Lawrence’s death.  The governor declined at this time, but one year later he did appoint George.  The 21-year-old Washington had no military experience at the time of his appointment.  This appointment eventually resulted in Washington igniting the Seven Years War between Britain and her colonies and France.

Dave Muraca
Director of Archaeology

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

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