Five International Influences on George Washington’s Early Life

An Essay of a New and Compact Map, Containing the Known Parts of the Terrestrial Globe by Jacques-Nicolas Bellin was published in 1750 when George Washington was 18-years-old. Credit: Wikipedia.

Ferry Farm was a unique place to live in the mid-1700s. Situated where farm, frontier, city, river, and road converged on the edge of English empire, young George Washington, his family, and the farm’s enslaved community found their daily lives governed by Britain’s global economy and imperial culture.  Ferry Farm, nearby Fredericksburg, and the colonies more broadly were international places made up of a host of different European, African, and Native American ethnicities and nationalities in the 18th century.  Accordingly, we present a list of “Five International Influences on George Washington’s Youth.” This is by no means an exhaustive list but each influence helped shape young Washington into a man capable of commanding the Continental Army and serving as the new nation’s first president.

1) The Rappahannock River

The Rappahannock River as viewed from a window in the Washington house replica at Ferry Farm.
Voyages of British ships in the last half of the 18th century. Created by Geographer James Cheshire, PhD, on his Spatial.ly blog and used with permission.

Young George could look from a window in the family home at Ferry Farm down the bluff to the Rappahannock River. He saw ocean-going, sailing vessels being loaded and unloaded at the wharves and warehouses of Fredericksburg. These vessels were part of a global trade network, which we’ve written about here and here, that stretched to Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, India and China. These vessels were not large but traveled the world nonetheless.  They took the corn, wheat, and timber of places like Ferry Farm to Europe or the Caribbean and returned with Westerwald mugs from Germany, tea from India, porcelain from China, and enslaved laborers from Africa. The sailors on these ships probably represented numerous ethnicities and nations. One easily can imagine young George, so prone to a thirst for adventure, finding any excuse he could to visit the docks and ships down on the river and, by doing so, traveling the world without leaving the Rappahannock.

2) Westerwald stoneware

Those ships carried numerous manufactured goods from all over the world to Ferry Farm. Westerwald ceramics were one such import. Produced in the Westerwald region of what is now Germany beginning in the 1500s, archaeologists have excavated numerous bits of decorated stoneware tankards, jugs, and other drinking vessels used in the 1700s at Ferry Farm.  Several of these excavated vessels sported the initials ‘G.R.’, meaning Georgius Rex, the Latin for King George. The three British kings of the 18th century were all named George and came from the House of Hanover, a German royal family placed on the British throne in 1714. A gentleman sporting a ‘G.R.’ on his Westerwald tankard or jug advertised his loyalty to the Crown with every draught of ale. The presence of these initialed drinking vessels at Ferry Farm show that, until the Revolution, Washington, like most Americans, viewed himself as a loyal subject of the British Crown (ironically worn by a German head).

G.R. medallion on a Westerwald jug fragment.
A nearly complete Westerwald drinking vessel in the collection at Historic Kenmore.

3) Venetian glass

The vast majority of ceramics in the Washington household came from England. The same can be said about the family’s table glass, but the fanciest glassware owned by the Washington family actually came from Venice, Italy.  Found by our archaeologists, this piece of a pincered and buttressed handle is likely part of an elaborate hand-blown Venetian piece, made of finely crafted colorless soda lime glass with a barely visible bead of opaque glass running through the center.  A Venetian glass goblet such as this was a show piece displayed prominently within the house to emphasize that, despite their colonial location, the Washington family strived to maintain a level of European refinement appropriate to their gentry status.

Archaeologists excavated this small fragment of Venetian glass at Ferry Farm.
Wine goblet made in the 16th century in Venice, Italy. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

4) Barbados

In 1751, George Washington made his only trip off the North American continent, traveling with his half-brother Lawrence to Barbados. Visiting the island’s fortifications and meeting members of its military garrison fed George’s growing desire for a military career. As Jack Warren concludes, “After returning to Virginia, he dedicated himself to advancement in the military more completely than any of his Virginia contemporaries. And unlike most of the prominent colonial militia officers of the 1750s, he sought a commission in the regular British military establishment – an ambition that was probably prompted, and undoubtedly stimulated, by his experience in Barbados.”

Needham’s Point, Barbados. Credit: Reinhard Link.

5) The Frontier

Military service eventually took George into the frontier wilderness of the vast Ohio country. Tasked by Governor Dinwiddie with delivering a demand to the French to leave lands claimed by Virginia and the British Crown, young Major George Washington embarked on a thousand-mile, ten-week trek to and from Fort LeBoeuf on Lake Erie. He was accompanied by the Dutchman Jacob Van Braam, who served as his French interpreter, and by Tanacharison, known as Half-King, as well as other men from Native American nations. Along the way, he met several French officers and soldiers. Although confined to North America, this trip in late 1753 and early 1754 was, in reality, a foreign trip that exposed Washington to different peoples and cultures. It provided vital diplomatic, military, and intelligence gathering experience to the future Continental Army commander and first president. Washington, notes Paul Royster, “practiced diplomacy to keep the Native leaders allied to the English cause; he interviewed French deserters and reported on the extent of French military posts between New Orleans and the Great Lakes; he reconnoitered the Forks of the Ohio with an eye to the proper site for building a fort; and he inspected and reported on the construction of the new French forts and made estimates of their strength . . . .”

Portrait of George Washington, 1772 by Charles Willson Peale. Credit: National Portrait Gallery
The Ohio region from Cumberland to Fort LeBoeuf through which Washington journeyed, overlayed onto the famed map in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1787). Credit: Paul Royster / University of Nebraska.

Conclusion

Although a fourth generation American, George Washington grew up in a time and place – 18th century Ferry Farm and British North America — where international economic and cultural influences on his life were quite numerous. Through the five international influences we’ve briefly examined, we’ve seen how these influences helped Washington maintain his gentry status, which ultimately set him on a path to military and political greatness.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

When George Washington Almost Joined the British Royal Navy

Not long ago, we explored Three Military Adventures that Inspired George Washington and the influence that Lawrence Washington and his wartime service played in stoking George’s interest in military matters.

Lawrence fought with the British in the War of Jenkins’ Ear in the early 1740s and spent time aboard the flagship of Admiral Edward Vernon, who commanded British forces during the Battle of Cartegena de Indias.  Lawrence returned to Virginia with stories sure to spark his 10-year-old brother George’s imagination and desire for adventure.  Lawrence’s military service and George’s interest in military things had a fascinating, if perplexing, practical outcome when, late in 1746, Lawrence proposed for 14-year-old George to join the Royal Navy.

Lawrence Washington attributed to Gustavus Hesselius (c 1738)

Portrait of Lawrence Washington attributed to Gustavus Hesselius (c. 1738). Credit: Wikipedia / Mount Vernon.

This is a relatively little known and rather mysterious incident in the life of young George Washington.  Few documents survive that address the matter directly.  There are no documents written by George, Lawrence, or Mary Washington that reveal their actions or motivations in the matter.  The three letters that do address the incident were all written by secondary figures involved.

It all began in the fall of 1746 when Lawrence sent two letters — one each for George and Mary respectively – to Fredericksburg via Colonel William Fairfax.  George was to deliver Mary’s himself and keep the one to him a secret from her.  We do not know what either of these letters said.

What we do know is only what William Fairfax told Lawrence in a report dated September 9, 1746 and sent to Lawrence at Mount Vernon.  Fairfax wrote:

“The weather being so sultry, and being necessarily obliged to go about this town to collect several things wanted, I have not yet seen Mrs. Washington.  George has been with us, and says He will be steady and thankfully follow your Advice as his best Friend.  I gave him his Mother’s letter to deliver with Caution not to shew his.  I have spoke to Dr. Spencer who I find is often at the Widow’s and has some influence, to persuade her to think better of your advice in putting Him to Sea with good Recommendation.”[1]

The Dr. Spencer mentioned may have been William Spencer, who often was involved as a witness for land transfers to Lawrence.  The secretiveness of George hiding his letter from Mary and of Lawrence apparently enlisting his business partners to argue in favor of the proposal for George to go to sea emphasize the conspiratorial nature of Lawrence’s efforts.

It appears that, for a time, Lawrence’s manipulations may have worked.  On September 18, 1746, Robert Jackson, a Washington family friend, wrote to Lawrence that “I am afraid Mrs. Washington will not keep up to her first resolution.”  This seems to indicate that she wasn’t against the idea immediately but she did change her mind.  Jackson reported that Mary “seems to intimate a dislike to George’s going to Sea and says several Persons have told her it’s a very bad Scheme.”  He condescendingly dismisses her concerns as “trifling objections such as fond and unthinking mothers naturally suggest” and expresses frustration that “one word against [George’s] going has more weight than ten for it.”

Jackson noted that William Fairfax was inclined to visit Mary and, moreover, Jackson noted that he himself would “take an opportunity to talk with her and will let you knew her result.”[2]  While Jackson may have let Lawrence know the result, no document has been found to let us know the result of these specific discussions two centuries later.

Action Between Nottingham and Mars, 1746 by Samuel Scott

“Action Between Nottingham and Mars” (1746) by Samuel Scott depicts a British-French naval battle in October 1746 when the Washingtons were debating whether George should join the Royal Navy. Credit: Wikipedia/National Maritime Museum.

At some point, perhaps feeling outnumbered, Mary decided to solicit the advice of her brother Joseph Ball in England.  Dated May 19, 1747, his reply, which is a disdainful rejection of the entire proposal, is worth quoting at length.

“I understand that you are advised and have some thoughts of putting your son George to sea.  I think he had better be put apprentice to a tinker, for a common sailor before the mast has by no means the common liberty of the subject; for they will press him from ship to ship where he has fifty shillings a month, and make him take twenty-three, and cut and slash and use him like a negro, or rather like a dog.  And as to any considerable preferment in the navy, it is not to be expected, as there are so many gaping for it here who have interest, and he has none.  And if he should get to be master of a Virginia ship (which is very difficult to do), a planter who has three or four hundred acres of land, and three or four slaves, if he be industrious, many live more comfortably, and have his family in better bread than such a master of a ship can . . .  He must not be too hasty to be rich but go on gently and with patience as things will naturally go.  This method without aiming at being a fine gentleman before his time, will carry a man more comfortably and surely thought the world than going to sea, unless it be a great chance indeed.”[3]

Mary must have ultimately and definitely rejected Lawrence’s plan, a courageous act for a woman in male dominated colonial Virginia.  George, of course, did not pursue a career at sea but turned to surveying instead.

Like many incidents in young George Washington’s life, the historical record is elusive and often raises more questions than it answers.  What prompted Lawrence to make the suggestion in the first place?  What were George’s views on the proposal and the debate?  What were Mary’s specific objections?  None of these questions may ever be answered.  Of course, the greatest question raised by the incident is the also unknowable counterfactual one.  Would history have unfolded differently if the man who was supposed to have been the commander of the Continental Army ended up spending his life on the King’s ships?

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] William Fairfax to Lawrence Washington, September 9, 1746, quoted in Moncure Daniel Conway’s Barons of the Potomack and the Rapphannock, New York, Grolier Club, 1892: 238, available at https://books.google.com/books?id=zDESAAAAYAAJ&dq=barons%20of%20the%20potomac%20and%20rappahannock&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false [accessed August 26, 2017].

[2] Robert Jackson to Lawrence Washington, September 18, 1746, quoted in Moncure Daniel Conway’s Barons of the Potomack and the Rapphannock, New York, Grolier Club, 1892: 239-40, available at https://books.google.com/books?id=zDESAAAAYAAJ&dq=barons%20of%20the%20potomac%20and%20rappahannock&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false [accessed August 26, 2017].

[3] Joseph Ball to Mary Washington, May 19, 1747 quoted in Marion Harland’s The Story of Mary Washington, New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co, 1893: 79-80 available at https://archive.org/details/storyofmarywashi00harl [accessed August 26, 2017].

Three Military Adventures that Inspired George Washington

“I heard Bulletts whistle and believe me there was something charming in the sound.”[1]  — George Washington

Before his first brush with battle, three military adventures worked together to charm and inspire young George Washington’s fascination with the military and helped push him to pursue a career as a soldier in Virginia’s militia and then as commander of the Continental Army.

Lawrence Washington attributed to Gustavus Hesselius (c 1738)

Portrait of Lawrence Washington attributed to Gustavus Hesselius (c. 1738). Credit: Wikipedia / Mount Vernon.

The boy Washington was first charmed by the military service of his older half-brother Lawrence.  In 1739, the colorfully-named War of Jenkins’ Ear between Britain and Spain began. Ostensibly sparked by the Spanish coast guard boarding a ship captained by Robert Jenkins and cutting off his ear, the war was another one of those conflicts over trade, colonies, and the spoils of the New World so often fought between Europe’s empires in the 18th century.

In June 1740, a commission from George II arrived in Virginia for Lawrence. He was made a captain in one of four infantry regiments of colonial Virginians being raised for service in the war.  On May 30, 1741, Lawrence wrote to his father Augustine describing his role in the Battle of Cartegena de Indias when the British launched an amphibious assault on the city of Cartegena de Indias in Colombia.

Lawrence reported to his father that the British “destroyed eight Forts, six Men of War, six gallioons and some Merchant ships” but “what number of Men they [the Spaniards] lost we know not; the enemy killed of ours about six hundred & some wounded, & the climate killed us in greated [sic] numbers.”  In the end, the British suffered a crushing defeat but more because of disease than battle casualties.

Defensa de Cartagena de Indias por la escuadra de D. Blas de Lezo, año 1741 by Luis Fernández Gordillo

“Defensa de Cartagena de Indias por la escuadra de D. Blas de Lezo, año 1741” by Luis Fernández Gordillo. Credit: Wikipedia / Naval Museum of Madrid.

Virginia’s regiments suffered greatly.  “Some are so weak as to be reduced to a third of their men,” Lawrence wrote but he also revealed that “vastly to my satisfaction” he had been serving “on board Admiral Vernon’s ship.” Vernon was the naval commander during the battle and was greatly admired by Lawrence. He was so admired, in fact, that Lawrence named the family’s Little Hunting Creek property bequeathed to him after Augustine’s death Mount Vernon.

NPG 881; Edward Vernon by Thomas Gainsborough

Portrait of Edward Vernon by Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1753 (NPG 881). Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London.

Lawrence ultimately concluded that “war is horrid in fact, but much more so in imagination.” His experiences aboard an admiral’s flagship probably protected him some from the horrors of war.  War did not turn Lawrence off of military service.  He was awarded the post of Adjutant General for all of Northern Virginia’s militia along with the rank of major.

George was about 10-years-old when Lawrence returned home from war.  How many war stories did his older brother share with him?  We do not know but we do know that George and Lawrence were close, especially in the aftermath of their father’s death.  It seems a safe bet to conclude that Lawrence’s military service also likely influenced his effort in 1746 to have fourteen-year-old George join the Royal Navy.

George’s captivation with military adventure was further strengthened by the exploits of Duke Frederick Herman von Schomberg.  On September 10, 1747, fourteen-year-old 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 a 17th century German Protestant soldier of fortune, 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 to a young man like Washington.  That George willing spent hard earned money during a time of financial hardship reveals how enthralled he was with military exploits.

 

Friedrich von Schomberg atrributed to Adrian van der Werff (1600s)

Portrait of Friedrich von Schomberg atrributed to Adrian van der Werff (c. 1600s) Credit: Wikipedia.

We do not know the impact, if any, of Schomberg’s exploits upon George’s military thinking. One incident does stands out, however.  While in Ireland commanding the army of William of Orange, England’s new king, against supporters of James II, England’s old king, Schomberg decided that his raw and undisciplined troops would not fare well in battle.  As a result, he held his army behind defensive works instead of confronting the enemy and their superior numbers.  This much-criticized action bares notable similarities to Washington’s main strategy during the Revolutionary War.  Washington defeated the British because, overall, he did not fight the British. Instead, he maintained his “army in being.”  Washington wisely avoided confrontation, when possible, with the professionals who made up the best army in the world.  The American army was inexperienced and initially amateur but as long as the army existed, the newly independent United States would also exist.  The Continental Army had to survive even if that meant avoiding, instead of confronting, the British Army.

The final adventure that inspired a fascination with military things in young George Washington was his trip to Barbados.  In 1751, nineteen-year-old George and his older half-brother Lawrence traveled to that Caribbean island in the hope that the tropical climate would relieve Lawrence’s tuberculous.  This was George’s first and only trip away from the North American continent and to another part in Britain’s vast Empire.

 

Early in their stay, Washington made the first of several visits to Needham’s Fort guarding the south side of Carlisle Bay. He met Captain Petrie, the fort’s commander, and dined with him at the fort more then once.  The fortress seems to have impressed the teenage Washington for he recorded in his journal that it was “pretty strongly fortified and mounts about 36 Gunes within the fortifin and 2 facine Batterys.”[2]

Needham's Point, Barbabos by Reinhard Link

Needham’s Point, Barbados. Credit: Reinhard Link.

Furthermore, he and Lawrence stayed at the house of Captain Croftan, who commanded James Fort on the bay’s north side.  Even Croftan’s house, Washington noted, “command[ed] the prospect of Carlyle Bay & all the shipping in such manner that none can go in or out with out being open to our view.”[3]

Washington House, Barbados

Home of Captain Croftan where Washington lived during the several months he visited Barbados in 1751. Credit: Wikipedia / Jerry E. and Roy Klotz

On the return voyage to Virginia and Ferry Farm, George judged that because Barbados had “large intrenchments cast up wherever its possible for an Enemy to Land” the island itself was essentially “one intire fortification.”[4]

As Jack Warren ably concludes, “George Washington’s encounter with the British military establishment in Barbados seems to have had a crucial impact on his aspirations . . . .  After returning to Virginia, he dedicated himself to advancement in the military more completely than any of his Virginia contemporaries. And unlike most of the prominent colonial militia officers of the 1750s, he sought a commission in the regular British military establishment– an ambition that was probably prompted, and undoubtedly stimulated, by his experience in Barbados.”

washington-portrait-1772

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

These three military adventures – Lawrence’s service in the War of Jenkin’s Ear, the written exploits of Schomberg, and George’s trip to the heavily fortified imperial outpost of Barbados – all worked to inspire Washington’s fascination with military matters and drove him to eventually pursue the life of a soldier in the French and Indian War and then, most importantly, in the War for Independence.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

 

[1] George Washington to John Augustine Washington, May 31, 1754, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-01-02-0058 [accessed May 22, 2017].

[2] Washington in The Daily Journal of Major George Washington in 1751-2 Kept While on a Tour from Virginia to the Island of Barbadoes, J.M. Toner, ed., Albany, NY: Joel Munsell’s Sons, 1892: 52.

[3] Washington in Toner, 47-8.

[4] Washington in Toner, 62.