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George Washington for Kids
His Life and Times with 21 Activities
By Brandon Marie Miller
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2007 Brandon Marie Miller
All rights reserved.
"Began My Journey"
February winds blew across Virginia's Potomac River and ruffled the waters of Popes Creek. Augustine Washington's home, nestled among tall trees, overlooked the creek. Gus had built the small house near lands first owned by his grandfather John Washington 75 years before.
Four generations of Washingtons lay buried nearby. Gus's first wife, Jane, rested there, too, beneath a gravestone already scoured by the wind. Jane's death had left Gus with two sons and a daughter to raise. He needed a new wife to help manage Lawrence, Austin, Jane, and Popes Creek farm.
A year after Jane's death Gus married Mary Ball. Around ten o'clock in the morning on February 11, 1732, Mary gave birth to another Washington son they named George.
Mary and Gus's family grew year by year. George, their oldest child, welcomed a sister named Betty and three brothers, Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles. George's half sister, Jane, died. When George was three Gus moved the family up the Potomac River to another farm, Little Hunting Creek Plantation. George's two half brothers, Lawrence and Austin, had left Virginia for school in England.
Home at Ferry Farm
Like most Virginians, Gus Washington earned his living as a farmer, or "planter." But he also worked as a partner in an iron works. In 1738 the family packed their wagons and moved again, this time closer to the Accokeek Iron Furnace. From his new home, called the Home Farm and later Ferry Farm, six-year-old George scampered down to the Rappahannock River, a playground for fishing, swimming, and skipping stones across the water. Beyond the river lay Fredericksburg, a growing village with a tobacco warehouse, a stone prison, a half-built church, a courthouse, and a few homes. Ships from England anchored along the wooden wharf that jutted into the river.
Two blows hit the Washington family in 1740. George's baby sister, Mildred, died and the family's home burned to the ground. Like most houses at this time, Ferry Farm's kitchen stood separate from the main house as a fire precaution. But with large open fireplaces providing a home's only heat and candle flames the only light, fire loomed as a constant hazard. With their home destroyed, George and his family crowded into the one-room kitchen while the house was rebuilt.
The Washingtons' new house had four rooms downstairs and two more above. They lived a comfortable life, but Gus was not considered a man of wealth, influence, or power. George Washington lived in a society where every person knew his or her place. The British king ruled at the top of society dressed in rich velvets and silks. A slave stood at the very bottom clad in rough-woven cloth. People believed a "gentleman of good fortune" or a "man of quality" or a "lady of the highest rank" were better than common folk. Colonists lived in a world where masters ruled over servants, men ruled over women, and parents ruled over children.
George must have gazed into one of the family's prized possessions — a mirror, or "looking glass." The looking glass in Ferry Farm's hall, the home's finest room, reflected a tall boy with reddish-brown hair, steely blue eyes, and a long, straight nose.
Only wealthy Virginians could afford real privacy. In most homes a family shared bedrooms and beds, and even a servant or two might snooze with the family. The Washingtons owned 11 bedsteads they could set up in any room, especially when visitors arrived. Three beds stood in the parlor. One four-poster bed sported long curtains that could be closed for warmth and a little privacy. To dress their beds, the family owned 6 pairs of good sheets, 10 "lesser" pairs of sheets, and 16 pillowcases.
Tobacco and Slave Culture
Virginians raised tobacco, the colony's main crop. People even used the dried leaves in place of money; Gus paid 5,500 pounds of tobacco to build Ferry Farm. Tobacco required hours of labor to baby the tender seedlings, weed the fields, pick greedy worms off the plants, then harvest and dry the tobacco leaves.
Once a year, workers packed the dried leaves into large barrels, called hogsheads. The hogsheads were then rolled or carted to waiting ships and transported to English markets. Planters hired London agents to sell their tobacco, order goods for them, and ship the merchandise and any leftover money back to Virginia. Barrels and crates of clothing, toys, dishes, books, food, farm tools, and even carriages, arrived in the colony the following year. But agents often cheated the colonists by charging for top-quality goods and then shipping cheap items back to their clients.
As planters cleared more acres to grow tobacco, the demand for field workers grew, too. Virginians first used British and African indentured servants to work the tobacco fields. An indentured servant worked in exchange for the cost of travel to America. Indentured men and women worked long hours grubbing in the tobacco fields. Cruel masters and mistresses often mistreated them. But after about seven years of labor the indentured servant earned his or her freedom.
By the 1670s African slaves carried more of the work burden. White Virginians viewed slavery as an economic bargain. An enslaved human being, once purchased, never gained his or her freedom but worked for life. A slave, like any piece of property, could be sold for quick cash or rented to another farm. Unlike indentured servants, who had some rights in court, a slave had no rights or protection. And a slave owner could acquire more slaves without any expense since a slave woman's child was also enslaved.
In young George Washington's world, Virginia's work and wealth depended on enslaved human beings. Gus Washington owned 20 slaves at Ferry Farm. Every day George saw African men and women planting, hoeing, and harvesting under the hot sun. Other enslaved people worked as house servants, washing clothes, cooking, or tending farm animals. For George, the enslaved workers living at Ferry Farm belonged to his father just like the looking glass in the hall.
George greeted the return of Lawrence and Austin from England with great excitement. About 20 years old, dark-haired Lawrence especially captivated his younger brother. Everyone thought George, like his father and older brothers, would enroll at Appleby School in England to finish his education. In the meantime, George probably did lessons at home with his father or a traveling teacher. He may also have attended a neighborhood school.
The year George turned eight Lawrence joined an American regiment in the British army. With England and Spain at war, Lawrence prepared to sail with 400 Virginians under British admiral Edward Vernon to the Caribbean. The sight of his brother — now Captain Washington! — in his scarlet uniform with shining brass buttons thrilled George, who never lost his love for military finery.
Months later Lawrence returned home and spoke with great admiration of Admiral Vernon. But he talked bitterly about the British officers who looked down on colonial troops. They kept the Virginians crammed aboard ships to die of disease. George, feeling anger for Lawrence, tucked his brother's bitterness away into his memories.
Then, on April 12, 1743, George Washington's life changed. His father died a few months after George's 11th birthday. With Gus's death, all hopes for George attending school in England ended. In fact, his chance for a successful future lay under a cloud. Gus divided his several farms and 49 slaves among his children. Lawrence, the oldest son, received Little Hunting Creek plantation and the iron mines. Austin received the Popes Creek farm, George's birthplace. Gus left Ferry Farm, 10 slaves, and a few small lots in Fredericksburg to George. Mary would oversee George's property until he came of age. Overnight George became the man of the house, the oldest of Mary's five children at Ferry Farm.
As Gus had done after Jane died, most men and women in colonial America remarried soon after the death of a spouse. People believed both a man and a woman were required to raise children and run a farm and home smoothly. But Mary Washington did not remarry. With Gus gone, tension appeared between George and his mother.
Stubborn and strong-willed, Mary often seemed most worried about herself. How would George's actions affect her? George rarely won his mother's approval. He felt smothered. As much as possible he fled Ferry Farm to visit Lawrence and Austin.
Education of Many Sorts
Without the money for an English education, George had to pursue more practical forms of schooling. Instead of Latin, Greek, or philosophy, George studied geography, math, and geometry, the skills necessary for accounting and land surveying. His handwriting and math diagrams show great care. He spent time doing them well, adding touches of artistic flair. All his life George loved beauty in things great and small; he loved careful details and planning. George Washington's formal schooling ended when he was 14 or 15. His greatest teacher would be his life experiences.
Young Washington also studied good manners as a way to better himself in society. Without a father, George needed all the help he could get. Fine manners might earn him attention and favor from "men of quality" who could shape his future.
When he was 14 George copied 110 rules of civility and good manners from a book first published for French aristocrats. George's list included rules for table manners, dress, and showing respect to others. The list carried reminders on how to behave with his "betters," with his "equals," and with "inferior" people. All the rules stressed the effect his behavior had on the feelings of others.
Teenage George carefully tracked every penny he spent. George generously lent small sums to friends. He bought a translation of Roman general Julius Caesar's Commentaries. George also enjoyed card games, like loo and whist, and like many Virginians he enjoyed gambling on card and dice games.
Every Virginia gentleman needed dancing skills; dancing was one of the colony's main social pastimes. So George paid for dancing lessons. Dancing masters were not shy about whacking their students with a heavy cane for blundering through a dance. George mastered the intricate steps of formal dances, like minuets, but he especially liked lively "country" dances like square dances and reels performed by couples facing each other in two lines. At one point he wrote to Lawrence that he could not get to an "assembly," or ball, because he couldn't afford to buy feed for his horse.
George also grew concerned about his dress and appearance. Virginians judged a man on the cleanliness and quality of his clothes. Most people dressed in similar fashions, but people of quality dressed in better fabrics more carefully cut, tailored, and sewn. For one visit, George packed a razor, nine shirts, six linen handkerchiefs, and four neck bands.
The Fairfax Family
As George stretched his wings, Lawrence Washington was rising in Virginia society. He aimed to carry his little brother along with him. Lawrence bought more land and renamed the Little Hunting Creek house "Mount Vernon" in honor of Admiral Vernon. He'd been elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses and served as the adjutant general, which means he was in charge of training Virginia's volunteer militias. In 1743 Lawrence married a Mount Vernon neighbor, Anne Fairfax. The Fairfax family belonged to an influential, wealthy English clan. Anne's father, William, oversaw five million acres of Virginia lands granted to his family in 1649. The lands belonged to William's cousin Thomas, the Sixth Lord Fairfax.
When George was 14 Lawrence rushed a note to him at Ferry Farm. George must meet William Fairfax in Fredericksburg to discuss George's future. Fairfax could secure George a job as midshipman on the vessel of Captain Green of the Royal Navy. This was a big step for any young man. Mary Washington sought advice and considered the offer for a year before refusing.
Often at Mount Vernon, George became a regular visitor at the Fairfax home, Belvoir. The mansion's beauty and grandeur awed the teenager. Belvoir's nine rooms included two fully furnished sitting rooms, and unlike at Ferry Farm, there wasn't a bedstead in sight! Belvoir's dining room boasted gleaming mahogany furniture, silver, and paintings worth 10 times the furnishings in Ferry Farm's hall. The Fairfax home opened a grand new world for George.
William Fairfax was not only wealthy but also a man of influence, a member of the king's council in Virginia. As a young man without a father, and not very well educated, George needed influential friends to get ahead. Fairfax recognized George's eagerness to learn, and applauded the young man's determination to make his way in the world. Even as a teenager George's energy, passion, and strength shone through. When he made friends with William Fairfax's son, serious and timid George William, it was Washington — six years younger — who became the leader of the two.
William Fairfax's attitudes impressed George. A man's greatest achievement, William Fairfax believed, was to win the respect of his countrymen. George could also see that the more land a man owned the greater his base for wealth and power.
In the summer of 1746 Belvoir hummed with excitement. Lord Fairfax himself, towing trunks of fine clothes and his own foxhounds, arrived in Virginia. Thomas Fairfax was the first member of the British aristocracy George Washington ever met. If the short, rather chubby lord was not George's idea of a dashing nobleman, he kept quiet. Lord Fairfax disliked women — he'd been jilted by a runaway bride — and loved foxhunting. The sport showed off George's superb horse skills. Never tiring, he galloped across fields and flew over fences, winning approval from the grumpy English lord.
William Fairfax included 16-year-old George in a surveying party sent over the Blue Ridge Mountains to lay out farm-sized lots of Fairfax lands. George spent 31 days in March and April 1748 tramping through the West. He kept a journal of his first great adventure. The wild beauty, the mountains, and the limitless forests of towering trees filled his senses. The group slept under the stars or shared the hospitality of frontier families in one-room cabins. One night George lay down on a bed of matted straw covered by "one threadbare blanket, with double its weight of vermin, such as lice, fleas, etc."
The survey team swam their horses across the rushing Potomac, the river swollen with melted mountain snows. One night they met a group of Native Americans who entertained the surveying party with drumming and dancing. The group got lost at least once in the mountains. Through pouring rain they paddled their canoes 40 miles in one day. George hunted wild turkeys and encountered a rattlesnake. He kept field notes for the professional surveyor, studied the man's methods, and practiced with surveying tools that had belonged to his father. The vast, powerful wilderness tugged at George's soul, creating a lifelong bond with the West.
George William Fairfax and Lawrence served together in the House of Burgesses during the winter of 1748–49. When George William returned to Belvoir he brought his 18-year-old bride, Sally. Like George William, Sally Fairfax came from an old and wealthy Virginia family. The bride's flashing dark eyes, dark curls, and flirtatious personality soon captured George Washington. At some point, poor George fell in love with Sally Fairfax, his friend's wife.
The Young Surveyor
In 1749, with a good word from William Fairfax, Virginia's government appointed 17-year-old George an official county surveyor. As a sworn official George measured the exact size of land lots, creating important records. He also mapped and divided large tracts of land into individual lots. The job paid well, and as a professional man, George earned respect.
George liked surveying. It matched his artistic talents, his eye for planning and detail. George proved a hard worker and a busy one. Young and strong, he tackled difficult surveying journeys, crossing the Blue Ridge again in 1750 to lay out 47 tracts of land. By the end of the year he'd earned enough to invest money in 1,459 acres of land on Bullskin Creek, a tributary of the Shenandoah River. All of 18, George felt himself on the path to success.
Excerpted from George Washington for Kids by Brandon Marie Miller. Copyright © 2007 Brandon Marie Miller. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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