Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

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George Washington - Surveyor - Part II
By Judy Leithe

After the death of George’s father, Augustus, finances in the Washington household became very limited.  George attended some local schools, but they didn’t offer the classical education he would have received had he been able to follow in his father’s and step-brother’s footsteps at Appleby’s Grammar School in England.

At fifteen, George had made arrangements to join the English Navy.  Upon learning about his plan, his mother, Mary, raised such a furor that he declined to go. 

By the age of sixteen, George hand-copied 110 Rules for Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, originally written by French Jesuits in 1595.  Some of these “rules” may seem archaic and even humorous to our minds.  But, closer inspection reveals that they suggest small sacrifices one makes for the good of all and the sake of living together in society.  The focus is to think of others rather than narrowly focusing only on our self-interests.  The Civility manual, of etiquette and morality, molded the character of this future General and U.S. President.   

The backwoods of Virginia held endless fascination for young George.  Historical records clearly show he had a strong aptitude for math, and through self-study, taught himself the principles of geometry.  With the surveying equipment left to him by his father, George began learning the trade of Land Surveillance using metes and bounds (determining property boundaries by measuring distances between known landmarks).   In 1749, at seventeen, he was appointed to his first public office as Surveyor of Culpeper County, Virginia.  By the time he was nineteen, with money earned as a surveyor, George purchased his first property, 1,500 wilderness acres in Frederick County, Virginia.

George’s step-brother, Lawrence, was fourteen years his senior, and became his mentor.  Although George had close ties with all of his siblings, Lawrence was more like a father figure to him after Augustine’s death.  Being the eldest son, Lawrence received the largest inheritance from their father’s estate, including Mount Vernon, a property which was ultimately inherited by George after the deaths of Lawrence, his wife and daughter.

Earlier in his life, Lawrence regaled George with tales of his military adventures as an officer in the British Army.  He married Anne Fairfax, daughter of Virginia’s prominent Colonel William Fairfax.  (Colonel Fairfax took young George under his wing, introducing him to the Virginia wilderness and land surveillance.)   When Lawrence returned from his military service, he became a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. 

Lawrence contracted tuberculosis, and his poor health forced him to vacate his post as Adjutant General of Virginia’s Southern District.  Governor Robert Dinwiddie awarded the post to George.  (Governor Dinwiddie will later figure prominently in the launching of George’s military career.)  For a period of fourteen years, George followed Lawrence’s example and served in the Virginia House of Burgesses. 

Next week: George Washington’s Military Debut.