Web Exclusive! George Washington: Wilderness Surveyor

February 28, 2003
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Surveying forms the framework for a life of greatness.

On March 8, 1747, George Washington, in the neat-handed penmanship he had so conscientiously perfected, made the following initial entry in the diary he was to keep throughout his life: “Fryday March 11th 1747/8. Began my Journey in Company with George Fairfax Esqr.; we traveled this day 40 miles to Mr. George Neavels in Prince William County.”

The diary was titled, “A Journal of my Journey over the Mountains began Fryday the 11th of March 1747/8.” He made daily entries from that day forward, recording his surveying apprenticeship, his two years as surveyor of Culpepper County, his early military years, his services as Commanding General of the Revolutionary Army; his two terms as the first president of the United States, and his sunset years at Mount Vernon.

Critical in the development of George Washington’s incorruptible character and his preeminent ability as a leader were his early years as he struggled to educate himself. His schooling began in an “old field schoolhouse” kept by a man named Hobby who was a tenant of Augustine “Gus” Washington, father of George Washington. Instruction there was of the simplest kind: reading, writing and ciphering. His father had promised an English education for George just as he had provided for George’s half-brother Lawrence Washington who was 14 years older than George. However, Gus Washington died in 1743 when George was eleven and an education in England never transpired for George.

George was sent to live with his other half-brother Augustine and his wife Anne at their home at Bridges Creek. George attended a local school conducted by Henry Williams. Here he was provided a plain and practical education devoid of languages, rhetoric and belle-lettres. George Washington’s manuscript school books still exist. They are models of neatness and accuracy. An entry dated August 13, 1745, titled "Surveying" reads: “Is the Art of Measuring Land and it consists of 3 Parts, 1st, The going round and Measuring a Piece of Wood Land, 2nd Plotting the Same and 3rd To find the Content thereof and first how to Measure a Piece of Land…”

Williams noted George's affinity for mathematics, in particular geometry and trigonometry, and strongly suggested that he consider a career in land surveying. George conducted practice surveys in his immediate area. He kept notes in field books, carefully entering the boundaries and measurement of the fields surveyed with sketches of the surveys. His trademark was neatness and exactness. His field book entries were as though they were for important land transactions, not just school exercises.

In 1747, at the age of 15 Washington went to live with Lawrence and his family at Mount Vernon. Here he continued his study of mathematics and surveying. He was a frequent visitor to an adjacent plantation Belvoir, the home of Sir William Fairfax who was the agent for his cousin Thomas, Lord Fairfax, the owner of approximately six million acres in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. In 1747, Lord Fairfax arrived in Virginia to supervise the survey and sale of portions of his lands. He was confronted with the problem of squatters occupying his lands. To solve the problem Lord Fairfax decided to have the lands examined, surveyed and portioned out into lots prior to ejecting the squatters. Lord Fairfax offered positions on the survey party to George Washington and to George William Fairfax, the son of Sir William Fairfax.



Washington's Beginnings in Surveying

Thus began George Washington’s employment in land surveying and the initial entry in this diary as noted above. The second entry reads: "Saturday March 12th, This Morning Mr. James Genn (licensed surveyor of Westmoreland County) the surveyor came to us. We traveled over the Blue Ridge to Capt. Ashbys on the Shenandoah River. Nothing remarkable happen’d.” The entry three days later reflects the rigors of surveying in those days: “Tuesday 15th. We set out early with the Intent to Run round the s(ai)d Land but being taken in a Rain & it Increasing very fast obliged us to return it clearing about one oClock. Our time being too Precious to Loose we a second time ventured out & Worked hard till Night & Then returned to Penningtons. We got our Suppers & was Lighted into a Room & I not being so good a Woodsman as the rest of my Company I striped myself very orderly & went to Bed as they call’d it when to my Surprize I found it to be nothing but a Little Straw Matted together without Sheets or any thing else but only one Thread Bear blanket with double its Weight of Vermin such as Lice Fleas &c. I was glad to get up (as soon as the Light was carried from us) & put on my Cloths & Lay as my Companions. Had we not have been very tired I am sure we should not have slep’d much that night. I made a Promise not to sleep so from that time forward chusing rather to sleep in the open Air before a fire as will appear hereafter."

The other members of Genn’s survey party were George Ashby and Richard Taylor, chainmen; Mr. Robert Ashby, marker; and William Lindsey, pilot. Also included were several pack horses. During the survey they encountered wind and rain storms, surmounted hills and mountains, waded through swamps, swam swollen streams, slept in the open, and one day when their provisions ran out, went without food. On April 10th the survey work was completed. George Washington and George William Fairfax, six years Washington’s senior arrived at Mount Vernon two very weary and homesick young men. This was Washington’s true initiation into the rugged experience of land surveying in the wilderness.

However, it did not daunt his energetic interest in surveying. Lord Fairfax was equally impressed. He reviewed Washington’s diary thoroughly and examined the records of the surveys. Fairfax was impressed with his acute powers of observation. The following summer in 1749 Washington accompanied his brother Lawrence and Lord Fairfax to Williamsburg where he “presented himself in the regular order of the civil service of the day before the President and Master of William and Mary College for examination to become a public surveyor.” He was appointed surveyor of Culpeper County, a position that paid 15 lbs per annum.

In the ensuing two years until 1751 George Washington conducted several hundred surveys, averaging 125 lbs per year. With his earning he had purchased 550 acres in Albermarie County. When he reached the age of 21 he owned 1,558 acres. He had established his own estate even though he had not yet come into ownership of lands bequeathed to him by his father.

Surveying Skills Serve Washington Well

His experience as a professional land surveyor served him well during his years of military service. In 1752 when he was 20 he received the commission of major in the local military district, one of four in Virginia, and with it the coveted position of adjutant. The French and British were claiming equal ownership of lands in the Ohio Valley; Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia dispatched Major Washington as an “Ambassador” to deliver a “Diplomatic Objection” to the French commander General St. Pierre at Fort le Boeuf near what is now Waterford, Pennsylvania. Washington left on Oct. 31, 1753 with an interpreter, a guide, servants and traders. On the perilous journey of almost 600 miles they encountered snow storms, dense forests, flooded valleys and raging rivers. Arriving at Fort le Boeuf on Dec. 12, 1753, Washington was rebuffed by General St. Pierre. Washington and his party returned to Williamsburg on Jan. 16, 1754. Governor Dinwiddie requested Washington’s report the following day. Washington worked through the night to complete the report and prepare a manuscript map of the journey. The report was published both in Virginia and in England.

This is one of several examples of how George Washington’s skill as a surveyor and cartographer proved of great value in military planning. His cartographic skills were first displayed with his maps of the town of Alexandria. The first map was drawn in 1748 after the survey of the Fairfax lands. In 1749 Washington prepared a second map, which he titled “A plan of Alexandria now Bellhaven.” The second plan formed the basis for the sale of lots when the city government was later established.

Maps provided by Washington for General William Bradford’s unsuccessful attempt to capture Fort Duquesne in 1755 and in the previous year Washington’s unsuccessful attempt also. Washington became a successful military leader because of his experience as a surveyor, the knowledge he gained from his years in the wilderness, and his continued encounters with the American Indians. He knew the land. His surveys had encompassed some 66,000 acres. He knew the people of the land.

A Model For the Ages

George Washington provides a model for surveyors past, present and future. He took great pride in neatness and accuracy. His surveys provided the framework for a country in its infancy and one that was to grow into greatness.

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