The Story of George Washington

by James Baldwin

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Chapter V: The Young Surveyor

Lawrence Washington was about fourteen years older than his brother George. As I have already said, he had been to England and had spent sometime at Appleby school. He had served in the king's army for a little while, and had been with Admiral Vernon's squadron in the West Indies.

He had formed so great a liking for the admiral that when he came home he changed the name of his plantation at Hunting Creek, and called it Mount Vernon—a name by which it is still known.

Not far from Mount Vernon there was another fine plantation called Belvoir, that was owned by William Fairfax, an English gentleman of much wealth and influence.

Now this Mr. Fairfax had a young daughter, as wise as she was beautiful; and so, what should Lawrence Washington do but ask her to be his wife? He built a large house at Mount Vernon with a great porch fronting on the Potomac; and when Miss Fairfax became Mrs. Washington and went into this home as its mistress, people said that there was not a handsomer or happier young couple in all Virginia.

After young George Washington had changed his mind about going to sea, he went up to Mount Vernon to live with his elder brother. For Lawrence had great love for the boy, and treated him as his father would have done.

At Mount Vernon George kept on with his studies in surveying. He had a compass and surveyor's chain, and hardly a day passed that he was not out on the plantation, running lines and measuring his brother's fields.

Sometimes when he was busy at this kind of work, a tall, white-haired gentleman would come over from Belvoir to see what he was doing and to talk with him. This gentleman was Sir Thomas Fairfax, a cousin of the owner of Belvoir. He was sixty years old, and had lately come from England to look after his lands in Virginia; for he was the owner of many thousands of acres among the mountains and in the wild woods.

Sir Thomas was a courtly old gentleman, and he had seen much of the world. He was a fine scholar; he had been a soldier, and then a man of letters; and he belonged to a rich and noble family.

It was not long until he and George were the best of friends. Often they would spend the morning together, talking or surveying; and in the afternoon they would ride out with servants and hounds, hunting foxes and making fine sport of it among the woods and hills.

And when Sir Thomas Fairfax saw how manly and brave his young friend was, and how very exact and careful in all that he did, he said: "Here is a boy who gives promise of great things. I can trust him."

Before the winter was over he had made a bargain with George to survey his lands that lay beyond the Blue Ridge mountains.

I have already told you that at this time nearly all the country west of the mountains was a wild and unknown region. In fact, all the western part of Virginia was an unbroken wilderness, with only here and there a hunter's camp or the solitary hut of some daring woodsman.

But Sir Thomas hoped that by having the land surveyed, and some part of it laid out into farms, people might be persuaded to go there and settle. And who in all the colony could do this work better than his young friend, George Washington?

It was a bright day in March, 1748, when George started out on his first trip across the mountains. His only company was a young son of William Fairfax of Belvoir.

The two friends were mounted on good horses; and both had guns, for there was fine hunting in the woods. It was nearly a hundred miles to the mountain-gap through which they passed into the country beyond. As there were no roads, but only paths through the forest, they could not travel very fast.

After several days they reached the beautiful valley of the Shenandoah. They now began their surveying. They went up the river for some distance; then they crossed and went down on the other side. At last they reached the Potomac River, near where Harper's Ferry now stands.

At night they slept sometimes by a camp-fire in the woods, and sometimes in the rude hut of a settler or a hunter. They were often wet and cold. They cooked their meat by broiling it on sticks above the coals. They ate without dishes, and drank water from the running streams.

One day they met a party of Indians, the first red men they had seen. There were thirty of them, with their bodies painted in true savage style; for they were just going home from a war with some other tribe.

The Indians were very friendly to the young surveyors. It was evening, and they built a huge fire under the trees. Then they danced their war-dance around it, and sang and yelled and made hideous sport until far in the night.

To George and his friend it was a strange sight; but they were brave young men, and not likely to be afraid even though the danger had been greater.

They had many other adventures in the woods of which I cannot tell you in this little book—shooting wild game, swimming rivers, climbing mountains. But about the middle of April they returned in safety to Mount Vernon.

It would seem that the object of this first trip was to get a general knowledge of the extent of Sir Thomas Fairfax's great woodland estate—to learn where the richest bottom lands lay, and where were the best hunting-grounds.

The young men had not done much if any real surveying; they had been exploring.

George Washington had written an account of everything in a little note-book which he carried with him.

Sir Thomas was so highly pleased with the report which the young men brought back that he made up his mind to move across the Blue Ridge and spend the rest of his life on his own lands.

And so, that very summer, he built in the midst of the great woods a hunting lodge which he called Greenway Court. It was a large, square house, with broad gables and a long roof sloping almost to the ground.

When he moved into this lodge he expected soon to build a splendid mansion and make a grand home there, like the homes he had known in England. But time passed, and as the lodge was roomy and comfortable, he still lived in it and put off beginning another house.

Washington was now seventeen years old. Through the influence of Sir Thomas Fairfax he was appointed public surveyor; and nothing would do but that he must spend the most of his time at Greenway Court and keep on with the work that he had begun.

For the greater part of three years he worked in the woods and among the mountains, surveying Sir Thomas's lands. And Sir Thomas paid him well—a doubloon ($8.24) for each day, and more than that if the work was very hard.

But there were times when the young surveyor did not go out to work, but stayed at Greenway Court with his good friend, Sir Thomas. The old gentleman had something of a library, and on days when they could neither work nor hunt, George spent the time in reading. He read the Spectator and a history of England, and possibly some other works.

And so it came about that the three years which young Washington spent in surveying were of much profit to him.

The work in the open air gave him health and strength. He gained courage and self-reliance. He became acquainted with the ways of the backwoodsmen and of the savage Indians. And from Sir Thomas Fairfax he learned a great deal about the history, the laws, and the military affairs of old England.

And in whatever he undertook to do or to learn, he was careful and systematic and thorough. He did nothing by guess; he never left anything half done. And therein, let me say to you, lie the secrets of success in any calling.


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