Historical Tales: 2—American - Charles Morris

A Boy's Working Holiday in the Wild Wood

We wish to say something here about a curious old man who lived in Virginia when George Washington was a boy, and who was wise enough to see that young Washington was anything but a common boy. This man was an English nobleman named Lord Fairfax. As the nobles of England were not in the habit of coming to the colonies, except as governors, we must tell what brought this one across the sea.

It happened in this way. His grandfather, Lord Culpeper, had at one time been governor of Virginia, and, like some other governors, had taken care to feather his nest. Seeing how rich the land was between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers, when he went home he asked the king to give him all this land, and the king, Charles II., in his good easy way of giving away what did not belong to him, readily consented, without troubling himself about the rights of the people who lived on the land. A great and valuable estate it was. Not many dwelt on it, and Lord Culpeper promised to have it settled and cultivated, but we cannot say that he troubled himself much about doing so.

When old Culpeper died the Virginia land went to his daughter, and from her it descended to her son, Lord Fairfax, who sent out his cousin, William Fairfax, to look after his great estate, which covered a whole broad county in the wilderness, and counties in those days were often very large. Lord Fairfax was not much concerned about the American wildwood. He was one of the fashionable young men in London society, and something of an author, too, for he helped the famous Addison by writing some papers for the "Spectator."

But noblemen, like common men, are liable to fall in love, and this Lord Fairfax did. He became engaged to be married to a handsome young lady; but she proved to be less faithful than pretty, and when a nobleman of higher rank asked her to marry him, she threw her first lover aside and gave herself to the richer one.

This was a bitter blow to Lord Fairfax. He went to his country home and dwelt there in deep distress, vowing that all women were false-hearted and that he would never marry any of them. And he never did. Even his country home was not solitary enough for the broken-hearted lover, so he resolved to cross the ocean and seek a new home in his wilderness land in America. It was this that brought him to Virginia, where he went to live at his cousin's fine mansion called Belvoir, a place not far away from the Washington estate of Mount Vernon.

Lord Fairfax was a middle-aged man at that time, a tall, gaunt, near-sighted personage, who spent much of his time in hunting, of which he was very fond. And his favorite companion in these hunting excursions was young George Washington, then a fine, fresh, active boy of fourteen, who dearly loved outdoor life. There was a strong contrast between the old lord and the youthful Virginian, but they soon became close friends, riding out fox-hunting together and growing intimate in other ways.

Laurence Washington, George's elder brother, who lived at Mount Vernon, had married a daughter of William Fairfax, and that brought the Mount Vernon and Belvoir families much together, so that when young George was visiting his brother he was often at Belvoir. Lord Fairfax grew to like him so much that he resolved to give him some important work to do. He saw that the boy was strong, manly, and quick-witted, and anxious to be doing something for himself, and as George had made some study of surveying, he decided to employ him at this.

Lord Fairfax's Virginia estate, as we have said, was very large. The best-known part of it lay east, but it also crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains, and ran over into the beautiful valley beyond, which the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe had visited more than thirty years before. This splendid valley was still largely in a wild state, with few inhabitants besides the savage Indians and wild beasts. Before it could be fairly opened to settlers it must be measured by the surveyor's chain and mapped out so that it would be easy to tell where any tract was located. It was this that Lord Fairfax asked young Washington to do, and which the active boy gladly consented to undertake, for he liked nothing better than wild life and adventure in the wilderness, and here was the chance to have a delightful time in a new and beautiful country, an opportunity that would warm the heart of any live and healthy boy.

This is a long introduction to the story of Washington's wildwood outing, but no doubt you will like to know what brought it about. It was in the early spring of 1748 that the youthful surveyor set out on his ride, the blood bounding warmly in his veins as he thought of the new sensations and stirring adventures which lay before him. He was not alone. George William Fairfax, a son of the master of Belvoir, went with him, a young man of twenty-two. Washington was then just sixteen, young enough to be in high spirits at the prospect before him. He brought his surveyors' instruments, and they both bore guns as well, for they looked for some fine sport in the woods.

The valley beyond the mountains was not the land of mystery which it had been thirty-four years before, when Governor Spotswood and his gay-troop looked down on it from the green mountain summit. There were now some scattered settlers in it, and Lord Fairfax had built himself a lodge in the wilderness, which he named "Greenway Court," and where now and then he went for a hunting excursion.

Crossing the Blue Ridge at Ashby's Gap and fording the bright Shenandoah, the young surveyors made their way towards this wildwood lodge. It was a house with broad stone gables, its sloping roof coming down over a long porch in front. The locality was not altogether a safe one. There were still some Indians in that country, and something might stir them up against the whites. In two belfries on the roof hung alarm-bells, to be rung to collect the neighboring settlers if report of an Indian rising should be brought.

On the forest road leading to Greenway Court a white post was planted, with an arm pointing towards the house, as a direction to visitors. As the post decayed or was thrown down by any cause another was erected, and on this spot to-day such a post stands, with the village of White Post built around it. But when young Washington and Fairfax passed the spot only forest trees stood round the post, and they rode on to the Court, where they rested awhile under the hospitable care of Lord Fairfax's manager.

It was a charming region in which the young surveyors found themselves after their brief term of rest, a land of lofty forests and broad grassy openings, with the silvery river sparkling through their midst. The buds were just bursting on the trees, the earliest spring flowers were opening, and to right and left' extended long blue mountain-ranges, the giant guardians of the charming valley of the Shenandoah. In those days there were none of the yellow grain-fields, the old mansions surrounded by groves, the bustling villages and towns which now mark the scene, but nature had done her best to make it picturesque and beautiful, and the youthful visitors enjoyed it as only those of young blood can.

Up the banks of the Shenandoah went the surveyors, measuring and marking the land and mapping down its leading features. It was no easy work, but they enjoyed it to the full. At night they would stop at the rude house of some settler, if one was to be found; if not, they would build a fire in the woods, cook the game their guns had brought down, wrap their cloaks around them, and sleep heartily under the broad blanket of the open air.

Thus they journeyed on up the Shenandoah until they reached the point where its waters flow into the Potomac. Then up this stream they made their way, crossing the mountains and finally reaching the place which is now called Berkeley Springs. It was then in the depth of the wilderness, but in time a town grew up around it, and many years afterward Washington and his family often went there in the summer to drink and bathe in its wholesome mineral waters.

Home of Mary Washington


The surveyors had their adventures, and no doubt often made the woodland echoes ring with the report of their guns as they brought down partridge or pheasant, or tracked a deer through the brushwood. Nothing of special note happened to them, the thing which interested them most being the sight of a band of Indians, the first they had ever seen. The red men had long since disappeared from the part of Virginia in which they lived.

These tenants of the forest came along one day when the youths had stopped at the house of a settler. There were about thirty of them in their war-paint, and one of them had a fresh scalp hanging at his belt. This indicated that they had recently been at war with their enemies, of whom at least one had been killed. The Indians were given some liquor, in return for which they danced their war-dance before the boys. For music one of them drummed on a deer-skin which he stretched over an iron pot, and another rattled a gourd containing some shot and ornamented with a horse's tail. The others danced with wild whoops and yells around a large fire they had built. Altogether the spectacle was a singular and exciting one on which the boys looked with much interest.

While they had no serious adventures, their life in the forest was not a very luxurious one. In many ways they had to rough it. At times they were drenched by downpours of rain. They slept anywhere, now and then in houses, but most often in the open air. On one occasion some straw on which they lay asleep caught fire and they woke just in time to escape being scorched by the flames.

"I have not slept above three or four nights in a bed," wrote George to a friend, "but after walking a good deal all the day I have lain down before the fire on a little straw or fodder, or a bear-skin, whatever was to be had, with man, wife, and children, like dogs and cats; and happy is he who gets the berth nearest the fire."

Their cooking was often done by impaling the meat on sharp sticks and holding it over the fire, while chips cut with their hatchet took the place of dishes. But to them all this was enjoyment, their appetites were hearty, and anything having the spice of adventure was gladly welcomed. It was the event of their young lives.

It was still April when they returned from their long river ride to Greenway Court, and here enjoyed for some time the comforts of civilization, so far as they had penetrated that frontier scene. Spring was still upon the land, though summer was near by, when George and his friend rode back across the Blue Ridge and returned to Belvoir with the report of what they had done. Lord Fairfax was highly pleased with the report, and liked George more than ever for the faithful and intelligent manner in which he had carried out his task. He paid the young surveyor at the rate of seven dollars a day for the time he was actually at work, and half this amount for the remaining time. This was worth a good deal more then than the same sum of money would be now, and was very good pay for a boy of sixteen. No doubt the lad felt rich with the first money he had ever earned in his pocket.

As for Lord Fairfax, he was in high glee to learn what a valuable property he had across the hills, and especially how fine a country it was for hunting. He soon left Belvoir and made his home at Greenway Court, where he spent the remainder of his life. It was a very different life from that of his early days in the bustle of fashionable life in London, but it seemed to suit him as well or better.

One thing more we have to say about him. He was still living at Greenway Court when the Revolutionary War came on. A loyalist in grain, he bitterly opposed the rebellion of the colonists. By the year 1781 he had grown very old and feeble. One day he was in Winchester, a town which had grown up not far from Greenway, when he heard loud shouts and cheers in the street.

"What is all that noise about?" he asked his old servant.

Dey say dat Gin' ral Washington has took Lord Cornwallis an' all his army prisoners. Yorktown is surrendered, an' de wa' is ovah."

"Take me to bed, Joe," groaned the old lord; "it is time for me to die."

Five years after his surveying excursion George Washing on had a far more famous adventure in the wilderness, when the governor of Virginia sent him through the great forest to visit the French forts near Lake Erie. The story of this journey is one of the most exciting and romantic events in American history, yet it is one with which most readers of history are familiar, so we have told the tale of his earlier adventures instead. His forest experience on the Shenandoah had much to do with making Governor Dinwiddie choose him as his envoy to the French forts, so that it was, in a way, the beginning of his wonderful career.