Builders of our Country Vol. II - G. Southworth

George Washington Before the Revolution


Among the builders of our country one man looms up above them all. Thousands have risked their lives in America's battles. Hundreds have given the best of their energy to the building of America's institutions, and many have served as her chief executive. But none of these have needed the steadfast faith and courage to hold together a few crude colonists against a king's disciplined army. None of these have faced the problem of forming a nation out of thirteen impoverished colonies, at the close of a long war. At the very head of America's great men stands George Washington, the father of his country, "first in war, first in peace," and always "first in the hearts of his countrymen."

George Washington was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, on February 22, 1732. While he was still a little fellow his father, Augustine Washington, moved to a plantation near Fredericksburg. Here the family lived in a frame house with an immense chimney at either end. There were four rooms on the first floor, and above was an attic under the steep sloping roof.

One day during the summer of 1739 all was excitement in the frame house. "Lawrence is coming! Lawrence is coming!" shouted the boys, while their mother completed the last details of the homecoming she had long ago planned for her stepson. Lawrence and his brother Augustine had been in England, being educated; and now Lawrence was coming home to live.

There was no need to go far to meet him. In those days each large river plantation had its private wharf. Slowly the ship sailed up the Rappahannock to Augustine Washington's landing, and Lawrence was home.

And now life had many new interests for George. Lawrence, like all colonial men, was a good shot and a fine horseman, and loved hunting, horse racing, and sports of all kinds. In this older brother George saw what he himself wanted to become; and in George, Lawrence found a straightforward, honest, earnest boy. So, in spite of the fourteen years difference in age, the two became fast friends.

Lawrence had been back barely a year when war broke out between England and Spain, and Lawrence Washington set out to serve under Admiral Vernon.

Soon came reports of the regiment's bravery, which gave George an added pride in his elder brother, and raised in his heart a great and lasting love for a military life. And George too became a soldier.

Mr. Hobby's schoolhouse stood out in a field, and there George was commander-in-chief. With school out and work done, drills, parades, and battles became the order of the day. Although the young commander was quick-tempered and determined, he was generous and willing to play fair; and his companions loyally charged numberless walls and fought countless battles under his command.

In the autumn of 1742 Lawrence came home again; but it is doubtful if George saw quite as much of him as before the war, for the elder brother soon fell in love with Anne Fairfax, and became engaged to her.

The next spring George's father died suddenly. To Lawrence he left his estate on the Potomac, which Lawrence called Mount Vernon in honor of the Admiral under whom he had served. To the second son, Augustine, he gave his old estate on Bridges Creek in Westmoreland County. George was to have the house and lands on the Rappahannock, when he became of age. The other children were all provided for, and they and George were left under the guardianship of their mother.

Mount Vernon


In July Lawrence Washington and Anne Fairfax were married and went to live at Mount Vernon. Augustine, too, left the family home to take charge of his property on Bridges Creek.

There was no question as to the course these two were to follow. With George it was different. He had learned about all that his old schoolmaster, Mr. Hobby, could teach; and that was little enough. There was no other school near his home, and it was impossible to send him to England as the elder brothers had been sent.

A good school for those days was kept by a Mr. Williams not far from Augustine's home, and at length it was settled that George should live with Augustine and go to this school.

From the accounts of his life at Bridges Creek it is hard to decide whether he worked or played with greater diligence. His copy books still exist, all done with such neatness and care that it would seem as if they could have left no time for play. On the other hand he entered into so many sports, practicing each so thoroughly, that it would seem as if there could have been little time for study. In running he had no equal. Not a boy in the school could throw as he could, and with wrestling it was the same story.

While her son was away at school Mrs. Washington did not fail to keep in touch with him; and she arranged to have him at home whenever that was possible.

Here, thanks to her untiring efforts, affairs went on much as before her husband's death. She attended to every detail. She was stern and quick-tempered; and when she drove her open gig to any part of the plantation and found that the slaves had failed to carry out her directions to the letter, they had good cause to fear.

[Illustration] from Builders of Our Country - II by G. Southworth


She was devoted to her children, but even they stood in awe of her and gave her unquestioning obedience.

There is a tale which shows that, while demanding much, she was just and willing to forgive. Early one vacation morning George and some companions were looking over his mother's splendid Virginia horses. Among them was a sorrel which especially pleased Mrs. Washington. George told how no one had ever been able to ride this horse, so fierce and ungovernable he was. And then because George was young and strong and looking for adventure, he impulsively proposed that if his friends would help him bridle the horse he would ride him. Of course they were ready to help, and somehow the bridle was put on. George sprang to the horse's back. Away they went. The horse reared and plunged. The other boys fairly held their breath expecting each moment to see George thrown. Still he held on. Finally the wild furious animal gave one mighty leap into the air, burst a blood vessel, and fell dead. Just then came the call to breakfast, and the frightened boys walked toward the house asking each other, "What shall we do? Who will tell what we have done?"

As luck would have it, at the table Mrs. Washington asked, "Have you seen my horses this morning? I am told my favorite is in excellent condition."

The boys exchanged a glance, and then George said, "Your favorite, the sorrel, is dead, madam," and went on to tell the whole story.

First an angry flush came to Mrs. Washington's face; but when George had finished she proudly raised her head and said to her guests, "It is well. While I regret the loss of my favorite horse, I rejoice in my son who speaks the truth."

When George was fourteen he took up the study of surveying, as that seemed to give the best promise for the future. By way of practice, he surveyed the fields around the schoolhouse and on the neighboring plantations, making exact and careful calculations, all of which he neatly put down in notebooks.

In the autumn of 1747, when he was under sixteen years of age, Washington's schooling came to an end, and he went to Mount Vernon to live with Lawrence.


Lord Fairfax, a relative of Mrs. Lawrence Washington, owned large tracts of land in the beautiful valley of the Shenandoah. All this land had to be surveyed, and to his young friend George Washington, Lord Fairfax gave the work. Of course Washington was delighted with the opportunity; and in March, 1748, when he was sixteen years old, he set out on horseback with a small company of assistants.

A hard month was before him. The rivers were so swollen from the spring thaws that fords were out of the question, and it was necessary to swim the horses across the ugly streams. The weather was cold. Fires were not always to be had. Food was none too plentiful. What there was each man must cook for himself on forked sticks over the fire. Chips were the only plates. Nights in a tent, or more often on the ground, were varied by an occasional night in a settler's cabin.

Such incidents with long hard tramps and constant work made up the story of Washington's first surveying trip. In April he reached Mount Vernon and laid the result of his work before Lord Fairfax. Lord Fairfax went over the carefully prepared maps and was so delighted that he used his influence to have Washington appointed Public Surveyor for Culpeper County. This appointment gave authority to his work, and how well it was deserved may be seen from the fact that his surveys are unquestioned to this day.

Lord Fairfax


Now anxious times came to Mount Vernon. Lawrence became ill with consumption; and in July, 1752, this much loved brother died. When his will was read it was found that he had appointed George guardian of his little daughter, and heir to his estates in case the child herself should not live. And so it was that on her death, not long after, Mount Vernon became the property of George Washington.


In the early days when the English settlers were founding colonies along the Atlantic, the French were doing the same along the St. Lawrence River. Gradually, as the colonies grew, the settlers turned their attention to the great lands that lay beyond what they had already seen.

This was true especially of the French. First, missionaries worked their way along the northern border of New York, floated in canoes on the Great Lakes and even down the Mississippi River. And later, French explorers followed the missionaries and established forts here and there, as they went along.

The English, too, were attracted by the wild western lands and sent fur traders to barter with the Indians there. Both France and England claimed the land.

Rich in game, fertile, covered with fine forests, the beautiful Ohio country seemed especially desirable. So, while the English formed what was known as the Ohio Company, and laid plans for sending out colonists to take possession of the disputed district, the French built forts and stirred up the Indians to attack English settlements.

In the spring of 1753 fifteen hundred Frenchmen landed at Presqu'isle, erected a fort, and set about cutting a road through the forests to French Creek, where they built Fort LeBceuf. News of this move was not long in spreading throughout the English colonies. What was to be done?

Forts on the Western Frontier


Governor Dinwiddie of Virginia was one of the first to realize the seriousness of the question. He promptly sent letters to England, telling of the danger. England ordered, "Build forts near the Ohio if you can get the money. Require the French to depart peacefully; and if they will not do so, we do hereby strictly charge and demand you to drive them off by force of arms."

To require the French to depart peacefully was more easily said than done. The French were hundreds of miles away; many high and rugged mountains rose between Williamsburg, Virginia's capital, and the French fort; and over half the journey lay through the unbroken forests. The man who should carry England's message must know something of the country, must understand Indian ways, must be used to hardships. He must be strong, full of courage, and ready for whatever might arise. Such a man was George Washington. And Governor Dinwiddie chose him as his messenger.

It was the middle of November when the twenty-one-year-old leader and his party got away from Will's Creek—the end of civilization. Tramping through the forests amid blinding snowstorms, crossing raging creeks, always on the outlook for Indian treachery, slowly they worked their way toward the French fort. On December 4th they came to Venango, a French outpost, and at dusk on the 11th reached Fort LeBoeuf. Early the next morning, Washington presented Governor Dinwiddie's letter to the French commander.

For three days the Commander and his officers discussed the answer which was to be sent to the English Governor. Meanwhile Washington looked over the fort, drew its plan, and learned all he could regarding its strength and the number of soldiers detailed to guard it.

The days of waiting were anxious ones. The snow was falling faster and faster. Finally Washington and his companions got away from the fort, homeward bound.

On the journey home, the party encountered new difficulties. They had canoes that they had borrowed from the French; but in many places the creeks were so low that the men were obliged to get out of the boats and, wading in the icy waters, haul them over the shoals. After nearly a week of such traveling they came to the French outpost. Here Washington proposed to Christopher Gist, one of his men, that they leave the rest of the party and make for Will's Creek on foot; and so it was decided.

They walked eighteen miles the first day. The cold was dreadful. All the streams were so frozen that it was almost impossible to find water to drink. By night Washington was nearly exhausted. The next day they met an Indian who seemed so friendly that Washington asked him to guide them through that part of the forest. For ten miles all went well. Then, as they came to an open space, suddenly the guide, who was only fifteen paces anead,turned and fired.

"Are you shot?" shouted Washington.

"No," answered Gist.

Together they rushed on the Indian before he could reload. Gist wished to kill him, but Washington would not listen to that. "If you will not have him killed, we must get away and then travel all night," urged Gist in low tones. "He will surely follow our tracks as soon as it is light, and we must have a good start."

So, pretending that they thought the Indian's shot an accident, the two men let him go; and, when sure he was out of hearing, they crept away in the opposite direction. All that night and all the nest day they hurried on, with no sleep and with sore and bleeding feet.

At last they came to a place where some Indians had been hunting. Mixing their tracks with those of the savages they separated for a time, in order that their bloodthirsty guide, if he followed them to this point, could find no two trails going on together. When they met again some distance farther on, they felt for the first time that it was safe to sleep.

They had now reached the Allegheny River, which was full of floating ice. A whole day was spent in building a raft on which to cross. They pushed off. The current was very swift, and before the raft was half way across the river it was being jammed on every side by cakes of ice. Every moment they expected that it would be forced under, and that they would perish. Struggling to keep a clear space for the raft with a long pole, Washington was all at once jerked into the water. It was by the merest chance that he was able to catch hold of one of the logs and so pull himself back on the raft.

Washington in a river


There seemed no hope of reaching either shore now; so when the current carried them near an island, both Washington and Gist jumped into the freezing water and swam for the land. Gist had all his fingers and some of his toes frozen. By morning the ice in the river was solid, and it was comparatively easy to reach the mainland.

A few days later Washington arrived at Williamsburg and gave to Governor Dinwiddie the letter that he had carried so carefully on his long and dangerous journey.

As usual, Washington had kept a journal of the trip; and this, too, he gave to the Governor, thinking it the simplest way to report all the events of his travels. So straightforward was the journal and so clearly did it set forth the exact conditions on the Ohio, leaving out all complaint of hardship, that Governor Dinwiddie ordered a copy of it sent to each of the colonial governors.

Washington found himself the hero of the hour. Not yet twenty-two, he had faced a great responsibility and had done well all that he had been asked to do. But still, far from being proud and self-satisfied, when he was told that his journal was to be published he modestly wrote in it, "I think I can do no less than apologize for the numberless imperfections of it."


That the French would not depart from the Ohio for the asking, was plainly shown by the French commander's reply to Governor Dinwiddie's letter. Then they must be driven away by force. Governor Dinwiddie determined that Virginia should do her full share, and ordered the enlistment of men at Alexandria. In February, 1754, he sent out a company to build a fort on a site chosen by Washington, where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers join.

On the 2nd of April Washington set out with a small force to garrison the fort that was being built. Before long discouraging reports reached him. Five hundred Frenchmen had landed and demanded the builders of the fort to surrender. They had surrendered, and their victors were even now building Fort Duquesne on the very site chosen by the English.

Here was a gloomy outlook for Washington. However, it was decided to push on. When the little army had covered about half the distance, an Indian came to Washington bearing word that the French army was coming.

Washington had been expecting as much; so, hurrying his soldiers forward to a place called Great Meadows, he had the bushes cleared away and trenches dug. But no enemy appeared. A few nights later another Indian messenger reported that his chief was in camp six miles off and felt sure that the French were hiding near him.

Prompt to act, Washington took forty of his men and joined the Indians. Scouts tracked the French to a hollow surrounded by rocks and trees; and in single file Washington, his men, and the Indian warriors crept to the French hiding place, and surrounded it. While Washington was moving through the trees, he was seen by the French. They sprang to their arms. In a moment both sides were firing. For fifteen minutes the fighting lasted, and then the French gave up.

French and Indian War


This little skirmish proved of much greater importance than could have been foreseen. In it was shed the first blood of the French and Indian War. Moreover, the attack of the English added to the French determination to drive the English away from the Ohio. Washington appreciated the situation; and when he got back to Great Meadows, he began the work of strengthening Fort Necessity, as the encampment was now called.

On the morning of the 3rd of July, the French appeared before the fort, and a battle began. All day it lasted. At eight that night the French asked for a parley, which was granted.

The French proposed that, on condition that the English would surrender, the whole garrison might go back to Virginia. But for a year they must not attempt to build any more forts this side of the mountains.

With almost no provisions, with their powder about gone, with more than fifty of their men dead or wounded, while the French might be reinforced at any moment, Washington and his officers could see no course but to accept the conditions. So in the morning the fort was deserted, and the weary, half-starved soldiers started slowly home. On the way Washington shared their hardships and encouraged them by his cheerful and uncomplaining endurance. And all the time his heart was heavy. He was young; he had set out to win and was going back defeated.

At Williamsburg he reported to Governor Dinwiddie, and then went to Alexandria to recruit new companies to lead against the French.

But England had now decreed that any officer holding a commission from the King should outrank any officer holding a colonial commission. To have commanded an expedition, and then to be outranked by any upstart officer from England, was more than Washington's pride could bear. He therefore resigned from the service.


By his little skirmish with the French in the wilderness hollow, Washington had started a war which was to spread beyond the colonies and become of grave concern abroad.

France sent eighteen war vessels filled with French soldiers to Quebec. And England, not to bo outdone, likewise sent troops to her colonies here. Two regiments were assigned to Virginia; and early in 1755 the British ships sailed by Mount Vernon to put the soldiers ashore at Alexandria, only eight miles away.

Whether in the army or out, Washington could not withhold a lively interest in the redcoats. Many an early morning found him on horseback headed for the English camp, hoping to learn from the trained soldiers much that would help him, if ever he had the good fortune to reenter the service of his country.

Knowing of course who he was and his story, the British officers watched the young Virginian as he went about their camp. He was six feet two inches tall, broad-shouldered, straight as an Indian; and he walked with a strong, swinging gait. His dignified bearing, and his way of looking each man in the face, could not fail to win friends. Soon General Braddock, the English commander, noticed Washington, learned of his desire to serve and the sole reason he was not on duty, and offered him a position. on his staff.

Exciting times followed. It was easy to see that the strength of the French lay in their splendid line of forts. Troops, ammunition, and food could be hurriedly sent from one to another. To defeat the French, this line must be broken. Therefore it was agreed that one force should be sent to take the post at Niagara; that one should march against Crown Point, and a third against Acadia; and that General Braddock himself should take Fort Duquesne.

General Braddock was brave, resolute, and energetic. But his bravery was of the sort that made him despise his enemy; and his energy led him to underestimate the task before him. He knew nothing of the Indian way of fighting; nothing of the hardships of the wilderness. He was extreme in his British contempt for colonists.

By the middle of May, General Braddock's troops had arrived at Will's Creek; and on the 10th of June, 1755, the great procession headed for Fort Duquesne.

The 9th of July was chosen for the attack on the French fort, and at sunrise that morning the army was on the move. What a sight it was! With drums beating, fifes playing, flags flying, bayonets flashing in the sun, and redcoats showing bright against the forest green, the army marched to victory. All was in perfect order. Riding with the General's staff, Washington was thrilled and delighted. Finally the last ford was made, and now Fort Duquesne was only eight miles away.

Braddock's March


"Forward! March!" ordered the officers, and the soldiers went briskly along the road that led through the forest to the fort.

Suddenly a French officer was seen rushing down the road, while behind him came swarms of French and Indians. At a signal, they darted into the woods, hid themselves among the trees and in the thickets, and with blood-curdling yells began pouring a deadly fire into the English lines.

"Scatter your men as they have done," Washington, begged the General. But that was not the English way of fighting. The soldiers must stand in ranks to fire. The fearful yells and the smoke from the enemies' rifles were all that told them where to aim.

The officers did everything in their power to keep order and encourage the men. But soldier after soldier fell, picked off by the shots of the hidden foe.

From time to time a savage in war paint and feathers leaped from behind a tree to scalp a victim or seize a horse whose rider had been killed. And he in turn was killed by the sure aim of some Virginian, firing from the shelter of the trees. For the despised Virginians knew the fashion of savage warfare, and, like the French and Indians, had scattered through the forest. By keeping their senses and fighting, every man for himself, they did much to protect the redcoats huddled in the open roadway.

The English troops were fast becoming panic-stricken. All orders were unnoticed. They shot at random. No foe was to be seen, and yet the constant firing from the thickets increased.

Washington was everywhere. With flashing eyes and determined face, he galloped back and forth in the thickest of the fight, repeating the General's orders and shouting to the men to keep up their courage. His horse was shot under him. In a moment he leaped on another. Soon this, too, went down. Four bullets tore through his coat, and still he rushed on unwounded.

At last General Braddock was shot, and fell from his horse. The troops broke and ran wildly. On, on they tore, leaving Washington and a few officers and provincials the task of carrying off the dying General. The defeated army returned to Virginia.


The next three years Washington spent in protecting the Virginian frontier from Indian raids. He had been offered the command of Virginia's troops, and had gladly accepted.

In the fall of 1758 Washington's troops joined in another attack on Fort Duquesne. But the reception at the fort was very unlike the one given General Braddock. Scouts had reported to the French commander the English approach. Winter was coming on, and the French line of forts had been broken in the North. There was no hope of reinforcement or supplies from that direction. The whole garrison at the fort was not over five hundred. To wait for the English would mean certain surrender. So, when the British troops were within a day's march, the French commander blew up his magazine, burned the fort, and retreated with his men.

Imagine the astonishment of the English. A stout defense and a brisk battle was what they had expected, not an empty fort. On the 25th of November, Washington and the advance guard marched in and raised the British flag over the smoking ruins of Fort Duquesne.

Now, finally, the Ohio country was secured to the English. And no longer responsible for the safety of the Virginia frontier, Colonel Washington could honorably resign his commission.

The war was not yet ended. Fighting continued in the North. It was not until September of the next year that Quebec—the last great stronghold of the French—fell, and not until 1763 that the treaty was signed which put an end to French power in America.