Chances are you’ve heard of George Washington. You’ve probably seen his picture on the 1 dollar bill with his powdered white hair and serious expression. He was the first President of the United States and easily one of the most famous people from American History, right up there with Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin — and tonight we’re super excited to share the first of what will be two episodes about him!
George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, to Mary and Augustine Washington in Westmoreland County, Virginia. If you’ve noticed President’s Day is in February, this is one reason why. George’s family was not extremely wealthy or poor but was in what was called a “middling class,” which had been growing in Virginia. George’s ancestors were from England and had moved to British Colonies in America. They were called the British Colonies because they were still ruled by Britain, not their own country yet. George’s father, Augustine, had a farm along the Potomac River and worked hard to make it a success. On the farm, they grew tobacco and had a mill for grinding wheat. When George was 5 the family moved up the Potomac River to the Little Hunting Creek Plantation and then later to the Ferry Farm, where little George spent most of his days growing up.
We know some things about George’s childhood, but not very much — which led to some myths about his childhood. One story said that he was so strong he threw a coin all the way across the Potomac River. Another said he chopped down his father’s favorite cherry tree and told his father about it because he would never tell a lie. These stories were made up, but we do know that George grew up helping on his family farm and was home-schooled by a local teacher where he learned math, geography, and Latin and read classic books. What George learned in books was useful, but most of his practical knowledge came from his days working on the farm, learning from the other workers, and the local woodsmen.
When George was 11 his father passed away and his brother, Lawrence, took over the farm. George learned about the higher culture and how to act properly from his brother’s wife, Anne.
Like many boys his age, George started his career very early, at age 16, when he became a surveyor. A surveyor is someone who uses different instruments to measure the size and layout of the land and make maps, so it can be bought and sold. In Virginia and the rest of The New World, there was a lot of lands, so the job of a surveyor was very important. George was soon traveling on his own, studying and surveying the land all over Virginia, and making maps. The experiences of being out on his own and camping every night made him tough and prepared him for later struggles in his life. George worked as a surveyor until he was 20 — when his older brother Lawrence died of tuberculosis. This made George the owner of his family’s farms, which was a very big responsibility for a 20-year-old.
George loved the peaceful life of a farmer, but events nearby would soon change that. People from England lived in most of the Eastern coastal towns of the colonies, but many people from France, the French, lived and worked further inland as trappers and traders. For many years the English and French did not get along. As the French started to move into the land the English claimed as their own, the King of England became nervous that the French would take it over. He began sending soldiers to America to be sure this did not happen.
Around this time, George had become a major in the Virginia Militia. A militia is a small army run by a colony or state, and at the time the colony of Virginia had its own militia. George was asked by the king to take his small group of soldiers and tell the French living on their land to leave. By this time the French had built a fort called Fort LaBeouf and when George arrived with his soldiers, he did ask them to leave but the French politely refused! George hurried back to let his leaders know and then was told to return to attack the French at Fort Duquesne. A battle broke out and George’s army beat the French in one of the first battles of what became known as The French and Indian War. The French sent more soldiers and drove George Washington and his troops back to their fort, called Fort Necessity. Eventually, George and his troops had to surrender and leave the Ohio Valley.
George was embarrassed at his loss, but word began to spread that he had fought valiantly against the French and his name began to be known through the American colonies and even in England.
When the British General, Edward Braddock arrived from England with even more soldiers, George joined him with his militia and they left Fort Necessity to attack the French again. While marching on the road to attack the French, they were surprised by a French army which attacked them. The French and their Native American allies fired from the trees and the road. Bullets flew from every direction. The British soldiers scattered. They were unprepared for the attack. General Braddock was hit by a bullet and fell from his horse. George courageously rallied the troops and urged them to continue fighting. A bullet hit George’s horse and they fell over, but he jumped up and climbed onto another horse. Bullets flew through his jacket and hit his horse again. The fighting continued as the French and natives fired at the British from the cover of the trees and then swarmed them in the road. George climbed onto his third horse and kept fighting. He saw that there was no hope of winning this battle. He would have to escape or all of his soldiers would be lost. He ordered a retreat and the soldiers followed him away from the battle and back along the road. During their long march back to Fort Necessity, they were continually attacked from the woods but eventually made it back. The Battle of the Wilderness was a major loss, but George Washington was praised for bravely taking control of the situation and leading the soldiers out of danger.
French and Indian War
In August 1755 George was made commander of all of the militia troops in Virginia. He was only 23 at the time. His job was to protect the border of Virginia. Most of his soldiers were not well trained and lacked proper fighting gear. To make things worse, the Virginia government did not support him and his soldiers. After two years of this difficult duty, Washington became sick with dysentery and had to return to his home until he got better.
In 1758 George rejoined his troops as commander and was ordered to take Fort Duquesne, which was held by his French enemies. Washington, with 6,000 troops made up of British soldiers and Virginia militia, attacked Fort Duquesne. The fighting was intense on both sides. Cannons boomed. Smoke filled the air. Musket balls zipped through the air. But Washington and the soldiers pressed on until they took the fort and the French fled or surrendered. Fort Duquesne was finally taken! It was a major victory for the British in the French and Indian War. Because they took the fort they were now in control of the Ohio River Valley. George Washington’s fame spread, but the fighting near his home was over, so like the soldiers who fought with him, George retired — which means he was no longer a commander and returned to his big farm in Virginia to continue taking care of it. But fortunately, it was one of George’s favorite things to do!
Martha Custis Washington
Not long after returning home, George met and married Martha Dandridge Custis, who was a few months older than he and had been married before. She had two children John and Martha, who went by the nicknames Jacky and Patsy. George came to love his adopted children, gave them lots of attention, and treated them as his own. Jacky and Patsy would end up being his only children as he and Martha never had any of their own children together.
Martha Washington came from a wealthy family, so when she and George married he inherited even more land. He was also given land as a gift for his service in the French and Indian War. This all led to George becoming one of the richest landowners in all of Virginia.
On his farm, George spent much of his time riding about, checking in on the workers, and was even known to take off his coat and get into the dirty work with them. He enjoyed horseback riding, fox hunts, and fishing.
George was always interested in the latest scientific advances to improve his crops and to find better ways to raise animals and tend to his vast orchards of fruit trees. If you visit Mount Vernon today it is a beautiful plantation with a museum, crops still growing, flower gardens, and well-tended orchards. In fact, I visited it a few years ago with my wife and daughter and we had a great time walking through Washington’s home overlooking the Potomac River and strolling through the beautiful gardens.
Sadly, slavery was everywhere at this time in Virginia and other places in the American colonies. The slaves had been kidnapped from their homes in Africa and forced to work for no pay. Slavery was a horrible practice that didn’t end until after the Civil War. Like most of the farms in Virginia, over 300 slaves worked at Mount Vernon. Later in life, George was more open to ending slavery than other plantation owners. Sadly, he never decided to set free slaves during his lifetime, but after his death, he had all of his own slaves set free — but not Martha’s.
An interesting fact about George Washington is he had very bad teeth. Many times he complained about them aching and other problems. He had to have many of his teeth pulled over the years. For this reason, George wore dentures most of his adult life. Dentures are fake teeth that people wear to replace the real ones that were lost. Legend says that they were made out of wood, but the truth is that his dentures were made out of his lost teeth, some animal teeth shaped to look like human teeth and other metals.
Far from Mount Vernon, life in the American colonies began to change. At this time the colonies were still part of the British Empire, controlled by King George and his parliament. After the French and Indian War, the King saw how expensive the war was and decided the colonies should pay for part of it. He began to tax items like stamps and later tea and other goods that they bought from England. A tax is when you add a cost to an item. For example, when they would go to buy tea, instead of it being $1 for a bag of tea, it cost $1.25. This made the people very upset. The King also told them they couldn’t buy and settle land past a certain point in the New World. This made them even more upset. As you can imagine, things were not going well between England and the colonies. Tune into our next episode, to learn about George Washington and the American Revolution, and His Presidency. In the meantime, when you’re not in bed look up pictures and videos of George Washington. Check out pictures of his beautiful Mount Vernon estate, and the clothes he wore which are in a museum, and see if you can find a picture of his false teeth!
Also, take some time to think about George Washington’s work ethic. This means that he spent his time improving his farm and making it a little better each day. He wasn’t afraid to get dirty to improve it. Think about how this applies to you with things that need to get done around your house. Can you help tidy your room each day or pick weeds in the yard — something I know we always need at our home. Hard work isn’t always fun, but after you’re done it feels good that you’ve done something challenging and chances are you’ll feel good that you made a little difference in your home, and as you see that things look better. The other day my son and I mowed the lawn together. It was the end of the day and we didn’t feel like doing it, but when we were done it looked so clean and nice, we had a great time playing around in it and enjoying it and the hard work was worth the beautiful result.
Also, think about George’s bravery as he went into battle. It can be hard to keep our wits about us during tough times. Think about ways you can stay patient and focused when someone makes you upset or you have to do something that requires bravery. I remember when I was younger I never liked to take the trash out in the dark. One time I had to just take a deep breath and tell myself “be brave!” and did it anyway. I was nervous, but afterward, I felt proud of myself for doing it!