George Washington: Childhood & the Cherry Tree Myth
He certainly didn't start off seeming indispensible. George Washington was born on 22 February 1732, the third son of members of Virginia's lower gentry. His father, Augustine Washington, was a prosperous planter who already had a pair of sons when he married George's mother. Mary Ball, Augustine's second wife, bore him six more children, of whom George was the first. George was an almost forgettable addition to a large and growing family.
As a middle son in a colonial Virginian household, George could not count on much support. His father was wealthy enough to provide his eldest sons with a "proper" education abroad, but his death in 1743 robbed George of this opportunity. (It also robbed young George of the "opportunity" to cut down his father's favorite cherry tree, then admit it because he "could not tell a lie." That famous story never happened; it's a bit of pure mythology, invented by an over-imaginative biographer shortly after Washington's death.)As was typical for Virginia families at that time, most of Augustine's inheritance went to Lawrence, his eldest son. Augustine Jr., the second son, was next in line. George's mother got what was left to support herself and raise the remaining children. George got nothing. Thus George became keenly aware that he would not inherit wealth or status; if he wanted recognition, he was going to have to earn it himself.
After Augustine's death, Lawrence became a surrogate father to George. Lawrence had followed in his father's footsteps as a respectable Virginia gentleman, with all the accompanying aristocratic pretensions. He married into the Fairfax family, an elite clan with ties to the English nobility, and improved his own social standing by cultivating a large estate at Mount Vernon and serving in the Virginia militia. Lawrence encouraged George to consider a career in the military, too, as a way to raise himself up. George hardly needed the encouragement; he idolized his brother even more than his father, and dreamed of making Lawrence's lifestyle his own.3
Young George Washington was soon on his way to achieving that life. At sixteen, he used his connections to land a job surveying the Fairfax family's extensive land holdings. He learned the trade well enough to set up shop as a surveyor and was soon making enough money to buy his own land. By 1752, he was ready to leverage his knowledge for social mobility, applying for a job with the Virginia militia. At the time of his application, his militia-serving brother Lawrence was fighting a bad case of tuberculosis. When Lawrence lost the battle later that year, he created a vacancy in the corps, which William Fairfax made sure George was chosen to fill. At the age of 21, he was, just as he had dreamed, starting to live his brother's life.
It was a propitious time for a young man to enter the militia in search of glory. Three mighty powers were then struggling for supremacy on the North American continent. The British, with a string of profitable and growing settlements on the Atlantic seaboard, had established themselves as the dominant European players in North America, but they were hardly alone. The French, operating out of the fortified city of Montreal and the port town of New Orleans, had a strong presence in the country's interior, the "Ohio Country," which kept British westward expansion in check. Meanwhile, the powerful confederacy of Iroquois Indians dominated much of the territory in between, controlling the balance of power across a vast territory stretching from upstate New York into the Carolina highlands. France and Britain, rivals in Europe as well as America, had already fought three wars against each other, and another one seemed likely.
Washington was particularly well placed to take advantage of the opportunities another war with France would present. For starters, he had an incredible physique. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with an almost kingly grace. (John Adams would later joke that Washington was elected to chair every deliberative body he joined because he was always the tallest man in the room.) His stature alone suggested he'd go far if opportunities for promotion presented themselves. His connection to the Fairfaxes and other Virginia gentry certainly wouldn't hurt him. And then, of course, there was the matter of his qualifications. Washington had a good knowledge of the Virginia backcountry from his work as a surveyor, and he was already accustomed to the harsh conditions of independent life on the frontier. He was becoming a superb horseman. And he had drive.
For Washington, the military was pure opportunity. Young and unmarried, he didn't feel like he had much to lose. He would be risking only his life in a war—no small thing, but, as the untimely deaths of his father and brother had taught him, not something he could really count on holding onto anyway. Meanwhile, in exchange for putting his already-at-risk life on the line, he would earn a chance to gain major social prestige. It was, as far as Washington was concerned, more than a fair deal.