★ George Washington was born at Pope’s Creek in 1732
George Washington was born on February 22, 1732 (February 11, 1731/2 Old Style) at Pope’s Creek in Westmoreland County, Virginia, about 40 miles south of Mount Vernon. His great-grandfather came to America from England in 1657 aboard a ship named Sea Horse of London.
★ George Washington did not have a middle name
Surprising to some, George Washington did not have a middle name.
★ George Washington did not attend college
The death of Washington’s father in 1743 ended George’s formal education. Unlike his father and two older half-brothers, lack of money prevented the boy from studying in England, and unlike many of the Founding Fathers, Washington did not attend college. Always sensitive to this lack of formal education, Washington embarked upon a lifelong pursuit of self-education. Washington was an avid reader and was continually seeking the latest texts on a variety of subjects ranging from military arts to agriculture and political topics.
One of George Washington’s surveying instruments in the collection at Mount Vernon (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
★ George Washington learned to be a surveyor
Eager to learn a new and important trade, George Washington read mathematical texts to learn the geometric principles necessary for surveying. At seventeen years of age and largely through the Fairfax influence that he had cultivated, Washington secured an appointment as county surveyor for the newly created frontier county of Culpeper, Virginia. He was well on his way to a successful and profitable career. Not only did he receive substantial fees fur surveying, but he discovered firsthand an ability to identify and select the best plots of land for purchase, an especially important consideration in colonial America, where land equaled power.
★ George Washington did not throw a silver dollar across the Potomac
This myth is frequently told to demonstrate Washington’s considerable physical strength. The Potomac River is over a mile wide at Mount Vernon and even George Washington did not have the arm to fling a silver dollar that far. Moreover, there were no silver dollars when Washington was a young man. His step-grandson reported that Washington once threw a piece of slate across the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, which is much narrower, and that may be the origin of this story.
★ Washington wanted to join the Royal Navy, but his mother would not let him
In September 1746, George’s half-brother Lawrence and his friend and mentor Colonel William Fairfax, hatched a plan for the 14 year old that would have him joining a Royal Navy frigate anchored along the Virginia shore as a midshipmen. George, who valued his older half-brother and mentor’s advice, was prepared to seek his mother, Mary Washington’s, approval. Mary, who sought out the advice of neighbors and relations in England, became convinced that this was not a prudent career move for young George and withheld her all-important permission. Whether this decision came from reasoned analysis or a desire to retain her eldest son on the Fredericksburg farm, Mary Washington did the American cause a great service in withholding her approval.
Island of Barbados – the only location outside of North America that Washington traveled to (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)
★ Washington contracted smallpox while visiting Barbados with his half-brother Lawrence
In 1751 George Washington accompanied his older half-brother Lawrence to the island of Barbados – the only foreign country that Washington would visit during his lifetime. It was hoped that the tropical climate of this British island would help cure Lawrence of his tuberculosis. The stay in Barbados proved to be a challenging one for both of the Washingtons. Lawrence found the oppressive heat miserable to bear and the climate did not improve his condition. And Washington on November 17, 1751 contracted smallpox on the island. Fortunately for young George Washington, not only was he able to recover from the affliction, but he also inherited, as a result, a life-long immunity to this dreaded killer for the rest of his life. This would become crucial in the American Revolution, when the country was threatened by a smallpox epidemic.
★ Washington inherited his first slaves at age 11
George Washington inherited ten slaves from his father when he was just 11 years old. By the end of Washington’s life, over 300 African American slaves lived in bondage at Mount Vernon.
★ Washington inherited Mount Vernon in 1761
George Washington did not inherit Mount Vernon until after his elder half-brother Lawrence Washington passed away in 1752, and both of the intervening heirs had died. Following the death of Lawrence’s young daughter Sarah in 1754, he began renting Mount Vernon from Lawrence’s widow, Ann, who had remarried and moved away. The estate became George Washington’s when Ann died in 1761. By the end of his life, Washington expanded his land holdings at Mount Vernon to 8,000 acres, with 3,000 acres under cultivation.
★ In 1754 Washington led an attack that started a world war
Directed to press Virginia and Britain’s claim to the Ohio country to the French, George Washington led a force of soldiers from the Virginia Regiment and Native-American warriors to Jumonville Glen in Pennsylvania on May 28, 1754. While both sides claim the other side fired first, Washington’s forces killed many of the French soldiers camped beneath the rocks. This attack in the back woods of the Ohio Country is considered to be the trigger event for the Seven Years’ War – a war that would quickly escalate into a world war stretching to Europe, West Africa, India and the Philippines.
Panoramic view of Jumonville Glen. Washington’s attack on French and allied Native-American warriors at this site in 1754 initiated the French & Indian War (Rob Shenk)
★ Washington was known as an energetic and excellent dancer
Dancing was considered an important part of the social fabric of 18th century life. And as George Washington’s social stature began to rise, the number of balls, cotillions, parties, and dances he was invited to also rose considerably. Young Washington, blessed with an athletic frame, quickly came to love dancing and there are many accounts of his dancing throughout the night with an array of female guests.
★ Washington was first elected to public office in 1758
George Washington served in the Virginia House of Burgesses for fifteen years before the American Revolution. After a failed bid for a seat in December 1755, he won election in 1758 and represented Frederick County until 1761. That year he ran in Fairfax County, winning a seat which he would retain until 1775. During his tenure, Washington was not an outspoken burgess, nor did he introduce expansive or innovative legislation. Meeting in Williamsburg with elder statesmen such as John Robinson, Peyton Randolph, and George Wythe, as well as newer burgesses such as George Mason, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson, Washington learned to navigate political spheres and began his lessons in statecraft.
★ Washington was considered by some to be the best horseman of his time
Widely acknowledged as a pre-eminent equestrian, it was Thomas Jefferson who described George Washington as “the best horseman” of his time. Washington may have developed his riding skills during the many fox hunts that he participated in as a young man. Washington usually trained his own horses, even as commander in chief.
Martha Dandridge Custis, by Adrian Lamb, 1981, after John Wollaston
(Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
★ Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759
On January 6th, 1759, Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, a charming and vivacious young widow from the Tidewater area of Virginia. Martha brought enormous wealth, along with two small children, “Jacky” and “Patsy,” to the marriage. It was her second marriage and his first.
★ Washington suffered from dental problems all his adult life
Despite his legendary physical strength and iron constitution, George Washington’s failing teeth were a source of regular suffering. At age 24, Washington recorded in his diary that he paid 5 shillings to a “Doctr Watson” who removed one of his teeth. Letters and diary entries later in his life make regular reference to aching teeth, lost teeth, inflamed gums, ill-fitting dentures, and a host of other dental miseries. Payments to dentists and purchases of toothbrushes, tongue scrapers, dental tools, toothache medication, and cleaning solutions are also regularly present in Washington’s communications throughout his life.
★ Washington did not have children of his own
While Washington was fond of children, he and Martha did not have any children of their own. Martha Washington brought two children, John Parke Custis and Martha Parke Custis, into the union from her previous marriage. Many have speculated as to why Martha and George could not have children, but it is impossible to know exactly why the couple was childless. Despite that fact, there were always children in the Washington household throughout their marriage. Together they raised Mrs. Washington’s two children, as well as two of her four grandchildren, and several nieces and nephews. A great-grandchild was born at Mount Vernon just two weeks before George Washington’s death.
View of the reconstructed 16-Sided Barn at the Pioneer Farm site on the Mount Vernon estate. (Rob Shenk)
★ Washington was called the “foremost farmer” of America
An Englishman described Washington as the “foremost farmer” in America after visiting Mount Vernon. Washington, who believed that America should become a “granary to the world,” was a pioneer in improving many aspects of farming. His advanced crop rotations, use of fertilizers, experimentation with crops, and innovative farm equipment made him one of the leading agricultural leaders in America.
★ Washington represented Virginia as a delegate at the First and Second Continental Congresses
George Washington was appointed by Virginia as one of seven delegates from the colony to the First Continental Congress (September 1774 to May 1775). He was later appointed as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress (established on May 10, 1775). It was during the Second Continental Congress that George Washington was appointed commander in chief of the newly established Continental Army. Shortly after his appointment, Washington left Congress and headed to take command of the forces outside of Boston.
★ Washington was appointed as commander of the Continental Army in 1775
With the military situation becoming even more serious around Boston in 1775, the Second Continental Congress was eager to appoint an overall commander of the Continental Army forces assembling. George Washington, a member of the Second Continental Congress, was appointed as the commanding general on June 15, 1775. Washington’s prior military experience with the British army was important, particularly given the inexperience of many colonial regulars. The fact that he was a Southerner, when most of the army in those early days was from New England, was also appealing, because it illustrated that the patriot forces were united and that this was not just a conflict between Britain and northeastern colonies. After his appointment in Philadelphia, Washington headed directly to Boston to take command of the American forces. He would not return to Mount Vernon until September 1781, during the Yorktown Campaign.
★ Washington lost more battles than he won, but his leadership helped secure American independence
Given Washington’s ultimate success during the Revolution, it’s important to consider that he lost more battles than he won throughout his military career. The Battles of Fort Necessity, Monongahela, Long Island, White Plains, Fort Washington, Brandywine, and Germantown were all battles that Washington either directly led or played an important role in…and in each of these battles Washington’s forces were defeated. Despite this roster of tactical defeats, Washington brought many important characteristics to his military command. His ability to rally men under fire, his ability to sustain the Continental Army’s morale, his administrative talents, and his grasp of the larger strategic imperatives all made Washington the great general that history remembers and celebrates.
George Washington crossing the Delaware River (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
★ Washington had many close calls, but was never seriously wounded in battle
George Washington exhibited great steadiness and courage in battle and was frequently near the front lines during his many battles. At the Battle of Monongahela in 1755, Washington had two horses shot out from underneath him and his coat was pierced by four musket balls. At Kip’s Bay and the Battle of Princeton, Washington risked his own life when rushing to the front lines to rally his flagging troops.
George Washington at the Battle of Princeton (Yale University Art Gallery)
★ Washington is known as the “American Cincinnatus”
Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was a statesman and hero of the early Roman Republic. Chosen to lead when Rome was threatened by an invading army, he left his plow in the field to take command of the situation. Once Rome was safe, he gave up power and returned to his farm. Like Cincinnatus, Washington wanted to be a private citizen and farmer, but answered the call of his country. At the end of the Revolutionary War, Washington peacefully returned his commission as commander in chief of the Continental Army to Congress, thereby helping to confirm the principle of civilian control of the military.
★ Washington designed and oversaw the expansion
of Mount Vernon
The Mount Vernon home that George Washington inherited from his brother Lawrence was a much smaller affair than the home most people know today. Washington designed and oversaw two large expansions to his mansion while also directing many landscape improvements to his land.
★ Washington was an investor in a company that built a canal around the Great Falls of the Potomac
Washington believed that it was vital to the growing nation that the east and west be knitted more strongly together via commerce. Hoping to establish the Potomac River as the avenue of trade that would help to accomplish this goal, Washington helped found the Potomac Company in 1785. One of the major projects of the Potomac Company was the creation of a canal that would skirt the Great Falls of the Potomac, one of the largest and most ambitious civil engineering projects in America. The Potowmack Canal was finally completed in 1802, several years after Washington’s death, and it led a troubled existence until it was sold to the nearby Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Company in 1828.
★ Washington came to own tens of thousands of acres in North America
George Washington became one of the largest land holders in the United States at the time. Not only did Washington own 8,000 acres at Mount Vernon, but through numerous land transactions and land bounties, Washington owned more than 50,000 acres in the western portions of Virginia and what is now West Virginia, as well as in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Kentucky, and the Ohio country. These considerable acquisitions not only made Washington wealthy in terms of his land holdings, but also encouraged his strong interest in the westward expansion of the United States.
★ Washington was the first to sign the Constitution
As the President of the Constitutional Convention, George Washington was permitted to be the first to sign this important document.
★ Washington was unanimously elected President of the United States, twice
At this early stage in the development of the United States, presidents were selected solely/only through the vote of the Electoral College, not by popular vote. The 69 votes that Washington received in 1789, and the 132 he received in 1792 represented all of the available Electoral College votes, thereby making Washington the only president in United States history to have been unanimously elected.
★ Washington espoused the right of all Americans to follow their conscience in matters of religion
In regard to religion, Washington was generally private about his personal beliefs, but he was an active member of the Anglican (later Episcopal) Church for his entire life, and even served as a vestryman and church warden for many years in his local parish. Family members recalled him reading sermons aloud to them on Sunday afternoons. Both family members and former aides mentioned that he set aside time for prayer and Bible reading each day. One well-known report stated that Washington's nephew witnessed him doing personal devotions with an open Bible while kneeling, in both the morning and evening.
The Washington Family Bible (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)
Washington also firmly believed in the concept of religious liberty or freedom of conscience. During his lifetime, he attended services of multiple Christian denominations. As President, Washington wrote a letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, standing in favor of religious freedom, explaining: "It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens…May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants."
★ Washington never occupied the White House
George Washington was the only U.S. President who did not occupy the White House, which was not completed until after his death. During his two terms as president, the U.S. Capital was located first in New York and then in Philadelphia. George Washington played a large role, however, in the development of the new Federal City that was named after him, and in overseeing the design of both the Capitol Building and the White House.
US Half-Eagle coin from 1795 (Wikimedia Commons)
★ Washington’s presidency founded the United States Navy, established the nation’s official currency, created the State Department, and established the Supreme Court
As the first President of the United States, Washington quickly learned that the newly adopted Constitution only provided a framework for how the government would function. Moving quickly to fill in many important gaps, Washington signed into law the Judiciary Act of 1789 which established a six-member Supreme Court and the position of Attorney General. On July 27, 1789 Washington signed a bill authorizing the creation of a Department of Foreign Affairs (future State Department) and a Secretary of State. In 1792 Washington signed the Coinage Act that established the dollar as the official currency of the United States. And with his signature, Washington, through the Naval Act of 1794, authorized the construction of six frigates – thereby creating the United States Navy.
★ George Washington did not wear a wig
Even though wigs were fashionable, Washington kept his own hair, which he wore long and tied back in a queue, or ponytail. Washington did, however, powder his hair which was the custom of the time.
★ Washington helped establish a number of charitable organizations, schools, and colleges
Despite not having formal education, Washington was a strong supporter of education. Toward the end of the Revolution, he gave 50 guineas to Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, which was used to purchase scientific equipment. In his 1799 will, Washington left money for the support of a free school for poor and orphaned children in Alexandria, Virginia, and for Liberty Hall Academy, which later became Washington & Lee University. Washington also left money for the establishment of a national university within the Federal City (Washington DC), but this never came about.
★ Washington helped promote the use of mules in the United States
George Washington was instrumental in popularizing the mule in the United States. His study of agriculture convinced him that mules (the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse) were better suited to farm work because they were stronger and had more endurance than a horse. When he began breeding mules at Mount Vernon in the 1780s, using imported donkeys from Spain, Malta, and South America, he was proved right.
★ George Washington operated the largest distillery in America at its time
Towards the end of his life, Washington established a rye and corn whiskey distillery on his Dogue Run farm. In 1799, the year of Washington’s death, the distillery produced 10,942 gallons of whiskey – thereby making it the largest distillery in America at the time. Washington also was the only founding father to own and operate his own whiskey distillery.
View of George Washington’s reconstructed distillery at Mount Vernon (Rob Shenk)
★ Washington died on December 14, 1799 after taking ill following a ride around his farms
On Thursday, December 12, 1799 George Washington was out on horseback supervising farming activities during a wretched day filled with light snow, hail, and rain. The next day brought heavy snow, but despite having a cold and sore throat, he went out in the afternoon to mark some trees between the mansion and the Potomac River. After turning in for the night, Washington awoke in great discomfort and indicated that he was having trouble breathing. Despite the close attention paid him by Dr. James Craik and two other attending physicians, Washington’s condition worsened and between 10 and 11pm on the night of December 14, 1799, George Washington passed away. Modern doctors have indicated that the cause of death was probably acute epiglottitis.
★ Washington made provisions to free all his slaves in his will – the only slave-owning president to do so
Washington’s attitude toward slavery gradually changed as he grew older and especially as he fought for liberty in the American Revolution. In his will, he arranged to free those slaves belonging to him upon his wife’s death (about 123) and, as was required by law, his estate paid for the care of former Mount Vernon slaves for decades after his death. Washington is the only slave owning president who freed all of his slaves. The remaining slaves (153 people) at Mount Vernon belonged to the estate of Martha Washington’s first husband and were known as dower slaves. By law, Washington had no legal rights to free those individuals, who were inherited by Martha Washington’s descendants upon her death in 1802. Another 43 slaves, who were rented from a neighbor, were returned to their owner after George Washington’s death.
View of the New Tomb and George Washington’s sarcophagus at Mount Vernon (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
★ Washington was supposed to be buried beneath the U.S. Capitol, but lays in rest at Mount Vernon instead
In the design of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington DC, the central vault was built as the final resting place of George Washington. In his will, Washington specified that he wished to be buried in the family vault at Mount Vernon and that a new tomb should be constructed on his land. His heirs finally honored his wish, moving the bodies of over 20 members of the family, including George and Martha Washington, to the New Tomb in 1831. The vault at the U.S. Capitol remains empty to this day.
★ Martha Washington chose to burn all the letters that she received from George Washington
George Washington was quite thorough and meticulous in the preservation and organization of his official letters and papers. Unfortunately for historians, Martha Washington chose to protect the privacy of her relationship to George Washington by destroying the many letters that they wrote each other over 40 years of marriage. Only five pieces of correspondence between the two have survived: two letters from George Washington to Martha that were found behind a drawer in her desk; one letter introducing a New Englander to Martha Washington that survived because it was never received; and two small notes from Martha Washington to her husband, written as postscripts to letters from other members of the family, and thus were filed with her letters.