For a decade, from1748 until 1758, George Washington spent more nights in Winchester than any other place besides his home.1 Washington spent the most formative period of his life in Winchester. There he learned geography and topography, raised, commanded and supplied troops (including troublesome militia), built and managed a fort, and achieved political office. Washington would also draw upon lessons learned in all of these experiences as war leader and President.
Originally named "Frederick Town" at its founding in the 1730s, Winchester is the County Seat of Frederick. Lying north-northwest of the confluence of Opequon Creek and the Shenandoah River along a trail extending southwest up the Shenandoah Valley, the site was originally occupied by a Shawnee village. First sighted by Governor Alexander Spotswood in 1716, the northern (or lower) Valley attracted German and Scotch-Irish settlers from the 1720s. Acting on a land grant from Thomas, 6th Lord Fairfax, James Wood established a courthouse and renamed the town Winchester in 1743.
Washington first visited Winchester on March 16, 1748, while on a surveying party led by George William Fairfax (the son of Lord Fairfax's cousin and agent William Fairfax), describing the experience in a Journal of My Journey Over the Mountains. At the time Winchester was comprised of the courthouse, a jail, an Anglican church, and what one observer described as "about 60 houses, which are rather poorly built."2
Washington surveyed the region between November 1749 and May 1752, becoming familiar with the lower Shenandoah Valley in the process. This knowledge persuaded Governor Robert Dinwiddie to send Washington to warn the French to vacate the Ohio River valley in 1753, a demand they refused. France’s fortification of the region led to open hostilities the following year. Washington was commissioned Lieutenant Colonel of the Virginia Regiment, and used Winchester as his headquarters and supply base throughout the conflict.
After surviving the disastrous Braddock expedition, Washington was raised to the position of Colonel and commander in chief of Virginia forces on the western frontier in August 1755. He returned to Winchester to take command on October 10, and was not impressed, calling the town "this vile post" and complained of the "obstantcy and dastardliness" of the Scotch-Irish settlers of the area.3 Nevertheless, Winchester was a vital link in a defensive chain intended to counteract French forts like Duquesne and defend settlers from Native American raids.
Washington constructed Fort Loudoun on a rise north of town between May 1756 and September 1757 as a half acre square redoubt with four diamond-shaped bastions armed with twenty-four cannon. Washington made the fort his residence in December 1756 and remained there until he left Winchester permanently in December 1758. That year, after a previous unsuccessful attempt in 1755, Washington was elected to represent Frederick County in the Virginia House of Burgesses. He was reelected in 1761, despite having relocated to Mount Vernon two years earlier.
Curtis F. Morgan Jr., Ph.D.
Professor of History
Lord Fairfax Community College
1. Garland R. Quarles, George Washington and Winchester, Virginia 1748-1758: A Decade of Preparation for Responsibilities to Come, Vol. VIII (Winchester, VA: Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society, 1974), 43.
Anderson, Fred. Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766. London: Faber and Faber, 2001.
Freeman, Douglas Southall. George Washington. Vols 1-2. NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948.
George Washington and the Virginia Backcountry, ed. Warren R. Hofstra. Madison, WI: Madison House, 1998.
Hofstra, Warren R. The Planting of New Virginia: Settlement and Landscape in the Shenandoah Valley. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2004.
________ and Robert D. Mitchell, "Town and Country in Backcountry Virginia: Winchester and the Shenandoah Valley." Journal of Southern History 59:4 (November 1993): 619-646.
Lewis, Thomas A. For King and Country: The Maturing of George Washington 1748-1760. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.
Morton, Frederic. The Story of Winchester in Virginia: The Oldest Town in the Shenandoah Valley. Rpt. 1925. Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 2007.
Quarles, Garland R. George Washington and Winchester, Virginia 1748-1758: A Decade of Preparation for Responsibilities to Come. Vol. VIII, Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society Papers. Winchester, VA: Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society, 1974.
Washington, George. Journal of My Journey Over the Mountains, ed. J.M. Toner (Albany, NY: Joel Munsell Sons, Publishers, 1892).