While Augustine Washington remains a shadowy figure in history, there are several things we do know about the father of the father of our country.

Augustine Washington. (Wikimedia)

1. Augustine was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, in 1694.

In an area known as the Northern Neck of Virginia, Augustine was born to Mildred Warner and Capt. Lawrence Washington, a justice of the peace and a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses.

2. His father, Lawrence, died at the age of 38, when Augustine was only 3 or 4.

Lawrence perpetuated a grim tradition of Washington men dying young. This tradition would continue with his son Augustine, who would die when his son George Washington was 11 years old.

3. Augustine lived in England for a few years during his childhood.

After Lawrence’s death, Augustine’s mother Mildred married a British ship captain, and the family relocated to Whitehaven on the west coast of England. Mildred, however, died not long after their arrival. Augustine’s stepfather sent him to the Appleby Grammar School in the English Lake District, where he received a classical education.

Ensnared in legal proceedings about their inheritance, Augustine and his two siblings were shipped back to Virginia by court order after 2 or 3 years in England.

View of Whitehaven, circa 1738. (Wikimedia)

4. Like his son, Augustine was known for his physical strength.

At six feet tall, Augustine is remembered for his backwoods brawn, a trait he would pass on to his famous son. An account from the time describes how Augustine could “raise up and place in a wagon a mass of iron that two ordinary men could barely raise from the ground.” Interestingly, it’s also noted that Augustine balanced this formidable strength with a mild-mannered demeanor—a combination of traits which his son George would also exhibit.1

5. He was named a justice of the peace and sat on the county court.

Augustine was apparently very community-minded, a trait he shared with his forebears and would pass along to his son George.

6. Augustine was a hard-driving businessman.

Starting with 1,100 acres of inherited land and another 1,750 from the dowry of his first wife, Jane Butler, Augustine was a tobacco farmer before shifting his focus to iron ore.

After buying properties rich in iron ore near Fredericksburg, Virginia, he traveled to England in 1729 to work out a deal with the Principio Company, which owned iron operations in Virginia and Maryland. He started an ironworks on Accokeek Creek in Stafford County, Virginia, and in 1736, negotiated a 1/12th ownership share of the Principio Company.

According to Washington biographer Ron Chernow, “Having acquired nearly fifty slaves and ten thousand acres of land, Augustine Washington had planted his family firmly among the regional gentry.”2

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7. When Augustine’s first wife died, he was left to care for three small children.

Shortly after the death of his first wife, Jane Butler, Augustine remarried Mary Johnson Ball. Pious and headstrong, Mary would have a formative influence on the couple’s firstborn son, George.

8. He very well might've grown cherry trees.

Augustine plays a part in one of America’s most enduring legends. After damaging one of his father’s cherry trees at the family property at Ferry Farm, young George bravely confesses to his father, “I cannot tell a lie … I did cut it with my hatchet.”

Today, this story is believed to be a fabrication, invented by one of Washington’s first biographers Mason Locke Weems. But could there be a (cherry) seed of truth to the tale?

According to Dave Muraca, vice president of Museum Content and Archaeology at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, there is no specific mention of cherry trees in the surviving 18th-century documents regarding Ferry Farm.

However, orchards are first mentioned at Ferry Farm in 1729, just in time for Washington’s birth three years later. Also, macro-botanical analysis from Ferry Farm’s root cellar fill, which dates to the Washington occupancy, yielded the remains of cherry pits.

"Father, I Can Not Tell a Lie: I Cut the Tree," engraving by John C. McRae, 1867. (LOC)

9. Augustine directed the building of the early structure that would grow into the Mount Vernon Mansion we know today.

The original house at the core of the present-day Mansion was built for Washington’s father, Augustine Washington. Around 1734, Augustine brought his second wife and children to what was then called Little Hunting Creek plantation. George Washington was about two years old at the time.

Dendrochronology, or the use of tree ring analysis to determine relative dating, shows the trees used to frame this section of the house were cut in 1734. The original house likely consisted of four rooms and a central passage on the first floor and a garret.

The family lived at Little Hunting Creek for a few years before moving to Ferry Farm, located across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg.

Conjectural sketch of the original 1734 house. (MVLA)

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10. Augustine’s death foreshadowed Washington’s own death in 1799.

On April 12, 1743, Augustine died at the age of 48. Much like his son 56 years later, Augustine fell ill and died after riding out in a storm.

"Life of George Washington, The Christian death." Painted by Stearns; lith. by Régnier, imp. Lemercier, Paris. (Library of Congress)

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11. Augustine’s death greatly shaped George’s, and therefore America’s, future in several ways.

  • While his older half-brothers were sent to grammar school in England, George was deprived of this opportunity after Augustine died. Denied a classical education, George became intent on self-improvement and discipline—but he would always harbor an insecurity about his lack of formal education.
  • Augustine’s death required George to grow up fast. As the oldest of Augustine’s second set of children, George suddenly found himself in a position of responsibility for his younger siblings. The 11-year-old developed an early skill for carrying hefty burdens.
  • George suddenly found himself to be the owner of several parcels of land, as well as 10 enslaved people. Though he could not claim his inheritance until reaching maturity, his father’s death undoubtedly benefitted George’s economic prospects.
  • Without a father figure, George was forced to look elsewhere for mentors, which included his half-brother Lawrence and the influential Fairfax family—both of which would have a profound influence on the direction of his life.

 

Footnotes

1. Wiencek, Henry. An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. United States, Thorndike Press, 2004. Page 31.

2. Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York, Penguin Press, 2010. Page 8.

Washington's Family

Although George Washington never had any biological children, he did have a rather large family, comprised of his many siblings, step-children, and step-grandchildren.

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