Celebrating 17 years

The Frontier Surveyor

All of the descriptions and statements made by George Washington and other personalities in this article are as they appear in the original journals and writings from which they are taken, including the grammar and punctuation used at the time.

Just as George Washington was entering his sixteenth year an arrangement was made whereby he and his friend and companion, George William Fairfax, accompanied beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains a party of surveyors which Lord Fairfax was sending out to prepare his lands for tenantry. So far as avail- able records disclose Washington received no compensation for his services on this journey, if indeed he was expected to per- form any. Indications are that it was somewhat of a lark for him, arranged doubtless by his gracious and wise friend, Lord Fairfax. More than any other person, except his mother and his half- brothers, Lawrence and Augustine, Lord Fairfax influenced and determined the early career of George Washington. Before 1748 they had met at Belvoir, and Fairfax had become in- terested in Washington's efforts to learn surveying, in his friends, especially young George William Fairfax, and in their sports and athletic achievements. Here young Washington doubtless learned from Fairfax himself of the history and conventions of the Old World and received first impressions of the comparatively greater opportunities of the New World. In any event, Fairfax's concern for his young protege was such that he did not hesitate to advise his mother regarding his schooling and other matters pertaining to his welfare.

Through their common interest in the Northern Neck, Washington as a surveyor and Fairfax as owner, the friendship thus formed ripened into an arrangement beneficial and agree- able to both. As finally determined, these lands included all the territory between the Rappahannock and the Potomac rivers, aggregating more than five million acres.

In 1649 Charles II had granted this vast estate to Lord Culpeper and others as a refuge for Cavaliers, but Culpeper's son, the gover- nor of Virginia, later acquired all the ungranted claims thereto, his father's by inheritance and the others by purchase. His agents managed his estate so badly, however, that repeated efforts were made to dispossess him in the public interest. Consequently when Fairfax inherited his Virginia lands, they were under a ban capable of varied uses in the hands of avaricious lawyers and designing politicians.

George Washington, frontier surveyor Washington cooks meat by holding it over the fire on forked sticks

Complicating this situation Germans and Scotch-Irish were then pushing into that part of the Northern Neck west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Ignoring the Fairfax claims, some came as squatters, while others purchased lands from rival claimants, notably Yost Hite. Accordingly Fairfax petitioned the King to determine his rights in the matter, and in 1735 he came to Virginia to give his interests there personal attention. He remained two years. In this time he was able to make a satisfactory arrangement with the Virginia Assembly, which mitigated somewhat the objections to his feudal holdings and brought them into greater favor with the English Privy Council. As a result, but not until 1745, the King confirmed the validity of the Fairfax title to the whole of the Northern Neck but on condition that all legal grants made to others therein prior to that date be respected and confirmed. To determine the legality of a grant to Yost Hite, in 1736 Fairfax instituted a suit which was not finally adjudicated until several years after his death.

The legality of his holdings having been confirmed, Lord Fairfax lost no time in taking possession of them. To this end, in 1746, a company of surveyors ran the famous "Fairfax Boundary Line" which connected the head springs of the Rap- pahannock and the North Branch of the Potomac rivers. In the same year they planted at the latter "Fairfax Stone." The following year Lord Fairfax emigrated to America and after a sojourn at Belvoir during which he was in touch with his western interests, he moved permanently to "Greenway Court," a hunting lodge previously built for him but under his direction, on a site about eleven miles from the present city of Winchester, Virginia. To this day the approach of this lodge is indicated by a white post planted on the public highway at a place known as "White Post."

In this retreat this strange man, a tart old bachelor, lived a life that savored somewhat of the American frontiersman of his day. He became a justice of the peace with authority in each county of his proprietary domain, and in 1754, under a commission from Governor Dinwiddie, acted as county lieu- tenant of militia. As Greenway Court was quite adequate to his needs, his proposed feudal mansion remained only a dream, its would-be lord living instead in the utmost simplicity. Each year he imported new clothes of the latest model but, unlike his protege, George Washington, Fairfax did not wear them. A titular aristocrat, being the only resident English peer in Amer- ica, he lived the life of a democrat; an alleged Tory, there is no record of his having raised his voice in defense of English royalty.

Consequently till his death, December 9, 1781, Fairfax was accorded all the privileges of a patriot Virginian, honored and respected even in the bitterest days of the Revolution. Upon being informed of the surrender of Lord Cornwallis at York- town, he is reported to have said: "Take me to bed, Joe. It is time for me to die," a statement capable of more than one interpretation. Apropos of this, let it be remembered that Lord Fairfax, the Virginian, was a direct descendant of Lord Fairfax, the Parliamentary leader who, in 1646, vainly commanded Colonel Henry Washington to surrender into his hands Worcester, a Royalist stronghold. The dust of the sixth Lord Fair- fax reposes in a crypt beneath Christ Church, Winchester, Virginia.

Even before the ownership of the unappropriated lands in the Northern Neck had been definitely determined, Lord Fair- fax had made known his desire to open, to settle, and to develop them. As the first surveying party sent out for these purposes had experienced no mishaps or unusual adventures, young Washington was allowed to accompany the party going beyond the mountains in the spring of 1748. This party was in charge of James Genn, the county surveyor of Prince William County and a man of many adventures in the wilderness. Accompanied by young Washington, rodmen, chainmen, and other attendants, Genn set out March 11. Going by way of Ashby's Gap and Greenway Court he made his first important stop on the South Branch of the Potomac where that stream intersected the "Fairfax Boundary" which had been determined two years pre- viously. Washington kept a diary of his experiences and adventures.

Lord Fairfax Lord Fairfax

On March 30, after making a few surveys on or near the Shenandoah River, where they were delayed by swollen streams, over which they swam their horses and conveyed themselves in canoes, the party reached its destination and began its "Intended Business of Laying off Lots," which was not allowed to become monotonous. Hardly a day passed that someone of the party did not kill a wild turkey or two. They cooked meat by holding it over the fire on forked sticks and used bark for dishes. They had scarcely become settled before a "bolstering" night wind carried away their tent, making it necessary for the entire party "to Lie ye Latter part of ye night without covering," drenched by the rain. A few days later they were surprised by "a great Company of People Men Women and Children," who came to inspect their strange operations and to attend them "through ye Woods."

Despite their solicitude for his welfare and their efforts to help him, Washington's first impressions of these people-- "Pennsylvania Dutch"-- were not very favorable. Fresh from his comfortable living quarters, his wholesome and generous repasts, and his formal and proper contacts, he had not yet developed those traits which, when acquired later, permitted him to go to school anywhere and to learn as long as he lived. He was only a boy, and these strange people apparently annoyed him, for, said he, "they would never speak English but when spoken to they speak all Dutch," which, together with their "Antick tricks," led him to conclude that they were ''as Ignorant a Set of People as the Indians." It was not with great regret there- fore that the party, April 6, prepared to leave "ye. Branch." Going by way of Henry Van Meter's, they came the next day to Peter Cassey's, where Washington had his first night's rest "in a House since I came to ye Branch." Six days later they were at home.

In other ways than those just indicated, this initiation to the wilderness prepared Washington for the trying ordeals which were before him. March 23, while sojourning with Colonel Thomas Cresap at Old Town on the Potomac at the mouth of the South Branch, he first saw wild Indians near their native haunts, when a band of thirty odd warriors stopped there. They had only one scalp and seemed somewhat dejected; but, when given "Liquor," their spirits revived, and they executed a war dance which Washington described in these words: "They clear a Large Circle and make a Great Fire in y. middle then seats themselves around it y. Speaker makes a grand speech telling them in what Manner they are to Daunce after he has finished y. best Dauncer jumps & up as one awaked out of a Sleep and runs and Jumps about y. Ring in a most comical Manner he is fol- lowed by y. Rest then begins there Musicians to Play ye. Musick is a Pot half [full] of Water with a Deerskin Stretched over it as tight as it can and a goard with some Shott in it to Rattle and a Piece of an horses Tail tied to it to make it look fine y. one keeps Rattling and y. other Drumming all y. while y. others is Dauncing."

More disillusioning was the knowledge which this journey brought to Washington of the actual living conditions of people of his own race. Horrible as their language must have been to one of his contacts, their manner of living was worse; but it enabled him to see for the first time how the other half of the world lived. As no improvement can be made upon his naive manner of recording this discovery, Washington will speak for himself: "we got our Supper and was lighted into a Room and I not being so good a Woodsman as ye rest of my Company striped myself very orderly and went in to ye Bed as they called it when to my Surprize I found it to be be nothing but a Little Straw-Matted together without Sheets or any thing else but only one thread Bear blanket with double its Weight of Vermin such as Lice Fleas &c I was glad to get up (as soon as y. Light was carried from us) I put on my Cloths and Lay as my Com- panions. Had we not been very tired I am sure we should not have slep'd much that night I made a Promise not to Sleep so from that time forward chusing rather to sleep in y. open Air before a fire as will appear hereafter ." Two days later he reached Frederick Town [Winchester], where he found his baggage and bathed himself, thus getting "Rid of y. Game we had catched y. Night before."

The novelties and vicissitudes of these experiences were not their only important features. True to the traditions of the man in the making, Washington never lost sight of the beauties of the country through which he passed, particularly its rich lands. As he approached his Lordship's quarters on his way out, he was struck by the "beautiful Groves of Sugar Trees" and spent "ye. best part of y. Day in admiring ye. Trees and richness of ye. Land."

The confidence and hope in the expanding West thus inspired, together with the example of his benefactor, were doubtless in a measure responsible for Wash- ington's decision at this time to invest in western lands. Al- though the sum then expended was not large, it was the first step in the acquisition of that vast acreage later owned by Wash- ington in the West. The payment was an initial one on a tract of 550 acres located on Bullskin Creek in Frederick County, near Greenway Court.

Elated by the thrills that came to most normal persons of the earlier period of American history because of the con- sciousness of being landowners in their own rights, Washington nevertheless was not satisfied. His interest in surveying continued to appeal to Lord Fairfax who shortly after Wash- ington's initial journey beyond the Blue Ridge gave him more or less regular employment as a surveyor. But preoccupation in this did not keep him from using the library at Greenway Court; at odd intervals he also studied military tactics; he lost few opportunities to take a turn at the broadsword with soldiers who visited Major Washington at Mount Vernon; and at no time did he neglect his mother who was as accessible from Greenway Court as from Mount Vernon. During the surveying Seasons of 1749-1751 he was in the field, far and near, incidentally increasing his knowledge of and acquaintance among the newly arrived settlers, as his business opened their doors to him. Consequently, it has been truthfully said: "the engaging mixture in him of man and boy, must have become familiar to everybody worth knowing throughout all the Northern Neck.”

In November, 1749, he wrote of his experiences on the frontier; “since you receid my Letter in October Last I have not sleep’d above three Nights or four in a bed but after walking a good deal all the Day lay down before the fire upon a Little Hay Straw Fodder or bairskin whichever is to be had with Man Wife and Children like a Parcel of Dogs or Catts and Happy’s he that gets the Birth nearest the fire there's nothing Would make it it pass of [f] tolerably but a good Reward a Dubbleloon is my constant gain every Day that the Weather will permit my going out and sometime Six Pistoles ...

Meanwhile young Washington graduated from the school of experience, and, strange as it may seem, the documentary evidence thereof was conferred by William and Mary College. Through its charter that institution was given the office of surveyor general of Virginia, which carried with it the right to appoint all county surveyors and to retain one-sixth of all fees collected for their services in laying off new lands. The college took its rights and privileges in this matter seriously, all surveyors being appointed by its faculty, usually after a preliminary examination. After only a little more than one year of practical experience Washington, July 20, 1749, passed the required tests and was duly licensed as a county surveyor!

Shortly thereafter, July 20, 1749, Washington was made surveyor of Culpeper County, Virginia, at an annual salary of approximately fifty pounds. Thus at the age of seventeen he became a public official. Before entering upon the discharge of his duties, "he took the usual oaths to His Majesty's person and government, and took and subscribed to the adjuration oath and test, and then took the oath of surveyor." Fortunately the duties of the office did not occupy him completely, and he continued, from time to time, in the employ of Lord Fairfax and others, making his headquarters at Winchester, where he had an office which he later used as a military headquarters!

Washington's professional career was temporarily interrupted in 175 I, when, at the age of nineteen, it became his duty and privilege to accompany his half-brother, Lawrence, to Barbadoes in a quest for health. Never robust, Lawrence's constitution had suffered during those long months spent in the torrid South with Admiral Vernon's fever-stricken fleet, and a fatal consumption had fastened itself upon him. Neither a trip to England nor to the waters of Berkeley Springs, to which George accompanied him, brought relief, and his physicians ordered a sojourn in a tropical climate. George, whom Lawrence rence loved and trusted, was asked to accompany him on what proved to be the only journey of the former beyond his native land. As if it had been a request from his mother, he consented, thus entering a new field of service generally conceded to belong to women of the most delicate and considerate qualities.

Upon his return from Barbadoes Washington was engaged professionally on several occasions. During the latter part of March, 1752, he undertook a surveying expedition of a month's duration along the waters of Lost River, the Bullskin, Capon River, Dillon's Run, and other streams. The following spring found him again on the frontier making surveys in what are now Hardy, Hampshire, and Jefferson counties, West Virginia. In January, April, and August, 1753, he made trips to Frederick County, apparently in connection with matters related to his profession, but there is meager evidence of surveys which he made that year. Although his short professional career soon came to a close, his journals and papers enumerate over two hundred people for whom he made surveys or transacted busi- ness during his four years as a surveyor on the frontier.

Lawrence Washington's death, July 26, 1752, had, in fact, changed the course of George's life, putting “a final term to his youth," and bringing him into man's responsibilities in advance of his years. Before setting out for Barbadoes, Lawrence had arranged to transfer to George his place in the militia and had obtained for him the promise of a commission. Governor Dinwiddie, newly arrived in Virginia, kept this promise by dividing Virginia into four military districts and assigning one of them to young Washington with the rank of adjutant of militia. This is was not only a tribute to the deceased Lawrence, but was a recognition of George's accomplishments as an engineer. At first, November, 1752, he was assigned to the "Southern District" composed of counties south of the James River, but November, 1753, he was given the adjutancy of the Northern Neck which embraced his home.

In private affairs also Lawrence's death effected a great change in his half-brother's plans. By Lawrence's will, confirming a provision of their father's will, George became residulary legatee of Mount Vernon, in case Lawrence's only surviving child died. As this child, Sarah, survived her father only few weeks, George came shortly into possession of his brother’s estate, except for a life interest belonging to his sister-in-law who married George Lee and accepted an annual allowance tobacco in lieu of formal possession. Thus, just as he was rounding twenty, George Washington became a large landholder in his own right. Moreover, many things other than his profession demanded attention. Most important of all, he was the executor of his brother's estate; and his mother's affairs could not be neglected. It was at this time that he sojourned at his mother's home, surveyed lands for his brother-in-law, Fielding Lewis, and supervised home affairs, possibly with a view to taking over, the following year, the estates which his father had bequeathed to him on the Rappahannock River.

Despite these forced changes, Washington remained a surveyor and an engineer. Had his brother lived, George would doubtless have continued in the active practice of his profession and would have spent more time upon the frontier. As it was, these experiences rounded out his character, heightened is realistic objectives, and perfected his efficiency and method. His "Book of Surveys" shows his extreme care for detail and is considerable skill. Many of his surveys still exist, unquestioned as to their accuracy.

Although Washington's vocation was not the first choice of his parents, his brothers, or himself, it is doubtful whether he could have chosen one that would have fitted him better for the course before him. The hardships and dangers that he encountered in surveying a virgin forest wilderness of swamps, rivers, and mountains, were comparable to those one would now encounter on a journey to the heart of Africa or on the plains of Manchuria, and they fitted him for still other adventures upon the frontier and in command of armed forces. In addition to informing him regarding the extreme hardships and ever-present dangers besetting the scattered and isolated pioneers residing beyond the mountains and on the outskirts of other settlements, begetting patience and confidence, Wash- ington's experiences in surveying taught self-reliance and re- sourcefulness. Thus he was able to combine the functions of military leader and executive with those of surveyor and architect. For instance, while assembling and rescuing the shattered remnants of Forbes's army, he did actual construction work on Fort Pitt, and tradition has it that he had previously used his own blacksmith to aid and hasten the construction of Fort Loudoun, near Winchester.

Throughout his life Washington made frequent use of the chain and the compass. As previously indicated, they served him well as a military engineer. Because of the knowledge thus gained, he appreciated the value of maps and charts to the armies of the Revolution and secured the appointment of Robert Erskine as the first geographer of the army. His knowledge of surveying was of material benefit in the numerous enterprises with which he later became associated. For instance, he aided L'Enfant in laying out the grounds for the Federal Capital. After retiring from the presidency Washington made a number of surveys, and as close to his death as November, 1799, he surveyed some of his own lands south of Potomac Falls, mak- ing his own notes and transcribing them with the care which he gave to his work while in the employ of Lord Fairfax.

More important still, as has been truthfully said: "Washington’s observations [as a surveyor] ...strengthened and deepened his conviction that landownership was the most important factor of colonial development." As a consequence he early became a landowner in his own right and added to his landed possessions, rarely parting with any, until well along in life. His familiarity with Lord Fairfax's large holdings and his con- contacts with numerous smaller owners and their rivalries only confirmed the fact that "landownership seemed the most important thing in the daily life of the gentlemen around him." It was therefore with real zest and enthusiasm that he entered upon the next phase of his life, that of asserting England's own- ship to the Ohio Valley.