CASE 1—GETTING TO KNOW THE MAN BEHIND THE IMAGE

CASE 2—VIRGINIA ENVIRONMENT,PART I

CASE 3—VIRGINIA ENVIRONMENT, PART II

CASE 4—THE NORTHERN NECK

CASE 5—FAMILY BACKGROUND, PART I

CASE 6—FAMILY BACKGROUND, PART II

CASE 7—THE FRENCH AND INDIAN WAR, PART I

CASE 8—THE FRENCH AND INDIAN WAR, PART II

CASE 9—PLANTER, POLITICIAN, AND PATRIOT

CASE 10—THE MAN, PART I

CASE 11—THE MAN, PART II

CASE 12—THE MAN, PART III

CASE 13—THE MAN, PART IV

CASE 14—THE MAN, PART V

CASE 15—DEATH AND APOTHEOSIS

CASE 16—PRESERVING THE MEMORY

CLEMENTS LIBRARY

George Washington: getting to know the man behind the image

This website is a record of the exhibit, as it appeared in the display cases of the William L. Clements Library. Each page features an image of a single display case and its contents, with details of the artifacts and the accompanying text below. Please click on the images to view enlargements and use the "back" button on your browser to return.

Copyrights to the contents of this exhibit, both text and images, are held by the Clements Library. Permission for use and reproduction must be obtained in advance from the director of the Clements Library.

Case 5—Family Background, Part I

 

George Washington was a fourth-generation Virginian, although his family name was a relative latecomer to the colony in comparison to those of many of its leading families. The immigrant, George's great-grandfather John Washington, arrived in 1657. Washington's ancestors on his mother's side of the family had been in Virginia earlier. In contrast, Thomas Jefferson was a descendant of not only Jamestown's pioneers but even Pocahontas! Washington's forebears in England were more affluent and better educated than the typical immigrant.
Robert Washington, George's great-great-great-great grandfather, signer of the 1602 document displayed here, owned Sulgrave Manor in Northhamptonshire. His great--great-grandfather was an Oxford graduate and Anglican clergyman. The family perpetuated its British connections well beyond most American families. The immigrant ancestor John and his son Lawrence (George's grandfather) continued to own land in both Virginia and England for half a century after coming to America. George's father and his two older half-brothers were both sent to a school in England for their education. Lawrence Washington (George's eldest brother) married Sally Fairfax. The Fairfaxes were the most aristocratic British family resident in the American colonies, well connected and familiar with the latest London fashions, manners, and ways of thinking. George Washington spent much of his time in their company, and he clearly admired and emulated their lifestyle in later years.
In a letter written near the end of his life to an English genealogist, Washington claimed that he knew little and cared little about his English ancestry. He may not have, but he had sufficient family pride to have a Washington coat of arms imprinted on his bookplate in 1771, displayed here next to a similar bookplate, of slightly earlier date, for a distant English cousin. He employed a seal bearing his family coat of arms on many of his personal letters, and he had a large wooden carving of the crest on the wall at Mount Vernon.
By the terms of this 1740 deed, made just as he was about to embark on the Cartegena expedition, Lawrence Washington sold to his father two tracts of land that later became part of Mount Vernon. One of the properties, approximately 200 acres, was on the Potomac, contiguous to Mount Vernon. It was a valuable piece of land, including the landing for a ferry to Maryland and the best fishing grounds in the area. The original 5,000 acre patent to Mount Vernon had been issued to John Washington the immigrant and to Nicholas Spencer, Speaker of the House of Burgesses. Spencer was a relative of the Culpepper family, and after an illustrious career in Virginia, he returned to England. The Washingtons and Spencer heirs divided the tract in 1690, and beginning in the 1730s, the Washingtons began buying the Spencer portions of the original tract. In 1738, Lawrence Washington purchased this property, or most of it, from the Spencers, and Augustine deeded his half of the original grant to Lawrence. Perhaps the expectation was that Lawrence would develop the larger estate and his father would build a neighboring home on the former Spencer land transferred by this deed. Whatever they had in mind, Augustine's death in 1743 changed their plans. Augustine left this property to his infant son Charles in his will, and it was sold to a Capt. John Posey. Capt. Posey, described by one of the Washington family historians as "an amiable, shiftless, irresolute man with a Micawber-like belief that his business troubles would soon take a favorable turn" was George Washington's nearest neighbor. They hunted together, and Washington lent him money that Posey was never able to pay back. At one point, Posey wrote Washington from Maryland, suggesting that a hope of solvency had materialized in the form of a possible marriage with an old woman. "She has Large sums cash by her and Prittey good Est[ate]. She is thick as she is high-and she gits drunk at least three or four a week.. . has a Valiant Sperritt when Drunk." The marriage seems to have taken place, and Washington conveyed his congratulations. It did not solve Posey's financial troubles. Washington finally acquired the tract at a bankruptcy sale in 1769 and called it Ferry Farm, part of the present Mount Vernon estate today.

 

In today's world, the teenage George Washington would be on file with the county Family Services Department as a child "at risk." His father died when he was age eleven. He apparently did not get along well with his mother (Augustine's second wife), who was a very demanding and difficult person. They were never close throughout their lives. George was sent to live with his older half-brother Augustine from ages eleven to sixteen, then to his oldest half-brother Lawrence. None of these conditions were unusual in the colonial period. Medicine remained a primitive science, and longevity was particularly short in the South and on the frontier, where malaria was commonplace, weakening immune systems and causing premature death. Washington's grandfather lived only to 36, his father to 49, his brother Lawrence to 36. A significant proportion of women in colonial times died in childbirth, and it was not unusual that children grew up with stepmothers or stepfathers, who often were not particularly affectionate. In the case of George Washington, the emotional damage that had been inflicted by these family dislocations seems to have matured him quickly beyond his years. By age sixteen he was very self-reliant and independent. His lifelong reserve, his tendency to keep his own counsel, his exceptional emphasis upon appearances and detail, all may have had their origins, at least in part, in the early loss of his father and the distant, unaffectionate relationship with his mother.

  There is question regarding the authenticity of this likeness of George Washington's mother. No portrait exists of his father.
NEXT CASE