The Young Executive

George Washington and Mr. Fairfax Take On a Contract to Survey Land

In the Spring of 1748, when he was 16 years old, George Washington joined a surveying mission into the Shenandoah Valley and the South Branch Potomac River, as was his trade, in the company of George Fairfax, Esq., a dear family friend and mentor. He kept along the way a journal in which he shared what he considered any remarkable happenstances as well as notes of his work and business.

               Early on, a few days into the journey, his company stopped at a place. Most of his companions being woodsman, but not he, camped the night outdoors while he took a room at the cabin on the site. Never again on this journey did he act so contrarily to the rest of his group who possessed a wisdom that comes from experience, for he laid that night on what was a bed of straw with no sheets but a threadbare blanket covered by twice its own weight in ticks, fleas, and lice. Had they not worked so hard that day and all into the night, he remarked, he would have gotten no sleep at all in that room there. But he did, and the next several places where they sojourned were nice and, he tells us, had clean or at least tolerable sheets.

               The trip of course covered rural territory but was not always so rugged. Many aplace they stopped and took in the beauty of nature: a grove of sugar trees, small streams flowing down the foothills of North Mountain and adjoining the Shenandoah River, and the meadows and lea along its banks. At one point even, for two days, they passed time in leisure with a group of Native American Indians. In a curious note, he mentions that they had just come from making war but only brought back one scalp. His party traded them some alcohol and so they were welcomed to join in that night’s ceremonial war dance, which was like a circle around a fire led by a speaker, a deerskin drum, rattlers, and a dance which involved jumping and running around the circle in a way directed by that ringleading speaker.

               When they reached their destination around the Southern Branch of the Potomac, they began their intended business of surveying lots for the new grant-holders who had bid them. Aside from work, not much else was done but hunting. One morning, young George Washington got up and shot twice at some wild turkeys, but missed, then went back to camp to start the day’s work. But nearly every day someone shot at a turkey and he made note of this.

               He particularly thought it noteworthy every time someone did manage to kill a wild turkey and the nights they got to sleep in a house rather than a tent.

Ink sketch of young George Washington surveying the area around the Popes Creek plantation.

               One day, April 9th, 1748, a Saturday while the surveyors went to work, he and Mr. Fairfax stayed back at their tents and awaited a shipment of resupply. This, with the fact that on an occasion Mr. Fairfax borrowed 5 shillings from the 16-year-old Washington, is evident that—owing to his aristocratic upbringing—young George was as much a junior executive of the company as a land surveyor.

               To give an idea of how much they could work, one day, starting in the morning, they surveyed 1,500 acres of land by 1 p.m. And, quite possibly, he led this surveying team as Mr. Fairfax was elsewhere.

               He also remarked that they saw a rattlesnake on their return trip home while having got lost some few miles off course on the wrong pass between the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains; this being the only rattlesnake they saw on the trip.

               After what was a month and two days of travel and business, the job was completed and the party returned home safe. As for himself, young Mr. Washington returned to his brother’s home, Mount Vernon, which was named after one Admiral Vernon whom his brother had come to admire while fighting under his command during the War of Earl Jenkins’ Ear.

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