George Washington, Surveyor (1732-1799)

George Washington was a man of incredible honor, courage, and discipline. He was a warrior, a gentleman, and one who showed personal restraint of a manner such as rarely seen among mortal men. He is truly the father of our republic. Without him, and (I believe) the hand of Divinity, the United States would never have been born.

Young George Washington

Young George Washington


With no existing portraits of Washington before the age of 40, Mount Vernon convened a team of experts who used imaging, documents, clothing and likenesses of Washington to create life-size models of him as a 19-year-old surveyor, a 45-year-old general and a 57-year-old president. The process of making these models is the subject of the first gallery. These life-size models are displayed in three of the 16 galleries of the Education Center.  [“George Washington, We Hardly Knew Ye; Mount Vernon Introduces 3-Dimensional Man,” The Washington Times 5 Oct. 2006]

He was born in 1732 on a small, struggling tobacco farm in Virginia. His father died when Washington was 11, and he had to work to help the family make ends meet. As a young boy, he also had to memorize more than 100 rules of conduct devised by French Catholic monks, such as “Speak not when you should hold your peace”; “Always submit your judgment to others with modesty”; “Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any”; “Let your conversation be without malice or envy”; “When you speak of God or His attributes, let it be seriously”; “Let your recreations be manful, not sinful”; and “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.” He didn’t forget these rules or outgrow them. They were roles for life, not just about common courtesy, but about developing moral character and moral discipline.

By age 15, Washington was working as a professional surveyor far beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains. The wilderness had a profound impact on him. It tested his mettle and endurance, forced him to improvise to meet unexpected challenges, and opened wide new vistas in his imagination. He was filled with the restless longing of the pioneer and, if it were not for his family obligations, he undoubtedly would have become a woodsman and explorer like his contemporary, Daniel Boone.  [George Roche, “George Washington’s Legacy,” USA Today (Society for the Advancement of Education) May 1999: 59]

Washington's Survey Notes in His Own Hand

Washington's Survey Notes in His Own Hand

Whereas today’s students often learn only enough to pass an exam, George Washington endeavored to learn everything he could. He strained to learn not just the elements but also the details of the subjects of his reading and the meaning of their experiences. During his first mission to the military front in the French and Indian War, although he was not required to do so, he kept a journal of all he learned about the enemy’s plans and used his skills as a surveyor to put together field notes and compass readings. When Washington reported what he had learned to Virginia’s Governor Dinwiddie, senior military men were envious. By using only a compass, modern travelers going from Cumberland, Maryland, to Erie, Pennsylvania, could use the maps that Washington drew in 1754. [ H. Bartholomew Cox, “What I Hope a High School Graduate Knows About George Washington,” Social Studies 88.4 (1997): 152]

It was probably because of his excellence as a mathematician–added to his general aptitude–that his half-brother Augustine (Austin) (or so it is believed) placed him for a short time under the tuition of a Mr. Williams, of Oak Grove, who is generally reputed to have started the lad on his career as a surveyor. In Washington’s boyhood roamings about Fredericksburg,–when he was acquiring practice in surveying by locating river, brook and boundary, –he is credited with having placed his schoolhouse on the map, as well as many a neighbor’s barn and rooftree.  [Joseph Dillaway Sawyer, Washington, vol. 1 (New York: Macmillan, 1927) 85]

William Fairfax first employed young George Washington as a surveyor.

“Lord Fairfax wrote his mother that he was an excellent surveyor, but added, “I wish I could say that he governs his temper.”

He was capable of wrath, yet he almost always held it back. His first training in self-control came from The Rules of Civility, a collection of 110 rules for young gentlemen compiled by French Jesuit priests in the 1590s. They were translated into a number of European languages, and somehow an English copy got to Virginia in the 1740s. Washington copied them into a notebook, now in the Library of Congress, along with geography lessons and assorted legal forms. In part, writing them down was a penmanship exercise, but the main reason he copied the rules was to learn and internalize them.

( Richard Brookhiser, Bruce S. Thornton, and Victor D. Hanson, “AMERICA’S Essential Revolutionary,” The American Enterprise Nov. 1999)

Of a wealthy family, Washington embarked upon a career as a surveyor and in 1748 was invited to go with the party that was to survey Baron Fairfax’s lands W of the Blue Ridge. In 1749 he was appointed to his first public office, surveyor of newly created Culpeper co.  (“Washington, George,” The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.)

With such urgent need at home for his speedy success, one can readily imagine what a proud moment it was for Mary Washington’s son when… he received his Surveyor’s Commission from William and Mary College,  and set out on his chosen career as a public surveyor. In later years both Harvard and Yale conferred on him the degree of LL.D.; but it doubtless meant far less to him than this impressive certificate:

” George Washington, Gent., produced a commission from the President and Master of William and Mary College, appointing him to be Surveyor of this County”

( Joseph Dillaway Sawyer, Washington, vol. 1 (New York: Macmillan, 1927) 104)

By | 2010-01-07T11:42:58+00:00 December 10th, 2009|Famous Surveyors|Comments Off on George Washington, Surveyor (1732-1799)

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