In the early efforts to honor George Washington, his admirers went overboard and created a mythical, almost God-like figure, building dozens of statues and telling storybook tales that did not have an ounce of truth to them. When he became known as the “father of our country,” a “father-like” painting was selected for the dollar bill, showing George as an old man rather than as the athletic and fearless horseman he was.
Although he spent most of his life in public service, he and his wife Martha were very private people. George wrote to Martha almost every day that they were separated during the Revolution, but upon his death, Martha burned all but two of the letters, ensuring that their private life would stay private.
So beyond the statues and monuments, who was the real George Washington?
We will probably never know all the details, but any attempt at trying to understand him must take place in Virginia. George was born here, grew up here, had his first jobs here, married here, became a farmer here, won his largest battlefield victory here, and died here. Most important, the happiest years of his life were spent in Virginia.
If you want to embark on a journey with George, then Virginia is the place to do it. You can visit where he was born, where he grew up and, where he was tutored in reading, writing, dancing, and fencing. You can tour his first office where he worked as a young surveyor on the edge of the wilderness or see the town where he married the richest widow in Virginia, solving his money problems forever. You can walk the grounds of his largest battlefield success, sit in his church, stay at his “town” house, and eat and drink in taverns that he frequented.
You can do something that no one in his lifetime did—enter uninvited into his most private space, his library and study at Mount Vernon. No one would have dared enter that room without a personal invitation while George was alive! And you can pay your respects to America’s first president while standing beside the actual bed in which he died.
But in Virginia you can also do so much more. You can visit the home of his mother, a sometimes-troublesome character who gave him much grief. You can visit the mansion of his rich sister, the simpler home of his brother, or even the outlandish plantation of one of his close friends. And you can try to understand the complicated relationship George Washington had with the more than 300 enslaved Africans that he owned – people he forced to work all their lives just to increase his own wealth. But you will also discover that, unlike any other Founding Father, George Washington was the only one to free his enslaved peoples in his will.
George Washington was a Virginian, and so any attempt to understand him must begin here.
FREDERICKSBURG & FERRY FARM: WASHINGTON’S BOYHOOD HOME
Photo Credit: Bill Crabtree Jr.
George Washington probably never chopped down a cherry tree, but if he had, it would have been at Ferry Farm, on the banks of the Rappahannock River opposite Fredericksburg, where he lived from age six to 22. Despite its historical significance, until a few years ago, there wasn’t much to see at Ferry Farm. The house had long since burned down, a Civil War battle raged across the lands, and in 1996, the site was going to be paved over to make way for a Walmart. But before history could be lost forever, the George Washington Foundation stepped in.
Some 113 acres of meadow and woodland were preserved, and archeologists began the search for the remains of the Washington house, finally discovering the original foundation in 2008. With evidence from more than one million artifacts that have been discovered on the property, a replica house was constructed that is as historically correct as possible. The $40 million project used craftsmen from Williamsburg and England to re-create brickwork, woodwork, furniture, ceramics, and so much more based on the scraps and pieces found in the archeological digs.
This is no historic home with curtained off areas, but rather a living history experiment. If you see a rope bed and want to know what it was like to lie on one, go ahead! You can lay down on the bed. Or pick up a dish. Or sit in a chair. In the nearby museum, you’ll see bits of the real dish that were discovered by archeologists and learn how it was replicated along with the furniture and paint and building materials to create a room exactly like the one young George lived in.
To get a better understanding of our Founding Father, you must go back to those early years. George’s childhood was hard; his father, Augustine, died in 1743, leaving his widow Mary with five children under 11 years old. George was the eldest of these children and now the man of the house, with a 260-acre farm and dozens of enslaved Africans. Mary has been described as crusty, stubborn, frugal, demanding and even shrewish, but to protect the inheritance of her children, she never remarried. She was a fine horsewoman and loved dancing, instilling both these traits in George, along with giving him strong willpower and an independent spirit. With his father gone, George was denied the formal education in England that his two older half-brothers enjoyed, but Mary found the funds to have him tutored and learn surveying as a career.
You can learn more about the Washington family just across the river in Fredericksburg. It’s hard to imagine today, but Fredericksburg in the 1700s was the largest town on the wild frontier of America and the farthest navigable port on the Rappahannock River, with more than 200 ships from Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean arriving every week. A walk around Fredericksburg today is like looking back in time to the era that George’s family lived.
Photo Credit: Bill Crabtree Jr.
At age 16, his sister Betty married her second cousin, a widower and wealthy merchant named Fielding Lewis. Together they had 11 children, six of whom survived into adulthood. In 1775, they built Kenmore, a spectacular 4,000-square-foot Georgian-style house in downtown Fredericksburg that has been saved, restored, and is now open for tours, showing what the lifestyle of the rich and famous gentry was like. It was fashionable at this time to have 12-foot-high ceilings with intricately sculpted designs. We know George admired them, because when he was working on his own Mount Vernon home, he wrote Betty a letter asking, “Can I borrow your stucco man?”
Though public life kept them apart, George and Betty were close, and very similar in looks. It was said that if Betty wore a hat and cloak and rode a horse, soldiers of the Revolution would have saluted her. The one painting of her confirms the resemblance.
Just a few blocks away from Kenmore is the more modest house of Charles Washington, George’s younger brother. The home was later turned into the Rising Sun Tavern and is now restored to show what historic taverns were like in the colonial era. There’s no doubt that George enjoyed a drink, frequently doing as many as 13 toasts to honor the 13 colonies. His favorite drink was Madeira wine, a thick, sweet, fortified wine coming from the Portuguese island of Madeira. But he also drank rum, beer, hard cider, punch, champagne, brandy, and whiskey. In fact, he made barrels of beer and hard cider at Mount Vernon, and in 1799, he owned the largest whiskey distillery in the United States. Three of his dogs were named Tipsy, Tippler, and Drunkard. The Rising Sun Tavern also follows the life of George’s brother Charles, who later migrated to West Virginia and created “Charles Town,” now the capital of the state.
Also, just a few blocks away from Kenmore is a house that George bought his mother Mary in 1772 so she could be near the rest of the family. When touring the Mary Washington House today, they point out that it has been greatly enlarged over time and is much grander than the small one-and-a-half story frame house George bought for her. It’s impossible to imagine his embarrassment when, in the midst of the Revolution, Mary wrote to Congress saying that she was near starvation and needed a pension because George was not taking proper care of her. Not true, of course.
Strangely, Mary never acknowledged or seemed impressed by any of George’s accomplishments, and they had a troubled relationship, exchanging only seven letters. But it is happy to note that just before heading north to become President, George visited her and stayed at this house one last time before she died. It is said he and his mother reconciled. She is buried nearby, and although the grave has been lost to time, there is an impressive monument.
Back across the river near Ferry Farm is Chatham Manor, the incredible house that William Fitzhugh built in 1771, and the only home to have been visited by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. Today, the home, one of the finest in Virginia, is maintained by the National Park Service and demonstrates how, until the Civil War, Virginia plantations of the 1700s rivaled any in the world for grandeur, gardens, and furnishings. Exhibits tell the story of the home’s occupants, both wealthy and enslaved, how the house was nearly destroyed in the Civil War, and then how it was magnificently restored in the 1920s.
GEORGE WASHINGTON’S CAREERS
We might never have heard of George Washington except for an amazing series of events. At age 16, George moved to Winchester to begin what he thought would be his life’s work as a surveyor. Located in Virginia’s Shenandoah Mountains, the territory around Winchester was a wild, unmapped frontier. The office George used in an old stone building is now open for tours as George Washington’s Office Museum, with samples of surveying equipment that George would have used to conduct his work.
Photo Credit: Tari Linda Lau, @journeyto1000cities
Additionally, it’s just a short stroll from George’s office to a pedestrian mall lined with restaurants, cafes, and shops, or to the house where Daniel Morgan, one of the Revolution’s most famous generals, lived.
George surveyed up and down the Shenandoah and Blue Ridge Mountains and might have been the first person to “leave his mark” at Natural Bridge State Park. In 1750, he climbed 22 feet up a cliff and carved his initials into the rock. The “G.W.” can still be seen.
At this time, young George admired and cherished his older half-brother Lawrence, who, as the eldest son, had inherited most of their father’s wealth, including the estate of Mount Vernon. For George to inherit it, Lawrence, his wife Anne, and all their children would have to die. Which is exactly what happened. Life expectancy was much shorter then and sadly, all four of Lawrence and Anne’s children died in infancy.
GEORGE WASHINGTON IN WARTIME
When Lawrence died, George also inherited his military position, and at 21 found himself in command of a quarter of the Virginia militia. His early military career was hardly a success. He started a war, surrendered his first command, fought in one of the worst defeats in British history, and was passed over for promotion. In battle, he had two horses shot out from under him and his uniform was riddled with bullet holes. He wrote to his brother John in 1754 describing his first engagement. “The right wing, where I stood, was exposed to and received all the enemy’s fire … I heard the bullets whistle, and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound.”
He was later to have a much different opinion, however, when he left the military at the end of the French & Indian War and returned to Mount Vernon; he had nothing but a reputation for bravery and a disdain for Britain.
Photo Credit: Bill Crabtree Jr.
To learn about George’s early military career and his later exploits in the Revolution, there are no better places than George Washington’s Mount Vernon and the state-owned American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. At both, you will discover how George Washington learned from his early defeats and became one of the most admired military commanders in all history. His Yorktown campaign was decisive and brilliantly executed. At the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, a combination of 4-D films, 21st-century graphics, and great storytelling make the Yorktown campaign come alive, with cannonballs coming right at you in a surround-sound theatre. The museum helps you appreciate the high risks Washington took when ordering a secret 400-mile march of the American and French forces to surround and cut off the British. After the museum, you can go next door to Yorktown Battlefield National Park and stand on the ground where the final siege and surrender took place.
To understand the role George Washington played in the entire war, the museum at Mount Vernon has another 4-D film (snow falls from the ceiling when George crosses the Delaware) and even an interactive game where you can play the role of George in battle and see if you would have made a better general against the British. Most fascinating are exhibits using modern facial reconstruction methods so you can see what George really looked like, both as a young surveyor in the wilderness and as a general in the war.
GEORGE WASHINGTON IN POLITICS
George’s first political position was as a representative of Virginia in what was called the House of Burgess meeting in the state capital of Williamsburg. He lost his first election but learned a lesson; in the second election in 1758, he bought 144 gallons of rum, punch, hard cider, and beer for the voters and won in a landslide.
Photo Credit: Mark Atkinson, @markedwardatkinson
Today, Colonial Williamsburg is the largest living history center on the planet, with 80 authentic buildings dating to the 18th century and 400 more carefully reconstructed to original plans. There are dozens of working craftsmen making everything from guns to whiskey barrels, but also creating furniture, silverwork, printing, and clothes just as they would have in the 1770s. Costumed interpreters walk the streets and engage visitors in conversations about the times. You might even meet George Washington himself, since his re-enactor is a regular visitor.
Photo Credit: Mark Atkinson, @markedwardatkinson
With horse-drawn carriages, fife and drum bands, musket firing demonstrations, gardens, and architecture, Williamsburg certainly gives a grand impression of what the world of George Washington looked like. Even better, you can taste it at four operating colonial taverns. Wealthy people like George ate very similar food to us, though it was much more difficult to prepare, including dishes of beef, chicken, hams, baked oysters, lamb, game, and all varieties of fish. Banquets could offer up dozens of different courses and dining was considered not just a meal, but an experience meant to be savored. Liquor, coffee, tea, and ice cream were always available at the best taverns. George was a big fan of ice cream. You can try other dishes he would have known at Colonial Williamsburg’s taverns.
As a politician, George seldom spoke. However, he was well known as a farmer and importer of goods from Europe, and as such, was very opposed to taxes that Great Britain was imposing on the colonies. When delegates were needed for the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, George was selected, and it was there he was given command of the American army.
GEORGE & MARTHA WASHINGTON AT MOUNT VERNON
George and Martha were a comical looking couple. He was 6-foot, 2 inches tall, she was 5 feet. When she wanted to talk to him, she would often grab his shirt collar and pull his head down to hers.
He loved dancing and could dance for three hours at a time, while she did not dance. She was vivacious, chatty, fun, and affable, while George could be perceived as cold. But by all accounts, they had a mutual attraction and great affection for each other, and their marriage was a successful and happy one.
The ceremony took place on January 6, 1759, presided over by a minister from the church where Martha was baptized, St. Peter’s Parish Church in New Kent County. It still stands, and the Washingtons attended many services in what must rank as one of the loveliest Georgian brick churches in the nation.
Though they never had children together, Martha had two children from a previous marriage and George doted on them, especially Patsy, who he raised from a toddler. Tragically, Patsy suffered from seizures most of her life. Finally, in 1773, at the age 17, she had a last severe attack. Family letters described how George knelt beside her bed, tears streaming down his face, as his “sweet, innocent girl” passed away in his arms.
Photo Credit: Aniesia Williams, @iamaniesia
No place does a better job of presenting the “real” George and Martha than George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Since 1854, it has been the work of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association to preserve Mount Vernon as it was in 1799, the year George died. They are the oldest historic preservation organization in America and they receive no state or federal funds, but they entertain over a million visitors a year at the large facility that includes his house, a farm, enslaved quarters, working blacksmith shop, dock, horse barns, and a variety of gardens, plus an outstanding museum of Washington artifacts. Even someone with only a slight interest in history will be entertained and surprised every moment.
George was an innovator. He planted over 100 different crops, had a greenhouse providing oranges and lemons year-round, invented an octagonal barn that used horses to grind corn and hay, and opened a distillery, producing more whiskey than anyone else in the nation. You can tour the distillery separately and even purchase whiskey produced in the same way as his.
Martha, like George, has been done a disservice by historical interpretation. Her life paintings depict her as the older, matronly woman she was when she was First Lady to the President. Forgotten is the Martha who spent half of the Revolution with George, traveling in the middle of a vicious war by carriage and horse-drawn sleds across rough and ice-covered roads to spend long, miserably cold winter encampments with him. All of George’s officers adored her and loved to have her at headquarters staying with, as she called him, “her old man.”
The Washingtons were great entertainers. So many people constantly visited and stayed in guest rooms that George said Mount Vernon was more like a hotel than a home. Still, he personally invited more than 2,000 people to visit and was an excellent host, making sure wine and food were available 24 hours a day.
Photo Credit: Cameron Davidson
You can spend a typical day with George at Mount Vernon. He would get up at 4 am and take a secret stairway from his bed chamber to his study for a few hours of reading and letter writing. His study was filled with innovations – a chair that rotated, a device that could be pedaled to move a fan, walls of bookcases and maps, and the latest inventions in lighting. Breakfast at 7 would be some hoecakes and honey. Then he was off to ride around and supervise the huge estate. The main meal was at 3 pm and served in three courses: various meats, vegetables, and side dishes followed by cakes, pies, ice cream, and cooked fruits, and the last course with sweet wines, fresh fruit, and nuts. George liked fish, while Martha loved shellfish. A tea and small meal would be had at 7 pm and George was often in bed by 8 or 9 pm. Martha supervised the kitchen and baked a ham a day. Of course, all the labor was provided by enslaved Africans, of whom about 85 lived around the main house with the others living at four different Washington farms.
Since Mount Vernon was in the countryside, business had to be conducted in the nearest city, which was Alexandria, about nine miles away. George built a “townhouse” in Alexandria where he could stay during business trips. The original burned down, but George Washington’s Townhouse was rebuilt from exact plans and is now an Airbnb where you can stay. Luminaries such as Yoko Ono and Mick Fleetwood have stayed there.
Photo Credit: Cameron Davidson
Just down the block is Gadsby’s Tavern. Built in 1785, it was one of George’s favorites. Today, half the property is a museum, showing exactly what the tavern was like in George’s day, and the other is a fine colonial restaurant, with dishes such as peanut soup, pork chops, lamb chops and steaks, lump crab for Martha, and a dish called George Washington’s Favorite: a roasted half duck with corn pudding, roasted potatoes, and a cherry orange glace.
George dined here often, amidst similar wood tables, fireplaces, and candles, and on one memorable occasion, February 11, 1799, he celebrated his “birth night” with, as he expressed it, “an elegant ball and supper.” In his day, the calendar showed he was born on February 11, but subsequent changes to the calendar have made the date February 22.
One of the great things about Gadsby’s Tavern is that while almost nothing has changed inside, not much has changed outside either. Old Town Alexandria is a huge neighborhood of brick sidewalks, cobblestone streets, and gorgeous Federal brick homes and buildings, dozens of which have been repurposed to house trendy Irish bars, seafood restaurants, art galleries, bookstores, cafes, and one-of-a-kind boutiques. It’s the closest thing you’ll find in America to a London neighborhood like Chelsea.
Photo Credit: Adedayo “Dayo” Kosoko for Visit Alexandria
And there is history everywhere. Stop in the basement level Starbucks at 532 King Street, and you are in what was once another tavern that was among George’s favorites. Nearby Christ Church, built in 1773, is where George worshipped. There are haunted ghost tours and a half dozen historic home tours, and you can easily hop on a bike and ride the level nine-mile bike path from Alexandria to Mount Vernon, just as George frequently did on horseback. Those truly interested should stop into the excellent visitor’s center and pick up a copy of “Walking with Washington,” which features more than 100 sites in Alexandria associated with George.
GEORGE WASHINGTON & SLAVERY IN VIRGINIA
George was 11 years old when he inherited ten enslaved Africans. He would buy and sell enslaved people all his life. When he died in 1799, George Washington and his wife owned 315 humans, the sixth largest number of enslaved people in Virginia.
Today, George Washington’s Mount Vernon is as much a historic preservation of the story of slavery as it is a monument to the Washingtons. Every attempt has been made to document the important role enslaved people played on the plantation as well as how they lived and dressed, the type of dwellings they lived in, the work they did, and how they interacted with George and Martha.
The institution of slavery also receives major attention at other Washington sites like Ferry Farm, Mary Washington’s House, Kenmore, the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, and others, but because so many dignitaries visited Mount Vernon over the years, the enslaved here have been documented far beyond most sites.
One such enslaved person is Hercules, George Washington’s personal chef who, when George was president in Philadelphia in 1796, became renowned as one of the most famous cooks in America. However, at that time in Pennsylvania, any enslaved person living in the state for six months was free. Washington knew that and shuffled his slaves out of Philadelphia and back to Virginia before the six months were up. Hercules was demoted from top chef back to Mount Vernon, assigned to “digging ditches, crushing gravel, making bricks and weeding the garden.” Instead, Hercules ran away. Washington spent significant time and money trying to find him, but never succeeded.
Then there is Ona Judge. The personal servant of Martha Washington in Philadelphia, she was able to escape in 1796 and flee to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In freedom, she lost privileges and was forced to work harder than she ever had for the Washingtons. Yet she never regretted escaping slavery, though the Washingtons were outraged at her running away and ran ads and employed people to try to bring her back.
On the other side, there is Billy and Frank Lee, two brothers Washington purchased in 1768. Frank became butler at Mount Vernon, a position of immense power. His wife Lucy was the cook. Billy Lee became famous as Washington’s valet during the Revolution. George and Billy spent every day together for eight years of war. They fought together, they hunted together, and they rode together. Bill Lee is the only person George Washington freed immediately upon his death.
Photo Credit: Cameron Davidson
At Mount Vernon, you can see the residences where the enslaved lived at the great house. From a distance, they are brick and look substantial, but inside they are crude dormitories. Men and women lived separately, even husbands and wives. They all worked hard from dawn to dusk with only Sundays off. Husbands would often have to walk six miles to visit their families. Some of those working in the house were given elaborate red uniforms, which are on display in the museum, but most had a bare minimum of clothes made from coarse fabric. Those working the fields lived in rough cabins, which have also been re-built on the plantation farm.
The Washingtons were certainly no worse than other slave holders, but also not much better, though George had forbidden the use of the whip and the practice of selling families apart. But he could be demanding. One enslaved person told the story, “The sun never caught Washington in bed, and he was unwilling it should find any of his people sleeping.”
However, over time, George Washington was to change his views. He served with many African American soldiers in the Revolution. His deep friendships with Alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette, two strong abolitionists, might have helped change his perceptions.
He grew to abhor slavery and wish it was ended. In 1783 he wrote, “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.” However, as a pragmatist, he believed it was not economically or politically possible in his day. Enslaved humans would come by 1860 to represent more wealth than all the railroads, factories, and banks in the U.S. – north and south. Twelve U.S. presidents owned slaves at some point in their life; seven of them, like Washington, while in office.
George Washington was a paradox. In his will, he ordered that all 124 of the slaves he owned would be free upon Martha’s death and he strongly encouraged his wife Martha in her will to free the others she owned and had brought into the marriage. We can’t know, but many historians theorize that Washington hoped other slave owners would follow his example. Twice, he had set huge historically important precedents: first when he resigned all military power after the Revolution and returned to being just a private citizen, and then again after serving as President for eight years when he peacefully transferred power to the next president and went back to farming.
Unable to abolish slavery legislatively, he made a bold personal statement by freeing his own slaves, hoping that would establish a precedent for others who admired him.
In that, he would have been sadly disappointed. He was the only founding father to free his slaves. Not only did no one else follow him, but his own wife, instead of freeing her enslaved when she died, left them to four relatives, who broke up families and split the enslaved population into four groups. The loyal Butler Frank Lee, owned by Washington, was free. His wife and children, owned by Martha, remained enslaved and were broken up and sent to different owners.
In 1929, Mount Vernon established the first memorial at a slave burial ground in the United States. The bodies of slaves who worked at the Mansion House were buried on a quiet woodside hill, near the tomb where George and Martha are buried. Although there were no markers placed at the burial site, radar has found the graves of up to 88 people here, the outline of the coffins now marked with string. The bodies were laid facing east, tradition holds, so that they are looking toward Africa. Several times each day, an African American fifer in colonial clothes comes to the site and, gathering visitors who might be there, helps lead an impromptu service. Someone is asked to read a short history of the enslaved who are probably buried here, such as Billy Lee. Then there is a moment of silence for the other 88 souls resting here. It is a beautiful and moving experience.
George Washington was an imperfect man in a far from perfect world. But the world that he belonged to, both good and tragic, is preserved in Virginia so that other generations might visit and learn from it.