Local Lifestyle

George Washington: A Young Man Makes His Way

Editor’s note: The late John Douglas, who was editor of The Morgan Messenger for 38 years, was a local expert on George Washington’s movements through this area as a young surveyor and later as he established himself as a colonial leader. John’s articles in The Messenger about the subject were later gathered into a popular book, “George Washington and Us.” He then published an expanded edition in 2002, called “At the Springs with George: Washington’s adventures in the Berkeley Springs area.” What follows is from the second chapter of that edition.

by John Douglas

From 1749 to 1752, George Washington made his living as a professional surveyor. With the support of the Fairfax family, he was named surveyor for Culpeper County, Va. in July 1749. He took frequent surveying trips throughout Frederick County, which then included Morgan, Berkeley, Hampshire and other counties of what later became West Virginia. During Washington’s life, particularly in his younger years, counties were still being created in the region as area populations grew.

Loosely based in Winchester, the young surveyor usually worked at properties owned by Lord Fairfax far from town. He stayed wherever he could, often at woodsmen’s cabins or simply camping onsite. Despite his western trip in 1748, he still wasn’t completely at ease with life on the frontier. In a November 1749 letter, the 17-year-old Washington complained of poor accommodations and about finding himself among “a parcel of barbarians and an uncouth set of people.” This wasn’t at all the Virginia society that he longed to be part of.

Washington described sleeping in his clothes in unseasonably cold weather. “I have not slept 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 bearskin, whichever is to be had, with man, wife and children, like a parcel of dogs or cats, and happy’s he that gets the berth nearest the fire,” he wrote.

Washington’s surveys for Fairfax were made in preparation for land sales to early settlers. He’s known to have platted nearly 200 parcels along the Cacapon River, Lost River, South Branch of the Potomac, Little Cacapon and other water bodies in what are now Morgan, Hampshire, Hardy and Jefferson counties of West Virginia, as well as farms closer to Winchester and farther east.

The early surveys referred to rivers and streams because there were often no established roads, towns or place names. A typical survey title might read: For Isaac Dawson. 270 acres in a neck between the Potomac and Cacapon rivers. This particular property was actually where the Cacapon joins the Potomac, west of Berkeley Springs, at today’s village of Great Cacapon in Morgan County.

Sometimes there was a gap of years between a survey’s date and the actual deed transfer. For example, Isaac Dawson’s survey was dated April 24, 1750, but the 270 acres weren’t officially transferred to Dawson until November 18, 1757. In some cases, the delay may have been due to a rival claim while, in others, the coming French & Indian War may have played a role. It appears that Dawson lived on the Great Cacapon property even before it was actually granted to him, because Fort Dawson was one of the safe houses or small stockades for English settlers during the Indian attacks of 1755-1756.

In April 1750, Washington also surveyed an adjoining 95 acres at Great Cacapon for Thomas Williams and another 210 acres nearby on the Potomac River for Thomas Wiggins, namesake of Wiggins Run on the west end of Great Cacapon. he then headed west to survey five more properties along the Cacapon River and the Little Cacapon, near what is now Paw Paw, before launching deeper into Hampshire County for dozens of jobs. Through the years, he also surveyed other properties in western Morgan County, though the actual dates aren’t always clear.

Washington was paid well for his labors, charging what was considered a steep rate for the time. He earned about 125 pounds a year, or roughly half again as much as the average skilled workman. Before long, he began buying land himself. One of his first acquisitions was 240 acres “between Great Cacapon and Little Capon mouth, two miles above mouth of Fifteen Mile Creek,” according to William Ansel’s Frontier Forts Along the Potomac and Its Tributaries.

Fifteen Mile Creek, across the Potomac River at what is now Little Orleans, Md. was simply noted as a landmark. The acreage was actually in Doe Gully, then Hampshire County, now Morgan County, and the transaction was finalized on March 18, 1753. It was precisely the type of property Washington liked, with flat floodplain fields along the Potomac. Washington also surveyed an adjoining 270 acres for Daniel Osborne, who officially received his tract from Lord Fairfax on March 10, 1753.

With the purchase of the Doe Gully property, which he kept for the rest of his life, and of 550 acres along Bullskin Run in Jefferson County a year earlier, the young Washington was on the path to “a life that’s truly bless’d,” as wished for in the poem he’d set down in his school copybook. Be he hadn’t gotten there without toil.