A Boy's Working Holiday In The Wildwood
We wish to say something here about a curious old man who lived in
Virginia when George Washington was a boy, and who was wise enough to
see that young Washington was anything but a common boy. This man was an
English nobleman named Lord Fairfax. As the nobles of England were not
in the habit of coming to the colonies, except as governors, we must
tell what brought this one across the sea.
It happened in
his way. His grandfather, Lord Culpeper, had at one time
been governor of Virginia, and, like some other governors, had taken
care to feather his nest. Seeing how rich the land was between the
Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers, when he went home he asked the king to
give him all this land, and the king, Charles II., in his good easy way
of giving away what did not belong to him, readily consented, without
troubling himself about the rights of the people who lived on the land.
A great and valuable estate it was. Not many dwelt on it, and Lord
Culpeper promised to have it settled and cultivated, but we cannot say
that he troubled himself much about doing so.
When old Culpeper died the Virginia land went to his daughter, and from
her it descended to her son, Lord Fairfax, who sent out his cousin,
William Fairfax, to look after his great estate, which covered a whole
broad county in the wilderness, and counties in those days were often
very large. Lord Fairfax was not much concerned about the American
wildwood. He was one of the fashionable young men in London society, and
something of an author, too, for he helped the famous Addison by writing
some papers for the "Spectator."
But noblemen, like common men, are liable to fall in love, and this Lord
Fairfax did. He became engaged to be married to a handsome young lady;
but she proved to be less faithful than pretty, and when a nobleman of
higher rank asked her to marry him, she threw her first lover aside and
gave herself to the richer one.
This was a bitter blow to Lord Fairfax. He went to his country home and
dwelt there in deep distress, vowing that all women were false-hearted
and that he would never marry any of them. And he never did. Even his
country home was not solitary enough for the broken-hearted lover, so he
resolved to cross the ocean and seek a new home in his wilderness land
in America. It was this that brought him to Virginia, where he went to
live at his cousin's fine mansion called Belvoir, a place not far away
from the Washington estate of Mount Vernon.
Lord Fairfax was a middle-aged man at that time, a tall, gaunt,
near-sighted personage, who spent much of his time in hunting, of which
he was very fond. And his favorite companion in these hunting
excursions was young George Washington, then a fine, fresh, active boy
of fourteen, who dearly loved outdoor life. There was a strong contrast
between the old lord and the youthful Virginian, but they soon became
close friends, riding out fox-hunting together and growing intimate in
Laurence Washington, George's elder brother, who lived at Mount Vernon,
had married a daughter of William Fairfax, and that brought the Mount
Vernon and Belvoir families much together, so that when young George was
visiting his brother he was often at Belvoir. Lord Fairfax grew to like
him so much that he resolved to give him some important work to do. He
saw that the boy was strong, manly, and quick-witted, and anxious to be
doing something for himself, and as George had made some study of
surveying, he decided to employ him at this.
Lord Fairfax's Virginia estate, as we have said, was very large. The
best-known part of it lay east, but it also crossed the Blue Ridge
Mountains, and ran over into the beautiful valley beyond, which the
Knights of the Golden Horseshoe had visited more than thirty years
before. This splendid valley was still largely in a wild state, with few
inhabitants besides the savage Indians and wild beasts. Before it could
be fairly opened to settlers it must be measured by the surveyor's chain
and mapped out so that it would be easy to tell where any tract was
located. It was this that Lord Fairfax asked young Washington to do, and
which the active boy gladly consented to undertake, for he liked
nothing better than wild life and adventure in the wilderness, and here
was the chance to have a delightful time in a new and beautiful country,
an opportunity that would warm the heart of any live and healthy boy.
This is a long introduction to the story of Washington's wildwood
outing, but no doubt you will like to know what brought it about. It was
in the early spring of 1748 that the youthful surveyor set out on his
ride, the blood bounding warmly in his veins as he thought of the new
sensations and stirring adventures which lay before him. He was not
alone. George William Fairfax, a son of the master of Belvoir, went with
him, a young man of twenty-two. Washington was then just sixteen, young
enough to be in high spirits at the prospect before him. He brought his
surveyors' instruments, and they both bore guns as well, for they looked
for some fine sport in the woods.
The valley beyond the mountains was not the land of mystery which it had
been thirty-four years before, when Governor Spotswood and his gay troop
looked down on it from the green mountain summit. There were now some
scattered settlers in it, and Lord Fairfax had built himself a lodge in
the wilderness, which he named "Greenway Court," and where now and then
he went for a hunting excursion.
Crossing the Blue Ridge at Ashby's Gap and fording the bright
Shenandoah, the young surveyors made their way towards this wildwood
lodge. It was a house with broad stone gables, its sloping roof coming
down over a long porch in front. The locality was not altogether a safe
one. There were still some Indians in that country, and something might
stir them up against the whites. In two belfries on the roof hung
alarm-bells, to be rung to collect the neighboring settlers if report of
an Indian rising should be brought.
On the forest road leading to Greenway Court a white post was planted,
with an arm pointing towards the house, as a direction to visitors. As
the post decayed or was thrown down by any cause another was erected,
and on this spot to-day such a post stands, with the village of White
Post built around it. But when young Washington and Fairfax passed the
spot only forest trees stood round the post, and they rode on to the
Court, where they rested awhile under the hospitable care of Lord
It was a charming region in which the young surveyors found themselves
after their brief term of rest, a land of lofty forests and broad grassy
openings, with the silvery river sparkling through their midst. The buds
were just bursting on the trees, the earliest spring flowers were
opening, and to right and left extended long blue mountain-ranges, the
giant guardians of the charming valley of the Shenandoah. In those days
there were none of the yellow grain-fields, the old mansions surrounded
by groves, the bustling villages and towns which now mark the scene,
but nature had done her best to make it picturesque and beautiful, and
the youthful visitors enjoyed it as only those of young blood can.
Up the banks of the Shenandoah went the surveyors, measuring and marking
the land and mapping down its leading features. It was no easy work, but
they enjoyed it to the full. At night they would stop at the rude house
of some settler, if one was to be found; if not, they would build a fire
in the woods, cook the game their guns had brought down, wrap their
cloaks around them, and sleep heartily under the broad blanket of the
Thus they journeyed on up the Shenandoah until they reached the point
where its waters flow into the Potomac. Then up this stream they made
their way, crossing the mountains and finally reaching the place which
is now called Berkeley Springs. It was then in the depth of the
wilderness, but in time a town grew up around it, and many years
afterward Washington and his family often went there in the summer to
drink and bathe in its wholesome mineral waters.
The surveyors had their adventures, and no doubt often made the woodland
echoes ring with the report of their guns as they brought down partridge
or pheasant, or tracked a deer through the brushwood. Nothing of special
note happened to them, the thing which interested them most being the
sight of a band of Indians, the first they had ever seen. The red men
had long since disappeared from the part of Virginia in which they
These tenants of the forest came along one day when the youths had
stopped at the house of a settler. There were about thirty of them in
their war-paint, and one of them had a fresh scalp hanging at his belt.
This indicated that they had recently been at war with their enemies, of
whom at least one had been killed. The Indians were given some liquor,
in return for which they danced their war-dance before the boys. For
music one of them drummed on a deer-skin which he stretched over an iron
pot, and another rattled a gourd containing some shot and ornamented
with a horse's tail. The others danced with wild whoops and yells around
a large fire they had built. Altogether the spectacle was a singular and
exciting one on which the boys looked with much interest.
While they had no serious adventures, their life in the forest was not a
very luxurious one. In many ways they had to rough it. At times they
were drenched by downpours of rain. They slept anywhere, now and then in
houses, but most often in the open air. On one occasion some straw on
which they lay asleep caught fire and they woke just in time to escape
being scorched by the flames.
"I have not slept above three or four nights in a bed," wrote George to
a friend, "but after walking a good deal all the day I have lain down
before the fire on a little straw or fodder, or a bear-skin, whatever
was to be had, with man, wife, and children, like dogs and cats; and
happy is he who gets the berth nearest the fire."
Their cooking was often done by impaling the meat on sharp sticks and
holding it over the fire, while chips cut with their hatchet took the
place of dishes. But to them all this was enjoyment, their appetites
were hearty, and anything having the spice of adventure was gladly
welcomed. It was the event of their young lives.
It was still April when they returned from their long river ride to
Greenway Court, and here enjoyed for some time the comforts of
civilization, so far as they had penetrated that frontier scene. Spring
was still upon the land, though summer was near by, when George and his
friend rode back across the Blue Ridge and returned to Belvoir with the
report of what they had done. Lord Fairfax was highly pleased with the
report, and liked George more than ever for the faithful and intelligent
manner in which he had carried out his task. He paid the young surveyor
at the rate of seven dollars a day for the time he was actually at work,
and half this amount for the remaining time. This was worth a good deal
more then than the same sum of money would be now, and was very good pay
for a boy of sixteen. No doubt the lad felt rich with the first money he
had ever earned in his pocket.
As for Lord Fairfax, he was in high glee to learn what a valuable
property he had across the hills, and especially how fine a country it
was for hunting. He soon left Belvoir and made his home at Greenway
Court, where he spent the remainder of his life. It was a very different
life from that of his early days in the bustle of fashionable life in
London, but it seemed to suit him as well or better.
One thing more we have to say about him. He was still living at Greenway
Court when the Revolutionary War came on. A loyalist in grain, he
bitterly opposed the rebellion of the colonists. By the year 1781 he had
grown very old and feeble. One day he was in Winchester, a town which
had grown up not far from Greenway, when he heard loud shouts and cheers
in the street.
"What is all that noise about?" he asked his old servant.
"Dey say dat Gin'ral Washington has took Lord Cornwallis an' all his
army prisoners. Yorktown is surrendered, an' de wa' is ovah."
"Take me to bed, Joe," groaned the old lord; "it is time for me to die."
Five years after his surveying excursion George Washington had a far
more famous adventure in the wilderness, when the governor of Virginia
sent him through the great forest to visit the French forts near Lake
Erie. The story of this journey is one of the most exciting and romantic
events in American history, yet it is one with which most readers of
history are familiar, so we have told the tale of his earlier adventures
instead. His forest experience on the Shenandoah had much to do with
making Governor Dinwiddie choose him as his envoy to the French forts,
so that it was, in a way, the beginning of his wonderful career.