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George Washington
Nature Bulletin No. 744   February 22, 1964
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist

To most of us George Washington does not seem like a flesh-and- blood person so much as do some other famous Americans. We know that he was a great soldier, our first president, and call him "the father of his country". But we are reminded of him most often as a man on a monument or by his face on a dollar bill or a postage stamp.

Fortunately, a sifting of his diaries and voluminous writings portray another, very human side of his personality. This has been well done in a recent biography, "Potomac Squire", by Elswyth Thane. Here, through hundreds of quotations, we meet a man often harassed by his responsibilities for other men's children, often rather hard up, often somewhat testy, often humorous, often wise and tolerant. Here we learn what he provided for his household and how he struggled to maintain and beautify his beloved Mount Vernon in spite of long absences.

George's father died when he was eleven, after which his early youth was divided between the homes of his widowed mother and his two older half-brothers -- Lawrence and Augustine. When about 14, he began to use his father's surveying instruments in little jobs for Lawrence at Mount Vernon: marking boundaries, mapping turnip fields and wood lots.

In 1748, when George was sixteen, Lord Fairfax sent him and a young Fairfax nephew to make surveys on his vast tracts of land in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. There on the frontier he camped out, foraged for his food, tended his horses, endured bad weather and saddle fatigue, and encountered firsthand that unpredictable and dangerous riddle, the Indian.

Washington wrote his letters and diaries with a carefully trimmed quill pen in a handwriting which was never a scrawl. At that time spelling was not uniform and words were often capitalized in the middle of a sentence for emphasis. Besides, he habitually made his own abbreviations.

At the time of General Braddock's defeat by the French at the Battle of the Monongahela in 1755, Washington was the only officer who was not either killed or disabled. A few days later he wrote his brother:

"Dear Jack: As I have heard since my arriv'l at this place, a circumstantial acct. of my death and dying speech, I take this oppertunity of contradicting the first and assuring you that I have not as yet composed the latter... I had 4 Bullets through my Coat and 2 Horses shot under me, and yet escaped unhurt.

"We have been most scandalously beaten by a trifling body of men.... A Weak and Feeble state of Health obliges me to halt here for 2 or 3 days, to recover a little strength.... Pray give my Complt. to all my F'ds. I am, dr. Jack, y'r most Affect. Broth'r, etc. .

Washington regarded farming as his business. His writings are filled with notes on crop rotation, yields and livestock. He grafted fruit trees, invented a plow, built a greenhouse, and created a formal garden of native and imported flowers and shrubs. He enjoyed music, dancing, playing cards, and riding to hounds.

Upon the death of his brother Lawrence, George inherited Mount Vernon, at that time a plantation of 25 hundred acres. Eighteen slaves went with the estate and he bought three more. He remodeled the residence and added a third story. In 175g he married Martha Custis, a widow with two young children, and brought them to Mount Vernon. On the following January 1 he started a new diary with this entry:

"Called at Mr. Possey's in my way home and desired him to engage me 100 Bar'ls of Corn upon the best terms he could in Maryland.

"And found Mrs. Washington upon my arrival broke out with the Meazles."

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