Mount Vernon’s Beginnings

The home and last resting place of George Washington, is situated on the Virginia shore of the Potomac River, in Fairfax County, fourteen miles south of the Capital of the United States.

Its wide fame, the deep affection in which it is held, and the familiarity given it by written and painted history, make it difficult for the mind to erase the picture of Washington’s home and think of its parked heights as virgin forest overlooking a sailless, undis­covered river. Yet less than one hundred and fifty years before it came into his hands, so far as is positively known, white man had never seen it.

In Mount Vernon’s early history events punctuated long series of years. The first title holders to these hills and meadows were the Doeg Indians, a tribe of the Algonquin race. Their remains have been unearthed on the rising ground near the river in very recent years. Their possession was secure and undisputed, when one day, around the broad bend to the west, there appeared a strange sail on an open barge. As it drew nearer it revealed a company of fifteen men with curiously unfamiliar faces, not the copper red of the native, but pale like none they had ever seen. It was John Smith and his hardy adventurers from Jamestown sailing by on their quest of “the head of this water you conceive to be endless.” They pass again, out with the current and the tide, and history is silent about the upper waters of the Potomac for over a quarter of a century.

Then in 1634 the white sails of the white man appeared again, up with the tide and fair wind from the faraway Chesapeake. This time there were two ships, the Dove and a pinnace, belonging to Leonard Calvert. This first Governor of Maryland came with his two hundred pioneers to establish a colony on the eastern shore of the Potomac under the royal charter granted by King Charles II to Leonard’s brother Cecil, Lord Baltimore. They anchored only a mile above the future site of Mount Vernon, where the Piscataway meets the Potomac under the heights which are to be first the Warburton Manor lands of Neighbor Diggs and later are to be crowned with the gray bastions of Fort Washington.

Calvert found little encouragement from the Indians, and the beauty of the spot did not weigh against its isolation, over one hundred miles from the “centre of civilization” in the lower waters of the James. He, too, sailed down river to a permanent haven for his followers near the mouth of the Potomac, almost opposite the point on the Virginia shore where, a century later, was to be born the boy who would become the liberator of his country.

The record of Calvert’s cruise to the upper Potomac is followed by another silence, this time for nearly forty years, for all that is told of explorations or settlements on the scene of this story.

In the meantime there are fugitive glimpses of nearby activities of the white men, hunters and trappers, some-times outposts who guard the advancing frontier from the receding Indian. It seems always to have been a paradise for lovers of the rod and gun. Smith found the river country “much frequented with wolves, bears, deer, and other wild beasts in the course of our journeyings we also met with a few beavers, otters, bears, martens, and minks; and in divers places there was such an abundance of fish, lying quite thick, with their heads above the water, as our barge drove through them, that for want of a net we attempted to catch them with a frying-pan, but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with.” While the brave captain was exploring above some shoals, “It chanced by reason of the ebb-tide, that our barge grounded on one of them, and there we must abide until the next tide came to float us. As I was looking in the waters, I espied many fishes lurking in the reeds, and for sport and pastime, to while away an hour, I amused myself by nailing them to the ground with my sword. This set all my crew following my example, and by this means we caught more fish in an hour than we could eat in a day.”

But civilization is on the way. Farther down river the clearings extend, advancing with the advancing century. The forests translate themselves into cabins, the young trees into snake fences, and soon the in-exhaustible clay gets itself baked into bricks for the planters’ mansions, which are held together with the finest of all mortar made of the burnt oyster shells taken from the beds of the tidal “creeks,” which give endless diversity to the shores of the lower Potomac. Later, when time has aged these mansions and the restorer comes to repair their century-old walls, he will find that it is more frequently the bricks which yield and crack under the pick and hammer than the oyster-shell mortar.

Until the early seventies the tracts along the west bank of the Potomac from Dogue’s Creek to Little Hunting Creek were without recorded proprietors. Larger tracts of which this was a part were then granted, some say by the Crown and others say by the Royal Governor in Virginia. The recorders and later chron­iclers seem to contribute much confusion. Perhaps they are right, and the seventeenth century state of Northern Neck titles was confusing.

Certain it is that Charles II in exile, without throne or crown, did grant to two tricky favorites, the Earl of Arlington and Lord Culpepper, “to be held by them for thirty-one years at a yearly rental of forty shillings,” all the lands between the Rappahannock and the Potomac and known as the Northern Neck. Later this grant was withdrawn to be extended again on a larger scale to include ” all that tract and territory, region and dominion of land and water commonly called Virginia.”

Here was strong meat indeed for the stomach of freedmen. It would not digest and was one of the causes which begat Bacon’s Rebellion. In spite of re­sentment their title seems to have been sustained, for Arlington conveyed his share of the proprietorship of Virginia to Culpepper, and the title deeds to Mount Vernon begin with a grant from Lord Culpepper “in the twenty seventh year of the reign of our Sovereigne Lord, King Charles ye Second, Anno Domini 1674,” to Lieu-tenant Colonel John Washington and Colonel Nicholas Spencer, of five thousand acres ” Scituate, lying and being in the County of Stafford”-which county had been cut off from Westmoreland and from a part of which Prince William and Fairfax counties were later created—”in the freshes of the Pottomeek River and neare oppo­site to Piscataway, Indian towne of Mariland.” This Washington, known as John the Emigrant, was the great-grandfather of George of Mount Vernon, and was the first of George Washington’s forebears to cross from England to America.

The greatness of George Washington inflamed the imagination of his early biographers. If we cannot abide by their accuracy it is possible to be amused by their invention. One of them traces his line back through generations and centuries of noble and valiant ancestors, until he brings up at the throne of the hearty Scandinavian deity, Odin, “the god who gives victory.” The name Washington is traced from de Wessynton, to Wessynton without the de, to Washington and Wash­ington. As last written it early appeared as the name of a parish in the County of Durham in England. The forebears of our Washington trace in a direct line through their namesakes of Sulgrave Manor, North­amptonshire, to John Washington of Warton, Lanca­shire. Beyond him is conjecture. After him the line is authentic. His son, the grantee of Sulgrave, was named Lawrence, and his name, like his father’s, reappears frequently in future generations. In the coat of arms¬ engraved on this Lawrence’s tomb in the church at Sulgrave is found the three spur rowels above the red bars on a white field, which appeared as early as 1360 in the seal of William de Wessyngton, and which are popularly regarded as having suggested the stars and stripes of the flag of the United States.

Lawrence of Sulgrave fell upon hard times and he was obliged to give up his manor house, whereupon his good friend and neighbor, Lord Spencer, in 1606 built him the house in the village of Little Brington where he lived during the remaining years of his life. As already in­dicated, the names of Washington and Spencer are to be joined again, in another transaction involving a home, but in Virginia next time, in title deeds on which is founded the proprietorship of Mount Vernon itself.

Washington House, as it has been known and pointed out to pilgrims these hundred years, was afterward occupied by Lawrence’s brother Robert and his family. After Robert’s death Lawrence’s widow came again, and lived there until 1636, when she went into Essex to make her home with her son, another Lawrence, who was rector of Purleigh. This son, the Reverend Lawrence Washington, M.A., married Amphillis Rhodes and their issue was six sons and daughters, among whom was John the Emigrant, and his brother, third of the name of Lawrence, and a sister, who both followed him to America.

At this time England was in civil convulsion. Charles II was in banishment, and the Puritans of the eleven years’ commonwealth were carrying government with a high hand. The Washington family were committed to the royalist cause, not merely by their holding of the Rectory of Purleigh, but by the traditional sympathies inbred by generations of devotion to the crown. Politics deprived the father of his parish in 1643, and, casting about for opportunity and ease from petty perse­cution, his son John, and later his son Lawrence and the young men’s sister, crossed the seas to the colony of Virginia as recited above.

John reached Virginia about 1658. He did not come at once to the upper end of tidewater Potomac. His first plantation was in Westmoreland County between the Rappahannock and the Potomac, and it gave his name to the parish. Soon he married for his second wife Miss Ann Pope, and, where Bridges Creek meets the Potomac seventy miles down river from the present capital, he built a modest dwelling, later named Wake-field. Here were born their eldest son, Lawrence, and this Lawrence’s eldest son, Augustine.

The name of Washington appeared continually in colonial chronicles both of Burgesses and vestry. John Washington, the Emigrant, was a member of the House of Burgesses, and the recurrence of his name in con­nection with the business of the Assembly indicates that he took no unimportant part in its work. This was at Williamsburg. On Wakefield plantation, however, so far away from the gay little capital and so near the frontier, life during the last half of the seventeenth century was even and uneventful, save for brushes with the Indians and the struggle to force the forest back and make the good red clay yield its harvest.

The family evidently rose to some estate, for, after a little more than fifty years in Virginia, it is able to send Augustine, John’s grandson, to England to be educated. On his return he married Jane, daughter of Caleb Butler, of Westmoreland, who bravely wrote “Esquire” after his name. They had four children, but of them only Lawrence and Augustine lived beyond childhood. Jane Washington died in 1728. In less than two years Augustine married again, this time Mary, youngest daughter of Colonel Joseph Ball. He brought her to his Bridges Creek plantation overlooking the lower Potomac, and soon the first blessing of this union was recorded in the old quaint quarto Bible, now among the treasures at Mount Vernon, in these terms.

It was a fruitful union. George’s younger brothers were Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles, and his sisters were Elisabeth, who appears later as Betty, and Mildred, who died in childhood.

Other lands than Wakefield had come into the hands of the great-grandfather of Lawrence and his half-brother George, as already noted in the grant from Lord Culpepper, the crown grantee. This five-thousand-acre holding of John Washington and Nicholas Spencer was not divided until 1690. Meantime John died and in his will bequeathed his half of this tract to his son Lawrence. The division thirteen years later gave him the eastern half, facing Little Hunting Creek, and the Spencer family took the western half, facing Dogue Run.

This Lawrence in his will bequeathed “all my land in Stafford County, lying upon Hunting Creek . . . by estimation 2,500 acres,” to his daughter Mildred. It has been stated that “Mildred died in infancy, and the Hunting Creek estate became the joint possession of the widow and two sons, until it fell to the survivor of them all, Augustine, about the year 1730.” Another historian dismisses this transfer with the comfortable though indefinite remark that “we find. Augustine Washington . . . in possession of one half of the above 5,000 acres in 1740.”

The transfer from Mildred to Augustine is definitely accounted for by a deed of May 26, 1726, from Mildred and her husband, Roger Gregory, to Augustine Wash­ington, “her brother,” for “a moietie or half of five thousand acres formerly Lay’d Out for Collo Nicholas Spencer and the father of Capt Lawrence Washington Bounded as follows Begining by the River Side at the Mouth of Little Hunting Creek and Extending up the said Creek according to the several courses and Meanders thereof nine hundred Eighty and Six Poles to a mark’d A Corner Tree standing on the West side of the South Branch being the main branch of said Hunting Creek From there by a lyne of Mark’d trees west eighteen Degrees South across a Woods to the Dividing Lyne as formerly made Between Madam Francis Spencer and Captain Lawrence Washington and from hence W by the said Lyne to ye River and with the River and all the Courses and Meanders of the said River to the Mouth of the Creek afor’sd.”

Augustine Washington moved up river and estab­lished his family on his Hunting Creek lands within a short time after George’s birth, for Augustine-’s name appears as vestryman of Truro Parish in 1735. Accom­panying the Washingtons came their friend William Fairfax, colonial agent of his cousin Lord Fairfax in Eng­land, on whose lands he settled, nearby his friends.

The Fairfax estate was a long peninsula of nearly three thousand acres on the west side of Dogue Creek, and it was one of the finest set estates on the river. Its waterfront measured, by all its “corses and meanders,” nearly ten miles. The high front jutted out into the deepest point of the river channel, and the creeks, which flanked it east and west, made it possible to enclose the entire acreage with little more than one mile of fence on its western side. On the glorious promontory over-looking the river William Fairfax built Belvoir, a great house destined to be the scene of much that was signifi­cant in the lives of both Lawrence Washington and his young brother George.

Augustine’s Hunting Creek plantation, derived orig­inally from Lord Culpepper, is described in his father’s bequest of 1697 as,,” the land where Mrs. Eliza Minton and Mrs. Williams now live.” These are the earliest recorded dwellers on the lands later to become so famous. It is a strange prank of the chronicles to call attention to two women dwelling in the wilderness, pioneers by nearly half a century of the next known resident. Where were their cabins at the head of the creek secluded from the curiosity of river rovers, or standing boldly forth on the mount by the river, with a free sweep for miles above and below?

From 1735, when Augustine Washington and Mary his wife came to this estate, it was continually owned and occupied by a Washington for one hundred and twenty-three years, when the fame of the spot and the overwhelming rush of pilgrims grew beyond the en-durance of private ownership and it passed into the hands of the association of patriotic women who care for it now.

With Augustine and Mary were their children George, Elisabeth, and Samuel, and possibly John Augustine, though he may have been born here. If Lawrence and Augustine, the elder half-brothers of these children, came to the new home it was for only a short time, for they soon went to England and entered the school at Appleby, up near the Scottish border, in the County of Westmoreland, for which their own native county in Virginia had been named. While living on the upper Potomac the family had been increased by the birth of a daughter, christened Mildred, who died in infancy.

There seems to be no conclusive evidence to determine where Augustine built the first house on this tract. Some historians have accepted the conjecture that he cleared a homestead site and built a house alongside the mill which so long survived him, where the trickling branch met the tidal Dogue Creek. This use of the word creek for bay or inlet is common on all shores of the Chesapeake and its tributary rivers. The running feeder of the creek is more often called the run or branch. It was so in colonial days and it is the same to-day.

Other chroniclers incline to the theory that Augustine reared his house on or near the site of the present mansion. A third theory places it on the site of the greenhouse. Wherever it stood, the first home of the Washing-tons on this site was short-lived. It burned to the ground in 1739. There is no record that it was rebuilt. If we could see the letters that had been passing between Virginia and the Virginian schoolboys in English West­moreland it would perhaps be easier to understand why the father now gathered his young family about him again and moved to yet another Washington property, “Cedar Grove,” the Ferry Farm, on the Rappa­hannock, opposite Fredericksburg.

This thriving little city was no mean centre at this time. It was second in importance only to the capital at Williamsburg. It had no gold-laced governor, no busy burgesses, and no university, but it was a flourishing focus of trade and travel, at the junction of all the roads from the South with the Kingshighway which led to the northern colonies; not a bad place to keep in touch with the world.

Augustine did not return to Westmoreland, because his second son and namesake was then home from Eng­land, or on his way, to marry rich Miss Aylett, and that property was intended for him. The Hunting Creek tract and the mill nearby he had in mind for his eldest boy, Lawrence, and to him he deeded it in 1740, at the same time confirming the gift in his will.

This Lawrence, the third of the name in America, becomes of particular interest to this narrative, for his is the first name definitely identified, as owner and occupant, with the historic mansion which overlooks the Potomac today.