WHEN Lawrence took possession of his estate “in the freshes of the Pottomeek river and neare opposite to Piscataway, Indian town of Mariland,” there is no assurance that he found more than two important buildings. Of cabins for the slaves and shelter for the animals there was probably a plenty of some kind, but the enduring “improvements” were the mill back at the head of Dogue Creek and probably the old brick barn on the mount overlooking the river.
The mill ground flour for over a century, and the ancients of the neighborhood can still remember it standing before the Civil War. Eventually it succumbed to abandonment, though even tò-day one traces its dimensions in the rounded banks left on the site of its foundations, which were pilfered piecemeal to help support many a younger house in the neighborhood. The mill is worth bearing in mind, for it will have its part to play in this story, and will be the last place on the estate visited by its chief personage before he died. The barn has fared better than the mill. It stands today stout and strong, the- proud veteran of the village of buildings on either side of the bowling green.
There are various scraps of tradition about other pioneer buildings. Lossing speaks of “the original cottage” where hung “the dingy iron lantern” which during George’s occupancy of the mansion lighted the hall. The lantern was taken to Arlington after Mrs. Washington’s death, and after a long interval at the National Museum in the Capital City is again in the hall at Mount Vernon. There is a tradition in the Washington family that the lantern was given to Lawrence by Admiral Vernon. Where “the original cottage” stood or what became of it Lossing did not say. Moncure D. Conway says “an old house stood where Washington built his greenhouses in which probably the four years of his childhood there were passed,” and asserts with certainty that Lawrence built Mount Vernon house.
Whatever Lawrence found on his estate when he came into possession, he seems to have had other ideas than settling down to the life of a planter. At twenty-two the heel is spry. Besides, the call had gone forth from the mother country for a quota of troops from her American colonies to reinforce General Wentworth and Admiral Vernon, who were disciplining the West Indian Spanish.
Lawrence received a captain’s commission, departed with the colonial troops, fought at Carthagena, survived the fever scourge which swept away many times more than Spanish marksmanship, and returned to his Potomac estate in the autumn of 1742.
What of his land in the interval? Did it await its master’s coming untenanted and abandoned, or are we privileged to think of it still humanized by the presence of the aged but undaunted Amazons of the frontier, Mrs. Minton and Mrs. Williams?
His sympathy with a military career and his affection for his commanders, Vernon and Wentworth, were so strong that he displayed some restlessness on his return to Virginia and considered going to England and joining his regiment. But another and stronger affection had taken root in his heart, one that bound him to Virginia and his own neighborhood with tender but unyielding bonds.
At the neighboring mansion of Belvoir there was more than a neighbor’s welcome for him. William Fairfax had two daughters, and Lawrence spent the winter after his return in the most absorbing of all adventures, that of winning a wife. In the spring of 1743 he and Anne Fairfax, the elder of the two sisters, were prepared to be married, when he was summoned down to Cedar Grove, opposite Fredericksburg, by the illness and death of his father, and he became the head of the family in America. He was an executor of his father’s will and devoted himself to his father’s bequests. In July he went over to Belvoir, claimed his bride, and brought her to their home on the heights which, in remembrance of his admired commander, he named Mount Vernon.
Nature is constant, and to-day the same outlook charms the eye from the Mount Vernon doorway that greeted Lawrence and Anne. Before them the river extended nearly a mile from the Virginia to the Mary-land shore. To the left it seemed to sweep toward them through a break in a high ridge. Already the Digges family had reared Warburton Manor on the opposite point, where now rises Fort Washington, and at its foot broad Piscataway Creek, joining the Potomac, lay revealed along its more than two miles of length. The low Maryland shore opposite accented the height of Mount Vernon. To the right the river swept majestically to the southwest, passed the high green point of Belvoir, and was abruptly bended toward the south by the distant shore of Mason’s Neck, where, back on the highland, was soon to rise George Mason’s Gunston Hall. The panorama embraced nearly twelve miles of water.
Mount Vernon stands on what is literally a mount, though to the casual observer the house appears to stand merely on a high bank, a part of a continuous shore-line elevation. The land in fact slopes away in all directions. On the west it descends to the first river bottom elevation, which extends the mile and a quarter to Dogue’s Creek. On the east it falls away to the water at its boundary, Little Hunting Creek, and on this side of the estate the west bank of the Potomac does not rise again to the same level until it reaches the highlands at Georgetown. On the north and west the elevation drops away to the broad valley through which runs the historic Kingshighway.
Lawrence was twenty-five years old at the time of his marriage, and during the next ten years he developed into one of the important men of the colony. His marriage had united him to one of the great families of Virginia, for Anne was a cousin of Thomas Lord Fairfax, and her half-brother, Bryan, succeeded to the title though he did not assume it. His landed possessions exceeded twenty-five hundred acres, for to his hereditary tract he added at least two hundred acres near the mill. The royal governor appointed him adjutant of his military district, with the rank of major, though with a salary of only one hundred and fifty pounds a year, and he repeatedly represented his county in the House of Burgesses at Williamsburg. In 1750 he was made president of the Ohio Company, formed the year before to colonize the great wilderness of the Ohio Valley, under a royal grant of five hundred thousand acres.
In his effort to carry out the work of the company of which he found himself the president he proposed introducing German immigrants from the colony of Pennsylvania. Being dissenters, they ran into a net of double taxation by moving into the jurisdiction of Virginia, which was the occasion for Lawrence Washington, in the face of the state establishment, to deliver what is one of the first, if not the first, appeals for religious tolerance in the history of the colony of Virginia.
It has ever been my opinion and I hope it ever will be,” he said, “that restraints on conscience are cruel in regard to those on whom they are imposed, and injurious to the country imposing them.”
Lawrence left no journals and few letters. There is little on which to found a picture of life at Mount Vernon while he was master. It could scarcely have been gay. Anne bore him four children, but not one lived beyond babyhood.
To break their loneliness Lawrence’s young brother George often came to visit them, sometimes sailing up river from Westmoreland, oftener on horseback over the road from his mother’s place at Fredericksburg. These visits meant much to both brothers, for the affection which existed between them is often attested.
Though George was merely in his mid-teens, he was Lawrence’s eldest unmarried brother and the prospective head of the family. A real intimacy existed between Lawrence of twenty-nine and George of fifteen, and it disclosed the boy’s promise to the elder’s shrewd observation.
Such accounts of George’s youth as have come down to us languish under the doubts of the historians. How-ever, that which cannot be proven need not be despised. Conway calls it “Washington Mythology, a folklore such as must always invest the founders of nations or the man of the people. Washington is en-titled to his Washington-lore, by which, indeed, he is rather draped than disguised.”
Lawrence saw him through no such illumination. He was doubtless not less amused than edified by the boy’s first literary product, the astonishing Rules of Civility and Conduct, written when he was fourteen. If he left his brief schooling “a bad speller and a still worse grammarian,” Lawrence knew him for a good cipherer, a skilful horseman, and a young man of firm grasp and sound judgment, of normal appetites, willingness, application, endurance, and thoroughness in work and play.
There came a day in the autumn of 1747 when George arrived, not to visit merely. He came to make Mount Vernon his home. It had in reality been familiar to him from his earliest recollection. His father had moved up river from Westmoreland when George was only three years old, too young to have left behind any permanent impressions, but old enough to enjoy his environment. It was the waters of Hunting Creek and Dogue Creek and the fields and woods between which were the background of his first boyhood experiences.
Here “in his sixth year,” according to Parson Weems, he acted the immortal scene of the cherry-tree and the hatchet, a piece of boyish heroism it is pleasant to see growing again into some standing as history after the long reaction against its acceptance. Parson Weems was a victim of his own florid, extravagant style. The incidents he related very probably did not happen as he related them, but stripped of the halo of romantic morality he gave them, in merely following a literary fashion of his time, there is little reason to discredit them. The writer had excellent opportunity to gather the facts of George’s boyhood at first, or, at most, second hand. He knew him, man and boy, well. For a time he officiated at Pohick Church, which the Mount Vernon family attended and which he erroneously, but with an eye to the main chance, called Mount Vernon Parish” on his title page. Moreover, he was an intimate of Washington’s intimates and married Fanny Ewell, of Belle Aire, whose mother was a near relative of Washington’s. Perhaps she was the anonymous lady from whom he acknowledges having received the cherry-tree story.
Until he returned to Mount Vernon to live George had four homes among which he divided his time. The schooldays were spent at his mother’s house on the Rappahannock. The earlier vacation days he spent at his birthplace, Wakefield, down on the Westmoreland shore of the Potomac, visiting his half-brother, Augustine, whom he called Austin. His mother’s home was somewhat austere. There was another kind of life at Wakefield, kept up by his rich sister-in-law’s money.
It was at Belvoir and Mount Vernon, however, that he found the stimulating and refining influences which reacted on his character. Lawrence was a far-travelled man. He had been to school in England and had fought in the West Indies. In the adventures he recounted there was fuel indeed for a hungry boyish curiosity. Vessels of His Majesty’s navy came up the river and anchored off Mount Vernon, and the officers, among whom were some with whom Lawrence had fought at Carthagena, came ashore. Over the punch and toddy, through the haze of smoke rolling from the long church-wardens, while the candles burned bright, there was brave talk enough, of campaigns and strategy, to fire the imagination of the listening lad of fifteen.
At Belvoir he came under another influence, that of a polished English household, no negligible substitute for that trip abroad which he was never privileged to take. At his mother’s there was the discipline and the sound, simple morality which strengthened the root and branch of his character, but at Mount Vernon and Belvoir he found an outlook on a broader world of experience and culture which produced the bloom thereon.
The Mount Vernon that young George came to was far from being the extensive mansion which he left fifty years later and which the pilgrim finds today. There was no spreading village of outbuildings. The big brick barn and only a few frail sheds and cabins for the slaves stood detached from the house. There were no colonnades flung from the ends, no lofty portico on the river front, and the house itself was only a portion of the mansion into which it later expanded.
The history of the house is easily read in the evidence in the building itself, and George Washington’s letters confirm the conjectures of the architectural archeologist. Detach the present banquet hall on the north and the library on the south, together with the second story thereof, and the developments of the third story, and the original house remains. Then, as to-day, there was the central hall extending from western front to river front, but divided at that time by a partition midway between the two doors on each of the sides. On each side of the hall were two rooms. The same stairway wound gracefully to the second floor, where the small upper hall opened into the four large bedrooms over the four large rooms below, and a small room matched the space at the east end of the hall. It was not accounted a large house for a colonial country gentleman of family.
The foundations were of sandstone. The cellar extended the full length and breadth of the house, with partition walls of brick held by oyster-shell mortar. This stone is showing age in a way that might be translated into an argument for the theory that they held up Augustine Washington’s house which burned in 1739. Years and whitewash have destroyed all charred traces, if there were any. But the damp, which creeps into the cool cellar in the hot summer and is evaporated by the artificial heat introduced over the past twenty winters, is having a curious pulverizing effect which the severe baking in an early fire might explain.
Midway of the central north and south alley there was found in the west wall, years ago, a carefully en-graved stone called “the corner stone.” It may be seen to-clay under glass in one of the upper rooms of the mansion, whither it has been removed out of danger of the disintegrating effects of the damp and heat. A copy, cut to scale, has been inserted in the place of the original in the cellar wall. The stone is twenty-three inches long, by seventeen and one-half inches high, by six inches thick. In the centre of the carved face are two crossed battle-axes in whose angle is engraved a heart. On either side of the axes are the initials of Lawrence Washington, “L. W.” It adds to the enigma of the original builder, for apparently only he himself would have put his initials on the cornerstone. Those who advance his father, Augustine, as the builder of Mount Vernon say that he intended the house for this son and they claim the initialled stone as evidence of their theory.
In one corner of the original cellars, the one to the southwest, there is a well opening filled up but clearly defined. A curious place to put a well, it would seem, but conditions at the time explain. It is said to have been the custom in the colonies, at least for houses in the new country on the frontier not far from the receding Indians, to dig a well under the house, so that in case of barricade against attack or in case the women of the family wanted water in the absence of the menfolk, there would be a protected supply in reach without risk.
The original hand-hewn oak beams are apparently as strong today as when laid in. There, too, are the stout oak pins with which they were put together. Nails were not admitted to the larger timbers of the colonial house. It is only in the lighter pieces of the trim and in the broad planked floors that nails appear. They were handwrought, in a forge on the place as a rule, and their heads were long and exceeding thin.
There is nothing to gainsay the belief that George saw these cellars dug and walled; the huge oaks felled and hewn and pinned in place; the walls reared and roofed and the whole put under the protection of the coats of white lead and oil, for the house was a part of all his life.