The story of the cherry tree is typically the extent that most people experience George Washington's childhood. George Washington's father, Augustine Washington, asks George who had stripped the bark off one of his cherry trees. George responds, "I cannot tell a lie, Pa. I did cut it with my hatchet." Rather than become angry, George's father embraces his courage and honesty.
While this story provides ample opportunity to communicate George Washington's morals to children, it is probably not true. It also leaves out far more interesting points about his childhood.
George Washington was born on February 11, 1731. In 1752 Britain and all of its colonies changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, which changed the date to February 22, 1732.
He was born in a cheaply built house near where Popes Creek enters into the Potomac. Today, the birth place is a United States National Park located at 1732 Pope's Creek Road Colonial Beach, VA 22443.
As an infant, George Washington and his family moved from Popes Creek to what would eventually be known as Mount Vernon. When he was 6 he and his family left Mount Vernon.
The spot where George Washington spent most of his childhood was on a farm across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, VA. It is called Ferry Farm due to the public ferry that operated on the land. Today, Ferry Farm is maintained by The George Washington Foundation.
A major turning point in George Washington's childhood occurred when he was 11. His father, Augustine Washington, passed away.
His experience was dramatically changed by this event. His father's plan was to send him to school in England like his two older step brothers. When his father died there was no way for the family to afford school in England. In fact, the death of his father left George's immediate family with strained finances. Augustine Washington left most of his assets to George's older step brothers. In the 1700's it was customary for widows to find a new husband to help with the expenses of raising a family. George's mother, Mary Ball Washington, never remarried which put more of a burden on George to quickly assume the role of man of the house.
Exercise books from George Washington's childhood education have been preserved and digitized by the Library of Congress and are available online. One book contained mathematics studies showing that he gained sufficient mastery of geometry to provide a basis for his early career as a surveyor. The second contained legal documents needed to run a farm and ended with a copy of the Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. It is unclear where George learned these lessons as there is only one formal school noted in George Washington's childhood records. Clearly, the education was sufficient for his careers in engineering, farming, business, war, and politics.
With no father, George turned to his step brother Lawrence. Lawrence inherited Mount Vernon from Augustine.
Lawrence became an officer in an American regiment of the British regular army. Lawrence's regiment served on an expedition in 1741 to conquer Cartegena. Though the expedition failed, Lawrence returned safely and thought so highly of the admiral leading the expedition, Edward Vernon, that he renamed his farm and plantation after him.
William Fairfax, the American agent of his cousin, British Lord Thomas Fairfax, purchased land overlooking the Potomac in 1738 and built Belvoir. The land is currently on Fort Belvoir, a United States Army base. William's eldest daughter, Anne Fairfax married Lawrence Washington. His son, George William Fairfax, was friendly with George Washington. George was allowed to accompany a surveying party that the Farifax's commissioned to lay out land they owned over the Blue Ridge mountain in the Shenandoah Valley.
George used this experience with the survey party and set himself up as surveyor over the Blue Ridge Mountains at age seventeen. At age eighteen, he purchased 1,459 acres of land on Bullskin Creek.
Lawrence Washington contracted tuberculosis. George accompanied Lawrence on a trip to Barbados with the hope of improving Lawrence's health. The trip to Barbados was the only time George Washington was ever at sea or outside the United States. Unfortunately, the trip did not cure the tuberculosis. Lawrence Washington died at his Mount Vernon home in July 1752.
Lawrence Washington had been Adjutant General of the Virginia militia. Upon his death, George sought the office. At the age of 20, he secured the title of major with the responsibility of training the militia.