First steps toward greatness - Reflections by L.E. Taylor
The peatmoss river bank was dusted with snow, but felt spongy underfoot. The tall white man was first to leap ashore from the flatboat that had brought him to this stop on his way to Destiny. It had been twenty days since debarking from his farmland in Fairfax County, and now he was in the Ohio River Valley.
In 1750, on British maps, Virginia denoted more than the commonwealth that bears its name today. It was a blank swath of uncharted forests, swamps, mountains, and mystery that extended, unimpeded, from the Eastern Seaboard to the fabled Pacific shore. The western wilds of this other “Virginia” were known best to the Spanish, the French, and the indigenous tribes.
The eighteen year old surveyor owned a mere 10,000 acres of it – well behind him now, receding from the Allegheny Mountains back to the Tidewaters of the colony where his people lived. He’d been contracted by the King’s governor to measure the distant Interior, to map it, and to document what he saw. He was also to meet congenially with any French along the way, as well as with the Indians, to learn what he could, and then to report back.
There was a purpose: To take it all from the European powers peacefully and over time to secure it into the realm of English speaking peoples.
From childhood, George Washington had mastered surveying skills as his part of the family business. He was a farmer. At his father’s death, eleven year old George, and his elder brother Lawrence inherited several thousand acres. They managed it all out of their modest family home, Mount Vernon. When Lawrence died of tuberculosis, young George was left with full responsibility for husbanding the lands, for the planting and reaping of crops, for the livestock, the stables, the smithy, a foundry, structural expansion of the facilities, and the accounting of revenues and expenditures. There was also a brewery.
In the eighteenth century, indentured servants and laborers had become a common means of working a large plantation in the English colonies. George considered slavery to be a costly and inefficient cog of the system, but one that could not be scotched without damage all round, only phased out. In the meantime, he had the burden of providing for the slave families he had “inherited”.
Land survey was a vital aspect of the plantation. Surveying was both art and science. It was one of two components that he could not delegate to others. The other was military defense.
So it was, that even before the boy became the man, that his skills were known around his home colony. Now, at eighteen, he found himself at the Ohio River with winter coming on and serious tasks still to be done. Such unsought responsibility would hound George Washington for another half century.
As he faced the perils of the Kentucky wilderness on this damp, murky day’s end, his mind observed and he reflected. Fatherless, he’d become his own mentor. He knew patience. His surveying calculus taught him to see clues and “think in the long term.” He’d begun to comprehend the potential of this endlessly broad continent. Bit by bit, imperceptibly, the young Washington learned by observing what was before him in this hinterland, and contrasting it with the narrow culture of that settled strip along the seaboard, the fledgling world of new settlers who would be called Americans.
George Washington would come to know beyond doubt that free men would be motivated by one thing above all others: self-interest. He recognized that this land would be hospitable to individual settlements – towns, villages, river ports deep into the untamed frontier, and that the freshwater rivers and lakes could transport the goods of this fecund soil to American seaports for profitable commerce with the world.
He knew that wealth in a free land, unhampered by kings and potentates and ruling despots could be available to all. He saw it through his sextant, he knew it in his mind.
The reasons we honor George Washington each February are many and just. Because he led a ragtag army of rabble to defeat the most powerful military in the world. Because he declined lifetime sovereignty over his country. Because he simply persevered when lesser men would have folded. Because he was the very epitome of manly honor and grace.
But we must understand that it all began before a shot was fired in any of the wars of his lifetime. It began with this one man venturing into a raw continent before its time and returning, not with a dream, but with a logical vision.
- Johnson, Paul; George Washington, the Founding Father; HarperCollins, Publishers: NYC, NY; 2005.
- Bennett, William; Our Sacred Honor; Simon & Schuster; NYC, NY; 1997.
- Ellis, Joseph P.:Founding Brothers – The Revolutionary Generation; Vintage Books, Random House; NYC; 2000.
- Taylor, L.E.; LETsBlog: http://blog.letaylortheauthor.com; Good Words Ruined – Part One; February 12, 2014.