- Virginia Johnson
Virginia has long held the nickname of “the mother of presidents,” and surely its most famous native son was the first president, George Washington. His birthplace in Westmoreland County, now a national monument, can be visited today and often features living history performers demonstrating what life was like in the times he knew. George Washington’s Virginia, by John R. Maass, takes you on a tour of the many, many places in the Old Dominion that were familiar to the surveyor turned soldier.
When he was a young boy, he moved to Stafford County, to a place now known as Ferry Farm. It was, indeed, a farm in George’s day, and, after his father’s death, his mother Mary ran it until declining health (she died of cancer in 1789) caused her to live in a small house adjacent to her daughter’s and son-in-law’s estate, now known as Kenmore. Kenmore is located across the Rappahannock River from Ferry Farm in the town of Fredericksburg, which would not be separate politically from Spotsylvania until 1879, more than a decade after the Civil War.
Even after he moved to Mount Vernon in Fairfax County, to take over the estate he inherited from his beloved brother, George was a frequent visitor to our area as he still had family, friends and business interests here, and many of those sites can still be visited. But there were plenty of other places where George would have journeyed, whether on political business or for personal matters, and this book is a good guide to those, too.
The problem with really understanding colonial times is that landscape has changed so much. Where there are highways and malls now, there used to be fields, woods, farms, and mills. George Washington’s Virginia allows readers to do a kind of time-traveling to the days when proximity to rivers dictated major settlement patterns, and travel by road, especially during winter or a mucky spring thaw, was a significant undertaking. Along with photographs of paintings of people and places, Maass includes maps designed to show what would have mattered to Washington, disclosing the locations of his friends and family, much of which is lies adjacent to what became known as “the Burgess Route.” For the military-minded, there are also strategic maps of Yorktown, as well as a portion of “the Washington-Rochambeau Route,” which was the road the combined American and French forces took to Yorktown.
George Washington’s Virginia gives a wonderful overview from the first president’s vantage point as he traveled through the countryside, from his farms in Fairfax County to the Shenandoah Valley, where he served as a surveyor, to Williamsburg, the seat of government, to the ultimately victorious battlefield at Yorktown. It touches on many of the homes, churches, and taverns he knew—some of which can be visited today—and weaves in stories from his life, including how his financial gift helped establish Liberty Hall school in the Shenandoah Valley, which was later known as Washington Academy and, later still, as Washington & Lee University.
As one of the many popular History Press publications, George Washington’s Virginia is written to intrigue and enlighten a general audience of history enthusiasts without overwhelming them with academic language. Readers will not encounter footnotes, but they will find a bibliography and an index.