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IRON ROOTS: HOW THE WASHINGTON FAMILY’S FORTUNES ROSE, FELL, AND ROSE AGAIN
The Washington name derived from that of George Washington’s paternal ancestors, the Wessyngtons. From the thirteenth century through the middle of the seventeenth, the Wessyngton/Washington family was prominent in areas of Northern England, and its members were successful as farmers, merchants, and in other jobs that carried status. George’s great-great-grandfather, Lawrence Washington, was born in Northamptonshire in 1604 and became a pastor.
In Europe and later in colonial America, colleges existed primarily to prepare young men to be ministers. Lawrence studied at Oxford University’s Brasenose College, receiving his degree in 1623. Ten years later, he would become the rector, or administrative leader, of the church of the affluent village of Purleigh in the county of Essex. Lawrence’s son, and George’s great-grandfather, John Washington was born in Purleigh in 1634.1
When the English Civil War broke out in the 1640s, the Washingtons were squarely on the side of the king, and the family suffered greatly because of it. When Essex was captured by Puritans fighting for Parliamentary rule, the Rev. Lawrence Washington was stripped of his clerical position and given the lowly position of vicar, an assistant cleric, at the poor parish of Little Braxted in Essex.2
Lawrence Washington died in poverty in 1654, and all hope for his children seemed to be dashed. But his eldest son, John, proved to be very resourceful. After serving as apprentice to a merchant who imported tobacco from the American colonies, John entered the trade himself, investing in a ship and sailing to Virginia.3 Bad fortune seemed to follow John as a harrowing winter storm sank the ship and all its cargo in the Potomac River on its return voyage. But John took this as a sign that he should stay in Virginia for good and immediately went to work to build his fortune in the new colony.4
Biographer Ron Chernow notes the parallels between John Washington’s ascent in America and that of his great-grandson George. “One marvels at the speed at which the young man prospered in the New World, exhibiting certain traits—a bottomless appetite for land, an avidity for public office, and a zest for frontier combat—that foreshadowed his great-grandson’s rapid ascent in the world.”5 John acquired land at a rapid pace, both from wheeling and dealing for deserted lands and small forests and through the “headright” system by which a colonist received a land grant for bringing over settlers at his own expense. John would accumulate more than 10,000 acres in his lifetime and would operate a mill and a tavern. John would also serve in Virginia’s colonial legislative body, the House of Burgesses.6
In addition, John started another Washington family tradition that would be carried on by his great-grandsons Lawrence and George: advancing socially and economically by “marrying up.” The Washingtons were hard working and enterprising and they attracted wealthy women with their ambition.
John married Anne Pope, whose father, Colonel Nathaniel Pope, was a prosperous tobacco planter. They had three children, the eldest of whom, Lawrence, would become George Washington’s grandfather. Lawrence didn’t add that much land to his inheritance—only about 400 acres—but he too married well. Lawrence wed Mildred Warner, daughter of wealthy Gloucester County tobacco planter Augustine Warner, Jr. In 1694, Lawrence and Mildred would give Augustine’s name to their second son, who would become the father of our first president.
Augustine Washington didn’t inherit much, as by custom and the law of primogeniture the firstborn son most often inherited the bulk of the estate. Augustine received 1,100 acres—not an insignificant amount of land, but a fraction of his father’s holdings. But he did inherit the ambition of his grandfather John Washington. And he developed some savvy about profiting from economic changes that was transmitted to his son George.
When Augustine wed Jane Butler she brought 600 acres of land under his control.7 With this as a foundation, he began purchasing and trading land to build his estate.
Augustine was one of the first to figure out that in the coming industrial age, a land’s value would be determined not just by the crops it could grow, but by the resources that could be extracted from it. The early 1700s was the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain, and the number one material to keep that revolution going was iron, something of which Britain was in short supply.
The colonists found iron in Virginia shortly after they established the first permanent English settlement in Jamestown in 1607. The next year, colony leader Captain John Smith wrote to a friend in England that “Yron” was Jamestown’s “best commoditie” and said that “little chissels” had already been made from an iron ore deposit there.8 Virginia colonists found a few more deposits in the coming years, but it would be another century before there would be significant enough production for export. Events across the ocean—in both Great Britain and far-off destinations such as Sweden and Russia—would lead to an iron boom in Virginia that would shape the life of the man who would become the first American president.
Throughout the seventeenth century, England relied heavily on imports of raw iron from Sweden to meet its manufacturing needs, including ships for the British navy. But in the early years of the eighteenth century, Sweden’s iron exports dropped dramatically due to the effects of the Great Northern War, which pitted the Swedish Empire against Russia. Sweden also hiked export duties on iron from 10 to 25 percent to raise revenue for the war. These factors caused Swedish iron exports to Great Britain to virtually cease by 1718, and they only slowly recovered after Sweden and Russia ceased hostilities in 1721.9 Desperate for another source of iron, the British looked to spur action in colonies where ore deposits had been found.
In 1720, a group of British investors formed the Principio Company to acquire land in colonies with iron ore deposits and to build blast furnaces to smelt the ore into iron bars. The iron would then be shipped back to Great Britain to be made into finished goods. In 1722, Principio began construction of an iron mine and furnace in Cecil County, Maryland, near the border of neighboring Delaware.
Principio’s agents and others looking to get rich prospected for iron ore across the Mid-Atlantic colonies. Deposits were soon found along the Accokeek Creek in Northern Virginia, where Augustine Washington owned property.
Principio tried to buy this land on the cheap, offering Augustine cash and some of his favorite wine to sweeten the deal. But Augustine proved himself to be a brilliant negotiator and entrepreneur in his own right. He acquired all the nearby land with iron that he could. Then he agreed to build a furnace on one of his properties.
In return, Augustine asked for an ownership stake in the Principio Company, giving him one-sixth of the firm’s profits and an opt-out clause to negotiate an even better contract should Principio achieve success.10
The ore used in furnaces in Maryland and Virginia was a coarse, dark-brown sandstone native to the region. A sledgehammer broke the ore into small pieces. Charcoal—made by colliers who burned wood in nearby forests—served as fuel, and oyster shells removed impurities as the ore was transformed into molten metal. Once a fire was started, precise quantities of charcoal, ore, and oyster shells were added to the furnace every few minutes.11
Although George Washington would never come into full possession of either the iron-making property or his father’s share in the Principio Company, his life was shaped to a significant degree by his father’s iron venture. George would make and acquire new tools made of iron material, such as plows, while the smelting facility on Augustine’s land foreshadowed the “industrial village” George would create at Mount Vernon. A ban on manufacturing of iron products in the colonies imposed by Great Britain some three decades later would stoke Washington’s first thoughts of armed revolt.12
As Augustine’s fortunes increased, however, he would also suffer personal tragedy. To finalize the details of the contract with Principio, Augustine traveled to London and took along his two young sons, Lawrence and Augustine, Jr., leaving behind Jane and their four-year-old daughter, also named Jane. With a lucrative contract from Principio in hand, he enrolled his sons in the prestigious Appleby boarding school in Leicestershire, England. Upon returning to Virginia in the spring of 1730, however, he discovered that his wife had suddenly died the previous November, leaving him a widower with three children to look after.
Within a year, Augustine would marry 23-year-old Mary Ball, the strong-willed woman who would become George Washington’s mother. Mary had some wealth in land and livestock, but she had also experienced her share of hard knocks.
Augustine was about 15 years older than Mary. But the difference in ages of Mary’s own parents was much larger than that. Her father, Joseph Ball, a plantation owner and lieutenant colonel in the Lancaster County militia, was a 58-year-old widower and the father of adult children when he married Mary’s mother, a young widow with two children of her own. Joseph died in his early sixties when Mary was three. Her mother remarried and then died when Mary was 12, after which she was shuttled around to live with different relatives. Mary survived this instability by developing a strong independent streak. Her toughness may have turned off other suitors—23 was an “old maid” age in a time when most women married in their teens—but she was probably just what Augustine needed.
Overseeing the iron furnaces and dealing with the British co-owners of Principio meant that Augustine was away much of the time, and Mary was left to run the homestead, which was its own small-business enterprise. According to Lengel, Mary’s responsibilities included “overseeing and keeping accounts; directing purchase from everything from food to furniture, clothes, and home improvements and repairs; instructing slaves and workmen; and seeing to the children’s needs, discipline and education.” Mary and Augustine would soon have a big brood to look after. Their firstborn child would be a boy they named George.
The father of our country took his first breath on February 22, 1732, in a house that his father had built along Pope’s Creek in Westmoreland County, part of Virginia’s Northern Neck Peninsula that sits between the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers. George would soon be followed by his sister Betty and brothers Samuel, John, and Charles. Augustine and Mary’s sixth child, Mildred, would die during infancy. In 1735 George’s older half-sister Jane would also die, at age 12.
When George was two, the Washingtons moved about 70 miles north to land on the banks of the Potomac bordered by the Little Hunting and Dogue Run creeks. The land had been in George’s family since his great-grandfather received it through a grant from Lord Thomas Culpeper. Augustine purchased the property from his sister Mildred in 1726.13
This land would one day be christened Mount Vernon and would become the base of George Washington’s many agricultural, industrial, and entrepreneurial endeavors. But he would only acquire the land through his own diligent efforts and a series of twists and turns. George Washington’s career as an entrepreneur would begin some 40 miles south of Mount Vernon, on a farm that was much more modest.
Copyright © 2020 by John Berlau