George Washington: General, Founding Father, and … Ecologist?

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Reference: Spurr, S. H. (1951). George Washington, surveyor and ecological observer. Ecology, 32(3), 544-549.

Before George Washington became the military general and Founding Father we know today, he spent years traveling the wilderness and helping divide up land for colonial settlement. His meticulous notes about the natural landscapes have been preserved over time because of his later prominence as a political figure. Today, these documents can be used to reconstruct what forests looked like over 250 years ago.

Here’s the story of Washington’s untold ecological legacy:

Origin Story

On February 22, 1732, a child was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia. No one could have predicted this child would one day be known as the Father of the United States of America. No one could have known the enduring political legacy he would leave behind. On this particular day, the baby boy was simply George, the second son from the second marriage of a plantation owner in colonial Virginia.

Early Exploration
Survey map created by George Washington. Includes one long river and several paragraphs of handwritten text describing the landscape.
Eight survey tracts along the Kanawha River, West Virginia compiled using maps from George Washington, Samuel Lewis, and William Crawford. Photo source: Library of Congress

As George grew up, he followed in his older brother’s footsteps by spending most of his days outdoors. For young men in colonial Virginia, the surest shot to fortune was to work as a surveyor for the local government—land was the main symbol of wealth, and it wasn’t too hard to get. By surveying available territory, men like George not only earned a living, but they were able to pick and choose the best plots for themselves.

George began his first surveying work when he was only 15 years old. Borrowing his father’s compass, he explored the wilderness near the family’s property at Mount Vernon, successfully trying out some of the skills he had learned in school. One year later, George’s older brother connected him with a surveying expedition in the Shenandoah Valley, and George accompanied the group as an intern—taking notes, and learning from some of the more seasoned professionals. By the end of the one-month trip, George was well qualified to be a surveyor of his own right. He was officially hired as a County Surveyor the following year.

On the colonial frontier, the surveyor’s priority was to divide up land for settlement as cheaply and quickly as possible. Teams navigated through the wilderness using just compasses and distance rods and outlined a set of properties in each tract of wilderness. To indicate the edges of the property, they would pick a convenient tree, mark it with a blaze, and jot down details about the location.

Not Just Cherry Trees

Because properties were delineated using forest landmarks, the surveyors’ reputation relied heavily on their ability to quickly and accurately identify trees. George excelled at this, and throughout the course of a few years as a surveyor, he documented at least 35 different tree species, including as many as seven species of oak. All of these notes would be jotted down during the course of the survey in appealing little descriptions like “2 Sycamores & a White Wood tree Standing in ye Fork.”

While many of the records from frontier surveys have been lost over the past 250 years, George’s later fame meant that historians were interested in preserving all of his survey records and journals. Today, these documents leave one of the best pictures we have of the forests of colonial America.

With a few exceptions, almost all of the trees that George mentioned in his surveys are still referred to under the same names today or can be easily identified. Of course, surveyors generally picked the oldest, largest trees to mention as landmarks, and any interpretation of the data must necessarily take that into account. Still, these records provide an important account of the natural landscape over 250 years in the past. Remarkably, that image seems to be very similar to the composition of forests in the same area today.

Most common trees cited by George Washington: White oak 386, Red oak 188, Hickory 142, Pine 132, Chesnut oak 51, Black oak 38, Locust 36, Spanish oak 30, Black walnut 15, Maple 15, Sycamore 15
Most common trees cited in George Washington’s survey notes. Figure created by Abby Lewis using data from Spurr, 1951.
The Rest is History

George’s surveying career didn’t last long. In November of 1752, he began his military career in the provincial military forces and largely stopped conducting surveys. However, he continued to make important observations about the landscape as he traveled. Here’s a beautiful description of the landscape near the Ohio River from Washington’s 1770 trip to scout out land for veterans of the French and Indian wars:

The Lands which I passed over to day were generally Hilly, and the growth chiefly white Oak, but very good notwithstanding; and what is extraordinary, and contrary to the property of all other Lands I ever saw before, the Hills are the richest Land; the Soil upon the Sides and Summits of them, being as black as Coal and the Growth, Walnut, Cherry, Spice Bushes, etca.; the flats are not so rich; and a good deal more mixed with Stone.

From passages like this, ecologists have been able to piece together a detailed picture of the natural environment over 250 years ago.

George Washington may never have considered himself an ecologist, but his meticulous notes and intimate knowledge of the natural environment have played an important role in shaping how we understand the natural history of the colonial United States.


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Abigail Lewis

I am a Ph.D. student studying freshwater ecology and biogeochemistry at Virginia Tech. Whenever possible, I enjoy thinking and writing about the role of science in society, including community-based science, science communication, and science for the public good. In between rehearsals, hikes, and long dinners I am working to build a career that will address environmental issues and build a more inclusive scientific community. Twitter: @lewis_lakes

2 thoughts on “George Washington: General, Founding Father, and … Ecologist?

  • February 18, 2019 at 4:30 pm

    A couple of places toward the end of the article cite dates in the 1900s for things Washington did. Should these dates be the 1700s? Otherwise, this was an interesting story.

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