Many a Mickle Makes a Muckle:
George Washington’s Scottish Connections

A Talk by Mary V. Thompson, Research Specialist,
Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association
To the Clan McAllister of America
At the Double-Tree Hotel Falls Church, Virginia, Friday, July 2, 2004

As we begin today, I’d like you to picture in your mind some still photographs of scenes from George Washington’s life (I know the camera hadn’t been invented yet, but please just humor me for a minute). There is George Washington, the quintessential American—strong, rugged, exhibiting both physical and moral bravery, as he crossed an ice-choked river to surprise the Hessians at Trenton during the Revolution. Or there is George Washington, the Southern gentleman, entertaining guests in his beautiful mansion or recklessly following his hounds as they chased a wily fox across the fields. Yet again, there is also Washington the elder statesman on the dollar bill, a firm leader, filled with wisdom gained through a long life in public service. In a way, all these snapshots of Washington are true, but when you animate these scenes by adding sound and action to the pictures, you might well hear Scottish voices as you listen to the dialogue. While Washington’s own Scottish ancestry is a bit questionable, many of his friends, employees, and admirers were undoubtedly from that country and I thought it might be fun to look at Washington’s life, with a focus on those individuals.

When he was contacted by an Englishman about his genealogy, George Washington wrote that this was a subject “to which I confess I have paid very little attention. My time has been so much occupied in the busy and active scenes of life from an early period of it that but a small portion of it could have been devoted to researches of this nature, even if my inclination or particular circumstances should have prompted the enquiry.”[1]

  While genealogy may not have been a subject of great interest to him, there have been a number of attempts by others to trace Washington's ancestry back as far as it is possible to go.  In 1879, a man named Albert Welles, who was the President of the American College for Genealogical Registry and Heraldry, published his version, under the title The Pedigree and History of the Washington Family:  Derived from Odin, the Founder of Scandinavia, B.C. 70, Involving a Period of Eighteen Centuries, and Including Fifty-five Generations, Down to General George Washington, First President of the United States. Among those legendary ancestors from the mists of time was Torfidur, who became Earl of the Orkneys in the year 942 and married Grelota, the daughter of Dungad, the Earl of Caithness.  Their third son, Lodver, succeeded his father as Earl of the Orkneys.  Lodver’s son, Sigurd, was also Earl of the Orkney Isles and married a woman named Thora, who was the daughter of Malcolm, the King of Scotland.[2]  So, depending on how reliable you take those very early records to be, Washington may well have descended from the Scottish king depicted in William Shakespeare’s memorable tragedy, MacBeth.

The story of the Washington family in America began in the mid-1650s, when two young men, John Washington (1632-1677) and his younger brother, (1635-1677), arrived in Virginia.  Their family had been loyal to the deposed king, Charles I (1600-1648), during the English Civil War, and the brothers saw little future for themselves in England, as long as Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) and Parliament were in control of the government, so they had set out to make their fortunes in the colonies.  Both quickly established themselves, volunteering for public service and marrying well, as stepping-stones to advancement.  Following the restoration of Charles II (1630-1685) to the English throne, John Washington and a friend named Nicholas Spencer (died 1689) were honored in 1674 with a grant from the king of a 5,000-acre property along the Potomac River, which would be known for the next few decades as Little Hunting Creek Plantation. 

John Washington’s great-grandson, George Washington (1731-1799), was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, in February of 1732, as the eldest child of the second marriage of a man named Augustine Washington (1694-1743).  As a small boy, George Washington would move several times, between farms owned by his father in different parts of the colony, including the Little Hunting Creek property.  His father’s death, when the little boy was only eleven, meant that he would never have the English education enjoyed by his older half-brothers, a lack he would feel keenly in later years.  Schooled in Virginia, he seems to have spent much of his teenage years bouncing between the homes of his mother, his two older half-brothers, and his cousins.  One of those half-brothers, Lawrence Washington (1718-1752), had had an early military career and made his home at Little Hunting Creek, the property he inherited from their father, and soon renamed “Mount Vernon,” in honor of his former commander in the British Navy.  Lawrence married into the very prominent family of Belvoir Plantation, and it was through those connections that George Washington began to make his way in the world.  One very useful connection acquired through Lawrence’s in-laws was a Scottish merchant named John Carlyle (1720-1780), who lived in the nearby town of Alexandria and, as a member of the Ohio Company, shared the Washingtons’ strong interest in western exploration.  Carlyle was married to Sarah Fairfax (1730-1761), who was Lawrence’s sister-in-law, and would become a friend to his younger brother, George, as well.[4]

At the age of sixteen, George Washington served as a member of a party surveying the western lands belonging to Thomas, Lord Fairfax (1693-1781), a trip, which introduced him to frontiersmen, Native Americans, and life in the wilderness. Over the next few years, he continued working as a surveyor, but also accompanied Lawrence, who was dying of tuberculosis, to the island of Barbados, in the hopes of curing, or at least improving, his condition. This would be Washington’s only trip outside of what is now the continental United States and was memorable, as well, because he caught smallpox on the island, rendering him immune from this disease, which would later threaten his army during the American Revolution. It was during this period in George Washington’s life that the town of Alexandria, Virginia, which still considers itself his hometown, was founded. About the time of his birth, a warehouse had been constructed at the spot where Great Hunting Creek flowed into the Potomac River; here tobacco and other agricultural products could be brought from neighboring plantations, before shipping those commodities to Britain for sale. Over the intervening years, a little village, known as Belle Haven, had grown up around the warehouse and, in 1748, the residents petitioned the Virginia House of Burgesses for permission to officially establish a town. The Burgesses agreed to the petition, declaring that the proposed town, “would be commodious for trade and navigation, and tend greatly to the best advantage of frontier inhabitants.” Many of the early proprietors of the community were Scottish merchants, with business connections to firms in Glasgow, and it was decided that the town would be called Alexandria, after one of them—the Alexander family, who provided much of the land on which it was built. The Fairfax County surveyor, John West, Jr. (died 1777), laid out the town’s streets in the summer of 1749 and there is a long-standing tradition that he was assisted in this task by seventeen year old George Washington, who proudly drew a street plan for his older half-brother, Lawrence.[5]  Alexandria still cherishes its Scottish roots and each December celebrates that heritage with a several-day long festival known as the Scottish Walk.

Shortly after Lawrence’s death in 1752, George Washington became involved in the conflict between Britain and France, which was playing out in the forests of what is now Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. After taking part in an important diplomatic mission for the governor of Virginia, Washington’s journal about the mission was published on both sides of the Atlantic, bringing this young man in his early twenties international acclaim. British General Edward Braddock (1695-1755) came to Alexandria in 1755 to plan the first major campaign of what we now call the French and Indian War. On April 14, 1755, the General met at John Carlyle’s home with the royal governors of Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Massachusetts to discuss their mutual defense against the French and their Native American allies. Washington excitedly wrote that, “Alexandria has been honoured with 5 Governours [sic] in Consultation—a favourable presage I hope, not only of the success of this Expedition, but of the future greatness of this Town for surely, such a meeting must have been occasioned by the Commodious and pleasant situation of the place, which prognosticates population and the encrease [sic] of a now flourishing Trade.” The more experienced Carlyle, however, was disillusioned by the British, writing that they “came In [sic] so prejudiced against us, our Country & etc. that they used us Like an Enemy Country: took everything they wanted & paid Nothing, or Very little for it. When Complaints was made to the Commanding Officers, they Curst the Country & Inhabitants, Calling us the Spawn of Convicts, the Sweepings of the Gaols & etc., which made their Company very disagreeable.”[6]

General Braddock would ignore the advice of his volunteer aide, George Washington, and other colonials and led his army into an infamous ambush and defeat in what is now western Pennsylvania. He left Alexandria with 2,400 men (both Regular and militia troops), 500 pieces of ordnance, 400 wagons, and 1,000 baggage horses; at the end of the battle, Braddock was dead, 975 of his men had been killed, and almost all of the supplies were lost. Although he had four bullets shot through his coat and two horses shot out from under him that day, George Washington was unhurt and has been credited with saving what was left of Braddock’s forces. Over the next three years, he was largely responsible for protecting the English settlements along a 300-mile stretch of wilderness. His troops were supplied by John Carlyle, who also bought slaves for him, sold and shipped his tobacco, ordered goods for him from England, forwarded his mail, and supervised the roofing of buildings at Mount Vernon [7]

George Washington’s military secretary for two years of the conflict was a man named John Kirkpatrick. An immigrant from Kirkcudbright in Galloway in Scotland, Kirkpatrick had been in business in Alexandria, when Washington hired him in the fall of 1755. Washington really seems to have liked Kirkpatrick, describing him to Robert Dinwiddie (1693-1770), the Scottish-born governor of Virginia, as “a young Man bred to business, of good character, well recommended, and a person whose Abilitys [sic] coud [sic] not be doubted.” In 1757, Washington recommended him, unsuccessfully, for an appointment as ensign and “Commissary of Musters.”[8]

It was at this same period that one of the long-lasting Scottish influences in George Washington’s life first made an appearance. James Craik (circa 1730-1814) would be with him through many adventures, from the time they were in their twenties, until Washington’s death in 1799. Craik had been born near Dumfries in southern Scotland. He was the illegitimate son of William Craik, the laird of Arbigland, a 1,400-acre estate on the Firth of Solway on the west coast. The estate boasted a staff of “over a hundred maids, grooms, cooks, gamekeepers, and gardeners” (as an aside, the head gardener on the estate was the father of John Paul Jones (1747-1792), who would become known as the father of the American Navy). Politically, Craik’s father had sided with the British, rather than the Jacobites, in the 1740s, when Charles Edward Stuart (1720-1788), known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” was trying to reclaim the throne of Great Britain. The elder Craik was a talented but imperious man, who was said to understand “Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, and Italian,” had made “some little progress in Spanish,” was a “tolerable architect,” “fond of chemistry,” and “read much on learned subjects.” His illegitimate son must have inherited his brains. After studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh, James Craik emigrated to the West Indies in 1750. He later moved to Norfolk, Virginia, where he practiced medicine for a time, before moving on to the frontier town of Winchester, Virginia. There he became the surgeon for the soldiers at Fort Loudoun. Craik joined the Virginia Regiment in March of 1754 and would remain with them as their unit surgeon until the regiment was disbanded in 1762.[9]  Interestingly, George Washington’s field notebooks record that, in April of 1750, during the time he was a young surveyor on the frontier and several years before they probably met, he surveyed 400 acres on the North River in Frederick County, Virginia; that property would eventually be granted to James Craik and Philip Bush in March of 1771.10]  The land grant would have been payment to Craik for his service during the French and Indian War.

Washington and James Craik, who was known to his unit as “Little Crocus,” went through many trials together during the French and Indian War.[11]  Years afterward, Washington wrote of one of those battles, which took place at Fort Necessity, and about Dr. Craik’s role in the conflict.  He told of how on the 3rd of July in 1754, about 9 o’clock in the morning, “the Enemy advanced with & dismal Indian yells to our Intrenchments,” but were opposed by such a “warm, spirited, and constant a fire, that to force the works in that way was abandoned by them.”  The enemy then changed tactics, firing continually “from every little rising—tree—stump—Stone—and bush,” which Washington’s troops “returned in the best manner we could,” until, in the late afternoon, it began raining.  Years later, Washington would remember this as “the most tremendous rain that can be conceived,” which “filled our trenches with Water—Wet, not only the Ammunition in the Cartouch boxes and firelocks, but that which was in a small temporary Stockade in the middle” of the fort.  With the ammunition now completely wet and unusable, Washington’s forces had only “a few…Bayonets for defence [sic].”  The enemy gave them the chance to surrender and Washington assessed his situation:  in addition to the lack of fire power they could muster, there was no salted meat and virtually no fresh provisions, which would not keep for long anyway because of the heat; casualties were heavy, with fully one-third of the officers and men having been killed or wounded.  The next morning, the Virginians surrendered, leaving “Our Sick and wounded…with a detachment under the care, and command of the worthy Doctr Craik (for he was not only Surgeon to the Regiment but a lieutt therein) with such necessaries as we could [collect].”[12]  Dr. Craik’s responsibilities were made more difficult to carry out, because his medical bag or “Doctor’s Box,” as it was described, had been destroyed by the Indians.[13]

The late 1750s and early 1760s would be a time of change for the two friends.  Washington became gravely ill in the fall of 1757 and was forced to return to Mount Vernon for several months to recover.  A letter sent to him by James Craik at this time testifies to the closeness between the two:

“The dissagreeable [sic] news…of the Increase of your disorder, is [of] real concern to me—I had been flatering [sic] my self [sic] with the Pleasant hope of seeing you here again soon—thinking that the change of Air, with the quiet Situation of Mount Vernon—would have been a Speedy means of your recovery—however as your disorder hath been of long Standing, and hath corrupted the whole mass of Blood—it will require some time for to remove the cause—And I hope by the Assistance of God and the requesite [sic] care, that will be taken of you, where you now are:  that tho. your disorder may reduce you to the lowest ebb; yet you will in a short time get the better of it—And render your freinds [sic] here happy, by having the honour of serving once more under your Command—As nothing is more conducive to a Speedy recovery, than a tranquill [sic] easy mind, Accompanied with a good flow of Spirits—I would beg of you; not, as a Physician; but as a real friend who has your Speedy recovery Sincerely at heart; that you will keep up your Spirits, and not allow your mind to be disturbed, with any part of Publick [sic]] bussiness [sic]…Any little step of this kind, that might happen, would be triffling [sic] to the Neglect of yourself—The fate of your Friends and Country are in a manner dependent upon your recovery—And as I am sensible of the regard you have for both, I make no doubt, but that you will use every endeavour that will be in the least conducive to your recovery so that both may still rejoice in the Enjoyment of you…. As reading & writing must be very troublesome to you in your present Circumstance, I shall only Pray God, who is the best of all Physicians, that he in his infinite mercy, may restore you, to your wonted health, and preserve you in the Command which is so agreeable to many, and none more so, than to him, who has the honour, to subscribe himself with the greatest Duty & Esteem Dr Sir Your Most Aff[ectionat]e & Devoted huml. Ser[van]t….”[14]

By 1758 George Washington had decided to leave the military and turn to the life of a gentleman planter. While still in the army, he ran for the Virginia House of Burgesses, however, because he was involved in a military operation on the frontier, his friend, John Carlyle, campaigned for him.[15]  At the same time, knowing that Washington was beginning a new life, James Craik started asking questions about his own future and asked Washington for advice. He wrote on December 20th of 1758 concerning the Virginia Regiment’s “irrepareable [sic] lose [sic], loseing [sic] you,” and how the “very thoughts of this lyes [sic] heavy on the whole whenever they think of it—and dread the consequence of your resigning.” Craik then went on to ask about himself, hoping for his friend’s advice, “whether or not you think, I had better continue, if they choose to keep me untill [sic] my Medecines [sic] come from England, or whether I had better resign directly—for I am resolved not to stay in the service when you quit it.” The residents of Winchester had been asking Craik to take up a civilian practice among them and he asked Washington “whether or not you think I had better except [sic] of their importunities—or settle in Fairfax [County] where you was [sic] so kind as to offer me your most freindly [sic] assistance.” He closed this section of the letter with the words, “I hope you’l [sic] pardon my freedom in giving you this trouble—For as I have experienced so much of your friendship and received so much friendly countenance from you—I cannot help consulting you on this occasion as my most sincere friend.”[16]  A little over a week later, after receiving a letter from Washington, Craik wrote again, noting that Washington’s friendship was of a type that “is seldom to be met with” and that his repeated kindnesses “are so great that I shall never be able to repay them.”[17]

One of George Washington’s first actions as a civilian was to marry a pretty—and rich—young widow, named Martha Dandridge Custis (1731-1802), on January 6th, 1759. The couple, along with the bride’s two small children, would make their home at Mount Vernon, the plantation he inherited from Lawrence. For the next sixteen years, their lives would largely revolve around the plantation and friends in the area. John Carlyle and his family were frequent guests at Mount Vernon and the Washingtons often had dinner at the Carlyles’ lovely home in Alexandria.[18]  Dr. Craik would settle down at a plantation in Port Tobacco in Charles County, Maryland, across the Potomac River from Mount Vernon.  On November 13, 1760, he married Mariamne Ewell (1740-1814) of Prince William County, Virginia, who was the daughter of George Washington’s cousin, and the two soon started a family, which would eventually number nine children.  One of the sons was even named George Washington Craik (1774-1808), in honor of his father’s dear friend, who helped to pay for the young man’s education.  The entire family were frequent guests at Mount Vernon over the years, where Craik served as the doctor for George and Martha Washington, the Custis step-children and grandchildren, and the slaves.[19]

Education was always extremely important to George Washington. His own schooling had probably been a combination of instruction from his mother and local schoolmasters. Someone who knew him fairly well before the Revolution later wrote of him, “George…like most people thereabouts at that time, had no other education than reading, writing and accounts, which he was taught by a convict servant whom his father bought for a schoolmaster.”[20]  Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), who was Secretary of State during Washington’s presidency, remarked that,

“…Although in the circle of his friends, where he might be unreserved with safety, he took a free share in conversation…In public, when called on for a sudden opinion, he was unready, short and embarrassed. Yet he wrote readily, rather diffusely, in an easy and correct style. This he had acquired by conversation with the world, for his education was merely reading, writing and common arithmetic, to which he added surveying at a later day. His time was employed in action chiefly, reading little, and that only in agriculture and English history…. ” [21]

In this case, Jefferson may have been a little catty. While not as extensive as Jefferson’s library, the hundreds of books in Washington’s study included topics ranging from agriculture and history (not just English, but American, French, Irish, Spanish, Greek, and Roman, as well) to geography, sailing & navigation, gardening, animal husbandry, poetry, biographies & memoirs, natural history, political theory, military history and theory, canals and bridges, hydraulics, opium, magnetism, medicine, prophecy, astronomy, slavery & abolition, cement, manners, novels, commerce, mathematics, law, Native Americans, architecture, plays, and religion[22]  In other words, as an adult, Washington had read widely to make up for the deficiencies in his own education as a child. 

Among the many books Washington read over the years were quite a number relating to Scotland. There were, for example, books of romantic poetry. Both George and Martha Washington owned copies of a volume, described by his executors as “Ossian’s Poems,” but actually The Poems of Ossian, the son of Fingal, which was written in 1762 by Scottish poet James Macpherson (1736-1796) and claimed to be a translation of a 3rd century Gaelic original by Ossian, a warrior-poet. Macpherson’s work won great acclaim in the 18th century and influenced the development of the romantic movement in the arts.  He also angered Irish scholars by his claims that the legendary heroes about whom he wrote were not Irish, but had actually been Scots.[23]  In addition to Macpherson’s work, George Washington owned a volume of poetry by the man who is probably Scotland’s best-known writer, Robert Burns (1759-1796).[24]

There were also books and other things in Washington’s study at Mount Vernon that suggest an interest in getting to know hard facts about Scotland, beyond the country’s romantic image and history. Included in these works was: a report published by the Highland Society of Scotland on the subject of Shetland wool; another book, published in Edinburgh in 1795, on a related topic, entitled Observations on the different Breeds of Sheep, and the State of Sheep Farming in the Southern Districts of Scotland; being the Result of a Tour through these Parts, made under the Direction of the Society for Improvement of British Wool; and a series of reports by the National Board of Agriculture of Great Britain on the state of agriculture in each county in the kingdom; the Scottish counties of Aberdeen, Fife, Stirling, Perth, Banff, Elgin or Moray, Nairn, Clackmannan, East Lothian, Mid-Lothian, West Lothian, Kinross, Galloway, Dumfries, Selkirk, Angus, Clydesdale, Argyll, the central Highlands, and the islands off the northern and northwest coasts were represented. There was also a comparison of agricultural practices between one county in England and another in Scotland.[25]  Washington subscribed to an agricultural journal called The Bee, or Literary Weekly Intelligencer, which was published by Scottish agronomist James Anderson (1739-1808) in Edinburgh between 1790 and 1794.  The topics covered in this periodical were diverse, ranging, in just one volume, from raising ferns to fattening poultry, banking, starting a school, organizing a board of agriculture, and even some poetry.[26]  Among the many maps and prints in Washington’s study at the time of his death was a map showing the “Great Canal between Forth and Clide [sic]” and what may be a print, described by his executors as “Walkers view in Scotland ”[27]

With his marriage in 1759, George Washington suddenly found himself responsible for raising two small children. His bride’s son, John Parke Custis (1754-1781), was then just barely four, while her daughter, who was known to the family as Patsy (1756-1773), was between two and three years old. Two years later, a young Scotsman named Walter Magowan (died 1784), arrived at Mount Vernon to take on the job of educating the children. He stayed for six years, introducing Jacky to Latin and Greek, before leaving in the fall of 1767, so that he could be ordained as a minister in England. Magowan returned to the colonies afterwards, becoming the rector of a church in Maryland. His friendship with the Washingtons continued and he made frequent visits to Mount Vernon in the years to come[28] A fellow minister described Mr. Magowan as “a raw Scotchman, whom I alone got recommended & into orders. He seem’d modest, w’c is so rare a Virtue in people of his Country, that I was pleas’d with ye Man. Yet He, you find, has artfully got ye very Parish I have so long had my Eye upon, almost ye only one I really s’h have lik’d in ye Province. Is not this vexatious and mortifying?”[29]

Many years later, after both children had died and the Washingtons were raising Martha’s two youngest grandchildren, George Washington once again contemplated trusting this important task to a minister and began the process by writing to an old friend in England:

“The two youngest children of Mr [John Parke] Custis [who had died of camp fever at Yorktown in 1781]—the oldest a girl [Eleanor Parke Custis, known as Nelly] of six years—the other a boy [George Washington Parke Custis] a little turned of four, live with me. They are both promising children; but the latter is a remarkable fine one--& my intention is to give him a liberal education; the rudiments of which shall, if I live, be in my own family….Fifty or sixty pounds Sterling pr ann:, with board, lodging, washing & mending, in the family, is the most my numerous expenditures will allow me to give; but how far it may command the services of a person well qualified to answer the purposes I have mentioned, is not for me to decide. To answer my purposes, the Gentleman must be a master of composition, & a good Accomptant: to answer his pupil’s, he must be a classical scholar, & capable of teaching the French language grammatically: the more universal his knowledge is, the better. “It sometimes happens that very worthy men of the Cloth come under this description; men who are advanced in years, & not very comfortable in their circumstances: such an one, if unencumbered with a family, would be more agreeable to me than a young man just from college—but I except one of good moral character, answering my description, if he can be well recommended….”

Washington then went on to make a statement, which was particularly interesting, given his close relationship with both John Carlyle and James Craik. He wrote that, “In Scotland we all know that education is cheap, & wages not so high as in England: but I would prefer, on accot of the dialect, an Englishman to a Scotchman, for all the purposes I want.”[30]

Since Washington’s objection was to the dialect, I have often wondered if Jack and Patsy had picked up something of Mr. Magowan’s accent over the years they studied with him, and if Washington was trying to prevent a similar development in the next generation. He himself was known to make use of an occasional Scottish expression—and certainly understood the legendary reputation of Scots for frugality. In a letter to his farm manager during the presidency, he spoke of the need to spend money very carefully: “…People are often ruined before they are made aware of the danger, by buying everything they think they want; conceiving them to be trifles, without adverting to a Scotch adage, than which nothing in nature is more true “that many mickles make a muckle.”[31]

In addition to the tutor, there were other Scotsmen working at Mount Vernon for the Washingtons. At least one of them, however, came from the opposite end of the social and moral spectrum from the scholarly and religious Mr. Magowan. William Webster was a convict, who had been transported to America early in 1774, and landed in Maryland, when he agreed to serve George Washington for seven years as a brickmaker, under the terms of an indenture arranged through a man named William McGachen.[32]  Unfortunately, Webster’s law-breaking tendencies showed up again and he ran away from Mount Vernon twice.  A newspaper advertisement for his return described him as, “A brickmaker, born in Scotland, and talks pretty broad, about five feet six inches high, well made, rather turned of 30, with light brown hair, and a roundish face; he had on an olive coloured coat, pretty much worn, with black horn buttons, duffil waistcoat and breeches…osnabrug trousers, and check and osnabrug shirts.”  Webster had escaped with another servant, “in a small yawl, with turpentine sides and bottom, the inside painted with a mixture of tar and red lead.”  In the advertisement, Washington cautioned that, “Masters of vessels are cautioned against receiving of them, and the above reward [forty dollars] is offered to any person who will deliver them at my dwelling-house in this county, or twenty dollars for each.”  Webster was caught about two weeks after that second escape.[33]

James Donaldson was a Scottish craftsman, “just arrived in this Country,” who supervised the slave carpenters at Mount Vernon between 1794 and 1795.  Although not trained as either a carpenter or joiner, he was quite skilled at making farm implements, such as plows, carts, and wheels.  Donaldson said he had previously made sashes and doors, however, because the “buildings in his country [were] all of Stone, he knows nothing of framing.”  George Washington initially expressed some concern that Donaldson might have trouble with the job, writing to his farm manager, “I do not believe he will carry much authority among my negro carpenters.”  Despite his lack of experience, however, Washington decided to hire him, believing that Donaldson was “a simple, inoffensive man” and that, having “the character of a very honest, sober, and industrious man,” he would be a good example for the enslaved carpenters.  In the articles of agreement the two men signed on September 29, 1794, Donaldson was to receive each year, 400 pounds of pork, 200 pounds of beef, 1,000 herrings, 200 shad, 200 pounds of flour, and 20 bushels of Indian meal or grinding flour valued at $120.  Washington also agreed to pay for Donaldson to move his family to Mount Vernon and provide tools, a house, and the use of a cow for milk.  Donaldson was to supply himself with bedding and “drink” and was expected to work from “the time it is light enough in the morning, until twilight in the evening (with proper allowance at his breakfast and dinner) wheresoever the business of the Farms at, or adjoining Mount Vernon, shall require.” Donaldson proved to be a good workman, but did have difficulty dealing with the slaves. Washington noted in a letter to his nephew just a few months after Donaldson began working, that he had “not spirit and activity enough to make the hands entrusted to his charge, do their duty properly.” This lead Washington to hire another man to supervise the enslaved carpenters, leaving the Scotsman with only two of them to instruct in the fine points of making and repairing farm vehicles and tools.[34]

When the differences between Britain and her American colonies became more contentious in the early 1770s, George Washington was one of the delegates sent from Virginia to the first and second meetings of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. It was at that second session, in 1775, that he was chosen to lead the American military forces gathering around Boston for a confrontation with the British. He left to take command of the army in the summer of that year, without going home first. It would be six years before he even saw Mount Vernon again, as he was headed to the decisive battle at Yorktown; it was another two years before he actually came home for good. During this time, his old friend, Dr. James Craik, would serve the Continental Army, as well, starting in 1777 as senior physician and surgeon of the hospital in the middle district, which covered the area between the Hudson River and the Potomac. Later in the war, as assistant director-general, Craik would organize hospitals for the French army, after their arrival in Rhode Island. By 1781, Congress named the Scottish doctor “chief physician and surgeon of the army.” It was Doctor Craik who warned Washington about the “ Conway Cabal ”, a plot to remove him from command of the army, in 1778.[35]  In that instance, Craik wrote, not just about the supposed plot, but also about the long-standing friendship between the two men:

 “Notwithstanding your unwearied diligence, and the unparalleled sacrifice of domestic happiness and ease of mind, which you have made for the good of your country, yet you are not wanting in secret enemies, who would rob you of the great and truly deserved esteem your country has for you.  Base and villanous [sic] men, through chagrin, envy, or ambition, are endeavouring to lessen you in the minds of the people, and taking underhand methods to traduce your character….It is said they dare not appear openly as your enemies, but that the new Board of War is composed of such leading men as will throw such obstacles and difficulties in your way, as to force you to resign….My attachment to your person is such, my friendship is so sincere, that every hint, which has a tendency to hurt your honor, wounds me most sensibly, and I write this that you may be apprized, and have an eye toward these men, and particularly to General Mifflin….The above, I can with sincerity say, I have written from pure motives of friendship, and I have no enmity to any of these men, any further than they are enemies to you….”

Dr. Craik closed this cautionary letter with the thought, “That God, of his infinite mercy, may protect and defend you from all your open and secret enemies, and continue you in health to finish your glorious undertaking, is the sincere prayer of your most devoted and obliged humble servant.”[36]

Following the war, between 1783 and 1787, Washington returned home and promptly set out to turn Mount Vernon into a model farm. He and James Craik also took the time to revisit the scenes of their youthful exploits in the French and Indian War, during a memorable month-long trip to the frontier in the fall of 1784.[37] During these years, Washington’s fame drew hundreds of visitors to the estate and led many important people to begin a correspondence with him. One rather interesting relationship that began at this period started with the gift in 1788 of an engraved portrait of Francis Scott, 5th Lord Napier of Merchiston (died 1773) from David Steuart Erskine, the 11th Earl of Buchan (1742-1829). The Earl, who lived in Dryburgh in Scotland, was wealthy and eccentric, shared an interest with Washington in political and agricultural reform, and was also a writer, historian, and antiquarian.[38] He compared George Washington to the great Scottish hero, William Wallace (circa 1272-1305), calling him “the modern American Wallace” and sent him an intriguing present in the summer of 1791—a small wooden box, four inches long, three inches wide, and two inches high, made from oak wood and mounted in silver. In his cover letter, the Earl explained its significance:

“I have entrusted this sheet enclosed in a box made of the Oak that sheltered our Great Sir William Wallace after the Battle of Falkirk to Mr Robertson of Aberdeen a Painter with the hope of his having the honour of delivering it into yr hands, reccomending [sic] him as an honest artist seeking for bread & for fame in the New World. This Box was presented to me by the Goldsmiths Company at Edinburgh, to whom feeling my own unworthiness to receive this magnificently significant present, I requested & obtained leave to make it over to the Man in the World to whom I thought it was most justly due. Into your hands I commit it requesting of you to pass it on the event of your decease to the Man in your own Country who shall appear to yr judgment to merit it best upon the same considerations that have induced me to send it to your Excellency….”

The Earl asked that, in return, Washington send him a portrait, using Archibald Robertson (1765-1835) of Aberdeen, Scotland as the artist, if Washington felt he was “equal to the task.” In his thank you letter, Washington noted that he did not feel able to choose a successor to whom to pass on the box and, eventually, in his will, arranged for his executors to return it to the Earl in Scotland, feeling that he was unable to “select the man who might comport with his Lordships [sic] opinion in this respect.” Robertson did paint Washington’s portrait, which was finished in the spring of 1792 and forwarded to the Earl for his collection.[39]

The brief period of respite following the Revolution ended when Washington was called away to serve his country yet again, initially as president of the Constitutional Conventional in 1787, and two years later as the first president of the United States. During his presidency, George Washington lived for a short time in New York and later in Philadelphia, while he took an active role in planning the permanent seat of government in the District of Columbia. On September 18, 1793, an elaborate ceremony was held at the chosen site of the new capitol building, where Washington laid the cornerstone, with help from all the Masonic lodges in the area, including his own in Alexandria. The inscription on the stone was read aloud that day:

“This Southeast corner stone of the Capitol of the United States of America, in the City of Washington, was laid on the 18th day of September, 1793, in the eighteenth year of American Independence, in the first year of the second term of the Presidency of George Washington, whose virtues in the civil administration of his country have been as conspicuous and beneficial as his military valor and prudence have been useful in establishing her liberties, and in the year of Masonry 5793, by the President of the United States, in concert with the Grand Lodge of Maryland, several lodges under its jurisdiction, and Lodge No. 22, from Alexandria, Va….”[40]

One of the Masonic brothers who took part that day was the Reverend Mr. James Muir (1756-1820), the pastor of the Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria and the chaplain of Washington’s Alexandria Lodge. Mr. Muir came to Alexandria from Scotland about 1789 and became involved in civic activities almost immediately, serving as deputy clerk for the city, president of the library company (one of the oldest in the country), and chaplain to the St. Andrew’s Society. Muir was also a trustee of the Alexandria Academy, a school for orphaned and needy children, to which George Washington regularly gave an annual donation of fifty pounds and in which he took quite an interest. In 1794, for example, Washington complained to Muir that he had never heard anything about the children who were being helped by his contribution; the minister responded with a letter detailing the names and progress of fourteen children.[41]

After eight years as president, George Washington retired from public life, to spend his remaining two-and-a-half-years at his beloved Mount Vernon. One Scotsman, who had a particularly prominent role at Mount Vernon in the last years of George Washington’s life was farm manager James Anderson (1745-1807). Anderson had been raised on his father’s farm about 40 miles north of Edinburgh, near the village of Inverkeithing. At the age of 21, he began an apprenticeship “upon the English border…with a Gentleman, Famous in Farming,” and at the end of the second year, began to manage the estate of this gentleman’s uncle. Anderson would hold that post for three years and then, for the next nineteen, “farmed on my own account, 18 of which I was also largely in the Grain line, And had several manufacturing Mills. But by the failure of a Sett [sic] of Distillers in 1788 I nearly lost all.” While farming for himself, Anderson married Helen Gordon of Inverkeithing, with whom he had seven children. By the early 1790s, the entire family had decided to come to America together. Anderson rented a farm in the northern part of Fairfax County for two years and then over the next several, he managed farms for other people. He agreed to come to work as a farm manager for George Washington in October of 1796 and would remain at the plantation until Martha Washington’s death in 1802.[42]

Shortly after he was hired, James Anderson came to George Washington with a proposal that, under Anderson’s direction, the retired president go into the whiskey business. Trusting to his farm manager’s expertise, Washington ordered that a distillery be constructed next to his gristmill on Dogue Creek, about two miles from the mansion. The distillery was furnished with boilers, tubs, and five copper stills, and wooden troughs were made to bring water from the nearby creek to cool the vapor of the heated mash. This new enterprise was operational by the spring of 1798. A surviving ledger shows that by the following year, the distillery was providing almost 11,000 gallons of whiskey, valued at over $7,500, to more than 80 customers, who included neighbors, merchants, family members, and overseers at Mount Vernon. By-products of the distilling process—corn cobs and mash—were even used to make excellent pork. A Polish visitor to Mount Vernon noted in 1798 that, “If this distillery produces poison for men, it offers in return the most delicate and the most succulent feed for pigs. They keep 150…of the Guinea type, short feet, hollow backs and so excessively bulky that they can hardly drag their big bellies on the ground….”[43] Over the years, Washington had tried to diversify the operation at Mount Vernon and had had good luck with fishing commercially on the Potomac River and his gristmill. Whiskey, however, proved to be the most profitable of his many business ventures.[44]

George Washington’s life came to a close in December of 1799, when he was just 67 years old. His final illness came on rather suddenly. On Thursday, December 12th, Washington left the mansion after breakfast to inspect the work being done on the five farms, which made up the Mount Vernon estate, something he did almost every day. Although the weather soon turned for the worse, with rain, hail, and snow coming down, and a cold wind blowing, he did not return immediately, but kept going until it was time for dinner, the main meal of the day, which was served at three o’clock in the afternoon. Because he was uncharacteristically late for the meal, he didn’t change clothes or dry off beforehand, but came to dinner with snow clinging to his hair. While he seemed fine that night, he woke up on the morning of the 13th with a cold and sore throat, but went out in the afternoon, in a snowstorm, to mark some trees, which he wanted cut down. Washington’s voice was hoarse by that evening, which he spent with Mrs. Washington and an old friend, reading the newspapers. He woke Mrs. Washington between two and three o’clock in the morning on December 14th, because he was sick and feverish, at which point she noted that he could barely talk and was having trouble breathing. Concerned that she would catch cold, as well, George Washington would not let his wife send for help until about dawn, when the maid came in to light the fire in the room. Dr. James Craik was one of the first people summoned; eventually there would be three doctors on the case. Throughout that day, Washington was bled several times (at least one source estimates that up to 80 ounces of blood were taken from him at the time) and numerous treatments were applied in the hopes of improving his situation, but to no avail. About 5 o’clock in the afternoon, he is said to have told Dr. Craik, “Doctor, I die hard; but I am not afraid to go; I believed from my first attack that I should not survive it; my breath can not last long.” Craik squeezed his hand, but was too upset to talk and “retired from the bed side, & sat by the fire absorbed in grief.” Washington died between 10 and 11 o’clock that night. According to his secretary, Tobias Lear, “About ten minutes before he expired…his breathing became easier; he lay quietly;--he withdrew his hand from mine, and felt his own pulse. I saw his countenance change. I spoke to Dr. Craik who sat by the fire;--he came to the bed side. The General’s hand fell from his wrist—I took it in mine…Dr. Craik put his hands over his eyes and he expired without a struggle or a sigh!”[45]

George Washington was laid to rest in the old family vault at Mount Vernon four days later. Walking that day behind the coffin, along with the principal mourners, was his very dear old friend, James Craik. The Scottish-born farm manager, James Anderson, and the Mount Vernon overseers led the last contingent in the funeral procession. And among the four clergymen taking part in the service was James Muir, the local Presbyterian minister and Washington’s fellow Freemason.[46]

In conclusion, while George Washington’s Scottish roots are lost in the mists of time, he had many connections to Scotland deriving from both the people in his life and his interest in the history and culture of lands beyond the Americas. His own exploits brought him the admiration of people on both sides of the Atlantic, including prominent Scots, who compared him to the finest heroes their own country had produced. And, in closing, as the owner of a West Highland White Terrier, I also feel obliged to mention that George Washington may have had one of the finest products of Scotland at Mount Vernon—and I don’t mean the alcoholic spirits made at his distillery. During the last year of his presidency, a man named James Maury sent Washington a pair of terriers. In a letter to his farm manager, Washington asked the man to see that Frank, the enslaved butler, had “taken particular care of the Tarriers [sic],” and ensured that the female was only bred to the male of the same variety.[47] While the terrier breeds were developed throughout the British Isles, some of the best come from Scotland and, as a gift from someone named Maury, I can’t help but think that the two who came to Mount Vernon were true Scottish ones and that, in the end, George Washington had these four-legged Scots as members of his own family.


[1] George Washington to Sir Isaac Heard, 5/2/1792, The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, 39 volumes, edited by John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, DC:  United States Government Printing Office, 1931-1944), 32:32.

[2] Albert Welles, The Pedigree and History of the Washington Family:  Derived from Odin, the Founder of Scandinavia, B.C. 70, Involving a Period of Eighteen Centuries, and Including Fifty-five Generations, Down to General George Washington, First President of the United States (New York:  Society Library, 1879), xx.

[4] W.W.  Abbot and Dorothy Twohig, editors, The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 10 volumes (Charlottesville, Virginia, and London:  University Press of Virginia, 1983-1995), 1:66n.

[5] Gay Montague Moore, Seaport in Virginia:  George Washington’s Alexandria (Richmond, Virginia:  Garrett and Massie, Incorporated, 1949), 3-13; Mary G. Powell, The History of Old Alexandria, Virginia From July 13, 1749 to May 24, 1861 (Richmond, Virginia:  The William Byrd Press, Inc., Printers, 1928), 27.

[6] Robert L. Madison, compiler, Walking with Washington:  Walking Tours of Alexandria, Virginia, Featuring over 100 Sites Associated with George Washington (Baltimore, Maryland:  Gateway Press, Inc., 2003), 11.

[7] Donald Jackson & Dorothy Twohig, editors, The Diaries of George Washington, 6 volumes (Charlottesville, Virginia:  University Press of Virginia, 1976-1979), 1:231 & 231n; Madison, Walking with Washington, 12.

[8] George Washington to Robert Dinwiddie, 10/11/1755, The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 2:106 & 106n.

[9] Archibald C. Malloch, “Craik, James,” Dictionary of American Biography, 20 volumes, edited by Allen Johnson & Dumas Malone (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928-1936), 4:498; Abbot & Twohig, The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 1:210n & 2:168n-169n.  For the information about William Craik, Arbigland, and James Craik’s illegitimacy, see Evan Thomas, John Paul Jones:  Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 2003) , 13-16.

[10] Abbot & Twohig, The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 1:10 & 22.

[11] “Crocus” was a nickname commonly used for surgeons in both the British army and navy at the time (see Abbot & Twohig, The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 3:295 & 296n).

[12] “George Washington’s Account of the Capitulation of Fort Necessity,” in Abbot, The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 1:172.

[13] Abbot, The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 1:192n.

[14] James Craik to George Washington, 11/25/1757, The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 5:64-65.

[15] Madison, Walking with Washington, 12.

[16] Dr. James Craik to George Washington, 12/20/1758, The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 6:170.

[17] Dr. James Craik to George Washington, 12/29/1758, The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 6:172.

[18] Madison, Walking with Washington, 12.

[19] Molloch, “Craik, James,” Dictionary of American Biography, 4:498; Abbot & Twohig, The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 2:169n; Frank E. Grizzard, Jr., George Washington:  A Biographical Companion (Santa Barbara, California:  ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2002), 60.

[20] Jonathan Boucher, excerpt from his Autobiography, published in Fitzpatrick, The Writings of George Washington, 2:486n.

[21] Thomas Jefferson to Doctor Walter Jones, 1/2/1814, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 10 volumes, edited by Paul Leicester Ford (New York:  Putnam’s, 1898), 9:446-451 (typescript, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association).

[22] “Library,” [Appraiser’s] Inventory of the Contents of Mount Vernon, 1810 [1800] (Privately published, 1909), 14-37.

[23] “Library,” [Appraiser’s] Inventory of the Contents of Mount Vernon, 15, 22; “Ossian”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, 29 volumes (Chicago, Illinois and elsewhere:  Encyclopaeida Britannica, Inc., 1986), 8:1031; Appleton P.C. Griffin, compiler and editor, A Catalogue of the Washington Collection in The Boston Athenaeum (Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Printed for The Boston Athenaeum by John Wilson and Son, 1897), 487; “Macpherson, James,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, 7:646-647.

[24] “Library,” [Appraiser’s] Inventory of the Contents of Mount Vernon, 21.

[25] Griffin, A Catalogue of the Washington Collection in The Boston Athenaeum, 93-95, 100, 148.

[26] Barbara McMillan, “In the Pursuit of Useful Knowledge,” The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union Annual Report 1989 (Mount Vernon, Virginia:  The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, 1990), 26-28.

[27] “Library,” [Appraiser’s] Inventory of the Contents of Mount Vernon, 38 & 40.

[28] For Walter Magowan’s career, see The Diaries of George Washington, 2:37n; George Washington to Robert Cary & Company, 10/12/1761 and 3/10/1768, The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 7:77 & 77n, 8:72 & 73n.  For the fact that Jacky was taught Latin & Green by Mr. Magowan, see George Washington to Jonathan Boucher, 5/30/1768, The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 8:89-90.

[29] Jonathan Boucher to John James, 7/25/1769, quoted in The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 8:167n.

[30] George Washington to George William Fairfax, 11/10/1785, The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, 6 volumes, edited by W.W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville, Virginia, and London:  University Press of Virginia, 1992-1997), 3:348-349.

[31] Fitzpatrick, The Writings of George Washington, 32:423.

[32] Abbot, The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 9:519 & 519n; 10:137 & 138n.

[33] Abbot, The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 10:342 & 342n.

[34] George Washington to William Pearce, 9/28/1794, The Writings of George Washington, 33:512; Mesick, Cohen & Waite, Architects, “Building Trades,” in Mount Vernon:  Historic Structure Report, 3 volumes (unpublished report prepared for the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, February 1993), 2-30-2-31; George Washington to William Pearce, 11/23/1794, and George Washington to William Augustine Washington, 11/23/1794, The Writings of George Washington, 34:40-41, 45.

[35] Malloch, “Craik, James,” Dictionary of American Biography, 4:498.

[36] James Craik to George Washington, 1/6/1778, in Jared Sparks, editor, The Writings of George Washington; Being His Correspondence, Addresses, Messages, and Other Papers, Official and Private, Selected and Published From the Original Manuscripts; with A Life of the Author, Notes, and Illustrations, Volume 5 (Boston, Massachusetts:  Ferdinand Andrews, Publisher, 1838), 493-494.

[37] For information on that trip, see Jackson & Twohig, The Diaries of George Washington, 4:1-71.

[38] Benjamin Rush to George Washington, 4/14/1788, The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, 6:209 & 209n.

[39] The Earl of Buchan to George Washington, 6/28/1791; Archibald Robertson to George Washington, 4/21/1792; and George Washington to the Earl of Buchan, 5/1/1792, The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 11 volumes to date, edited by W.W. Abbot, Dorothy Twohig and Philander D. Chase (Charlottesville, Virginia, and London:  University Press of Virginia, 1987-2002), 8:305-306, 306n-308n & 10:305-306, 306n, 330-331, 331n.

[40] John Alexander Carroll and Mary Wells Ashworth, George Washington:  First in Peace (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957), 126-128.

[41] T. Michael Miller, compiler, Artisans and Merchants of Alexandria, Virginia, 1780-1820, 2 volumes (Bowie, Maryland:  Heritage Books, Inc., 1991), 1:7; Fitzpatrick, The Writings of George Washington, 33:279 & 279n, 281-282, and 282n; 34:214; Powell, The History of Old Alexandria, Virginia, 106, 107, 108, 109-110, 156, 161, 200-201, 208, 216, 240, and 242.

[42] Esther White, Memorandum, 7/22/2002 (unpublished paper prepared for the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association), based on Anderson family genealogical notes at Mount Vernon and The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, 4 volumes, edited by Dorothy Twohig and W.W. Abbot (Charlottesville, Virginia, and London:  University Press of Virginia, 1998-1999).

[43] John P. Riley, “A Whiskey Business,” The Annual Report of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, 1996 (Mount Vernon, Virginia:  The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, 1997), 18-21.

[44] For a good overview of Washington’s efforts to diversify at Mount Vernon, including the operation of his whiskey distillery, see Alan and Donna Jean Fusonie, George Washington:  Pioneer Farmer (Mount Vernon, Virginia:  The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, 1998), especially pages 37-49.

[45] Tobias Lear, “The last illness and death of General Washington:  A True Copy, Made at Mrs. Lear’s Request, from the Diary of Col. Lear,” in Letters and Recollections of George Washington:  Being letters to Tobias Lear and others between 1790 and 1799, showing the First American in the management of his estate and domestic affaires.  With a diary of Washington’s last days, kept by Mr. Lear (New York:  Doubleday, Page & Company, 1906), 129-135.  For the calculation that as much as 80 ounces of blood may have been taken at this time, see Peter R. Henriques, He Died As He Lived:  The Death of George Washington (Mount Vernon, Virginia:  The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, 2000), 35.

[46] Lear, “The last illness and death of General Washington,” 140-141.

[47] George Washington to William Pearce, 12/4/1796, and George Washington to James Maury, 12/5/1796, in Fitzpatrick, The Writings of George Washington, 35:307.

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