Washington and Crawford

Perhaps the most interesting facet of William Crawford’s life was his long relationship with George Washington. Crawford first met Washington in 1750 when the future president made his first surveying trip to the lower Shenandoah Valley. Crawford, who was 10 years senior to Washington at that time, had an established surveying business in the region around Winchester and numerous personal and business relationships in the area. Therefore, it was logical that 18-year old Washington would hire Crawford to help him with his surveys of Lord Fairfax’s land.

Despite Crawford being the older of the two men, his relationship to Washington was always that of a subordinate. He would serve under Washington in both the French and Indian War and Revolutionary War, and work for him as Washington’s agent and surveyor for the new lands Washington sought to acquire in the Ohio Valley. One might also describe them as friends, but this was likely not an intimate friendship given the differences in social rank and position.

It seems clear that Washington had a deep regard for Crawford and made use of his talents whenever they were needed. However, the two men drifted apart as the war with Britain occupied Washington’s attentions. Eventually, Crawford would find that his business partner did not have the time to look out for his interests, which led to his languishing on the western frontier with no real command position.

But at the same time, Crawford’s death in 1782 seems to have had a impact on Washington and he mourned his loss. More importantly, Washington made it his business to help Crawford’s widow, Hannah, when she needed assistance. He aided her in obtaining pensions from both Pennsylvania and Virginia, and even paid her debts when it appeared she might lose the farm at Spring Garden.

When was William Crawford Born?

One of the challenges in writing William Crawford’s biography was determining very basic fact about him, which included when he was born. As I stared my research into his life, I found that most sources stated he was born in 1732. This included everything from web sites to books to even roadside historical markers. However, as I compiled more information on later events in his life, this date made less sense. For instance, if he was born in 1732, that meant that he was only 15 years old when he married Hannah Vance and 16 when his first child was born. Furthermore, it would have meant that his wife, Hannah, was eight years older. While marriages on young teenagers was common on the frontier in the colonial era and having a wife senior to a husband is not unheard of, it just seemed unlikely.

When I consulted Allen Scholl’s genealogical study of the Crawfords, “The Brothers Crawford,” I found that, using a compilation of resources, he had pinned William Crawford’s birth down to August 2, 1722 in  Westmoreland County, Virginia based on a compilation of records. That date made much more sense and lined up better with the other events in his life. But I began to wonder where the 1732 birthdate had come from.

As it turned out, the only evidence that material that supports this date is contained in one of the early biographies of George Washington, History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington, written by the former rector of the Mount Vernon Parish, Mason L. Weems. In this wildly inaccurate book that also created the famous cherry tree myth, Weems alludes to a teenage Washington participating in athletic games with the Crawford brothers during Washington’s first visit to the Shenandoah Valley in 1749. Therefore, Weems and a host of historians that followed merely assumed these two men were the same age and assigned a birthdate of 1732 to Crawford.

In fact, William Crawford was 10 years older than Washington. When they first met in 1750, young Washington was 18 years old and on his first surveying expedition to the Shenandoah Valley on behalf of Lord Fairfax. By this time, Crawford, who was 28 years old,  had his own surveying business, which was why Washington hired him as a chainman on several surveys. He also had a farm, was married, and had three young children.

I found it quite remarkable that one offhand passage in a biography of questionable accuracy influenced so many writers and historians.

Why I chose to tell William Crawford’s story

I have been asked why I chose to tell the story of William Crawford’s life and how I came to learn about him. In 2013, my first book, A Woman of Courage on the West Virginia Frontier, was published. This book was a regional history of the Virginia colonial frontier told around the story of my 5th great grandmother. She was taken captive by a Wyandot Raiding party in 1785 and lived with them for three years until she was ransomed by the infamous renegade traitor, Simon Girty. In researching and writing about Girty for the book, I happened upon the story of William Crawford’s campaign against the Native American towns on the Sandusky River in 1782.

I found this to be a compelling story and I continued to research Crawford after my book was published. In doing so, I learned about his 30-year relationship with George Washington, which included surveying, land speculation, and military service, both in the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War.

After learning a little more about him, I was surprised to discover that no one had ever written and published a biography on Crawford. I found references to an unpublished biography by Consul Butterfield from the late 19th century, but nothing more. So I decided to research some more and develop a manuscript that served as a biography and a narrative history of this intriguing figure from our colonial frontier.