John Washington, George's great-grandfather, reached the New World in 1657, settling in Virginia. Little definitive information exists on George's ancestors before his father, but what is known is that by the time George was born to Augustine and Mary Washington on February 22, 1732, the family was part of the lower echelon of Virginia's ruling class. He was the eldest child of Augustine's second marriage; there were two sons from the first. Farming and land speculation had brought the family moderate prosperity. However, when George was eleven years old, his family was dealt a terrible setback. Augustine became mortally ill after surveying his lands during a long ride in bad weather—ironically, the same circumstances killed George almost seven decades later.
His mother, Mary, a tough and driven woman, fought to hold home and hearth together. She hoped to send George to school in England, but these plans were aborted and the boy never received more than the equivalent of an elementary school education. Although George was shy and not highly literate, he was a large, strong, and handsome child. His half brother Lawrence, fourteen years George's senior, looked out for him. Lawrence counseled the boy about his future and introduced him to Lord Fairfax, head of one of the most powerful families in Virginia.
Despite George's meager education, he had three great strengths: his mother's ambitious drive, a shy charm, and a gift for mathematics. Lord Fairfax discerned all three traits and invited the sixteen-year-old to join a team of men surveying Fairfax lands in the Shenandoah Valley region of the Virginia colony. It was the young man's first real trip away from home, and he proved his worth on the wilderness journey, helping the surveyors while learning their trade. Surveying offered George decent wages, travel opportunities, and time away from his strict and demanding mother. By the time he was seventeen, he went into the surveying business on his own.