National Geographic : 1976 Jul
Vernon. Some sixteen years passed in such serenity. Meanwhile, in 1761 the death of Lawrence's widow brought George owner ship of the plantation. Eventually his family, slaves, and employees numbered more than three hundred. He was founding a dynasty. But was he? Martha had borne four chil dren to her first husband. As the years at Mount Vernon drifted by, she failed to con ceive. The sad certainty grew in Washington that he would leave no descendants. When he was 54, he wrote a poignant letter to his nephew George Augustine Washington: "It is natural for young married persons... to look forward to a permanent establish ment.... It is also natural for those who have passed the meridian of life, and are descend ing into the shades of darkness, to make ar rangements for the disposal of the property of which they are possessed. ... if Mrs. Washing ton should survive me there is a moral cer tainty of my dying without issue...." Washington's apparent sterility, modern physicians speculate, might have stemmed from the malaria that wracked most Vir ginians, or from a chromosomal defect. IN 1760 WASHINGTON'S FRIEND George Mercer described the master of Mount Vernon, then 28 years old: "... straight as an Indian, measuring 6 feet 2 inches in his stockings, and weighing 175 lbs.... His frame is padded with well devel oped muscles, indicating great strength. His bones and joints are large as are his hands and feet.... blue-grey penetrating eyes .... He has a clear tho rather colorless pale skin which burns with the sun. A pleasing... com manding countenance, dark brown hair which he wears in a cue. His mouth is large and generally firmly closed, but which from time to time discloses some defective teeth." In fact, Washington's teeth plagued him into old age. His diary records the repeated Tools of a man who loved land traveled with Washington from Alexandria-which he helped lay out in 1749-to land grants that he surveyed for neighbors. With money so earned, he purchased cheap wilderness acres, "the foundation of a Noble Estate." By 1775 the wealthy landowner was highly regarded as a plantation manager and poli tician in the Virginia House of Burgesses.