Peter Stark, Young Washington: How Wilderness and War Forged America’s Founding Father, Kindle ed., (New York: HarperCollins, 2018).
While traveling in southwestern Pennsylvania, outdoor writer Peter Stark discovered the region’s deep history and the central role it played in transforming George Washington from a callow young man on the make to the kind of leader who could forge a nation. Stark was not accustomed to thinking about Washington on those terms. He decided to study the younger man in greater detail, retracing Washington’s steps as a surveyor and explorer, messenger for Virginia’s colonial governor, defeated commander at Fort Necessity, aide to General Braddock, commander in the Virginia militia, honorary brigadier during the Forbes Campaign, frustrated suitor of his neighbor and best friend’s wife, and prickly colonial frustrated with ill treatment at the hands of the British empire. While Stark includes chapters that cover Washington’s early life and the circumstances that brought him to the frontier, Young Washington revolves around the period of Washington’s service just before and during the French and Indian War.
The story has been told before. Stark is prone to speculation about Washington’s motivations, his state of mind, and the impact various events and experiences had on his character development. At times, the book reads like a psychological profile. While his suppositions are reasonable and clearly identified, they undermine Young Washington as a work of solid biography.
That said, Stark’s skills as an outdoor writer shine through and offer a new perspective that historians and biographers should welcome. He brings the reader closer to Washington by describing what it’s like to paddle a canoe in a cold river in the middle of winter and integrating that with the conditions Washington likely experienced. After delivering a message to the French from Virginia’s Governor, Washington had the task of returning to the Virginia capital with a French reply. Stark describes Washington’s journey:
It was cold paddling on a winter day. As they knelt or sat in the canoe, toes numbed and joints stiffened against the chilled hull, bloodless fingers clenched paddle shafts. Snow along the riverbanks accentuated the dark water twisting in U-shaped bends through forest and marsh under the gray sky. They paddled much farther than the crow flies. At times they looped back…perhaps twice passing the same skeletal dead tree protruding from the marsh, each time from a different direction. Steering the canoe through the tight bends, each dip of the paddle blade spun off little sucking whirlpools. The water appeared more viscous than a summer river, as if thickening and congealing with the cold. In the slack-water shallows, ice rimmed the riverbanks. The V wave from their canoe bow angled out across the narrow river and washed over the rims of ice along the banks, rocking them gently with a whispering sound. (57)
I got chilled just reading it. Stark can pull it off because he has paddled hundreds of rivers in all kinds of seasons, paying close attention to the nature around him. Indeed, he even paddled the Riviere Le Bouf (French Creek, now), following as closely to Washington’s trip as the 21stcentury river would let him. It made me think more carefully about how Washington’s early experiences in the wilderness separated him from many of the Revolution’s other senior leaders. For that alone, Young Washington is a worthwhile read.