By Nicole Trifone
Before he crossed the Delaware River in the first surprise attack of the Revolutionary War, George Washington surrendered Fort Necessity in one of the earliest skirmishes of the French and Indian War.
Before he earned a reputation for projecting calm and humility as the first president of the United States, Washington struggled to restrain his passion and ambition as he pestered Virginia’s colonial government for proper resources and his British superiors for recognition during his time as colonel of the Virginia Regiment.
Before he married Martha Dandridge Custis, Washington felt the sting of rejection from one woman, Betsy Fauntleroy, on two separate occasions.
Daniel Cross, who debuted this spring as young George Washington as a part of Colonial Williamsburg’s Nation Builders program, portrays the ambitious young man who made mistakes and endured humiliations but possessed the will and discipline to evolve into the war hero and exalted “Father of Our Country” who Ron Carnegie continues to portray.
“Everybody understands what growing up is like, what it is like to be changing and growing and making mistakes,” Cross said. “I want to bring to light those aspects of Washington. I want to explore the question, ‘How did he become the icon?’”
Cross portrays young Washington’s life until 1775; Carnegie, who has performed in the role since 2006, portrays Washington from the moment he accepts the role of general and commander of the Continental army until his death in 1799.
“Separating the portrayal into a younger and older Washington makes a lot of sense,” Carnegie said. “After the French and Indian War concludes, Washington mentally changes himself. He creates this mold of what he thinks a man in public life should be and he forces himself to be that thing. There is a clear divide.”
Though Washington became more purposeful in projecting a public persona after the war, he had been shaping himself into a self-imposed definition of a respectable man since his childhood.
When 11-year-old Washington lost his father, he also lost the means to follow his half brothers to England for schooling. His formal education in the colonies likely ended around age 15 and lacked the usual classical teachings afforded to the wealthy.
But determined to be a learned and sophisticated man, Washington read Joseph Addison’s Cato, studied Seneca and other Stoic philosophers and copied out 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation. In his teenage years, he even paid for his own dance lessons — a valuable talent for anyone looking to mingle within the upper echelons of society.
“Washington was one of those men who wanted to make a mark on history, and he kept having to redesign how he would do that,” Carnegie said. “He didn’t do it for some selfish idea of glory. He was driven by duty to country, which I think he learned from what he read and the people who inspired him.”
As a child, Washington dreamed of joining the British navy. His mother stopped him from pursuing it. As a teenager traveling the frontier and surveying land, his dream shifted to the army, though he had no military experience. Washington rose to the rank of colonel and commanded the Virginia Regiment, but his frustrations during the French and Indian War, as well as his inability to secure a commission from the British army, changed that dream.
He resigned from the Virginia Regiment in 1758 and, preferring to serve the Virginia colony as a gentleman farmer and politician in the House of Burgesses, did not return to the military until the Revolutionary War. The same year that he resigned from the army, he was reacquainted with Martha Dandridge Custis and married her in January 1759.
“It’s a fascinating time in his life,” said Cross, who has focused on this transition period, from about 1758 to 1760, for his initial performances. “He has made mistakes, he feels like the British government isn’t listening to him. He’s just frustrated with the military life and ready to shift his dream once again.”
Washington’s marriage to the widow of Daniel Parke Custis, one of the richest men in Virginia, launched him into that highest social class to which he aspired. But even with all his preparation, he never did allay his deep-seated insecurity that others saw him as an outsider.
“That’s where Martha comes in,” said Katharine Pittman, who portrays Martha Washington. “They become this power couple in the sense that they worked so well together. Her strengths are his weaknesses. She has the ability to put anyone at ease. George has various levels of comfort with people, but Martha is always at the nucleus of his social life.”
In addition to her solo performances, Pittman will perform as Martha Washington with both Cross and Carnegie. With the two different phases of Washington’s life now portrayed in the Historic Area, guests have the opportunity to see the couple’s dynamic early in their relationship, as well as long after they have become household names.
This summer Pittman and Cross launch their first program together, called The Soldier and the Widow. In the coming months, guests may have the opportunity to catch Pittman, Cross and Carnegie onstage together.
Cross is no stranger to performing. Before his family moved from Maryland to Williamsburg when he was 14, he and his sister, Emma — who currently portrays Nation Builder Clementina Rind in the Historic Area — had volunteered at historical sites such as the Claude Moore Colonial Farm and Mount Vernon.
In 2002, the siblings became junior interpreters with Colonial Williamsburg. Cross spent most of his time in the dance programs and the cabinetmaker’s shop. In 2006, he worked as an actor-interpreter until he left for college in 2008, and he continued to perform in evening programs through 2013.
Carnegie saw a young George Washington in Cross long ago. A few years into portraying Gen. Washington, Carnegie pitched a program to his bosses: Cross, then a teenager, would portray Washington as the young surveyor.
The program never happened — Cross learned only recently of Carnegie’s idea — but it was not the last time young Cross was considered for the role. In 2008, Cross appeared in the National Geographic television movie The Real George Washington as a teenage Washington.
“I certainly never predicted I’d one day portray Washington as my career,” Cross said. “Interpretation had been a fun thing to do when I was growing up, but I never thought I’d return to it.”
Cross was working in education in Washington state when he was asked to consider auditioning during the nationwide search. After landing the role, Cross moved back to Williamsburg last October and started his extensive research on one of the most studied men in American history.
“I think having a young George Washington in the Historic Area is an incredible opportunity for guests to connect with Washington in a way they would never be able to connect with the general,” Cross said. “Gen. Washington deliberately projects a tremendous amount of gravitas because he believes it to be the appropriate way to conduct himself in public. The young colonel is still coming up with a code of conduct for himself, still figuring out how to be a good leader. You’ll see him off his pedestal.”
The addition of young George Washington to Colonial Williamsburg’s Nation Builders program is generously funded by Ferguson Enterprises, Inc.
Daniel Cross debuted as young George Washington in the spring of 2019. (Tom Green/Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
Young George Washington’s story is told in the Historic Area through programs such as Visit a Nation Builder and the Coffeehouse Interpretation as well as a program with Martha Washington called The Soldier and the Widow. For a full schedule, visit the Events Calendar. Guests can track young George Washington’s location on their smartphones by downloading the Colonial Williamsburg app.