Washington Attends the Lodge at Fredericksburg, 1753

October 05, 2023

Washington Attends the Lodge at Fredericksburg, 1753

Nearly a month after being raised to Master Mason, Washington attended a meeting as a full member of the lodge. It was his first opportunity to fully comprehend what a Masonic lodge was and how its members conducted themselves while conducting lodge business.

If Washington had not seen the Entered Apprentice degree at the March or August meetings, then he did indeed witness it that evening. The four “youngest” brothers were Gowrie Waugh, John Black, Joseph Fox, and Robert Spotswood. Both Black and Fox did eventually receive all three degrees, but lodge records have Black disappearing after May 1754 and Fox as being an infrequent attendee in the years ahead.

Gowrie Waugh (1734–1783) was an Anglican priest and the rector of St. Mary’s Parish in nearby Stafford. Later a veteran of both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, Waugh owned a large estate near Belle Plain Landing.

Robert Spotswood (1730–1757) was the son of former Virginia Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood. After receiving the three degrees, he continued to attend the lodge until he was commissioned in the Virginia Regiment. Between 1755 and 1757 he served under Lt. Col. Washington as captain of the 11th Company. In June 1757, his scouting mission near Fort Duquesne was surprised by an Indian party. Survivors reported him missing and presumed him dead.

Along with the officers, the lodge minutes record six members in attendance, of which three are also notable. Alexander Woodrow was a merchant in nearby Falmouth. Secretary of the lodge in 1753, he later organized a lodge in Falmouth and served as its first Master. He served as a sutler, a role that secured supplies for the army, in Washington’s regiment during the French and Indian War. On August 31, 1769, Washington mentioned him among several dinner guests at Mount Vernon.

Robert Armistead was the clerk of Stafford County. His wife Elizabeth was a member of the Ball family and a cousin of Washington’s mother, Mary. He was the King County clerk of courts.

The third, and most important in Washington’s early career, was Jacob Van Braam (1729–1792). The minutes record his name above Washington’s, so it is possible they were sitting next to each other during the meeting. Van Braam is identified in the minutes as “Dresser,” which probably means he prepared each candidate for initiation.

A recent immigrant, Van Braam had served as a lieutenant in the Dutch army and the British navy. Like Washington’s half-brother Lawrence, he also participated in the 1741 British expedition to Cartagena in South America. He was in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1751, where he advertised as a French tutor, before moving to Fredericksburg in 1752. He attended the lodge five times in 1753.

A month after this meeting, newly commissioned Major Washington, the adjutant for the colony’s Southern District, attended the Virginia House of Burgesses’ session in Williamsburg. While there, Washington volunteered for Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie’s mission to western Pennsylvania. In Pennsylvania he was to contact friendly Seneca tribal leaders; to inform the French they were to leave the territory; and lastly determine the extent of France’s fortifications and military forces.

To prepare for this mission Washington returned to Fredericksburg, where he hired Van Braam as his French interpreter. They left Alexandria, Virginia, and arrived at the frontier Indian town of Venango (present day Franklin, Pennsylvania) in early December. Washington continued his mission up the Allegheny River to Fort Le Boeuf, accompanied only by frontiersman and explorer Christopher Gist. There, Washington delivered Dinwiddie’s letter to the commandant, Jacques Legardeaur de Saint-Pierre. After a dangerous and arduous journey home, Washington arrived in Williamsburg on January 16, 1754. How and when Van Braam returned from western Pennsylvania is unknown.

Almost immediately after Washington returned, Dinwiddie promoted him to lieutenant colonel and gave him a second mission. He was to raise a company of men to reinforce the British claim over the forks of the Ohio River. Such a presence was expected to induce the French to leave the area and return to Canada. Washington again recruited Van Braam to join him.

On April 2, 1754, Washington, Van Braam, and fewer than 160 men set off for the Allegheny Mountains. At Winchester, they gathered more men, and Washington ordered a road to be built leading toward the forks of the Ohio River. Moving ahead, Washington and his troops ambushed a small party of French soldiers. Among the dead was Joseph Coulon de Villiers, Sieur de Jumonville, whose half-brother Louis was commander of the French forces in western Pennsylvania. Realizing he was in danger of a strong counterattack, and needing a secure site for supplies, Washington ordered his men to build a small fort near present day Farmington, Pennsylvania.

On June 28, while advancing toward Fort Duquesne, word reached Washington of newly arrived French reinforcements. With these additional men, Louis Coulon de Villiers had already launched his counterattack. Washington called a council of war and before sunset ordered all friendly forces to withdraw several miles to a small fort, which he called Fort Necessity.

Washington arrived back at the fort on July 1 and had nearly two days to strengthen its defenses before the French and Indian combined forces arrived. After a full day of continuous and effective fire, Washington was forced to surrender on July 3.

As Washington’s interpreter, Van Braam mediated the terms. Due to his poor understanding of English, and to ink blotted by severe rain, Van Braam accidentally mistranslated the French document. Where the French charged Washington as an accessory to the murder of French commander Jumonville, Van Braam read the description as an unfortunate killing. Unwittingly, Washington signed the French terms and was labeled an assassin.

More than a simple admission of guilt, with Washington’s “confession” he acknowledged he acted with the authority of the British Crown. His “assassination” of French “diplomat” Jumonville was an act of war. Van Braam’s error, and Washington’s signature on a rain-soaked document, ignited the French and Indian War, a war that became the first theater in the global Seven Years War (1756–1763).

According to one of the French terms, Van Braam became their prisoner. He was taken to Montreal, released in 1760, and returned to Virginia. There, he was tried for treason and found innocent. He was granted a commission in the 60th Foot “Royal American” Regiment, then retired to a farm in Wales in 1763. He returned to active duty between 1776–1779 and served in Florida, the Caribbean, and Georgia, before again retiring, this time with the rank of major. He later moved to France, where he died in 1792.

After the Revolutionary War, he wrote a congratulatory letter to Washington. The letter makes no mention of their Masonic brotherhood but wishes him “a long life to enjoy the blessing of a great people whom You have been the Chief instrument of freeing from bondage.” There is no evidence Washington replied to it.

If Washington did indeed meet Van Braam for the first time at the September 1, 1753, lodge meeting, their friendship lasted ten months. But they were together for most of those months traveling to and from western Pennsylvania. Van Braam was probably Washington’s first military instructor and also probably taught him a great deal about Freemasonry. Unfortunately, he failed to tutor Washington in French.

Learn more about George Washington by reading Mark Tabbert’s book, A Deserving Brother: George Washington and Freemasonry.

Mark A. Tabbert is the Director of Archives & Exhibits of The George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association.