One of the challenges in writing William Crawford’s biography was determining very basic fact about him, which included when he was born. As I stared my research into his life, I found that most sources stated he was born in 1732. This included everything from web sites to books to even roadside historical markers. However, as I compiled more information on later events in his life, this date made less sense. For instance, if he was born in 1732, that meant that he was only 15 years old when he married Hannah Vance and 16 when his first child was born. Furthermore, it would have meant that his wife, Hannah, was eight years older. While marriages on young teenagers was common on the frontier in the colonial era and having a wife senior to a husband is not unheard of, it just seemed unlikely.
When I consulted Allen Scholl’s genealogical study of the Crawfords, “The Brothers Crawford,” I found that, using a compilation of resources, he had pinned William Crawford’s birth down to August 2, 1722 in Westmoreland County, Virginia based on a compilation of records. That date made much more sense and lined up better with the other events in his life. But I began to wonder where the 1732 birthdate had come from.
As it turned out, the only evidence that material that supports this date is contained in one of the early biographies of George Washington, History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington, written by the former rector of the Mount Vernon Parish, Mason L. Weems. In this wildly inaccurate book that also created the famous cherry tree myth, Weems alludes to a teenage Washington participating in athletic games with the Crawford brothers during Washington’s first visit to the Shenandoah Valley in 1749. Therefore, Weems and a host of historians that followed merely assumed these two men were the same age and assigned a birthdate of 1732 to Crawford.
In fact, William Crawford was 10 years older than Washington. When they first met in 1750, young Washington was 18 years old and on his first surveying expedition to the Shenandoah Valley on behalf of Lord Fairfax. By this time, Crawford, who was 28 years old, had his own surveying business, which was why Washington hired him as a chainman on several surveys. He also had a farm, was married, and had three young children.
I found it quite remarkable that one offhand passage in a biography of questionable accuracy influenced so many writers and historians.