When we think about the life and legacy of George Washington, our mind envisions the statesman, military general, Founding Father and first president of the United States. Before he became an exemplary figure in American history, George Washington was a young man unaware of his forthcoming success.
A trip to Colonial Williamsburg will introduce you to two George Washingtons—a two-term president and a young man in his mid-20s, fresh from the French and Indian War. Bringing young George Washington to life in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area is Daniel Cross, a young man himself, just a few years older than his characterization of Washington.
Cross first strolled Duke of Gloucester Street as young George Washington in April 2019, but he got his start at Colonial Williamsburg long before that. Cross worked as a volunteer when he was younger, then for a few years as a different actor-interpreter. Despite his previous stints at Colonial Williamsburg, Cross never anticipated a career as a Founding Father.
While working as a para educator and coach in Seattle, Cross received a call about the opportunity to portray young Washington, and after rounds of interviews and auditions, Cross was selected to join the gallery of founders at Colonial Williamsburg.
“It’s such an iconic role and iconic character,” Cross beams when talking about Washington. “My responsibility is to cover him in his younger days, before he became the general we know.”
To prepare for his debut at Colonial Williamsburg, Cross did over six months of research by reading biographies and primary sources, including letters to and from Washington. “I like to go from his words himself, and what other people say about him in the period, and backfill that with what we’ve researched and found since that point in time,” Cross explains.
When Cross speaks to Colonial Williamsburg’s visitors, he weaves passages and tales from his research and Washington’s personal letters into his speech. He conveys the history of Washington’s life while keeping his audience engaged and entertained.
Cross’ portrayal of young Washington finds the future founding father at a pivotal point in his life. In his mid-20s, Washington served the commander of the Virginia militia and even saw action in the French and Indian War. Following the war, he returned to Mount Vernon and was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses. Beneath his confident exterior and impressive resumé, Washington was still maturing and evolving as a man.
“We have this idea in our consciousness of a stern, stoic figure, and there’s elements that is true, especially later on in life. When he’s younger, he’s very much like all of us—undefined, unformed,” Cross says. “He’s still becoming who he thinks he needs to be.”
Cross illustrates Washington as “emotionally raw” in his younger days. Washington’s letters depict the sights and traumas of war and the frontier. “At one point he talks about how he’s at the deepest dregs of despair because of the horrors and sufferings he’s seen,” Cross recalls.
This representation of Washington that Cross portrays creates a new image in mind—one of a humanizing figure trying to understand life, like anyone else. That is one of Cross’ favorite aspects of playing young Washington. “The more you look at the documents and read them without trying to put that stoic figure on them, you realize he’s just a person, just like us. He’s not that different.”
To protect the health of Colonial Williamsburg’s employees and visitors, the living history museum closed in March due to COVID-19. Fortunately, the museum’s historical interpreters were able to transition and create video content on Facebook, some out-of-character which is a first for the historic attraction. While Cross does miss getting to engage the audience in person, he has enjoyed getting to share stories of Washington that he may not be able to do within the Historic Area.
“I’ve been doing this series called ‘Snapshots,’ and I talk about a letter or things from his earlier life,” says Cross. “It’s been kind of neat to get a chance to look at those things that are really important to who he becomes. Often times it’s the kind of the things that Washington himself wouldn’t publicly say or talk about.”
Working from home has also given Cross a chance to show his own personality to an audience that typically wouldn’t get that opportunity. “There is a difference in how my presentation is—my vocabulary usage, kind of how I carry myself. It’s been neat to kind of let Daniel come through a little bit more, from the history/historian side as opposed to the historian in character side.”