George Washington Carver was born into slavery in Diamond Grove, Newton County, near Crystal Place, now known as Diamond, Missouri, some time in the early 1860s. The exact date of his birth is uncertain and was not known to Carver – however it was sometime before slavery was abolished in Missouri in January 1865. His master, Moses Carver, was a German American immigrant who had purchased George's parents, Mary and Giles, from William P. McGinnis on October 9, 1855, for $700.
When George was only a week old, he, a sister, and his mother were kidnapped by night raiders from Arkansas. George's brother, James, was rushed to safety from the kidnappers. The kidnappers sold the slaves in Kentucky. Moses Carver hired John Bentley to find them, but he located only the infant George. Moses negotiated with the raiders to gain the boy's return, and rewarded Bentley. After slavery was abolished, Moses Carver and his wife Susan raised George and his older brother James as their own children. They encouraged George to continue his intellectual pursuits, and "Aunt Susan" taught him the basics of reading and writing.
Black people were not allowed at the public school in Diamond Grove. George decided to go to a school for black children 10 miles (16 km) south in Neosho. When he reached the town, he found the school closed for the night. He slept in a nearby barn. By his own account, the next morning he met a kind woman, Mariah Watkins, from whom he wished to rent a room. When he identified himself as "Carver's George," as he had done his whole life, she replied that from now on his name was "George Carver". George liked Mariah Watkins, and her words, "You must learn all you can, then go back out into the world and give your learning back to the people", made a great impression on him.
At the age of thirteen, due to his desire to attend the academy there, he relocated to the home of another foster family in Fort Scott, Kansas. After witnessing a black man killed by a group of whites, Carver left the city. He attended a series of schools before earning his diploma at Minneapolis High School in Minneapolis, Kansas.
Carver applied to several colleges before being accepted at Highland University in Highland, Kansas. When he arrived, however, they rejected him because of his race. In August 1886, Carver traveled by wagon with J. F. Beeler from Highland to Eden Township in Ness County, Kansas. He homesteaded a claim near Beeler, where he maintained a small conservatory of plants and flowers and a geological collection. He manually plowed 17 acres (69,000 m2) of the claim, planting rice, corn, Indian corn and garden produce, as well as various fruit trees, forest trees, and shrubbery. He also earned money by odd jobs in town and worked as a ranch hand.
In early 1888, Carver obtained a $300 loan at the Bank of Ness City for education. By June he left the area in 1890, Carver started studying art and piano at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. His art teacher, Etta Budd, recognized Carver's talent for painting flowers and plants; she encouraged him to study botany at Iowa State Agricultural College in Ames. When he began there in 1891, he was the first black student. Carver's Bachelor's thesis was "Plants as Modified by Man", dated 1894.
Iowa State professors Joseph Budd and Louis Pammel convinced Carver to continue there for his master's degree. Carver did research at the Iowa Experiment Station under Pammel during the next two years. His work at the experiment station in plant pathology and mycology first gained him national recognition and respect as a botanist. Carver taught as the first black faculty member at Iowa State.