Geary was born near Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, in Westmoreland County—in what is today the Pittsburgh metropolitan area. He was the son of Richard Geary, an ironmaster and schoolmaster of Scotch-Irish descent, and Margaret White, a native of Maryland. Starting at the age of 14, he attended nearby Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, studying civil engineering and law, but was forced to leave before graduation due to the death of his father, whose debts he assumed. He worked at a variety of jobs, including as a surveyor and land speculator in Kentucky, earning enough to return to college and graduate in 1841. He worked as a construction engineer for the Allegheny Portage Railroad. In 1843, he married Margaret Ann Logan, with whom he had several sons, but she died in 1853. Geary then married the widowed Mary Church Henderson in 1858 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
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