Author: Dennis J. Pogue

an adjunct associate professor of historic preservation at the University of Maryland. He was formerly the director of archaeology and then vice president for preservation at Mount Vernon
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Slave Housing in Virginia

Slave housing in Virginia varied widely depending on the context: whether it was rural or urban, whether it was on an elite plantation or a small farm, and even whether it was located close to or far from the slaveholder’s main house. Many of the first Africans who came to Virginia lived in barracks-style housing and other, less-than-permanent accommodations. As the enslaved population grew, however, houses were designed and constructed specifically for black laborers and, in particular, those living in family units. Most slave quarters were constructed of wood, and many were log and earthfast structures with no foundations. Those located closest to elite plantation houses were generally better built, with wooden frames and masonry chimneys and foundations. Separate one or two-room structures, designed to accommodate one- or two-family units, were the most popular house type, although many enslaved laborers slept where they worked—in kitchens, laundries, and stables. Slaves who were hired out in cities sometimes resided in separate “shanty towns.” Few intact slave quarters exist in the twenty-first century—likely fewer than 300—and most of those are relatively large and well-built.

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Mount Vernon, Archaeology at

Archaeology at Mount Vernon, the Fairfax County plantation home of George Washington, began in the 1930s and has continued over the subsequent decades. As part of research and renovation efforts undertaken by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, excavations have sought to uncover evidence of daily life on the property during the eighteenth century. In 1987, the association, which has owned and operated the estate since 1860, hired a full-time archaeologist. Since then, archaeological digs at the Mansion House Farm have taken place at the main slave quarter, known as the House for Families, and the blacksmith shop (1987–1990), the fruit garden and nursery (1988–1991), the South Grove trash dump, or midden (1990–1993), the dung repository (1992–1994), and the Upper Garden (2005–2010). Extensive work has also been conducted at the distillery, located near the outlying gristmill (1999–2005). These investigations have turned up a rich array of artifacts and other kinds of evidence attesting to the lives of the Washington family and their enslaved laborers, including the size and nature of structures in which they lived and worked, the tools they manufactured and used, and the foods they ate.

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