Author: Mary V. Thompson

research historian at Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens

Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon

George Washington‘s Mount Vernon estate relied on the labor of enslaved Africans and African Americans to power its five distinct farms: Mansion House Farm, River Farm, Dogue Run Farm, Muddy Hole Farm, and Union Farm. Washington acquired these men and women through inheritance, purchase, natural increase, and his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis. At the height of its development under Washington, the estate was home to more than 300 enslaved people of African extraction; compare this to the roughly 30 residents of European extraction, which includes members of the Washington family, their managerial staff, and hired and indentured craftsmen, together with their families. Washington was, thus, living in the midst of a large African and African-American community. Most of what we know about the enslaved community at Mount Vernon comes from records kept by the white people in their lives, as well as archaeological finds. Perhaps the most valuable written records of this community are the two sets of slave inventories that Washington prepared in 1786 and 1799. From the demographic information in these lists, historians have reconstructed extended multigenerational families. Enslaved men and women at Mount Vernon worked from Monday to Saturday as skilled or field laborers, sometimes resisting their enslavement by escaping, by committing theft or arson, or through more passive means. In their spare time, they formed friendships, found love and got married, had children, cared for their homes and families, and maintained diverse religious practices. During and after the American Revolution (1775–1783) Washington’s views on the morality of slavery evolved, and he stopped buying and selling people. The enslaved community at Mount Vernon began to dissolve in 1801 as a result of Washington’s death and his directions about manumitting his slaves in his will.


Ferdinando Fairfax (1769–1820)

Ferdinando Fairfax was the author of a plan to gradually emancipate enslaved people in the United States and resettling them in Africa. Born in Fairfax County to a Virginia gentry family, he was the godson of George Washington and Martha Custis Washington. The first president introduced Fairfax into society and, after the death of his uncle, he inherited land in England and Virginia, including the family seat of Belvoir. Over the years, Fairfax manufactured brick, sold timber, raised sheep, and operated ironworks, a tavern, and other businesses. He helped build a market house in Charles Town in what became West Virginia and attempted to found a newspaper there. In 1790, possibly as a result of a religious conversion, he published a plan to emancipate and colonize enslaved African Americans in Virginia and the United States. That plan never came into being, although Fairfax freed at least some of his own slaves and made arrangements for the eventual freedom of others. He died in 1820.


Elizabeth Parke Custis (1776–1831)

Elizabeth Parke Custis was a social leader and the stepgranddaughter of George Washington. Born in Maryland, she lived with her mother in Alexandria after the death of her father in 1781. When her mother remarried in 1783, they moved to Hope Park, a country estate in Fairfax County, where Custis felt isolated and limited by the social restrictions imposed on women. Eccentric, intelligent, and sometimes difficult, Custis married the merchant Thomas Law in 1796, and the couple lived and entertained in Washington, D.C., until they separated in 1804. A divorce was finalized in 1811. Custis lived for a time on an estate outside Alexandria, which she called Mount Washington. Later in life she traveled between friends and relatives, collecting Washington family memorabilia. She died in 1831 and is buried at Mount Vernon.