Growth of a Community
Washington came into possession of the Mount Vernon plantation in 1754. (He leased the land from his half-brother Lawrence Washington’s widow until her death in 1761, when he inherited the estate outright.) At the time he owned about eighteen enslaved men and women, acquired through inheritance and through purchases at estate sales and at auction. Through his marriage in 1759 to Martha Dandridge Custis, the widow of, he acquired another eighty-four enslaved men and women—but he did not legally own these so-called dower slaves. Because Martha Washington’s first husband died without a will, those eighty-four slaves and any future offspring of the women technically belonged to the Custis estate. This meant that the Washingtons could not sell or free them; upon Martha Washington’s death, ownership of these men and women would revert to Daniel Parke Custis’s heirs. In the period between his marriage and the American Revolution, Washington purchased more than fifty additional slaves.
These enslaved men and women formed a community, building friendships and families. As a result, the enslaved population at Mount Vernon increased steadily, even late in the eighteenth century, when
Sources for Information About Slavery
Because very few of those enslaved at Mount Vernon could, the sources scholars use to learn about them come primarily from records kept by the white people in their lives. These sources include diaries, correspondence, and work reports kept by the Washingtons, their friends and family members, their farm managers and overseers, and the many visitors who came to Mount Vernon each year. These documentary sources are sometimes corroborated by archaeological finds, which shed light on the material objects used and owned by those who were enslaved. For example, written sources indicate that certain slaves at Mount Vernon were provided with guns and shot to supplement their diets and to furnish the Washingtons’ table with fresh game. Archaeologists working in the cellar of a Mount Vernon found lead shot and gunflints from the same period, reinforcing that documentation.
Perhaps the most valuable written records of the enslaved community at Mount Vernon are the slave inventories that Washington completed in 1786, after he had returned from the Revolutionary War, and in 1799, as he created his last will and testament. In both sets of lists, Washington named each person on his five farms and gave an idea of their age and the kind of work they did. There were notes on whether someone was too old or infirm to work. If the person was a child, he recorded the name of his or her mother. On the two 1799 lists, Washington recorded the name and residence of each adult’s spouse, if applicable, and the spouse’s owner. From the two sets of lists, historians at Mount Vernon have reconstructed extended multigenerational enslaved families.
Washington’s lists provide a wealth of demographic information about these men and women. For example, because Washington noted which men and women he owned outright and which were Custis dower slaves, historians have been able to deduce their backgrounds. According to the historian Lorena S. Walsh, about one-third of the working adult slaves owned by Custis were born in Africa, while the remainder, as well as the children, were the American-born descendants of peoplein the Bight of Biafra, West Central Africa, Angola, and the Gold Coast. Having spent years in Virginia, they probably spoke English and were familiar with the ways of Anglo-Virginian culture. Walsh indicates that the slaves Washington inherited were primarily Africans, as were those he acquired directly from , most likely from Senegambia. Those he got from estate sales were primarily either Africans who had been in Virginia for a while or they were Virginia-born, a generation or two removed from the ships.
Both African and European religious influences could be found among the enslaved community at Mount Vernon. Some men and women had religious practices that were influenced by African traditions like Vodoun or Islam. Others may have participated in local, organized Anglican, Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist, or Quaker congregations. The community also developed at least one spiritual leader of its own. Caesar, a Custis family slave from Union Farm, was a well-known preacher among the local black population in the last years of the eighteenth century. According to afrom 1798, “[in] the neighborhood he is so well known as to need no further description, for he frequently reads or preaches to the blacks.” The advertisement also recorded that he usually wore clothing of black and white homespun, a combination that probably related to his role as a minister.
, like “cattle in the market.”
Marriage was a basic building block of the enslaved community at Mount Vernon. While the Washingtons acknowledged these marriages, the unions were not recognized or protected by the legal system: slaves were considered property, not people, in the eyes of the law, and property cannot enter into a contract. Roughly two-thirds of the adult slaves at Mount Vernon were married in 1799, but of those ninety-six individuals, only thirty-six lived in the same household as their spouse and children. Another thirty-eight had spouses who, because of work assignments, lived on one of Washington’s other farms, while twenty-two had married people from other plantations. In other words, almost two-thirds of the married couples at Mount Vernon had long-distance relationships. These figures also suggest that there was time and opportunity for enslaved men and women to meet the enslaved residents of other plantations and members of the free black community and decide they wanted to be married.
The 1799 slave lists tell us something else about family life at Mount Vernon—almost three-quarters of the children lived in households headed, at least during the work week (Monday through Saturday), by single parents, who were almost always mothers. This means that many women, after putting in a grueling day in the fields—where they might be plowing, hoeing, or building fences from dawn to dusk—then came home to hungry children, who had to be fed and tended to, as well as household chores, without the support or protection of a spouse. It also suggests two other things: First, that older children probably had a lot of responsibility placed on them by this exhausted parent, who needed them to look after younger siblings, weed the family garden, feed the chickens, and haul wood and water to the cabin. Second, that they also were relatively unsupervised during the day, except by other children, which meant that they could get into a lot of mischief, something Washington complained about in his letters.
Like many other planters, Washington connected the success of his farms with the productivity of his enslaved workforce. He managed his farms with an eye toward maximizing profit. As a slave owner, he authorized severe punishments against the enslaved population, including whippings and the threat of harsher work assignments. And before he decided to disengage from the slave trade, he could sell an unruly slave to a buyer outside of Virginia, effectively exiling the enslaved man or woman from their family and friends at Mount Vernon. Even later, he could send an unruly slave to be sold in the West Indies, with the same effect. In the meantime, he fed,, and housed his slaves in accordance with the practices on other large plantations.
Men and women resisted their enslavement at Mount Vernon in a number of ways. Some ran away in an attempt to become free; for example, in 1781, seventeen enslaved men and women boarded the British warship the HMS Savage, then anchored in the Potomac River. Some of the men and women who successfully escaped worked closely with the Washingtons., Martha Washington’s personal attendant, ran away in 1796, later citing her “thirst for compleat freedom”; , the family chef for at least ten years, escaped in 1797. Washington’s personal waiting man, Christopher Sheels, also planned to escape with his wife in 1799 but was discovered before he could carry out the attempt.
More subtle means of resistance included misplacing or damaging tools and equipment, feigning illness, producing work of poor quality, or slowing the pace of work. For example, Washington oncethat the plantation’s wagons seemed to go off and “go to sleep.” Others resisted by committing arson or theft.
The Breakup of a Community
Washington’s views on the morality of slavery evolved over time. During and after the American Revolution, his private statements about slavery began to align with abolitionist goals, and he stopped buying and selling people. But the enslaved population at Mount Vernon continued to grow through natural increase. By the last year of his life, 1799, Washington had serious concerns about the viability of the operation at Mount Vernon. In ato his nephew, Robert Lewis, he noted that he had “more working Negros by a full moiety, than can be employed to any advantage in the farming System.” In other words, he had twice as many workers as he needed, and there was a rapidly rising younger generation growing up in the quarters, who would soon reach working age.
Where someone else might have sold off the surplus people, he explained that he was “principled against this kind of traffic in the human species.” He found the prospect of renting people out to others “almost as bad, because they could not be disposed of in families to any advantage, and to disperse the families I have an aversion.” He went on to confide his worries, “What is then to be done? Something must or I shall be ruined.” He closed with an idea he was mulling over of sending the extra people to work the land on some of the thousands of acres he owned around the country. “But where?”
At around the same time, Washington drew up his last will and testament. He directed that all 123 of his slaves be freed. His longtime valetwas to be freed immediately upon Washington’s death, while the others were to be freed upon the death of Martha Washington. Washington knew that manumitting his slaves would result in the enforced separation of families in which Washington slaves and Custis dower slaves had intermarried, and he hoped to spare himself and his wife from witnessing it.
But Martha Washington freed the Washington slaves on January 1, 1801, about eighteen months before her death—perhaps uncomfortable with the idea that her death would be the catalyst for freedom for so many. This led to the breakup of twenty families. The Custis dower slaves were divided among Martha Washington’s four grandchildren after she died in 1802. Bushrod Washington, George Washington’s nephew and an, inherited Mount Vernon.