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.

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 Daniel Parke Custis, 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 Washington’s views on slavery shifted and he stopped actively acquiring slaves. (He wrote in 1786, for example, that “I never mean (unless some particular circumstances should compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase.”) The historians Philip D. Morgan and Michael L. Nicholls estimate that over the course of his lifetime, Washington owned or managed about 670 slaves. By the time of his death in 1799, there were more than 300 enslaved people at Mount Vernon.

Sources for Information About Slavery

Archaeological Remains of Enslaved Life at Mount Vernon

Because very few of those enslaved at Mount Vernon could read or write, 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 slave quarter found lead shot and gunflints from the same period, reinforcing that documentation.

Negros Belonging to George Washington in his own right and by Marriage

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.


Map of West Africa

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 people captured decades earlier in 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 ships bringing them to America, 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 a runaway slave advertisement from 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.

Washington’s summer 1799 lists also reveal important information about the ages and occupations of the men and women who lived at Mount Vernon. The 1799 lists indicate that 184 of the enumerated 316 slaves were of working age and that, of these, a little over one-quarter were considered skilled laborers. They worked as blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, gardeners, millers, distillers, bricklayers, postillions, cart drivers, and shoemakers, as well as spinners, seamstresses, dairy maids, cooks, housemaids, and butlers. The majority of these skilled workers were male and lived at the Mansion House Farm, without their families. Almost three-quarters of the enslaved workers labored in the fields; most of them lived on the outlying farms, and well over half of these, or 61.4 percent, were women.

Of the slaves recorded on the 1799 lists, 42 percent were either too young or too old to work. Further analysis of the information on ages shows rapid growth in Mount Vernon’s enslaved population. In the thirteen years between the completion of the 1786 and 1799 lists, the population had increased by 100 people, during a time in which Washington was not actively acquiring slaves. Therefore, this increase can be almost completely attributed to natural growth—that is, children born to enslaved men and women on the estate. According to the 1799 lists, the average age of a slave on the four outlying farms was about twenty-one years. Only a little more than 8 percent of the people were older than sixty, while more than 58 percent were younger than nineteen. Nearly 35 percent of the total population of the outlying farms were children younger than nine. All of this increase was the outgrowth of Washington’s stated abhorrence to breaking up families and to selling slaves, as he put it , like “cattle in the market.”


Slave Quarters Re-creation

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.

An Overseer Doing His Duty near Fredericksburg

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.


Romanticized Views of Enslavement at Mount Vernon

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, clothed, 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. Oney Judge, Martha Washington’s personal attendant, ran away in 1796, later citing her “thirst for compleat freedom”; Hercules, 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 once commented that 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 a letter to 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?”

The Washington Family

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 valet William Lee was 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 associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, inherited Mount Vernon.

  • MacLeod, Jessie and Mary V. Thompson. Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Mount Vernon, Virginia: Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, 2016.
  • Morgan, Philip D. and Michael L. Nicholls. “Slave Flight: Mount Vernon, Virginia, and the Wider Atlantic World.” In George Washington’s South, edited by Tamara Harvey and Greg O’Brien. Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2004.
  • Walsh, Lorena S. “Slavery and Agriculture at Mount Vernon.” In Slavery at the Home of George Washington, edited by Philip J. Schwarz, 46–77. Mount Vernon, Virginia: Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, 2001.
  • Wiencek, Henry. An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003.
APA Citation:
Thompson, Mary. Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/enslaved-community-at-mount-vernon.
MLA Citation:
Thompson, Mary. "Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2022, November 30
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