Hercules, often referred to in Washington’s records as Herculas, was born probably about 1754. Historians have calculated that year based on the fact that in 1770 he appeared for the first time on a list of tithable enslaved people belonging to George Washington. Enslaved people first became tithable—meaning the state or county could tax their owners on their value—when they were sixteen.
Nothing is known of Hercules’s parents or family, although he may have been born on the estate of Captain John Posey, Washington’s neighbor in Fairfax County. A heavy drinker, Posey played cards with Washington and the two were friends. After falling deeply into debt, Posey mortgaged to Washington in 1765 twenty-six enslaved people, including Hercules. In 1770, Posey leased to Washington land that contained a ferry operated by Hercules and another enslaved man, Jack, and two years later Washington purchased it. At some point, Washington came to own Hercules. It is possible, meanwhile, that Hercules turned sixteen while with Posey. Ferrymen were exempt from levies and so no record would have been made.
By 1777, Hercules married Alice, an enslaved seamstress, and the couple produced three children: Richmond, Evey, and Delia. Alice, also known as Lame Alice, died in September 1787.
Hercules trained to be a chef, and a Mount Vernon slave census, dated February 18, 1786, identifies him as the mansion’s chief cook. Three years later, George Washington was elected president, and for a little more than a year he lived in New York, the federal capital. He returned home on August 30, 1790, for an extended visit. In the meantime, the capital had moved to Philadelphia, where the Washingtons traveled in November. This time they took with them Hercules, who had been tapped to serve as chief chef in the President’s House.
Eight other enslaved people made the trip, including Martha Custis Washington‘s personal attendant, Oney Judge, and Hercules’s thirteen-year-old son, Richmond. In a letter to his personal secretary, George Washington groused that Richmond was joining the president’s household staff “not from his appearance or merits I fear, but because he was the Son of Herculas & his desire to have him as an assistant.” Father and son lived together on the fourth floor of the President’s House.
George Washington Parke Custis, the president’s stepgrandson, lived with the Washington family during this time. His memories of Hercules are vivid and affectionate, if also highly sentimental. “The chief cook,” he wrote in Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington (1859–1861), “would have been termed in modern parlance, a celebrated artiste.” Describing Hercules as “dark brown,” average sized, and muscular, Custis noted that the cook “glories in the cleanliness and nicety of his kitchen” and was generally treated with “much respect.” He went on to suggest that while “homely in person,” Hercules was a “celebrated dandy” for how well he dressed. His clothes, according to Custis, were purchased from the approximately $200 per year he earned selling kitchen slops.
In the spring of 1791 George Washington learned that Pennsylvania law complicated his ability to hold slaves in the state. Passed in 1780, “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” required that any slaves living in Pennsylvania for six uninterrupted months be freed. In a letter to his secretary, dated April 12, 1791, Washington ordered that his slaves be sent back to Virginia before their six months expired in May, and then returned to Philadelphia. It is unclear whether he was aware of a 1788 amendment to the Pennsylvania act that prohibited exactly this means of subverting the law. There also was some confusion at the time over whether federal officials were exempt from the law’s requirements and, if they were not, whether Pennsylvania would enforce them in such a politically sensitive situation.
Whatever the case, Washington took no chances, explaining to his secretary that the movement of his slaves ought to be accomplished “under pretext that may deceive both them and the Public.” Washington worried that should his slaves learn of the law they might be tempted by freedom. He also noted that all but two of his slaves in Philadelphia, including Oney Judge but not Hercules, were dower slaves, meaning that they had come to the marriage with his wife and were technically owned by the estate of her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. Should he lose them, Washington wrote, he would be forced to reimburse the Custis estate. In May 1796, Judge ran away from the President’s House while the family ate a dinner presumably cooked by Hercules.
Hercules himself ran away early in 1797. Historians long argued that he had become attached to life in Philadelphia, and fled because Washington’s term was set to end on March 4. However, in 2009, the Mount Vernon historian Mary V. Thompson uncovered records that demonstrated a different motivation. In November 1796, perhaps while on one of their regular trips home, Hercules’s son Richmond was caught stealing money at Mount Vernon. Within a month, according to the records found by Thompson, Hercules was no longer working as a chef but as a common laborer.
In a letter to his farm manager, dated November 14, 1796, Washington wondered whether Hercules had been involved in the theft. “I hope Richmond was made an example of, for the Robbery he committed on Wilkes Saddle bags,” the president wrote. “I wish he may not have been put upon it by his father (although I never had any suspicion of the honesty of the latter) for the purpose perhaps of a journey together.” Washington ordered that they be carefully watched, lest they attempt to escape.
Hercules may have been planning an escape with his son all along. Or the loss of his privileges as the mansion’s chef may have prompted him to run. But run he did, alone, sometime on February 21 or 22, 1797. (February 22 was Washington’s sixty-fifth birthday.) In a March 10 letter, Washington indicated his belief that Hercules may have returned to Philadelphia by urging his secretary to enlist the help of Frederick Kitt, steward of the President’s House, in the search.
In April Louis Philippe, duke of Orléans and later the king of the French, visited Mount Vernon. In his diary he noted that his manservant interviewed Hercules’s six-year-old daughter about the former chef’s whereabouts. (Hercules may have married again after his wife’s death.) The servant “ventured that the little girl must be deeply upset that she would never see her father again; she answered, Oh! sir, I am very glad, because he is free now.”
By early the next year Hercules still hadn’t been found. On January 10, 1798, Washington wrote directly to Frederick Kitt, asking him to look for his slave. Five days later Kitt responded that he had “been making distant enquiries about Herculas” and had heard only that he was in Philadelphia. On January 29, Washington urged Kitt to continue the search, but Hercules was never captured.
Washington’s last will and testament, signed July 9, 1799, manumits his own slaves, which included Hercules, but not the dower slaves owned by the Custis family, which included Hercules’s children. As a result, Hercules legally became free in 1801, although the historical record does not indicate anything about his life or death after 1798.