Lee was born sometime in or before 1752. In May 1768, George Washington purchased him for £61.15s from Mary Smith Ball Lee, a widow in Westmoreland County, and that year he appeared on Washington’s tithable list. Enslaved people first became tithable—meaning the state or county could tax their owners on their value—when they were sixteen. In the same transaction, Washington also purchased Lee’s younger brother, Frank Lee, for £50. In his account book, Washington described the brothers as “Mulatto,” meaning that they were of mixed race. His name appears in eighteenth-century records as Will, William, Billy, and Bill. In his last will and testament, Washington notes that Lee chose to call himself William Lee.
At Mount Vernon, Washington’s Fairfax County mansion, Lee performed domestic work: he is listed as a “house servant” on Washington’s tax lists. He soon became Washington’s personal attendant, accompanying him on a trip to the Ohio River Valley in the autumn of 1770. As valet, Lee was responsible for tasks such as laying out Washington’s clothing, brushing and tying his hair into a queue (ponytail), and delivering messages. Described as muscular and athletic, Lee also was a skilled horseman and rode in Washington’s fox hunts.
Due to his visible position in the household, Lee received more and higher-quality clothing than most enslaved laborers. Washington’s account books note purchases of coats, leather breeches (likely for riding), shoes, boots, and buckles “for Will” and other house servants. Lee and other male household staff—such as waiters, butlers, and coachmen—typically wore livery suits in the red and white colors of the Washington family coat of arms.
Sometime during his first seven years at Mount Vernon, Lee married, although it is unknown to whom. They had one child. Washington typically recognized marriages between enslaved people, although Virginia law did not. On December 30, 1775, Mount Vernon’s plantation manager Lund Washington wrote to George Washington, then at his military headquarters in Massachusetts, “if it will give Will any pleasure he may be told his wife and child are both very well.” This is the only known reference to Lee’s family.
Lee served as Washington’s attendant throughout the Revolutionary War, probably arriving with the commander-in-chief to Cambridge, Massachusetts, on July 2, 1775. Lee and Washington returned to Mount Vernon just once during the war, from September 9 to 12, 1781, en route to the Battle of Yorktown.
Wartime accounts describe Lee as a well-known figure and a constant presence on horseback behind the general. In Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington (1859–1861), George Washington Parke Custis relayed a June 28, 1778, incident at the Battle of Monmouth where Lee led a corps of valets on horseback to a spot overlooking the battlefield. “Here Billy halted,” Custis writes, “and, having unslung the large telescope that he always carried in a leathern case, with a martial air applied it to his eye, and reconnoitred the enemy.” In his account of the war, Military Journal of the American Revolution (1823), the military surgeon James Thacher recalled the time in 1779 when General Washington reviewed his brigade “followed by his mulatto servant Bill.”
During the war, Lee continued to perform his regular duties as valet, including waiting on visitors when the Washingtons entertained at headquarters. Sergeant Uzal Knapp, a member of Washington’s Life Guard, recalled Lee’s presence at Christmas dinner in New Windsor, New York, in 1782. “Old Billy, Washington’s body-servant, whose head appeared like a bunch of white sheep’s wool, was the chief waiter on that occasion, and moved with great dignity,” he told the historian Benson John Lossing late in his life.
One of Lee’s other duties was protecting Washington’s private papers. Years later, when Washington publicly refuted the authenticity of forged wartime letters, Lee was an integral part of his defense. In a March 3, 1797, letter to Secretary of State Timothy Pickering, Washington noted of the forgeries, “they are said by the editor to have been found in a small portmanteau which I had left in the care of my mulatto servant named Billy, who it is pretended, was taken prisoner at Fort Lee, in 1776.” Yet, Washington asserted, it was well-known among his staff and troops, “that my Mulatto Man Billy had never been one moment in the power of the enemy. It is also a fact that no part of my baggage, or any of my attendants were captured during the whole course of the war.”
During the Revolution, Lee married a free black woman named Margaret Thomas, who had worked as a seamstress and washerwoman in Washington’s headquarters household from at least 1776 to 1779. After the war, Lee asked Washington to bring Thomas back to Mount Vernon. On July 28, 1784, Washington wrote to his friend Clement Biddle in Philadelphia, where Thomas lived, “tho’ I never wished to see her more, yet I cannot refuse his request (if it can be complied with on reasonable terms) as he has lived with me so long & followed my fortunes through the War with fidility.” Washington asked Biddle to “procure her a passage to Alexandria, either by Sea … or in the Stage.” If Thomas ever arrived at Mount Vernon, there is no record of it. Washington also notes in his letter that “she has been in an infirm state of health for sometime,” which may have prevented her from traveling.
As Washington’s letter suggests, he valued Lee’s loyalty. During the war, many enslaved people had escaped when the British offered them liberty for fighting for the Crown. Seventeen of Washington’s own slaves fled in April 1781 when the British warship Savage anchored in front of Mount Vernon. Yet these fugitives faced great risks: many died of disease and only a small percentage saw freedom. Given these risks, there were many possible reasons that Lee may have chosen not to escape. Washington interpreted Lee’s decision as devotion.
Postwar Travel and Injuries
After the war, Lee continued to serve as Washington’s valet and accompany him on his travels, though his physical condition suffered. As noted in Washington’s diary, Lee was probably one of the “3 servants” whom Washington took on a trip to inspect his western lands, from September 1 to October 4, 1784. On April 22, 1785, Lee was carrying a chain for Washington as he surveyed a portion of Dr. David Stuart’s Abingdon plantation when he fell and broke his kneecap. Washington noted in his diary that he was “obliged to get a sled to carry [Lee] on, as he could neither Walk, stand, or ride.” Washington’s account book notes a payment of 6 shillings to “the Negroes who asisted to get Will to Doctr Stuarts after breakg his knee.”
In 1786, Lee is described as “Val-de-Chambre,” or valet, on Washington’s list of enslaved people on his plantation. The next year, he accompanied Washington to Philadelphia from May 8 to September 22, 1787, for the Constitutional Convention. Back in Virginia, on March 1, 1788, he suffered another accident: Washington recorded in his diary, “Having sent my Waiter Will to Alexandria to the Post Office he fell at Mr. Porters door and broke the Pan of his other Knee & was not able to return.”
Despite these injuries, in early April 1789, Lee left Mount Vernon with Washington’s secretary Tobias Lear to travel to New York for Washington’s first inauguration. The journey proved too strenuous for Lee, however, and the party was forced to stop in Philadelphia. On April 19, Lear continued to New York, leaving Lee’s care in the hands of Clement Biddle. Though initially intended to be two or three days, Lee’s recuperation stretched on. On April 27, Biddle informed Washington, “I have frequently called to see Billy he continues too bad to remove—Doctor Smith was uneasy without some other experienc’d Surgeon or Physician to look at his knee, and I called on Doctor Hutchinson They are of opinion that the present Sore reaches to the joint and that it would be very improper to remove him at least for a week or two.”
On May 3, Lear replied with the president’s suggestion that Lee return to Mount Vernon given his condition, adding, “but if he is still anxious to come on here the President would gratify him altho’ he will be troublesome. He has been an old & faithful Servt. This is enough for the Presidt to gratify him in every reasonable wish … ” Lee chose to go to New York. After being fitted with a steel brace to strengthen his knee, he arrived in the city on June 15, 1789. The following summer, however, Lee was sent back to Mount Vernon, reaching Virginia in early August 1790. Washington replaced Lee with William Osborne, a hired white valet.
Back at Mount Vernon, Lee was assigned to make shoes, likely because his knee injuries necessitated work he could perform sitting down. A 1790s Mount Vernon ledger notes tools and leather distributed to Lee, as well as hundreds of shoes that he made or mended for enslaved laborers on the plantation. On May 18, 1794, Washington wrote to his plantation manager, “Mulatto Will should be kept close to making Shoes, that they may be in readiness by the time they are wanted. He is slow, and sickness, or other interruption may throw this business behind.”
Throughout the 1780s and 1790s, Lee remained a minor celebrity due to his wartime association with Washington. In his diary account of a November 1785 visit to Mount Vernon, Robert Hunter recorded that Washington’s secretary “showed me his old servant, that was reported to have been taken with a number of the General’s papers about him”—a reference to the false claim surrounding the forgeries. George Washington Parke Custis recalled that when Revolutionary War veterans visited Mount Vernon, Lee met with them and exchanged stories of the war: “These interviews were frequent, as many veteran officers called to pay their respects to the retired chief, and all of them bestowed a token of remembrance upon the old body-servant of the Revolution.”
In June 1799, George Washington made a list of all 317 enslaved people on his plantation, including their work assignments, spouses, and children. Lee is listed as “Will … Shoem[ake]r … Lame—no wife.” Though unmarried, Lee did have relatives on the plantation: his brother, Frank Lee, served as butler and was married to Lucy, a cook. Frank and Lucy Lee had three children—Mike, Philip, and Patty. Philip Lee later followed in his uncle’s footsteps by becoming George Washington Parke Custis’s valet.
On July 9, 1799, Washington wrote his last will and testament. In the document, he ordered that the slaves he owned outright be freed at his wife’s death. The exception was William Lee, the only enslaved person Washington mentions by name: “And to my Mulatto man William (calling himself William Lee) I give immediate freedom.” Washington stated that if Lee chose, he could remain on the plantation in his current situation, “on account of the accidents which have befallen him, and which have rendered him incapable of walking or of any active employment.” He also gave him a $30 annual allowance. Washington explained his actions, writing, “This I give him as a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.”
After Washington’s death on December 14, 1799, Lee remained at Mount Vernon, as did his brother and several other newly freed people. (Martha Washington chose to free the rest of her husband’s enslaved workers early, on January 1, 1801.) Executors’ accounts show payments to William Lee in accordance with Washington’s instructions.
Lee’s disability made his last years difficult. In June 1804, the artist Charles Willson Peale visited Mount Vernon and noted the severity of Lee’s injuries: “he was now a cripple & in an extraordinary manner—both of his knee pans was moved from their places—was some Inches higher up.” The historian Benson Lossing suggests that Lee turned to alcohol after emancipation, describing him as “quite intemperate at times.”
There are conflicting accounts of Lee’s death. In his book The Estate of George Washington, Deceased (1927), Eugene Prussing reports that the accounts of Washington’s executors show quarterly payments to Lee for many years “until there came this entry, January 31, 1810, ‘Paid Dr. Dangerfield for attending Old Billy Lee $5—’ and soon after a charge for a coffin.” The precise documents Prussing refers to have not been located.
By contrast, Lossing asserts that Lee died in 1828. Lossing had spoken in 1858 with West Ford, a free black man formerly enslaved by Washington’s nephew Bushrod Washington, who inherited Mount Vernon in 1802. Ford told Lossing that Lee had periodically suffered from delirium tremens, a symptom of alcohol withdrawal that Ford often attempted to relieve through bloodletting. According to Lossing, “One morning, a little more than thirty years ago, [Ford] was sent for to bring Billy out of a fit. The blood would not flow. Billy was dead!”
Lee was probably buried in Mount Vernon’s African American cemetery, near Washington’s tomb. An 1846 visitor to the cemetery described seeing the grave “of Washington’s favorite servant, who was with him in his campaigns, fulfilling his simple duties faithfully and affectionately. The spot is not forgotten, though the tramp of passing years has leveled the little mound.”