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Slave Cabin

This cabin portrays a building like those that housed many of the 316 enslaved workers who lived at George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation. When Washington died in 1799, 97 slaves are known to have lived at the Mansion House Farm, where they served primarily as house servants and as skilled craftsmen. Most of the remainder lived and worked as field hands at the four outlying farms, where they labored to grow wheat, corn, and the other crops that provided the financial base for the plantation. The cabin is meant to represent the housing that was typically found at the outlying farms, and complements the large brick, barracks-style slave quarter that served as the main domicile for the enslaved workers at the Mansion House Farm (and which has been open to visitors since 1962).

The design of the cabin is based primarily on a combination of documentary and graphic information relating to slave housing at Mount Vernon. Washington described the living conditions of the slaves at one of the farms as follows: “Thirty black laborers (men and women) being the usual number which have been employed on this farm, are, with their children, warmly lodged chiefly in houses of their own building.” There were two general sizes of quarters at the farms, as Washington referred to “the largest kind” -- at least some of which were “built for two families, with a chimney in the middle” -- as well as “the smaller ones or cabins,” that had a single room. The cabins at the outlying farms were made of logs, which was a particularly popular type of construction used for slave dwellings in the 18th century. A French visitor to the plantation in 1788 remarked that, “three hundred Negroes live in a number of log houses in different parts” of the estate.

A rare photograph that was taken circa 1908 depicts a dilapidated log building that purportedly was located at Mount Vernon. In its overall appearance the structure is similar to any number of log cabins for slaves and freed blacks depicted in mid 19th-century images and accounts, and there is nothing about the building that disqualifies it from being 18th century in date. Therefore, the structure shown in the photograph was selected to serve as the model for the new cabin. By digitizing and minutely examining the image, Mount Vernon staff and consultants were able to determine the approximate size of the building (16 by 14-feet), the dimensions of the logs and of the door and window openings, and many other important details. The size of the building and the placement of the door and window suggest that the structure correlates with one of the smaller cabins, with only one room below and a sleeping loft above. Because the chimney is missing in the picture, we used documentary accounts of the types of chimneys used both at Mount Vernon and elsewhere in the region to design a rustic stack comprised of wood and pressed clay, supported by a log base.

The cabin is located at the George Washington Pioneer Farmer site, which includes a barn, stables, and corn houses modeled after the ones that existed at Washington’s Dogue Run Farm. Given the connection with Dogue Run Farm, we have elected to interpret the cabin as if it were occupied by one of the families that lived at that farm. Priscilla, also known as “Silla,” lived and worked at Dogue Run, while her husband, “Slamin” Joe, worked as a ditcher at the Mansion House Farm; they had at least six children in 1799, aged from one to 14 years. Joe would have walked the roughly three miles to spend time with his family during his off hours, from Saturday night to Monday morning.

The furnishings of the cabin represent what is known from archaeological and documentary evidence about the types of belongings that Mount Vernon slaves are likely to have possessed. The description of a Mount Vernon slave cabin written by a Polish visitor in 1798 serves as a particularly important source of information:

“We entered one of the huts of the Blacks, for one can not call them by the name of houses. They are more miserable than the most miserable of the cottages of our peasants. The husband and wife sleep on a mean pallet, the children on the ground; a very bad fireplace, some utensils for cooking, but in the middle of this poverty some cups and a teapot. A boy of 15 was lying on the ground, sick, and in terrible convulsions. The G[enera]l had sent to Alexandria to fetch a doctor. A very small garden planted with vegetables was close by, with 5 or 6 hens, each one leading ten to fifteen chickens. It is the only comfort that is permitted them; for they may not keep either ducks, geese, or pigs. They sell the poultry in Alexandria and procure for themselves a few amenities. They allot them each …one gallon maize per week; this makes one quart a day, and half as much for the children, with 20 herrings each per month. At harvest time those who work in the fields have salt meat; in addition, a jacket and a pair of homespun breeches per year.”