Davy Gray was about sixteen years old when he first came to Mount Vernon in 1759 as part of Martha Washington’s dower share of enslaved workers from the Custis estate.1 It is unknown whether anyone in his family accompanied him. The young man became a field-worker on several of Washington’s farms. As early as 1778 he was supervising other enslaved workers. By 1799 then-fifty-six-year-old Gray was overseer at Muddy Hole Farm, where he lived with his wife, Molly. At various times, Washington also assigned him to oversee the fields of River and Dogue Run Farms. Gray was described as “mulatto,” meaning he was mixed race. The origin of his last name is unknown.2

Most of Washington’s overseers were hired whites from the local region, but a handful of enslaved men rose to this position of authority. For a brief time in the 1780s, three of Mount Vernon’s five farms had enslaved overseers. Reporting to Washington’s overall plantation manager, the overseers were responsible for supervising day-to-day operations of their fields, ensuring that the enslaved workers performed assigned duties thoroughly and attentively. For those who did not, overseers were also tasked with administering punishment. To his frustration, Washington found that hired workers who met his standards were rare indeed. He chided many overseers for drinking too much, sleeping too late, and neglecting their duties in favor of entertaining friends. By contrast, Gray’s work ethic and calm demeanor seem to have met with Washington’s approval. In 1793 Washington noted that “Davy at Muddy hole carries on his business as well as the white Overseers, and with more quietness than any of them. With proper directions he will do very well.”3

As overseer, Gray received certain privileges, such as leather breeches (enslaved field-workers were usually issued clothing of coarse linen), occasional cash gifts, and extra quantities of pork after hogs were slaughtered. He and his wife lived in a house with a brick chimney, sturdier than the standard log cabins with wooden chimneys in which most enslaved field-workers resided.

Being an overseer also gave Gray the power to advocate for his fellow workers. In 1793 Washington heard complaints from his slaves that his new method of distributing cornmeal was leaving them with less to eat. Initially skeptical, he changed his mind when Gray assured him “that what his people received was not sufficient, and that . . . several of them would often be without a mouthful for a day, and sometimes . . . two days.”4

After Washington died in 1799, Gray was among the hired and enslaved workers who were outfitted with mourning clothes for the funeral.5 Because they were owned by the Custis estate, neither Gray nor his wife was freed by the emancipation provision in Washington’s will. On January 12, 1801—just eleven days after the Washington slaves were emancipated—Gray was paid $9.75 for his proportion of 32 turkeys, 20 ducks, and 42 chickens raised for Martha Washington. Gray signed the receipt for this payment with an “X” in place of his name, indicating that despite his position as overseer, he could not write.6 After MarthaWashington’s death in 1802, Gray may have been inherited by Nelly Parke Custis Lewis and her husband, Lawrence, who lived at nearby Woodlawn plantation. The fate of Molly, Gray’s wife, is unknown.

 

Jessie MacLeod

Associate Curator

George Washington's Mount Vernon

 

Notes:

If not specifically cited, biographical and genealogical information about enslaved people has been drawn from Washington’s 1786 and 1799 slave lists: George Washington, Diary, Feb. 18, 1786, and “Washington’s Slave List,” 1799, The Papers of George Washington, Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel, Edward G. Lengel, et al. (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008); the Mount Vernon slavery database, which compiles references to the estate’s enslaved people; and the files of Mary V. Thompson, Mount Vernon’s research historian. References to The Papers of George Washington, Digital Edition are abbreviated as PGWDE throughout.

1. George Washington, “Assignment of the Widow’s Dower” [ca. Oct. 1759], Settlement of the Daniel Parke Custis Estate, Schedule iii-A, PGWDE.

2. Davy’s surname first appears in an entry of the Mount Vernon Distillery and Fishery Ledger, in which “Davie Gray overseer” was given $7.25 on March 24, 1800, Washington Library (RM-297). It also appears on “List of the different Drafts of Negros,” [ca. 1802], in which “David Gray” is listed under Nelly Parke Custis Lewis’s share. The “List of the different Drafts of Negros” is in scrapbook, box 34, Peter Family Archives, Washington Library.

3. George Washington to William Pearce, Dec. 18, 1793, PGWDE.

4. George Washington to Anthony Whitting, May 26, 1793, PGWDE.

5. William Bowie to the Estate of Genl. George Washington, Dec. 23, 1799, Bill, Washington Library (RM-215/MS-2688).

6. Davie Gray to Mrs. Washington, Bill, Jan. 12, 1801, Peter Family Archives, Washington Library. The fact that Gray could not write suggests that unlike the hired white overseers, he did not submit a written weekly report to the plantation manager, who then compiled the information for Washington. Gray must have communicated the information in another way.

 

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