Doll was thirty-eight years old when she arrived at Mount Vernon in 1759. She and her children were among the more than 80 enslaved people whom Martha Dandridge Custis brought to her marriage to George Washington, as part of her “dower” or widow’s share of her first husband’s estate. Many of the “dower” slaves remained on Custis properties, but about 20 household workers and craftsmen were taken to Mount Vernon from their previous home in New Kent County, Virginia.1 Doll and her fellow Custis slaves had to adjust to a new life—and a new community—on Washington’s plantation.
As the estate’s cook for many years, Doll worked long hours in the kitchen preparing the hoecakes, smoked hams, and other Washington family favorites. It is likely that Martha Washington installed Doll as cook because she was familiar with the enslaved woman’s skills. Mount Vernon’s steady stream of visitors meant that Doll frequently had to prepare large and elaborate meals. She would have worked closely with Martha to plan each day’s menu and monitor ingredients. Though under her mistress’s supervision, the kitchen was Doll’s domain. She passed on her expertise to her daughter Lucy, who succeeded her mother as one of the estate’s cooks.
By the 1780s, Doll no longer had a formal work assignment.2 Then in her sixties, she likely assisted with knitting and mending, tasks that Washington often assigned to elderly slaves. She continued to use the kitchen to distill rose and mint water for medicinal purposes and to dry fruits such as cherries.3 She also sold chickens and ducks to George Washington, as did many enslaved people on the estate.
Doll was the matriarch of one of the largest extended families within Mount Vernon’s enslaved community. In 1799 she had five children—George, Doll, Lucy, Peter, and Alce—as well as fourteen grandchildren and at least four great-grandchildren living on the estate. Her daughter Lucy married Frank Lee, the enslaved butler. Her grandson Christopher Sheels became Washington’s personal valet.
Because she was owned by the Custis estate, Doll remained enslaved after Martha Washington’s death. She may have been inherited by Elizabeth (Eliza) Parke Custis Law or George Washington Parke Custis.4 On the list of the division of the Custis slaves, both inherited a “Doll” or “Dolly” valued at just $5, a low figure indicating that the women were elderly.5 By 1802 Doll would have been eighty-one years old.
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 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008); the MV slavery database, which compiles references to the estate’s enslaved people; and the files of Mary V. Thompson, Mount Vernon’s research historian.
1. Memorandum, “List of Artisans and Household Slaves in the Estate” [ca. 1759], Settlement of the Daniel Parke Custis Estate, Schedule III-C, The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008).
2. In Washington’s 1786 list of enslaved workers, he describes Doll as “almost past service.” Hercules and Nathan are listed as the estate’s cooks. Diary, Feb. 18, 1786, Papers of George Washington.
3. George Washington to Anthony Whitting, May 12, 1793, Papers of George Washington; Martha Washington to Fanny Bassett Washington, May 24, 1795, in Joseph E. Fields, Worthy Partner: The Papers of Martha Washington (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), 287–88.