Frank Lee arrived at Mount Vernon in 1768 after George Washington purchased him from Mary Lee, a widow who lived eighty miles away in Westmoreland County, Virginia. Washington paid £50 for the young man, about the cost of three good horses. He also bought Frank’s older brother William Lee, who would become Washington’s longtime personal valet.1
Both Frank and William Lee were described as “mulatto,” meaning that they were mixed race, almost certainly the children of an enslaved woman and a white man.2 It was common at Mount Vernon and other southern plantations for light-skinned slaves to receive work assignments in the house. More than 6 percent of Mount Vernon’s enslaved population were described as “mulatto,” about average for Virginia in this period.3
Frank Lee was assigned first to be a waiter in the Mansion and, later, to the relatively high-prestige position of butler. As butler, Lee played an essential role in the household. He oversaw the Washingtons’ tableware, waited on the family at meals, monitored the stores of food and wine, supervised the cleaning of the house, and looked after the estate’s hunting dogs. Lee was usually the first person a visitor to Mount Vernon would see. Wearing the white-and-red livery suit of the Washington household, he greeted guests and announced their presence to the family. One visitor commented on his “politeness and kindness.”4 The 1799 inventory of Mount Vernon describes the closet off the dining room as “the closet under Franks direction,” an indication of his authority over this part of Mount Vernon’s operations.5
Frank Lee would have known that his position inside the house required him to be both omnipresent and invisible. When the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe visited the estate in July 1796, he enjoyed coffee with the Washington family one evening on the piazza. In a sketch of the event, Latrobe included an enslaved man, quite possibly Lee, behind the fully set table. In Latrobe’s final watercolor of the scene, this figure is missing.6
After arriving at Mount Vernon, Lee married into one of the largest multigenerational families on the estate. His wife, Lucy, was the daughter of Doll, Mount Vernon’s longtime cook. Lucy’s sister Alce (likely pronounced “Al-sie”), was the mother of Christopher Sheels, who became Washington’s valet when William Lee sustained crippling injuries.
In 1799 Frank and Lucy had three children: Mike, Philip, and Patty. A fourth child, Edmund, is mentioned in earlier records but may have died in the 1790s. For a time, Frank and Lucy’s family lived in a room above the kitchen.7 By 1799 this room was occupied by the hired white housekeeper, Mrs. Forbes, so the Lee family may have moved to one of the small wooden cabins near the Mansion.8 Documents also refer to Frank having a “room” in the cellar of the Mansion. This may have been an office space or possibly where he slept when he was needed in the house.
Because ownership was passed through the maternal line, Lucy and her children belonged to the Custis estate. Frank Lee was owned by George Washington, so he received his freedom in 1801 by the terms of Washington’s will. Lucy and their children remained enslaved. In 1802, after Martha Washington’s death, Lucy, Mike, and Patty were inherited by Martha’s granddaughter Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis Lewis, who lived at nearby Woodlawn plantation. Philip Lee, then seventeen years old, was separated from his family and sent to Arlington House, where he became valet to Martha’s grandson George Washington Parke Custis.9
For the next twenty-six years, Frank stayed in the vicinity of Mount Vernon, presumably to be close to his wife and two children at Woodlawn. When he died in 1821, this announcement appeared in the Alexandria Gazette: “DIED. Lately at Mount Vernon, at a very advanced age, Francis Lee, Butler to that mansion in the days of its ancient master.”10
George Washington's Mount Vernon
If not specifically cited, biographical and genealogical information about enslaved people has been drawn from Washington's 1786 and 1799 slave lists: GW, 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.
2. For reference to Frank as “mulatto,” see George Washington to William Pearce, October 27, 1793, Papers of George Washington. The identities of Frank and William Lee’s parents are unknown.
3. Philip D. Morgan and Michael L. Nicholls, “Slave Flight: Mount Vernon, Virginia, and the Wider Atlantic World,” in George Washington’s South, ed. Tamara Harvey and Greg O’Brien (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004), 212.
5. "An Inventory and Appraisement of the estate of Genl. George Washington Deceased," ca. 1799, probated 1810; transcription, Gunston Hall Plantation Probate Inventory Data Base; gunstonhall.org/library/probate/WSHGTN99.PDF.
6. Edward C. Carter II and Angeline Polites, eds., The Virginia Journals of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 1795–1798 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press for the Maryland Historical Society, 1977), vol. 1, plate 20, fig. 27.
7. George Washington to William Pearce, Oct. 27, 1793, Papers of George Washington.