On Sunday April 1, 1792, at Mount Vernon’s Muddy Hole Farm, an enslaved boy named William felt a sharp pain in his back. Two days later, the twelve-year-old fell ill, becoming “senseless and speechless.” The boy’s mother, a field-worker named Kate, spent a week caring for him in the family’s small cabin. A white doctor was sent for, but on Saturday, April 7 William died. The farm manager described the event to Washington, noting that “his death I much regreted because he was a promising Boy.”1 The sorrow of Kate—and her husband, Will, the boy’s father—was not recorded.
Two years later Will, an enslaved overseer, approached George Washington with a request. His wife wanted to be the “Granny,” or midwife, to the estate’s enslaved women. Washington usually paid a white woman to perform this job. Several of Kate’s five children were delivered by Susanna Bishop, the wife of one of Washington’s hired servants. Kate argued, however, “that she was full as well qualified for this purpose as those into whose hands it was entrusted and to whom [Washington] was paying twelve or 15 pounds a year.”2
Washington asked his farm manager to look into Kate’s credentials and give her the job if she were qualified. There are no surviving records of payments to Kate for attending births, but in 1799 she was given twenty-five cents for the purchase of scissors “to cut the tongues of young children,” a reference to fixing tongue-tie, a common oral deformity in infants.3
Kate’s bold request hints at the social dynamics governing relationships both within the enslaved population and between master and slave. By asking to become the midwife for other enslaved women, Kate ensured that this important role was undertaken by a member of their own community, not an outsider. Her approach to Washington, through her husband’s privileged position as overseer, suggests assertiveness and knowledge that Washington would be receptive. Indeed, this incident and others suggest that Washington valued and rewarded competence and skill, even among those he enslaved.
Kate was a common name among enslaved women, so it is difficult to trace her identity. She may be the enslaved woman valued at £30 whom Washington inherited from his elder half-brother Lawrence in 1754.4 As George Washington’s property, Kate and her living children—Molly, Virgin, and Kate—became free in 1801 through the provision in his will. Described as “old” on the 1799 list of enslaved people, Kate would have received clothing and food from Washington’s estate for the rest of her life, per the terms of his will. Because her husband, Will, belonged to the Custis estate, he remained enslaved. He was inherited by one of Martha Washington’s grandchildren.
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: 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.