In the first years of the nineteenth century, the enslaved community of Mount Vernon was split apart not once, but twice. When he wrote his will in July 1799, George Washington anticipated the heartache that would arise when he freed the enslaved people belonging to him. Many were married to slaves owned by the Custis estate, whom he did not have the legal power to free. For this reason, he delayed the manumission of his slaves until Martha’s death, hoping to lessen the blow to enslaved families whose members had intermarried. “To emancipate them during her life,” he wrote, “would, tho’ earnestly wished by me, be attended with such insuperable difficulties on account of their intermixture by Marriages with the dower Negroes, as to excite the most painful sensations.”1
On January 1, 1801, Martha Washington chose to accelerate the emancipation provision, perhaps fearing for her safety in an environment in which the freedom of many depended upon her death.2 Her action freed about 120 of Mount Vernon’s enslaved people, but the Custis slaves (numbering more than 150) remained in bondage. When Martha died just over a year later, the remaining enslaved individuals at Mount Vernon were divided among the Custis heirs.
Kitty, an enslaved milkmaid and spinner at Mansion House Farm, was deeply affected by these transitions. Her husband, Isaac, Mount Vernon’s head carpenter, was owned by George Washington and thus received his freedom in 1801. Because Kitty was a dower slave, her nine daughters and seven grandchildren all belonged to the Custis estate and remained enslaved. As a free man, Isaac may have stayed close to Mount Vernon to be near his family.
In 1802 the family was separated yet again. At Martha Washington’s death, Kitty and her children were dispersed among Martha’s four grandchildren: Eliza Parke Custis Law, Martha Parke Custis Peter, Nelly Parke Custis Lewis, and George Washington Parke Custis. The grandchildren likely negotiated, selecting the enslaved people they wanted while ensuring that the value of each heir’s portion remained comparable. By law, these people were property to be apportioned like any other items in the estate.
The negotiations generated a document with four lists, one for each grandchild.3 Duplication of common names makes it difficult to assign an identity to each person, but the document nevertheless remains our best source for tracking the fate of Mount Vernon’s enslaved community. The four lists give names of enslaved people next to the monetary values assigned to each individual. In most cases, young children were kept with their mothers. Older children and other family members were often split up.
Kitty’s family experienced this separation on a large scale, with at least one family member likely going to each of the four Custis grandchildren. The valuations assigned to them by the list maker appear in parentheses. Kitty (£50) and her two youngest children, thirteen-year-old Barbara (£40, listed as “Barbary”) and nine-year-old Levina (£5, listed as “Lavinia”), were assigned to Eliza Parke Custis Law, who lived with her husband, Thomas Law, in Washington, D.C. (the Laws would separate in 1804 and later divorce). The description “invalid” next to Levina’s name likely accounts for a low monetary valuation. We do not know what injury or illness the young girl had sustained to warrant this designation.
Kitty’s eldest daughters, thirty-year-old Sinah (£80) and twenty-eight-year-old Mima (£65), were likely inherited by Nelly Parke Custis Lewis, who with her husband, Lawrence Lewis, built Woodlawn plantation on land formerly part of Mount Vernon. Sinah’s five-year-old daughter, Nancy (£30), accompanied her mother, while Sinah’s husband, Ben—a miller—was owned by Washington and freed in 1801. Mima was joined by her three young sons, John (£35), Randolph (£20), and Isaac (£6), but not her husband, Godfrey (£100), a carter, who was assigned to Martha Parke Custis Peter’s lot.
Three of Kitty and Isaac’s daughters were also inherited by Martha Peter, who went on to build Tudor Place in Georgetown: twenty-four-year-old Lucy (£65) and her children Burwell (£25) and Hannah (£15); twenty-year-old Letty (£70) and her daughter Tracy (£12); and eighteen-year-old Nancy (£60).
Grace (£60), twenty-two years old, was apparently the only member of her family to be sent to the estate of George Washington Parke Custis in Arlington, Virginia. Grace’s assignment also meant more distant separation from her husband, Juba, who was enslaved at Tobias Lear’s Walnut Tree Farm, just upriver from Mount Vernon.
Kitty’s third daughter, Alla, does not appear on the 1802 list. In letters and weekly reports from the 1790s, Washington’s overseers frequently noted that Alla was ill.4 She may have died in the three years between Washington’s 1799 census and the 1802 division.
After 1802 Kitty and her immediate family lived in five different places, from Washington, D.C., to Virginia. All but one member—her husband, Isaac—remained enslaved. We have no records of their lives after this point. Despite Washington’s desire to minimize the “painful sensations” of separating Mount Vernon’s enslaved families, those like Kitty’s endured them nonetheless.
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.
2. Abigail Adams referenced Martha’s fear in a letter to a friend after visiting Mount Vernon: “in the state in which they [the Washington slaves] were left by the General, to be free at her death, she did not feel as tho her Life was safe in their Hands, many of whom would be told that it was [in] their interest to get rid of her—She therefore was advised to set them all free at the close of the year”; Adams to Mary Cranch, Dec. 21, 1800, quoted in Fritz Hirschfeld, George Washington and Slavery: A Documentary Portrayal (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1997), 213–14.
4. See, for example, Anthony Whitting to George Washington, Jan. 15–16, 1792, PGWDE; William Pearce to George Washington, Weekly Reports, Aug. 3, 1793 and July 11, 1795, in George Washington Papers, 1741–97, Series 4: General Correspondence, 1697–1799, Library of Congress, Washington, DC; James Anderson to George Washington, Weekly Report, Sept. 15, 1798, Morristown National Historical Park, Morristown, NJ; Mount Vernon slavery database.