Several hundred servants, primarily men but a few women as well, worked for George Washington for more than forty years at Mount Vernon. While most of these individuals chose to work at Mount Vernon, there were a few who came unwillingly as convicts. Most were of European background, though others had African and Native American ancestry.
Marriage was different for hired and indentured servants and artisans than it was for slaves in Virginia. Unlike Mount Vernon's slaves, most of whom were married, "free laborerers" often arrived alone without a spouse or children. The marriages of servants (as opposed to the slaves) were legally recognized, whether they were performed in America or in Europe prior to emigrating, whereas slave marriages were not protected or recognized by the law.
The wives of hired male workers were often expected to provide labor for the Washingtons, as their presence on the estate increased expenses without adding to his net worth. In 1788, when George Washington sought an indentured Dutch gardener, he noted that, "I should prefer a single man, but have no objection to one who is married provided his wife understands spinning &c. and will indent as her husband does. and [sic] provided they have not a number of Children."1 Occasionally the wife of a hired male worker had specific duties, such as supervising slaves at tasks like dairying and textile production.2
There were also marriages between the families of hired workers at Mount Vernon. At the end of the American Revolution, farm manager Lund Washington hired a steward named Richard Burnet to assist Martha Washington. Burnet spent significant time at the household of John Alton, who had begun working as Washington's body servant during the French and Indian War and later was employed at Mount Vernon as an overseer.3 The lure at the Alton home seems to have been a daughter, Ann. The young couple were married around 1785.4
Mary V. Thompson
Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens
1. "George Washington to Nathaniel Ingraham, March 22, 1788," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 29, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office).
2. For examples of this, see "Agreement with Edward Violet, 5 August 1762," The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, Vol. 7 eds. W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1990), 145; "George Washington to William Pearce, December 22, 1793," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 33, 201; and "George Washington to James Anderson, 7 April 1797," in The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, Vol. 1, eds. W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1998), 79-81.
3. "Lund Washington to George Washington, October 1, 1783" (typescript, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association). For John Alton's early work for Washington, see "George Washington to John Augustine Washington, June 28, 1755," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 1, 145.
4. "Lund Washington to George Washington, March 12, 1783" (manuscript, A-283, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association); George Washington, 12 August 1786, The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 5, 26 and 26n. For more on the Walkers' associations with the Washingtons, see The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, Vol 3, 186n.