At Mount Vernon the numbers of males and females in the slave population were fairly equal. A series of lists made by George Washington in the summer before his death, indicates that roughly two-thirds of the plantation's adult slaves were married.1 These marriages were acknowledged by both the slave community and the Washingtons. However, they were not recognized or protected by the legal system, because slaves were considered property and not persons in the eyes of the law.
For Mount Vernon's slaves, marriage represented the opportunity to exercise choice in a life that afforded little, if any, personal control over basic life issues such as occupation, housing, clothing, and freedom of movement. However, even this decision had limitations. When one member of a couple lived at a plantation other than Mount Vernon, the pair planning to marry first needed permission from George Washington, as long-distance marriages necessitated a certain amount of traveling back and forth between the two plantations. Getting the permission of a master would have been in keeping with a 1785 Virginia law that stated that slaves could not travel away from home without a pass or letter of authorization from a master, employer, or overseer.2
Distance was a significant stress factor in slave marriages. Of the 96 married slaves working on Washington's five farms in 1799, only 36 lived in the same household as their spouse and children. Another 38 had spouses living on one of Washington's other farms, dictated by work assignments.
The marriages of the Mount Vernon slaves produced a large number of children, causing the population to increase dramatically. The population increased from around fifty slaves in 1759 to more than three hundred in 1799. In 1799, on the four outlying farms, the average age of the slave population was 20.94 years. Only 8.68% of the people were sixty years old or more, while 58.45% were under the age of nineteen. Fully 34.70% of the slaves were younger than nine.3
There were also slaves of mixed race on the estate, and there is evidence that a number of them were the result of relationships between slave women and the free-born men Washington brought to oversee, train, and labor beside the slaves. Mount Vernon was similar in this regard to Virginia as a whole. Around the time of the American Revolution, roughly 5% of Virginia slaves were of a mixed background.4
Mary V. Thompson
Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens
1. For the slaves at Mount Vernon in 1799, see "Negroes Belonging to George Washington in his own right and by Marriage," [June 1799] and "A List of Negroes Hired From Mrs. French, 15 July 1799" (hereafter referred to as the 1799 Slave List), in George Washington, The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 37, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1944), 256-268, 308-9.
2. Virginia, The Statutes at Large: Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619, Vol. 13, ed. William Waller Hening (Richmond, VA, 1823), 182; see also a similar law of October 1784 in Virginia, Statutes at Large, Vol. 6, 109.
3. Figures derived from the 1799 Slave List.
4. Philip D. Morgan and Michael L. Nicholls, "Slave Flight: Mount Vernon, Virginia, and the Wider Atlantic World," in George Washington's South, eds. Tamara Harvey and Greg O'Brien (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2004), 212.