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Austin was a dower house slave who served the Washingtons during their forty years at Mount Vernon. During most of this time period, Austin lived in the Washington household. Little remains in the historical record regarding Austin. However, a few events—a plan to keep him and his fellow workers enslaved, as well as an incident that led to his death—provides some perspective on his life.
The earliest references to Austin come from surviving family papers dealing with the estate of Martha Washington's first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. In the inventory of Custis' property in New Kent County, Virginia from the fall of 1757, a woman named Betty was listed with her child Austin; the two were valued together at £60.1 They were mentioned again in a second list, drawn up abpit two years later, which spelled out the names and values of the Custis slaves who were to be included in the one-third of the estate that his widow, Martha—now remarried to George Washington—had a life interest. Austin began working in the Mount Vernon mansion around 1774. Although there is no evidence pointing to the identity of his father, Austin, like many of the domestic slaves at Mount Vernon, seems to have come from a mixed race background, common for house servants at Mount Vernon.2
Other passing references to Austin exist in the record. Austin was inoculated as a means of protecting him from smallpox in September of 1776.3 One possible explanation for his inoculation was so he could accompany Martha Washington to her husband's winter encampments during the Revolution, where smallpox was a significant problem especially in the early years of the war.
By February of 1786 Austin, who was in his late twenties, was working with Billy Lee's brother Frank as one of the "Waiters in the House."4 Much like Billy Lee, whose duties included acting as Washington's huntsman, riding was a significant part of Austin’s duties. As early as the fall of 1777, when Austin was probably in his late teens, two pounds, eleven shillings, and six pence were expended to buy a saddle for the young man.5
Austin was one of several slaves taken to the executive mansions in New York and Philadelphia during George Washington's presidency.6 On April 5, 1791, Attorney General Edmund Randolph called on Martha Washington in the Philadelphia executive mansion to let her know that three of his slaves had just told him they were going to utilize a Pennsylvania law that allowed them to claim their freedom after six months of residence in that state.7 When informed about this development, George Washington suggested, as a precaution against his and Mrs. Washington's slaves attempting a similar exodus, that they be sent out of the state back to Mount Vernon. Washington was especially concerned because all but two of the slaves then with the family in Philadelphia were dower slaves, who belonged to the estate of Martha Washington's first husband.
Two weeks after Randolph's initial conversation with Martha Washington, Austin was sent to Mount Vernon, as Martha Washington explained to her niece, for the purpose of seeing his "friends."8 George Washington's secretary Tobias Lear later consulted with the Attorney General and fleshed out a more detailed plan to prevent any of the Mount Vernon slaves from being emancipated because of the Pennsylvania law in the future, but it differed little from the initial strategy devised by the president and first lady.9
It was on one of those trips to Mount Vernon that Austin met his tragic end. On December 17, 1794, Austin was given $20.00 to pay for "his expenses to & from Virginia."10 Three days later, a letter was sent from Havre de Grace, Maryland, to let the President know that Austin had encountered some type of trouble while trying to cross a river near Harford. Austin had been "with Great Difficulty. . .Dragged out of the water," and was "likely to Lose his Life."11 Soon after, Austin succumbed to those injuries, leaving behind a widowed wife.
Mary V. Thompson
Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens
2. "Herman Stump to George Washington, 20 December 1794" (manuscript, Washington Papers, Library of Congress; microfilm, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association).
6. "George Washington to Tobias Lear, 22 November 1790," The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, Vol. 6, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino (Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1996), 682.
7. "Tobias Lear to George Washington, 5 April 1791," The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, Vol. 8, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino (Charlottesville, Virginia, and London: University Press of Virginia, 1999), 67.
8. "Martha Washington to Fanny Bassett Washington, 19 April 1791," "Worthy Partner," 230. Austin was given $11.66 for the trip to Mount Vernon—passage to Baltimore in the stage cost $4.55, while the leg of the trip from Baltimore to Alexandria, required $4.00 for transportation and another $3.00 for other expenses, such as food and overnight lodging.
9. "Tobias Lear to George Washington, 24 April 1791," The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, Vol. 8, 131-2.
10. Philadelphia Household Account Book, 1793-1797, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography XXX, no. 3, (1906), 309-331.