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Slave Labor

The Mount Vernon estate was divided into five separate farms, each of which was managed by an overseer who was either a hired free, white male, or one of George Washington's African slaves. These overseers were often supervised by a farm manager who reported to Washington on a weekly basis.

The enslaved population at Mount Vernon typically worked from the time the sun rose in the morning until it set in the evening, with about two hours off for meals in between. During the winter, slaves toiled for around eight hours each day, while in the summer the workday might have been as long as fourteen hours. Sunday was a day off for everyone at Mount Vernon, both free persons and slaves. Throughout the year slaves were also given a few holidays off, including Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. During certain times of the year when jobs such as fishing or harvesting had to be completed in a limited time period, the slaves had to work through their days off, though they were often reimbursed either through cash payments or another day off when the job was finished.

Watch "Hoe Emma Hoe," a call-and-response work song utilized by slaves to regulate work speed. In addition, work songs were often used by slaves as a means to provide subversive commentary about their owners and plantation life.

The jobs done by enslaved workers at Mount Vernon varied considerably from person to person. Of the 316 slaves working on the Estate in 1799, 42% were either too old or too young to work. Of the remaining people, 28% were skilled laborers working as house servants, blacksmiths, barrel makers, cooks, dairy maids, gardeners, millers, distillers, seamstresses, shoemakers, spinners, knitters, ditch diggers, wagon drivers, or postillions driving the carriage. Most of the skilled slaves were men, who held nearly 75% of these jobs. A significant number of the skilled slaves appear to have been of mixed race, a fact that was frequently noted by visitors to the estate.

Read about the slave list compiled at Mount Vernon in 1799.

Almost three-quarters of the working slaves at Mount Vernon labored in the fields. Over 61% of the field slaves were women who hoed and ploughed, harvested, and built fences around the Estate. Slaves who were physically disabled in some way were often given less physically demanding jobs such as making clothing or shoes, or picking the seeds of wild onions out of the oat seeds.1

Notes
1.
The statistics here are culled from the 1799 slave list compiled at Mount Vernon.

Bibliography
Pogue, Dennis J. "Archaeology of Plantation Life: Another Perspective on George Washington's Mount Vernon," Virginia Cavalcade, Autumn 1991, 79.

Links
Mount Vernon's library holdings regarding slavery at Mount Vernon