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Slavery and Family

A census of the slaves at Mount Vernon made the summer before George Washington's death indicated that nearly two-thirds of the plantation's adult slaves were married. These marriages were acknowledged by both the slave community and George Washington, who acknowledged the information in his note keeping.

The marriages were not, however, recognized or protected by the legal system, as slaves were considered property and not persons in the eyes of the law. As a result, slaves were unable to enter into legal contracts. Of the ninety-six married slaves on the five farms at Mount Vernon in 1799, only thirty-six lived in the same household as their spouse and children. Another thirty-eight had spouses living on one of Washington's other farms, a situation related primarily to work assignments as many of the slaves lived at the farm where they worked.

Twenty-two Mount Vernon slaves married individuals who lived and worked on other plantations. There is no indication that marriages were arranged. In order for these couples to have met and formed attachments that would eventually lead to marriage, there had to have been a certain amount of freedom of movement for unmarried slaves to travel from farm to farm within the plantation or to the plantations of other owners. With Sunday as the weekly day off, the individuals involved in long-distance marriages could see one another on Saturday night and during the day on Sunday, as well as during other holidays throughout the year.

The marriages of the Mount Vernon slaves produced a significant number of children, causing the population of the plantation to increase dramatically from around fifty slaves in 1759 to more than three hundred at the turn of the nineteenth century. In 1799, nearly three-quarters of these children lived in households headed by single parents who were almost invariably female. With their mothers away from home for most of the dawn-to-dusk workday, the children seem to have been largely supervised by one another. The young children spent a great deal of time playing together and may have been assigned small jobs for an overseer or chores for their own families. Depending on the rate at which they grew, these children began working for George Washington when they were between eleven and fourteen years old.

Mary V. Thompson
Research Historian
Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens

Bibliography
1799 Slave Census (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)