Animals of all kinds played an important role in George Washington's life and the economy of Mount Vernon. Learn more about some of the more important animals that were found on the estate.
Thomas Jefferson once referred to George Washington as one of the finest horseman of his time. As an avid horseman, Washington maintained a stable of fine, well-kept horses. They provided transportation, pulled carriages, worked in the fields and wheat treading barn, and were even used for recreation. Washington enjoyed fox hunting on the Estate and had a pack of hounds specifically for this purpose. He owned an Arabian stallion named Magnolia who raced in Alexandria. Nelson and Blueskin were two of George Washington’s favorite horses and carried him during the Revolutionary War. Today, Mount Vernon is home to 11 horses. We have draft horses that pull wagons, plow, and harrow the fields. Four of our draft horses are Shires, a breed developed in England that is critically endangered. Our smaller horses work in the 16-sided wheat treading barn from July to October, demonstrating how wheat kernels were separated from the stalk.Nelson - One of Washington's Favorites
During the peak of George Washington’s farming operation, over 300 cattle lived on the Estate. Cattle provided meat, milk and associated products like butter, cream, and cheese. They were also a reliable source of labor on the farm. Washington branded all of his cattle with “GW” for identification purposes. Mount Vernon raises Milking Devon cattle, a breed developed in England and brought to Massachusetts in 1623. The Devons are known for their deep red color and versatility. They are a hardy breed and can thrive in rugged conditions. Mount Vernon’s heritage breed program raises Devons as part of a conservation effort to help preserve the breed. The cattle are listed as “critical” with The Livestock Conservancy, meaning less than 200 animals are registered in the United States annually.
Oxen played a very important role on the farm, performing many jobs such as plowing and hauling carts. They were often referred to as a “poor man’s working team.” We have a working team of oxen, Jed and Jake, who haul compost and straw in a cart. Jed and Jake were born at Mount Vernon and trained by our staff.
Mount Vernon was home to many sheep in George Washington’s time. His flock number ranged from 600-1,000 sheep. Sheep were very important, providing wool for clothing and blankets, manure for crop fertilization, meat for mutton and spring lamb, and lanolin for ointments. Today, Mount Vernon raises Hog Island sheep, a rare breed that is native to Virginia and dates back to the 1600s. Hog Island is a barrier island off the Delmarva Peninsula where the sheep survived for hundreds of years until the Nature Conservancy purchased the island in 1974. The sheep were dispersed to historic sites mostly in Virginia. While we are not sure this is the breed Washington raised, they resemble sheep found in the colonies in the 1700s. Hog Island sheep are listed as “critical” with The Livestock Conservancy. Due to the critically low numbers of the sheep, Mount Vernon is involved in a careful breeding program. We follow Washington’s timeline for both breeding and shearing. Every October, our sheep are divided into breeding flocks and we welcome new lambs in March. Our sheep are sheared every May using hand shears for the public to see. We currently have close to 70 sheep on the property as part of our conservation effort.Sheep at Mount Vernon
Hogs were very popular in the 18th century as a valuable source of food. George Washington’s hogs ran loose in the woods, foraging on nuts and insects, until they were gathered in the fall for fattening. Ham, salted pork, bacon, lard, scrapple, and chitterlings were all very common foods in colonial times. Today, Mount Vernon raises Ossabaw Island hogs. Ossabaw Island is off the coast of Georgia, near Savannah. They are descendants from pigs brought to the New World over 400 years ago by Spanish explorers. Ossabaw Island hogs come in a variety of colors – gray, black, red, tan and even spotted. Listed as “critical” with The Livestock Conservancy, Mount Vernon has been breeding the Ossabaws for over 20 years. We have sold piglets to other historic sites and hobby farmers all over the country who are committed to preserving this rare breed. Often in the spring through fall months, we have a litter of piglets for our visitors to see. A typical litter size for the Ossabaw is 4-8 piglets, with our largest litter of 11.Hogs at Mount Vernon
Fondly nicknamed “The Father of the American Mule”, George Washington began breeding mules at Mount Vernon after he received a stud jack from the King of Spain in 1785. In 1786, the Marquis de Lafayette sent another jack and two jennets (female donkeys) to Mount Vernon. A mule is a hybrid cross between a male donkey and a female horse. Washington was very fond of horses, but became convinced that mules worked longer and harder than horses and required less feed. In 1785, Washington’s inventories listed 130 horses and no mules. In 1799, 58 mules lived on Mount Vernon and only 25 horses. Today, Mount Vernon has a team of mules that work on the Pioneer Farm Site plowing and harrowing fields, hauling compost, and pulling wagons. We also have an American Mammoth donkey that represents “Royal Gift”, Washington’s present from the King of Spain.Donkeys at Mount Vernon
General Washington loved dogs, and so do we. Mount Vernon invites guests to enjoy this landmark property along with their pets. Learn more about dogs on the Estate, yesterday and today.Learn More
It is troubling that there are no references to pet cats at Mount Vernon in the 18th century, but that can probably be explained by the fact that George and Martha Washington were such avid dog and bird people. There were cats at Mount Vernon at this period, probably “barn cats,” prized for their ability to keep the rodent population under control. Scientific analysis of organic materials found in the cellar of a slave quarter on the estate identified the bones of domestic cats, indicating that slaves may have kept felines as pets.
There is a wonderful story about a cat Martha Washington befriended at Morristown during the Revolution. According to several secondary sources, Mrs. Washington had a male cat at the New Jersey headquarters, which she named “Hamilton,” after her husband’s long-time aide. This name was not bestowed as a way of honoring Alexander Hamilton, however, but was a way of teasing him, for his roving eye and romantic escapades, in other words, for acting the part of a tomcat.
The Washingtons raised a variety of domesticated fowl, including chickens and turkeys, to supply their table with both meat and eggs. Care of these birds typically fell under the control of the plantation mistress, and there are hints that George Washington did not maintain a flock of chickens or other birds before his marriage. In a letter written three months after his marriage to Martha Washington, George Washington alerted his hired servant, John Alton, to his imminent arrival at Mount Vernon with a wife and children. In order to make the best impression on his new family, George Washington wanted the beds be made up, all the furniture polished, and to "get some Egg's [sic] and Chickens", suggesting that there were no such creatures at Mount Vernon until sometime after Mrs. Washington's arrival.
There were far fewer domesticated turkeys than chickens at Mount Vernon, however, they were by no means scarce. Throughout the 1760s, beginning about a year after their marriage, the Washingtons seem to have made a concerted effort to build up their turkey flock. While her husband was away for eight years during the American Revolution, Martha Washington continued to purchase, and presumably, raise turkeys.
Wooden boxes, constructed by the plantation's carpenters, were provided as nesting places for the turkey hens in the spring. The hens might lay up to 30 eggs, which would hatch after about four weeks. The standard practice of the period would have been to keep the newborn chicks indoors where they could be safe from predators until they were strong enough to fend for themselves.
Turkey was served at both the Washingtons' table and in the slave quarters at Mount Vernon. In addition to roasting, Martha Washington's cookbook included recipes for sousiing or pickling the birds "in Imitation of Sturgeon", stewing, boiling, and serving them in jelly. Turkey was also one of the principle ingredients in Yorkshire Christmas Pie, which was a focal point of Christmas dinner with the Washingtons.
While it is doubtful that the enslaved workers at Mount Vernon would have served their birds as elaborately as those on the Washingtons' table, the large number of turkey bones excavated by archaeologists at the site of an original slave quarter certainly testify to the fact that the inhabitants found the taste of turkey just as palatable as the people in the Mansion. Interesting, while there are numerous references to the plantation's enslaved workers keeping chickens and ducks, there are no indications that they raised turkeys. This would suggest that the turkeys eaten in the slave quarters were acquired mainly through hunting.Learn More about the slave quarters excavation
Geese, both wild and domesticated, were acquired for and raised at Mount Vernon over many years. In Washington’s time, geese were raised mainly for their feathers, which were used in feather beds and pillows, arrows, and quill pens.
It was not unusual in the Chesapeake at this period to let domestic geese interbreed with their wild cousins and these mixed-breed birds were often preferred, because their meat tasted better than either the purely wild or domesticated birds. The wild geese might be slightly wounded or have their wings clipped, in order to keep them on the farm. Another tactic for introducing wild geese was to take their eggs and introduce them to the nests of the domestic variety. Typically allowed to wander at will, geese were generally penned only in the winter, when they would be enticed into the yard with barley or cornmeal.
One Mount Vernon visitor recorded that the dinner he was served there in the winter of 1799, included goose as one of the selections from which he could choose at the first course. The young man did not mention how it was cooked, but a popular English cookbook of the period which was owned by Martha Washington, included many recipes for goose. The birds might be roasted; boiled with onions or cabbage; served with a sweet green sauce made of sorrel; or served in a ragoo or as Goose a la Mode, a rather complicated recipe using dried tongue, chicken, sweet herbs, onion, ham or bacon, red wine, ketchup, veal sweetbreads, truffles, morels, butter, flour, peeper, salt, and mace, with some lemon for garnish. Instructions were also given for drying a goose, so that it would keep for two or three months. A goose was one of the primary ingredients in Yorkshire Christmas Pye, as well as the star attraction in “Goose-Pye.”
While there are many references to ducks in George Washington’s papers, most of them record his love of hunting wild ducks, rather than the cultivation of ducks at Mount Vernon. According to one livestock historian, ducks were probably raised less frequently than other varieties of fowl, perhaps because of the great abundance of wild ducks around the Chesapeake Bay. One visitor to Mount Vernon in 1785 wrote of the house that, “The situation is a heavenly one, upon one of the finest rivers in the world. I suppose I saw thousands of wild ducks upon it, all within gunshot.”
The Washington family certainly enjoyed eating duck. Following his retirement from the presidency, George Washington met some friends in nearby Alexandria for dinner at the City Hotel. The proprietor, John Gadsby, mentioned that he had a good supply of canvas-back ducks in the larder, which led Washington to reply, “Very good, sir…give us some of them, with a chafing-dish, some hommony [sic], and a bottle of good Madeira, and we shall not complain.”
In 1787, George Washington himself paid 18 shillings to bring a camel to Mount Vernon to entertain his guests. Since 2008, Mount Vernon has welcomed Aladdin the Camel each Christmas season for just the same reason.Learn More
Washington spent about ten years on the frontier as a young man, both as a surveyor and as a soldier during the French and Indian War. Even after he left the service to become a gentleman farmer, Washington went on frequent sightseeing and hunting expeditions with his dear friend, Dr. James Craik. In addition to gaining a familiarity with the land itself, these experiences also enabled Washington to know the inhabitants of these areas-- both human and animal. While exploring the Great Kanawha River by canoe in the fall of 1770, he described a country abounding "in Buffalo & wild game of all kinds". The buffalo mentioned in these account are generally known as Eastern bison (Bison bison pennsylvanicus).
Bison provided one of the foods that sustained Washington and his party on the frontier. While on the Ohio River in 1170, Washington ran into Kiashuta, an Iroquois leader he had met on his mession to the French commandant in 1753. The two men were pleased to see one another, and Washington's "old acquantaince" made a gift to him of "a Quarter of very fine Buffalo..." and expressed an interest in opening up trade with Virginians.
Washington had an interest in raising bison for many years. In 1775, just before he left Mount Vernon for the 2nd Continental Congress, he instructed overseers James Cleveland to "try and buy me all the Buffaloe [sic] Calves you can get and make them as gentle as possible... I am very anxious to raise a Breed of them". It is likely that Washington intended to train young buffalo to pull plows and wagons. He first expressed this idea during the same period in which he was actively importing donkeys from Spain, Malta, and South America, in hopes of raising superior mules for use by the country's farmers. it is possible he might have contemplated a similar cross between cattle and buffalo, in order to obtain a larger, stronger draft animal, which might need less care than oxen, and could even produce a hardier variety of wool than could his sheep.
Though it took many years, George Washington did finally recieve some bison at Mount Vernon, although it is not known exactly when they arrived at Mount Vernon or if he was alive when they came. While no buffalo appear on the inventory of the estate done by Washington's executors, an account of a public sale held ten months after his death shows that one cow and one heifer were sold for $9.98 and $5.83, respectively; in both cases, the buy was Lawrence Lewis, George Washington's nephew.
In the 1790s, during George Washington’s presidency, when the government was settled in Philadelphia, his step-granddaughter Nelly had a green parrot as a pet. She wrote to tell a friend in 1794 that she was teaching the bird to sing, with admittedly dubious results: “…I…had the honor & glory of teaching our pretty green pet to sing Pauvre Madelon. You may guess what kind it was. A master peice [sic] of thorough Base [sic] (in music spelt [sic] Bass [sic], but I thought Base [sic] would give you a better idea of his harmonious voice) he is vastly improved I assure you….”
As the family was packing up to go home to Mount Vernon after George Washington’s retirement in early March of 1797, the exasperated former president complained in a letter that, “On one side I am called upon to remember the Parrot [sic], on the other to remember the dog. For my own part I should not pine much if both were forgot.”
After her husband's death, Martha Washington kept a cockatoo for company. A guest who stopped by to see Mrs. Washington in the spring of 1802 found that she was too ill to have visitors. Touring the house anyway, the disappointed man noted that there “were several species of parrot” on the piazza, among which was a cockatoo, who was a special pet of Mrs. Washington. When the visitor’s female friend sat down for a few minutes, the cockatoo hurriedly left his cage and “endeavoured to gain her favour by a familiarity which thwarted his design. Alarmed at the hurried motions & chattering of the poor fellow, she fled & left him as destitute as before.” The doctor caring for Mrs. Washington came along about that time and helped the couple to understand that “this bird was the favourite of Lady Washington, who fed & caressed him daily & being neglected since her sickness, he seemed quite lost & dejected.”