Washington's 1799 Will
Washington became the only founding father to free his slaves.
Learn more about George Washington and the enslaved population at Mount Vernon.
At the time of George Washington’s death, the Mount Vernon estate’s enslaved population consisted of 317 people. Washington himself had been a slave owner for fifty-six years, beginning at eleven years of age when he inherited ten slaves from his deceased father. Washington’s thoughts on slavery were contradictory and changed over time. This evolution culminated near the end of his life; Washington’s will mandated the freeing of his slaves upon his wife’s death, making him the only slaveholding Founder to put provisions for manumission in his will.
Despite having been an active slave holder for 56 years, George Washington often struggled with the institution of slavery.
At Mount Vernon, many original structures in which enslaved people lived and worked survive. These tangible spaces, along with discoveries made by historians and archaeologists, help us better understand the lives of individuals who were held in bondage on this estate.
We rarely know what 18th-century enslaved individuals looked like. These silhouettes are meant to represent people in bondage at Mount Vernon.
Oney "Ona" Judge Staines served as personal servant to Martha Washington until she escaped from the President's Mansion in Philadelphia and relocated to Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1796.
A team of Mount Vernon staff and volunteers spent more than two years analyzing Washington’s papers and compiling references to the enslaved people who lived and worked on his plantation. Search by event type, person, skill, location, and more.
Take an in-depth look at the archaeological findings at the Slave Cemetery at Mount Vernon. Explore interactive maps, fascinating imagery, and more.
Learn more about George Washington's evolving views on the institution of slavery - a path that led to his decision to emancipate his slaves upon his wife's passing.
Washington's 1799 will and testament freed the slaves that he owned. Washington became the only slave holding founding father to free his slaves.
This sacred ground was used as a cemetery for slaves and a few free blacks who worked at Mount Vernon in the 18th and 19th centuries. Local folklore/tradition says that the bodies were buried with their feet towards the east (the river), symbolizing their desire to return to Africa.
By the time of Washington's birth, slavery was an ingrained aspect of Virginia life for nearly a century and an indispensable part of the economic, social, legal, cultural, and political fabric of the colony.
The original brick greenhouse was built to accommodate the enslaved workers who lived at the Mansion House Farm, possibly housing as many as 60 individuals in 1799.
Most of the slaves that inhabited the Mansion House Farm lived in the House for Families. They performed duties as house servants, blacksmiths, carpenters, spinners, weavers, and as other domestic retainers and craft workers.
Although some were involved with Christian denominations in the area, elements of both Islam and other traditional African religions are found in the documentary and archaeological records of Mount Vernon’s enslaved population.
In the closing days of the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette wrote his old commander George Washington suggesting an experiment involving purchasing land for Washington's slaves to work as free tenants.
Mount Vernon's orderly arrangement of its dependencies imparted a village-like character to the group of buildings around the mansion.
Enslaved persons at Mount Vernon found a variety of ways to fill their time off from work. Evenings were frequently spent with activities to benefit themselves and their families rather than their master.
Composed by his own hand in relative secrecy in early July 1799, George Washington’s “Last Will and Testament,” in addition to the dispersal of his estate, freed his slaves upon his wife Martha Washington’s death.
Clothing issued to the slaves was minimal, plain, and often coarse. Some textiles were imported and crafted into clothing for slaves at Mount Vernon, while other garments were ordered ready-made in large quantities.
In addition to having overseers monitoring work on site, George Washington utilized a number of methods to try to control the labor and behavior of the Mount Vernon slaves.
Around the time of Washington's death the population at the "Home House" included a total of fifty-nine adults between the ages of fourteen and ninety, and twenty-eight children under the age of fourteen.
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. Sunday was a day off for everyone, both free persons and slaves.
In many ways the Mount Vernon estate was comprised of several small African-American villages, presided over by an Anglo-American ruling class. At the time of George Washington's death in 1799, African-Americans made up roughly 90% of the plantation's population.
In addition to worshipping with local congregations, there are indications that Mount Vernon's slave community developed at least one spiritual leader within their own community. Caesar, a preacher, may have played an important role in helping the enslaved people on the plantation to deal with the hardships of their lives and to find a measure of hope and meaning in their experiences.
The enslaved population at Mount Vernon did not meekly accept their bonded lot in life. Many resisted slavery in a variety of ways, differing in intensity and methodology.
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.
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.