Despite the volumes of papers and letters that George Washington kept, we know very little about the history of the sacred wooded area thought to be the resting place for dozens of African Americans.
In fact, during Washington’s lifetime, the cemetery is never mentioned, leaving a question as to when the woods started to be used as a cemetery. We do know that at least in the 1790s, the enslaved carpenters were constructing coffins for slaves who passed away, but we do not know where they were buried.
Graves in the Slave Cemetery at Mount Vernon are unmarked, but we have the names of a few individuals thought to be buried in the cemetery including Frank Lee, the Washington’s butler who was present at the funeral of George Washington. Lee was freed according to the stipulations of Washington’s will and remained at Mount Vernon until his death in 1821.
William (Billy) Lee, died in 1828, just a few years after his brother Frank. Billy Lee served as George Washington’s body servant throughout the Revolutionary War and was the only slave freed outright in Washington’s will. Like his brother, Billy Lee remained at Mount Vernon until his death and may also be buried in the cemetery. In fact, Lee’s grave site may be the one mentioned in an 1846 visitor account. “One of the servants pointed out that [grave] of Washington’s favorite servant, who was with him in his campaigns…” The visitor also remembered seeing a recently dug burial enclosed in a fence, that of “a favorite servant, an aged colored women.” The visitor concluded that though “there are many graves in the grove,” the “humble” cemetery was not “a mournful spot.”
In 1863, West Ford, long-time servant of the Washington family, died at Mount Vernon and is thought to be the last individual buried in the cemetery. Ford was freed in 1829 and continued to work at Mount Vernon for the Washington family.
Caroline Moore’s account of her visit to Mount Vernon on April 30, 1833 provides our first eye-witness account of the burial ground. She wrote, “Our guide first took us to the tomb where the remains of General Washington are now interred. They were removed from the old tomb about 3 years since....Near his Tomb, you see the burying place of his slaves, containing 150 graves.” Just a few years later, in 1838, another visitor mentions the burial ground with 100 graves. We believe that the narrow ridge south of the Washington family tomb could accommodate 100 to 150 burials.
The earliest and only known historical map of the cemetery was printed by Charles Currier in c. 1855. The key for number 21 reads, “Negro Burying Ground” and depicts 12 graves in a fenced-in plot. Though we believe this map is a stylized depiction of Mount Vernon plantation, it may suggest that visible traces of the burials had begun to disappear.
The cemetery has been memorialized twice in the 20th century. In 1928, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association became concerned that the unmarked cemetery for General Washington’s slaves would be forgotten and “recommended that a simple marker, suitable inscribed, be placed on this consecrated ground.” We believe this marker to be the earliest of its kind on a historic plantation. By the 1980s, the cemetery site had become overgrown and the 1929 memorial was lost amongst unchecked vegetation. Efforts to create a more visible marker culminated in the memorial you see when you visit the site today.
Participate in the survey of the Slave Cemetery by visiting or volunteering Fridays and Saturdays through October.Learn More