During the 1780s and 1790s, George Washington transformed the area just below the lawn overlooking the Potomac into a park for tame deer. Washington wrote to his old friend George William Fairfax—who was then living in England—in February 1785 to "procure for me, a male and female Deer or two."1
Washington also contacted Benjamin Ogle of Bel Air, Maryland, who himself owned a park of English deer. Ogle provided Washington with six fawns, writing that "the younger they are taken, the easyer [sic] raised."2 In addition, Washington also obtained American deer, noting that "Of the Forest deer of this Country, I have also procured six, two bucks and four does."3 Preliminary work on the park, which spanned more than eighteen acres, began in September 1785. However, the project did not accelerate until late February of 1786; it was completed by the middle of March.4
Washington continued to acquire deer even after the park was finished. He wrote to Richard Sprigg of Annapolis, Maryland in the fall of 1787 to congratulate him on his success in importing deer and noted that "My Country Does have brought Fawns, & I have a buck and doe of those given me by Mr. Ogle; yet if you shd. be successful, I would thank you for a pair (male or female) of yours."5 Several months later, a man named Andrew Lewis sent Washington a "white Doe" as a gift. In his thank-you note, Washington commented that she was "a very great curiosity."6
Several visitors mentioned the deer park. In 1789, Jedidiah Morse described the deer park as: "A small park on the margin of the river, where the English fallow-deer and the American wild deer are seen through the thickets, alternately with the vessels as they are sailing along, add a romantic and picturesque appearance to the whole Scenery."7 According to Washington, the English deer were "very distinguishable by the darkness of their colour, and their horns."8
Washington was very fond of the deer, admitting in a letter that he had given up his beloved pack of hounds because the deer were afraid of them.9 Over the years Washington exchanged a number of letters with his neighbors the Chichesters, forbidding them to hunt deer on his property because of his affection for the animals.10
While Washington was away from Mount Vernon during the presidency, the fences were neglected and his deer escaped from the park. Within just a few years, he noted that "The old ones are now partly wild, and partly tame; their descendants are more wild, but associate with them; and seldom go beyond the limits of my own woodland."11
After the deer escaped they drew complaints from the Mount Vernon gardeners. Even then, Washington was reluctant to harm them, writing to his farm manager: "The Gardener complains of the injury which the shrubs (even in the yard) sustain from the Deer. I am at a loss therefore in determining whether to give up the Shrubs or the Deer! Is there no way of freightning them from these haunts?"12
Mary V. Thompson
Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens
1. "George Washington to George William Fairfax, 27 February 1785," The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, Vol. 2, 390.
2. "Benjamin Ogle to George Washington, 20 August 1785," and "George Washington to George William Fairfax, June 1786," both in The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, Vol. 3, 192 and Vol. 4, 127.
4. George Washington, "30 September 1785," and "6 March 1786," in The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 4, 199, 290; and Weekly Reports for "10 March 1786" and "17 March 1786" (photostats, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association).
5. "George Washington to Richard Sprigg, 28 September 1787," The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, Vol. 5, 344-345.
6. "George Washington to Andrew Lewis, Jr., 1 February 1788," The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, Vol. 6, 75.
8. "George Washington to Doddridge Pitt Chichester and Daniel McCarty Chichester, 25 April 1799," The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, Vol. 4, 19.
9. "George Washington to Richard Chichester, 8 August 1792," The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, Vol. 10, 641.
11. "George Washington to Doddridge Pitt Chichester and Daniel McCarty Chichester, 25 April 1799," The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, Vol. 4, 19.
12. "George Washington to William Pearce, 28 December 1794," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 34, 74.