The development of George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and its component farms occurred in several distinct stages. The first phase, spanning from 1754 to 1773, was characterized by the acquisition of land and by improvements to the existing story and-a-half dwelling house at Mount Vernon. Washington leased the original 2,126 acre Mount Vernon tract from the widow of his deceased half-brother Lawrence Washington in 1754 and took full legal title upon the death of Ann Washington Lee in 1761.
Key acquisitions made during this twenty year span include the Mill tract at the head of Dogue Creek, the Clifton tract that later became River Farm, and three parcels that comprised the Ferry farm. By the early 1770s, Washington accumulated 6,500 acres of nearly contiguous land fronting on the Potomac with Mount Vernon at the center on the river.
The second phase was marked by the execution of Washington's carefully designed plan to dramatically upgrade the mansion house and its associated dependencies. This plan was launched in 1773 and enlarged the mansion house at both ends, added a piazza across the river facade, and replaced the earlier support buildings with a new array of domestic outbuildings. These buildings were laid out in a geometric landscape plan that became the centerpiece for further improvements and embellishments over the ensuing two decades. The building program was interrupted but not fully stopped by the Revolutionary War, though supervised by Lund Washington during George Washington's absence.
When Washington returned from the war in December 1783, he launched the third phase of the campaign—to consolidate and reorganize his estate. This phase addressed land holdings, crop selection and planting, plantation management, and the physical improvement of the soil, buildings, and livestock. Washington's first concern was to repair the mansion house and its immediate environs, while also completing the building projects still unfinished from before the war.
During the first year of renovations work inside the mansion was the norm. By 1785, however, a change was evident. Washington turned his attention increasingly outward from the mansion house to direct the development of the landscape immediately outside. Even as construction work proceeded on the mansion house and its village of outbuildings, slave work crews cleared underbrush, pruned trees, opened vistas to and from the house, and assisted the gardener with planting beds, walks, and other genteel landscape amenities.
By 1786, Washington's scope extended well beyond the mansion house and its immediate environs, as he turned his attention to the larger plantation. By the fall of 1786, Washington acquired the four remaining tracts needed to consolidate his holdings into a single, contiguous plantation of about 7,400 acres.
With an interconnected land plot, Washington set out to reorganize the entire tract into a coherent whole, subdivided to create discrete working units and a structured land management system. These units included the Mansion Farm, the Ferry Farm, French's (named for the former owner), Dogue Run, Muddy Hole, and River Farm. Additionally, there was a grist mill and land holdings that comprised the mill race, meadows, and a dam and pond on Dogue Run.
To manage the plantation, each farm was placed under the supervision of an overseer. In some instances slaves were elevated to oversee Muddy Hole and, at times, Dogue Run and River Farm. The overseers were placed under the charge of a farm manager or superintendent, who in turn reported to Washington. Each manager was expected to submit weekly work reports to the superintendent, and the farm manager submitted a summary of all activity to Washington. This system of record keeping probably owed its origins to Washington's constant absences, but evolved into a plantation record that Washington prized as a tool in his efforts to track the successes and failures of his farming efforts.
The land acquired by Washington was a microcosm of the Chesapeake landscape. Individual tracts ranged from the 2,100 acre river front mansion house tract to the land-locked, aptly named Muddy Hole. River Farm and French's were more typical of an established and successful farm, with excellent deep water access, substantial tillable land, and house sites that could command a view of the Potomac.
The Ferry Farm, also known as Posey's after a prior owner, was similarly located on the river but smaller in size. It offered a desirable seat for a landed farmer as well as an entrepreneurial opportunity in the form of a ferry and an excellent fishery, complete with buildings and a landing to support that enterprise. The mill tract offered a more traditional form of business, and in this case was enhanced by water access from the headwaters of Dogue Creek. Dogue Run was typical of an inland farm with good soil. Muddy Hole was the poorest land and received only passing attention from Washington.
Previous owners worked these farms in the local tradition, relying on tobacco as the principal cash crop and on maize as a food source. These farms were typically worked in a three-crop rotation of tobacco, maize, and fallow. Variety was accomplished by inter-planting of beans, squash, pumpkins, and grain in the corn field, and by maintaining a kitchen garden protected from deer by a high pale fence. As Washington entered into the business of farming in the 1750s he followed the local tradition.
The Chesapeake mode of farming placed a distinctive cast on the appearance of the land, a look best envisioned by examining a detailed plot made by Washington of his River Farm in 1766. As portrayed in the plan, this farm consisted of cleared agricultural land arrayed along Hunting Creek and the Potomac forest and pasture at the back of the property, and marshy woods along the creek and stream bottoms.
The improvements to River Farm in 1766 included more than a dozen buildings, three large cleared fields, five orchards, lanes, fences, and a landing. The buildings included a "home house" with two gable-end chimneys and domestic outbuildings on a prominent site near the river with smaller chimneyed dwelling houses scattered about the farm, including an overseer's house and several slave quarters. Other structures lacking chimneys were distributed in the fields in the typical pattern of tobacco houses and one large building near the center of the farm that was part of an organized farm yard.
Physical improvements of each of the farms produced a similar picture for the period prior to the mid-1780s. Each farm included frame overseers' houses (some including wooden chimneys), frame and log slave houses, corn houses, tobacco houses and less permanent structures such as fodder houses, livestock sheds, pens, and yards. All were an essential part of the landscape of tobacco and maize, worked by bonded labor on a tedious and debilitating three year cycle.
The Diaries of George Washington, Vol 1, eds. Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1976, 239-41.
Wall, Charles Cecil. George Washington, Citizen-Soldier. Mount Vernon, Va.: Mount Vernon Ladies Association, 1983, 17-18, 24-31, 93.
The Writings of George Washington, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick, Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1931-1944, Vol. 28, 63-6A; 93-94; 146-A7; 170-72; 237-38; 317; 330-32; 332-33; 510-13; Vol. 29, 213-17.