John Allison [or Allistone] was hired by William Pearce to be one of the overseers at Mount Vernon, although George Washington expressed concern about his character and abilities. Washington wrote to Pearce in December of 1794: "I hope, and wish, Allison may turn out well. I know nothing of the one you have engaged, but it is a family of very little respectability, and closely connected with a set of people about my Mill, the Pools particularly, than whom I believe, a more worthless set are no where to be found. It was this Allison too, if I mistake not, with whom [Hyland Crow, another overseer] spent, or rather misspent much of his time."1
Three months later, Washington wrote to see how Allison was working out at the Mansion House Farm. Washington queried: "Is Allison sober, industrious and attentive? Is he not too much on a level with those he overlooks and of course too familiar with them? or does he keep them at a proper distance, remain always with them, and turn the labour of those hands who come to his aid, to the best advantage? To do this as a matter of considerable importance; otherwise the labour which will be lost at the respective farms, will not be gained at the Mansion house."2
Allison's job performance must have been acceptable to Washington. By 1797, Allison was being paid thirty-five pounds per year, plus an additional sum of three pounds, twelve shillings for "Attending on the Fishery in April last." Against his account were charges for beef, pork, whiskey, and sole leather. On August 6, 1795, Allison's wife was paid eleven shillings for fifteen chickens.3
Many years later, Martha Washington's youngest granddaughter Nelly Custis Lewis wrote about Allison, who appears to have owned land and slaves on a plot between Mount Vernon and Alexandria. Custis Lewis wrote that "Allison was a common overseer, is a very common labouring man, who can just read & write sufficiently to be understood. He made some money by overseeing, raising Horses & fishing, has bought a few acres of land & has perhaps a few negro children & one or two grown negroes. He lives on the road between Mt V & Alex[andri]a—is a very common poor man—whose family are knowing in horse flesh & very apt to romance or quiz, or tell fibs—when occasion serves."4
1. "George Washington to William Pearce, 14 December 1794," The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, Vol. 34, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1931), 58.
2. "George Washington to William Pearce, 8 March 1795," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 34, 135-6.
4. "Nelly Custis Lewis to Elizabeth Bordley Gibson, 29 April 1823," George Washington’s Beautiful Nelly: The Letters of Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis to Elizabeth Bordley Gibson, 1794-1851, ed. Patricia Brady (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1991), 133-134.