George Washington and his servant, Billy Lee
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)
When Washington’s father Augustine died in 1743, George Washington became a slave owner at the early age of eleven. In his will, Augustine left his son the 280 acre family farm near Fredericksburg, Virginia. In addition, Washington was willed ten slaves. As a young adult, Washington purchased at least eight more slaves, including a carpenter named Kitt. Washington purchased more slaves in 1755, including four men, two women, and a child.
Of the 318 slaves living at Mount Vernon in 1799, a little less than half (123 individuals) were owned by George Washington himself. Another 153 slaves at Mount Vernon in 1799 were dower slaves from the Custis estate. When Martha Washington's first husband , Daniel Parke Custis, died without a will in 1757, she received a life interest in one-third of his estate, including the slaves. Neither George nor Martha Washington could free these slaves by law and upon Martha’s death these individuals reverted to the Custis estate and were divided among her grandchildren.
George Washington's 1799 Slave Census (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)
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After marrying Martha Dandridge Custis in January of 1759, George Washington's slaveholdings increased dramatically. As the widow of a wealthy planter who died without a will in 1757, Martha’s share of the Custis estate brought another eighty-four slaves to Mount Vernon. The stark increase in the enslaved population at Mount Vernon at this time reflected similar trends in the region. When George Washington took control of the Mount Vernon property in 1754, the population of Fairfax County was around 6,500 people, of whom a little more than 1,800 or about 28% were slaves of African origin. The proportion of slaves in the population as a whole rose throughout the century; by the end of the American Revolution, over 40% of the people living in Fairfax County were slaves.
Sources offer differing insight into Washington's behavior as a slave owner. On one end of the spectrum, Richard Parkinson, an Englishman who lived near Mount Vernon, once reported that "it was the sense of all his [Washington's] neighbors that he treated [his slaves] with more severity than any other man." Conversely, a foreign visitor traveling in America once recorded that George Washington dealt with his slaves "far more humanely than do his fellow citizens of Virginia." What is clear is that Washington frequently utilized harsh punishment against the enslaved population, including whippings and the threat of particularly taxing work assignments. Perhaps most severely, Washington could sell a slave to a buyer in the West Indies, ensuring that the person would never see their family or friends at Mount Vernon again. Washington conducted such sales on several occasions.
Learn more about slave life at Mount Vernon
in this video with Slammin’ Joe
Influences from both African and European religious practices can be found amongst Mount Vernon’s enslaved population. Some slaves at Mount Vernon participated with local, organized Christian congregations, to some degree. Also, Mount Vernon's enslaved community developed at least one spiritual leader from within their own community, named Caesar, according to a runaway slave advertisement from the spring of 1798.
Further, the enslaved population at Mount Vernon had contact with at least three other Christian denominations: Baptists, Methodists, and Quakers. There were also several remnants of religious traditions from Africa continuing to some degree at Mount Vernon, including both Vodoun and Islam.
Mount Vernon’s enslaved community took opportunities, when possible, to physically escape their enslavement. For example, in April of 1781 during the American Revolution, seventeen members of the Mount Vernon enslaved population—fourteen men and three women—fled to the British warship Savage anchored in the Potomac off the shore of the plantation. In other instances, members of the enslaved community who were directly connected to the Washingtons either attempted to or were successful in their escape plans. These individuals included Washington’s personal assistant Christopher Sheels, whose plan to escape with his fiancée was thwarted, the family cook Hercules and Martha Washington’s personal maid Oney Judge, both of whom escaped successfully.
Running away was a risky venture that often did not succeed. As a result, Mount Vernon’s enslaved population frequently resisted their bondage through a variety of methods while working on the plantation. Individuals utilized less noticeable methods of resistance, including feigning illness, working slowly, producing shoddy work, and misplacing or damaging tools and equipment. More active means of protest included actions such as theft, arson, and sabotage of crops. Theft was a particularly frequently act of visible slave resistance. Over the years slaves at Mount Vernon were accused of stealing a wide variety of objects, including tools, fabrics, yam, raw wool, wine, rum, milk, butter, fruits, meats, corn, and potatoes.
Front pages of Phillis Wheatley’s book. Washington wrote to Ms. Wheatley thanking her for a poem sent to the General in 1775.(Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
Philis Wheatley was an enslaved woman brought to Boston from West Africa at just seven years of age. Uncommon for practices at the time, Wheatley received instruction in subjects ranging from Greek, Latin and poetry from the daughter of her owners. By age twelve Wheatley began writing poetry and by eighteen had become well-known for the publication of an elegy she wrote commemorating the death of a prominent preacher. In the winter of 1775, Wheatley sent Washington a letter containing an ode to the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. The poem concluded: "Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side, / Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide. / A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine, / With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine."
Washington responded kindly to Wheatley in a letter, the only known missive that he wrote to an enslaved individual, and even addressed the letter to "Miss Phillis," an unusually polite way for a member of the gentry to address a slave. Washington invited Wheatley to call on him at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In March of 1776, Washington courteously received Wheatley's visit. Given Washington’ status as a slaveholder, their meeting was an early instance of the progression of racial understanding in antebellum America.
Mount Vernon’s enslaved community usually worked a six-day week, with Sunday generally being the day off for everyone on the plantation. On a daily basis, in addition to their day's work, slaves had their own housekeeping work such as tending chickens and garden plots, cooking, preserving the produce of gardens, and caring for clothing. With precious little free time and control over their own schedules, slaves at Mount Vernon attempted to exert some control over their personal lives. Some slaves at Mount Vernon spent their free time visiting with one another. In some instances, slaves visited other plantations where their spouses lived. Some even used their time to play games and sports. A visitor to Mount Vernon during the summer of 1798 described what may have been a team sport played by the slaves on a Sunday. The visitor from Poland recorded witnessing a group of about thirty slaves divided into two groups, playing a game he described as "prisoner's base," which involved "jumps and gambols as if they had rested all week.”
Eleanor Breen, Deputy Director for Archaeology and Dr. Esther White, Director for Historic Preservation and Research at Mount Vernon highlight a number of the interesting archaeological objects discovered at the House for Families excavation at Mount Vernon. The House for Families was one of the primary quarters for the enslaved community at Mount Vernon.
Washington wrote his will several months before his death in December 1799. In the document, Washington left directions for the eventual emancipation of his slaves after the passing of Martha Washington. Of the 318 slaves at Mount Vernon in 1799, 123 of the individuals were owned by George Washington and were eligible to be freed as per the terms of the will.
However, these conditions did not apply to all slaves at Mount Vernon. By law, neither George nor Martha Washington could free the Custis dower slaves. Upon Martha Washington’s death in 1802, these individuals became property once again of the Custis estate, and were divided among the grandchildren. By 1799, 153 slaves at Mount Vernon were part of this dower property.
In accordance with state law, George Washington stipulated in his will that elderly slaves or those who were too sick to work were to be supported by his estate in perpetuity. The remaining non-dower slaves at Mount Vernon did not have to wait for Martha Washington’s death to receive their freedom. Writing on the subject to her sister, Abigail Adams explained that Martha Washington’s motives were largely driven by self-interest. “In the state in which they were left by the General, to be free at her death,” Adams explained, “she did not feel as tho her Life was safe in their Hands, many of whom would be told that it was [in] their interest to get rid of her–She therefore was advised to set them all free at the close of the year.” In December 1800, Martha Washington signed a deed of manumission for her deceased husband's slaves, a transaction that is recorded in the abstracts of the Fairfax County, Virginia, Court Records. They would finally become free on January 1, 1801.