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History

Mount Vernon’s Blacksmith Shop is no longer standing at the plantation. Only two images of this building exist. Its location is depicted on the 1787 Vaughan Plan, while a circa 1792 painting of the north side of Mount Vernon’s Mansion illustrates the Shop as a grey smudge, hidden behind a tree. Luckily, George Washington’s diary, letters and plantation accounts provide details about repairs to the Blacksmith Shop, who worked in the Shop, items the smith’s made and repaired, and what was purchased for the Shop. These documents combined with the archaeological excavations and artifacts recovered provide an understanding of Mount Vernon’s Blacksmith Shop. Because the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association interprets the plantation as it was in 1799, historical and archaeological research into the Blacksmith Shop was undertaken in an attempt to discover if the Shop was in this location during that year.

The Structure

The first reference to a blacksmith shop at Mount Vernon dates to 1755, when Washington wrote  “buildg a Chimney in my Smith’s shed.”  A blacksmith shop is not included in the 1753 inventory written after the death of Lawrence Washington, George Washington’s half-brother who lived at Mount Vernon during the 1740s and early 1750s. This 1755 reference to erecting a chimney in the “shed” does not preclude the possibility that this activity was a repair to an existing shop built by Lawrence Washington before his death in 1752.

Washington’s diary suggests that this earlier shop may have been replaced in 1768. On January 16,1768, Washington recorded workmen “Finished my Smiths Shop – that is the Carpenters work of it.” While the archaeology supports construction of the Smith’s Shop in 1768, no structural evidence has been revealed to confirm that two different shops existed at this site. The last reference that can confidently be associated with the Shop in this location dates to the year 1793, although circumstantial evidence indicates that the Shop continued to operate into the 19th century.

A “Black Smiths Shop” is listed in the 1799 inventory of the contents of Mount Vernon, and its placement in that listing suggests a location on the North Lane. Further blacksmithing activities are documented as continuing uninterrupted at least until the fall of 1798, with no indication of constructing another shop or abandoning the one on the North Lane. In 1855, a Currier plan illustrates an ice house at the Blacksmith Shop's location.  This ice house was torn down in 2008 when the reconstruction of the Blacksmiths' Shop was begun.

Tools and the Trade

George Washington made a substantial investment in his smithing operation in 1755. This was most likely in preparation for the many significant alterations to the estate that he was planning to implement over the ensuing years. In addition to extensive repairs to the structure itself, or possibly even constructing a new shop at the time, Washington ordered a set of relatively new tools in January 1755, contracting with two local individuals to procure the items at a cost of £10.15. The complete list included:

  • One large pair bellows
  • One large vice
  • One small vice.
  • One pr. tongs old iron
  • Three broad files
  • Three square files.
  • One tool for making large nails
  • One tool for making small nails
  • One anvil
  • Two sledge hammers
  • One hand hammer
  • One large screwdriver
  • One small screwdriver
  • Two pair tongs
  • One tool for forming the eyes of axes
  • Two cleve irons

In general, the items ordered by Washington for his Shop represent standard blacksmithing equipment of the day. Anvils, bellows, and vices were basic items that any smithy would have required. The hammers, tongs, files, and screwdrivers are equally unremarkable and would have been used in a wide variety of applications. It is uncertain what function was performed by the “cleve irons,” although one definition of cleve (cleave) is to part or divide along the grain, or between parallel fibres, by a cutting blow. This implies that it could have been a special tool, possibly an anvil insert, used to split iron stock. The only other objects intended for a specialized purpose are two tools for making nails, and the single “Tool for forming the Eyes of Axes.”

The Mount Vernon plantation accounts include hundreds of references to the blacksmiths’ activities from 1755 to 1799. Most of these are notations of payments to the “Smiths Accts,” some of which specify the service rendered. Others record expenditures for the purchase of tools and materials and sundry services. It is clear that the Mount Vernon smiths undertook work for residents of the surrounding neighborhood, as well as supported the plantation operation. Their work included:

  • Shoeing horses
  • Repairing/sharpening a plow
  • Making a hoe
  • Repairing/making horse shoes
  • Making a plow
  • Making an axe
  • Mending a frying pan
  • Repairing a wagon
  • Making keys
  • Making a hammer
  • Making “loom irons”
  • Making pot hooks
  • Making a fire shovel and tongs
  • Repairing a gun
  • “Mill work”

Working on plows, repairing various tools and implements, and shoeing horses were the three most common tasks undertaken at rural blacksmith shops during this period, and they are similarly prevalent in the Mount Vernon Shop accounts. In addition to producing a variety of agricultural and domestic items – ranging from fabricating a plow to copying keys -- more unusual work undertaken by Washington’s smiths includes “mill work,” presumably repairing ironwork in Washington’s grist mill.

No specific references to nail making have been revealed, and abundant orders for buying nails over the years indicate that most of the metal fasteners used at Mount Vernon were purchased. But the presence of the tools for making both large and small nails included in the 1755 tool kit and the “5 Nail moulds” listed in the 1799 inventory, along with the purchase in 1782, and again in 1785, of “Faggots of Nail Rods,” suggests that at least some nails were made at Mount Vernon.

Enslaved and Free Blacksmiths

The smiths who worked at Mount Vernon were both white journeymen craftsmen hired by Washington and enslaved African-Americans. The first smith to be identified is Peter, a slave, who is included in the Fairfax County list of tithables for Mount Vernon as a blacksmith in the years 1760-63, then as a “tradesman” from 1764 to 1770. Three slaves (Nat, George, and Guy) are listed directly below Peter in the 1763 listing, suggesting that they were Peter’s assistants. Guy is not named the next year, but Nat and George continue to be listed below Peter until 1769; George alone is listed along with Peter in 1770.

Peter is not listed among the Mount Vernon slaves for the year 1771, and a new smith, a “Dutch” journeyman named Dominicus Gubner (also Hovenor), took over the blacksmithing duties. Gubner was employed on a daily basis for 19 days in 1770, then in September of that year he agreed to serve under a one year contract, at the rate of £32 per year. This agreement was renewed twice at the same rate of pay, with his last contract expiring in October 1773. The slave, George, continued to be included as a “tradesman” in the tithable lists for the years that Gubner was in residence. The list for 1774, the year after Gubner’s departure, again includes George, but also names Nat, presumably the same slave who had also assisted Peter up until 1770.

The slaves Nat and George served as the Mount Vernon smiths from the time of Dominicus Gubner’s departure in 1774 at least until George Washington’s death in 1799. They are listed as such in both the 1786 and 1799 slave censuses. In January of 1788 George Washington responded to an offer by a friend to provide him with a blacksmith by characterizing his own smiths as, “tho’ not very neat workmen, [they] answer all my purposes in making farm utensils, etc., in a plain way.” Two years later he sounds less satisfied, complaining that “My bumbling smith, has lamed one of the Horses that draw the Waggon in shoing him.” Finally, in 1792 Washington observed that “the Smiths ... I take to be two very idle fellows.” The next year he discreetly began to search for a replacement for Nat and George, seeking “a compleat Blacksmith” who must also be “an honest, sober, and Industrious man.” George Washington was unable to find such a paragon, and Nat and George continued as the Mount Vernon smiths for the rest of Washington’s lifetime.

Blacksmith Shop Customers

The accounts for the Smith’s Shop also list individuals who paid for services, and appear to be relatively complete for the period from 1760 to 1779. From 1779 – 1799, the entries are less comprehensive, but indicate that fewer jobs were being performed for those outside the Mount Vernon plantation. A total of 134 individuals are listed in the smith accounts for the period 1755 to 1799.

As might be expected, most of the patrons were found to live nearby, with the majority of customers residing within a five-mile radius of the Mount Vernon Mansion House Farm. Apparently planters were unwilling to travel far to obtain basic services such as blacksmithing. References in the Mount Vernon accounts to paying outside smiths for more specialized tasks indicate that a number of other smiths were operating in the county, as well as in Alexandria, seven miles away. The five-mile radius around Mount Vernon may, therefore, represent the effective share of the market available to Washington’s smithing operation in relation to competing shops. Interestingly, two of George Mason’s tenants living on land near Mount Vernon used George Washington’s blacksmith even though George Mason also operated a shop at Gunston Hall, albeit several miles farther away.

After 1779, the decline in the number of customers from beyond the plantation frequenting the blacksmith’s services correlates with the growth of Mount Vernon. Washington embarked on a systematic campaign of land acquisition beginning in earnest after he returned from the French and Indian War. Over a five-year span in the early 1760s Washington more than doubled his land holdings, from approximately 2300 to 4800 acres. Among the tracts he acquired were the very plantations that had supplied many of the customers for his Blacksmith Shop -- Sampson Darrell’s (1757), William Clifton’s (1760), and George Ashford’s (1762). Following a hiatus in land buying necessitated by his growing indebtedness, Washington then purchased another 3000 acres, including the plantations of John Posey (1769), John West (1770), Thomas Marshall (1779), Daniel French (1786), and Harrison Manley (1786). All of these property owners, and some of their tenants as well, had been steady customers of the Mount Vernon blacksmiths.

One result of the expansion of Mount Vernon was to incorporate much of the neighborhood heretofore serviced by Washington’s smiths into the plantation itself. Therefore, in itself this reduced the total number of potential outside customers for the Mount Vernon smithy. But probably of even greater importance was the fact that the smithing activities required to support the expanded plantation also increased dramatically. By 1779 Mount Vernon was a complex, multi-functioning plantation system composed of five farms, a grist mill, a fishery, and numerous other craft operations. That the Mount Vernon smiths undoubtedly had to devote much more of their time to servicing those needs naturally would have meant less time available for outside work. The entries in the blacksmith accounts for the period after 1779 seem to reflect the more internalized focus of their work, repairing the Gristmill and making tools for the plantation’s operation.

While it is possible to gain a sense of the level of activity of the Blacksmith Shop over the years, only in January 1798 does Washington itemize the Shop’s total expenses and income for a year’s time. According to this accounting, the total expenses for the year 1797 were £94.16.6, with total income at £129.9.4, and a net “profit” of£34.12.9. The expenses are not itemized in this listing, but accounts for the year indicate that they include the purchase of two shipments of steel and iron, totaling approximately £90, and a new bellows, vice, and sledge hammer for £8.8. With a single exception, the income was derived from tasks carried out on the plantation and credited to the various farms, the mill, the distillery, and to the carpenters. Since this is an accounting of internal transactions, Washington did not realize a profit in the sense of actual income, as he may have earlier when the Shop had a clientele beyond the plantation itself.

The combination of historical documents, archaeological excavation, and artifacts  indicates that Mount Vernon's Blacksmith's Shop was not particularly unusual either in its scale of operation or in the range of activities that were carried out there. During the early years it provided an important source of revenue for George Washington, but through time  the demands on the skills of the smiths increased along with the size of the plantation utilizing the shop. Like most of the other craftspeople working at Mount Vernon, the smiths were pressed to support Washington’s far flung agricultural enterprise, which by the 1790s had expanded to include a commercial gristmill and a profitable whiskey distillery. As such, Washington’s Blacksmith's Shop became just one part of his large plantation.