Slavery was a brutal system in which people were oppressed and limited, yet enslaved people found ways to resist. In colonial America and the early republic, many believed that those enslaved were a type of property that could be owned and sold. With little control over their lives, enslaved people lived in constant fear. There were, however, some important cases in which people broke social barriers in the different ways in which they resisted slavery and asserted their humanity. For example, at times, people stole things or slowed down their work. On a social level, some took more control over their lives by developing a sense of community and identity. At times, some were able to make a little money thus contributing to Mount Vernon's economy. One of the most extreme and dangerous ways in which people resisted bondage was to run away. Escaping was not very common, because people risked leaving behind their family, and they also risked recapture. The ways in which people resisted bondage were significant because they point to the complexity and resilience of enslaved people.

Different Forms of Resistance

Enslaved people resisted bondage to various degrees. Risking punishment, some stole or broke things. Others contributed to the flow of goods which pointed to their economic presence at Mount Vernon, and many developed a sense of community and identity which asserted their humanity and perhaps helped them deal with the harsh conditions in which they lived in.

Nathan

Nathan

Despite the risk of punishment, enslaved people sometimes broke tools, stole things, or slowed down their work. There were instances when people broke into the smokehouse to steal meat. In this letter, Washington asked William Pearce, a farm manager, to find out who broke into the smoke house to steal bacon. Washington mentioned that Nathan was suspected of stealing before but was not caught. Although Nathan enjoyed a seemingly privileged position as the family cook and not a fieldworker, if caught, he would have been punished.

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Davy Gray

Davy Gray

After a day of hard work on the field or in the mansion, some people found time to plant vegetables or raise small animals. Davy Gray was an overseer who could not write but contributed to the economy of Mount Vernon.

Primary Source: This receipt shows that Gray raised ducks, chicken, and turkeys and sold them to Martha Washington. Gray earned $9.75 for what he sold. 

Kate

Kate

There were enslaved people that possessed a variety of skills. Kate asked that Washington name her midwife to enslaved mothers. If her request was granted, as a member of the community, Kate would care for the mothers.

Primary Source: In this letter, among other things, Washington discussed Kate’s request and her belief that she was qualified for the position which was often held by white staff.

Identity and Community

Ceasar

Ceasar

Unlike most enslaved people, Caesar could read and write and was known for preaching to people. Cesar traveled beyond the estate to visit family and other community members. Although cases like Cesar’s are not common, this does shine a light on community building and the flow of religious ideas beyond Mount Vernon’s boundaries.

Primary Source: In this list of enslaved people, Caesar was listed as a dower slave belonging to the estate of Daniel Parke Custis (Martha Washington’s first husband). The harsh reality of slavery was that many people believed they had the right to own other human beings.   

Sambo Anderson

Sambo Anderson

 For the most part, those enslaved had to wear a very uncomfortable uniforms made of a coarse fabric called osnaburg. The plain uniforms also further suppressed peoples’ identity. However, some found ways to adorn themselves and their clothing with buttons, beads, and jewelry. Sambo Anderson was a skilled carpenter, hunter, and beekeeper. Anderson also held on to his African identity by wearing rings in his ears. 

Primary Source:  While not everyone could wear gold rings in their ears, some enslaved people purchased (or exchanged for other things) beads and buttons to make simple jewelry or decorate their clothing. A bead like this one might have been used as a form of decoration.

A Dangerous Choice

Running Away

Running Away

Few enslaved people made the difficult and dangerous choice to run away. Making that choice often meant leaving behind family and friends forever. Those who ran risked recapture, punishment, and even death. Women were less likely to flee, because they often cared for children and the elderly and taking family members along, especially children, made them easier to detect. The few that were able to escape faced an uncertain future, since they lived in fear of being recaptured.

Primary Source: Maryland Gazette, 1761

When three men (Jack, Neptune, and Cupid) escaped from Mount Vernon, Washington put out this newspaper advertisement. This revealed that two of the men were recently brought from Africa.

At times, it was easier for those who recently arrived from Africa to flee, since they had no permanent connection to anyone in the colonies. Jack and Neptune were easier to identify and ran a higher risk of being recaptured, because of their distinct physical characteristics. However, it is also important to note that runaways posed an economic burden on Washington who spent time and money on trying to get them back. 

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