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1743

1743, April 11

I give unto my son George Washington and his heirs the land I now live on which I purchased of the Executrix of Mr. William Strother, deceased, and one moiety of my land lying on Deep Run and ten Negro slaves.”

George Washington, age 11, inherits 10 enslaved individuals in his father’s will.
1754

Washington Farms

Washington rents and begins farming Mount Vernon with a workforce of about 36 enslaved individuals.

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1759

Washington Marries Martha Dandridge Custis

Washington marries Martha Dandridge Custis in January.  In April, Martha arrives at Mount Vernon in April with 20 “dower slaves" inherited from a pervious marriage.

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1761

1761, August 20

Ran away from a Plantation of the Subscriber’s, on Dogue Run in Fairfax, on Sunday the 9th Instant, the following Negroes… Whoever apprehends the said Negroes, so that the Subscriber may readily get them, shall have, if taken up in this County, Forty Shillings Reward, beside what the Law allows; and if at any greater Distance, or out of the Colony, a proportionable Recompence paid them. By George Washington.”

Washington's ad in the Maryland Gazette to recapture four runaway slaves
1768

Washington Purchases "Billy" Lee

Washington purchases William “Billy” Lee from Mary Lee, a wealthy Virginian for £61.15s. William Lee will become Washington’s personal valet.

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1774, August 24

The Crisis is arrivd when we [Colonists] must assert our Rights, or Submit to every Imposition that can be heap’d upon us; till custom and use, will make us as tame, & abject Slaves, as the Blacks we Rule over with such arbitrary Sway.”

Washington writes to lifelong friend, Lord Bryan Fairfax, regarding the imminent military conflict with Britain

1775

Washington Becomes Commander-in-Chief

Washington is elected unanimously and appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary Army by the Second Continental Congress on June 15 and June 17, 1775 respectively. William Lee will attend Washington throughout the war.

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1775, October

[The War Council]... unanimously to reject all slaves, & by a great Majority to reject Negroes altogether” from enlisting or reenlisting in the Revolutionary Army.”

General Washington’s War Council
1775, December

Lord Dunmore Issues His Proclamation

Lord Dunmore, Governor of the Royal Virginia Colony issues a proclamation encouraging indentured servants and the enslaved to join the British Army. His statement reads:

“And I do hereby farther declare all indented servants, Negroes, or others (appertaining to rebels) free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining his Majesty’s troops, as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing this Colony to a proper sense of their duty, to his Majesty’s crown and dignity.”

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1775, December

Freed Slaves Fight in Washington's Army

Washington decides to allow freed slaves to enlist in the Revolutionary Army. He writes:

“It has been represented to me, that the free Negroes who have served in this Army, are very much disatisfied [sic] at being discarded.  As it is to be apprehended that they may seek employ in the Ministerial Army, I have presumed to depart from the Resolution respecting them and have given license for their being enlisted, If [sic] this is disapproved by Congress I shall put a stop to it…."

However, the enslaved remained forbidden from joining.

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1778

1778, August

…If Negroes could be given in Exchange for this Land of Marshalls [sic], or sold at a proportionable [sic] price, I should prefer it to the Sale of Morris[’]s Land…Having so fully expressed my Sentiments concerning this manner, I shall only add a word or two respecting Barry’s Land….For this Land also I had rather give Negroes—if Negroes would do. for [sic] to be plain I wish to get quit of Negroes….”

Washington writes to his cousin, Lund.
1779, February

My scruples arise from a reluctance in offering these people at public vendue, and on account of the uncertainty of timeing the sale well—In the first case, if these poor wretches are to be held in a state of slavery, I do not see that a change of masters will render it more irksome, provided husband & wife, and Parents & children are not separated from each other, which is not my intention to do... And with respect to the second, ...if a sale takes place while the money is in a depreciating state—that is, before it has arrived at the lowest ebb of depreciation; I shall lose the difference—and if it is delayed, ’till some great & important event shall give a decisive turn in favor of our affairs, it may be too late.”

Washington writes again to his cousin, Lund.
1782, May

The Virginia General Assembly Allows Manumission.

The Virginia General Assembly enacts legislation to allow the manumission (freeing) of enslaved people. The law allows slaveholders to free their slaves at will, without government approval. The law also orders that anyone freeing their slaves must provide support for those over or under a certain age and that slaves pay the taxes required by the state.

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1785

1785, May 26

Washington's Refusal

Washington, despite agreeing personally with the point of view, refuses to sign a petition “for the emancipation of the Negroes,” presented by Reverend Thomas Coke, the first Methodist Bishop. The Methodist petition, read in the Virginia legislature on November 8, 1785, was rejected two days later.

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1786, April 12

[T]here is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of [slavery]; but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and that is by Legislative authority…”

Washington writes to Robert Morris criticizing the antislavery Quaker Society of Friends.
1786, May 10

Washington Writes to the Marquis de Lafayette

In a letter to the Marquis de Lafayette, Washington expresses pessimism that the American people are ready to embrace emancipation and that petitioning for abolition would pose problems, despite his opinion that it should happen.

His letter reads:

“[Y]our late purchase of an estate in the colony of Cayenne, with a view to emancipating the slaves on it, is a generous and noble proof of your humanity.  Would to God a like spirit would diffuse itself generally into the minds of the people of this country; but I despair of seeing it.  Some petitions were presented to the Assembly, at its last Session, for the abolition of slavery, but they could scarce obtain a reading.  To set them afloat at once would, I really believe, be productive of much inconvenience and mischief; but by degrees it certainly might, and assuredly ought to be effected; and that too by Legislative authority."

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1788

1788

I must say that I lament the decision of your legislature upon the question of importing Slaves after March 1793. I was in hopes that motives of policy, as well as other good reasons supported by the direful effects of Slavery which at this moment are presented, would have operated to produce a total prohibition of the importation of Slaves whenever the question came to be agitated in any State that might be interested in the measure.”

Washington writes to the Governor of South Carolina, Charles Pickney.
1789, April

Washington is Inaugurated

Washington is inaugurated in New York City as the first President of the United States. During Washington’s presidency, at least ten enslaved people worked at the president’s houses, first in New York City and later in Philadelphia beginning in November 1790, including: Ona “Oney” Judge, Hercules, Moll, Giles, Austin, Richmond, Paris, Joe, Christopher Sheels, and William Lee.

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1791

1791, April 12

[I]n case it shall be found that any of my Slaves may, or any for them shall attempt their freedom at the expiration of six months, it is my wish and desire that you would send the whole, or such part of them as Mrs. Washington may not chuse [sic] to keep, home—for although I do not think they would be benefitted [sic] by the change, yet the idea of freedom might be too great a temptation for them to resist. At any rate it might, if they conceived they had a right to it, make them insolent in a State of Slavery”

Washington to Tobias Lear
1791, April 12

Pennsylvania's Law

Pennsylvania’s 1780 abolition law required that enslaved people would become free after they had lived in the state for six consecutive months. In order to get around this, Washington instructs his personal secretary, Tobias Lear, to return the enslaved people at Philadelphia to Mount Vernon. This practice will continue throughout his presidency.

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1793, February 12

Washington Passes the Fugitive Slave Act

President Washington signs the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 that strengthened the Fugitive Slave clause of the Constitution (Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3). It authorizes the capture and return of runaway enslaved persons within the states and territories of the United States and set a fine of $500 for anyone who helped or harbored an escaped slave.

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1794

1794, March 22

Washington signs the Slave Trade Act

President Washington signs the Slave Trade Act of 1794, an early step toward ending the international slave trade that prohibited the transporting of enslaved persons from the United States to any foreign place or country, and made it illegal for American citizens to prepare a ship for purpose of importing enslaved people.

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1794, May 6

Washington's Desire

Washington begins to express a desire to reduce his responsibilities of running Mount Vernon by leasing land to other farmers. He also reduces the number of enslaved persons he owns because of the increasing cost to care for them.

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1794, May 6

Besides these, I have another motive which makes me earnestly wish for the accomplishment of these things, it is indeed more powerful than all the rest. namely [sic] to liberate a certain species of property which I possess, very repugnantly to my own feelings; but which imperious necessity compels…”

Washington to Tobias Lear
1796, May 24

Ona Judge Runs

Frederick Kitt, Washington’s steward, places an advertisement in The Philadelphia Gazette & Universal Daily Advertiser announcing the escape of  Ona Judge, one of the "dower slaves" belonging to Martha as part of the Custis estate. The ad was placed in other newspapers, including Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser in Philadelphia, PA on May 27.

The ad read:

“Absconded from the household of the President of the United States, ONEY JUDGE, a light mulatto girl, much freckled, with very black eyes and bushy black hair... there was no suspicion of her going off, nor no provocation to do so..."

However, in an 1845 interview, “Washington’s Runaway Slave,” printed in the Anti-Slavery Bugle in New-Lisbon, Ohio on August 22, 1845, Judge stated two reasons for her escape: “she wanted to be free,” and when she learned that upon Martha’s death, she was to be bequeathed to Martha’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Park Custis Law, as a wedding present, Judge “was determined to never be her slave."

 

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1797

1797, February 21 or 22

Hercules Runs

Washington’s enslaved cook, Hercules, “abscond[s]” (escapes) Mount Vernon shortly before or during Washington’s 65th birthday.

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1797, August 4

…I am sorry to hear of the loss of your servant; but it is my opinion these elopements will be MUCH MORE, before they are LESS frequent: and that the persons making them should never be retained, if they are recovered, as they are sure to contaminate and discontent others. I wish from my soul that the legislature of this State could see the policy of a gradual Abolition of Slavery; It would prev[en]t. much future mischief.”

Washington to his nephew, Lawrence Lewis
1797, November 13

Washington Looks to Replace Hercules

Washington writes to his nephew, George Lewis (Lawrence’s brother), asking help to find a replacement for Hercules, specifically a particular slave that is to be sold.

In the letter, Washington writes:

“The running off of my Cook, has been a most inconvenient thing to this family; and what renders it more disagreeable, is, that I had resolved never to become the master of another Slave by purchase; but this resolution I fear I must break.1… Let me ask you now, to see both Mr Murray (the seller), & the man himself (the cook in question); and if upon conversing fully with the latter, you should be of opinion (from the account he gives of himself) that he is a good Cook, and would answer my purposes, then discover the lowest terms on which he could be had by purchase, or on hire.”

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1799

1799, July 9

Washington's Will

Washington executes his last will and testament in which he manumits William Lee and makes several other provisions regarding the enslaved that he owns or has legal control over. Washington also provides that upon Martha’s death, the rest of the enslaved that he owns are to be freed, acknowledging that he has no legal right to free the “dower slaves" that belong to the Custis estate (Martha and her heirs). Washington also makes provisions that his heirs are to feed and clothe for the rest of their lives any of his freed slaves that are too old, too infirm, or too young to make a living, and that the younger slaves are to be taught to read and write as well as be taught a valuable trade. Washington is the only slave-owning founding father to make any such provisions in his will.

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Citations

For full citations and additional contextual history, please see the timeline download (zip file format).

 “I., 10 December 1754,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-01-02-0115-0002. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 1, 7 July 1748 – 14 August 1755, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983, pp. 228–229.]

 “Advertisement for Runaway Slaves, 11 August 1761,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-07-02-0038. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 7, 1 January 1761 – 15 June 1767, ed. W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990, pp. 65–68.] https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-07-02-0038.

“An Act to Prohibit the Carrying On of the Slave Trade from the United States to Any Foreign Place or Country; 3/22/1794;” “Public Law, 3rd Congress, 1st Session: To Prohibit the Carrying On of the Slave Trade from the United States to Any Foreign Place, March 22, 1794;” “Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789 - 2011;” “General Records of the United States Government, Record Group 11;” National Archives Building, Washington, DC. [Online Version, https://www.docsteach.org/documents/document/slave-trade-act-1794, July 20, 2021]

“An Act To Authorize The Manumission Of Slaves, 1782.” Encyclopedia Virginia December 7, 2020. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/an-act-to-authorize-the-manumission-of-slaves-1782.

Cash Accounts, May 3, 1768, The George Washington Financial Papers Project. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008), n2.] https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/william-billy-lee/#1

Chervinsky, Lindsay.“The Enslaved Household of President George Washington.” The White House Historical Association September 6, 2019, https://www.whitehousehistory.org/the-enslaved-household-of-president-george-washington (accessed 2019).

Coke, Thomas. Extracts of the Journals of the Reverend Dr. Coke’s Five Visits to America. London:  Printed by G. Paramore, 1793, 45

“Council of War, October 8, 1775,” in The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, Volume 2, edited by Philander D. Chase and Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987, pages 123 & 125.

Dunbar, Erica Armstrong. Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge. New York: 37INK, 2017.

 “From George Washington to Bryan Fairfax, 24 August 1774,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-10-02-0097. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 10, 21 March 1774 – 15 June 1775, ed. W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995, pp. 154–156.]

“From George Washington to George Lewis, 13 November 1797,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-01-02-0419. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, vol. 1, 4 March 1797 – 30 December 1797, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998, pp. 469–470.]

“From George Washington to Tobias Lear, 10 March 1797,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-01-02-0019. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, vol. 1, 4 March 1797 – 30 December 1797, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998, pp. 27–28.]

George Washington, General Orders, February 21, 1776, The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 3:350.

George Washington to Governor Charles Pinckney, March 17, 1792, The Writings of George Washington, 32:6.

George Washington, Last Will and Testament, July 9, 1799, The Writings of George Washington, 37:276-277, 282-283.

George Washington to Lawrence Lewis, August 4, 1797, The Writings of George Washington, 36:2.

George Washington to Lund Washington, August 15, 1778, The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 16:315-316.

George Washington to Lund Washington, February 24[-26], 1779, The Writings of George Washington, 14:147-149.

George Washington to the Marquis de Lafayette, May 12, 1786, The Writings of George Washington, 28:424.

George Washington to Robert Morris, April 12, 1786, The Writings of George Washington, 28:408.

George Washington to The President of Congress, December 31, 1775, The Writings of George Washington, 4:195.

George Washington to Tobias Lear, April 12, 1791. The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, Volume 8. Edited by Mark A. Mastromarino, Jack D. Warren, Jr., and Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville:  University Press of Virginia, 1999. Pages 85-86.

George Washington to Tobias Lear, May 6, 1794, The Writings of George Washington, 33:358.

Journals of the Continental Congress - Thursday, June 15, 1775 and Saturday, June 17, 1775. https://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(jc00238)).

King George County Virginia Will Book A-1;1721-1752 {George Harrison Sanford King}; Pages 156-161

Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, 1775. https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-resources/spotlight-primary-source/lord-dunmores-proclamation-1775

MacLeod, Jessie. “Lee, William (fl. 1768–1810).” Encyclopedia Virginia February 12, 2021. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/lee-william-fl-1768-1810.

Memorandum, “List of Artisans and Household Slaves in the Estate” [ca. 1759], Settlement of the Daniel Parke Custis Estate, Schedule III-C, National Archives, Founders Online, [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Digital Edition]. https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/doll/#1

“Proceedings and Debates of the House of Representatives of the United States at the Second Session of the Second Congress, Begun at the City of Philadelphia, November 5, 1792.” Annals of Congress, 2nd Congress, 2nd Session (November 5, 1792 to March 2, 1793)," Pages 1414-15. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage

“Ten Dollars Reward,” Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia, PA), May 27, 1796, p. 2. https://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2019/10/runaway-how-george-washington-and-other-slave-owners-used-newspapers-to-hunt-escaped-slaves/

“Washington’s Runaway Slave,” Anti-Slavery Bugle (New-Lisbon, Ohio), August 22, 1845, p. 4. https://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2019/10/runaway-how-george-washington-and-other-slave-owners-used-newspapers-to-hunt-escaped-slaves/

Will Of Augustine Washington. Early Colonial Settlers of Southern Maryland and Virginia’s Northern Neck Counties 2022. https://www.colonial-settlers-md-va.us/getperson.php?personIDI022490&tree=Tree1

Weekly Report, 25 February, 1797, in Mount Vernon Farm Accounts, Jan. 7, 1797—Sept. 10, 1797 (bound photostats, Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, Mount Vernon, Virginia), [39].

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