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Animals at Mount Vernon
Modern visitors to Mount Vernon can see many of the same animals who lived here in the 18th century.
Foods such as milk, cream, butter, and cheese were not only produced at Mount Vernon—they were occasionally sold as well, earning money for the estate. Just not as much as Washington had hoped for.
Toward the end of his life, one of George Washington's fondest wishes was that his cattle would provide him with an income from the sale of their milk and other dairy products in the nearby cities of Alexandria, Georgetown, and the future Washington, D.C. He dreamed of constructing "large dayries" on his farms and considered his goal of furthering the dairy business as "much more desirable...than to push the best of my fields, out of their regular course, with a view to encrease [sic] the next, or any other year's crops of grain."
Throughout most of his life at Mount Vernon, however, that industry had been something of a disappointment. His experience seems to have duplicated that of other Virginians of the period. According to archaeologist and writer Audrey Noel Hume, most houses of any size in Williamsburg had a dairy or milk house near the kitchen, but contemporary accounts record that of "milk, cream, butter and cheese...they [the Virginia colonists] made very little-indeed so to speak almost none."1
Dairying appears to have begun at Mount Vernon shortly after George Washington returned home from several years on the frontier and married Martha Dandridge Custis, a young widow, in 1759. Prior to that time, his financial records show purchases of milk; after his marriage, he seems to have bought milk only when traveling or living away from Mount Vernon.
For thousands of years, dairying was almost exclusively "women's work," which probably explains the lack of such activity at Mount Vernon before Washington's marriage brought a wife to the estate who understood and could supervise the work.
Six dozen earthenware milk pans, used for setting milk so the cream would rise to the top, were ordered from England in September of 1760. These were followed by four dozen tin milk pans in 1761 and large numbers of others in a variety of sizes and materials in 1761, 1762, and 1765.
From information contained in George Washington's correspondence, diaries, and the weekly reports turned in by his managers, it would appear that the cattle at Mount Vernon were as mixed a lot as could be found on any other plantation of the period.
Following the Revolutionary War, there appear to have been somewhere between 300 and 350 head of cattle at Mount Vernon at any given time. In the fall of 1785, George Washington undertook the task of counting his livestock. According to his figures, there were 346 cattle, of all types, on his five farms, including bulls, draught oxen, steers, cows, heifers, and calves. It’s believed Washington preferred representatives of the Red Devon breed, which were commonly referred to as "Ruby Reds."
Over the course of many years, Washington attempted to improve his cattle, with the goal of increasing dairy production, but he does not seem to have been terribly successful.
According to one early visitor to Mount Vernon, "All this is quite new to Virginia, where there are neither barns nor provision for cattle."2 The Frenchman had obviously discussed animal husbandry with his host and related that one of Washington's primary goals in adopting his method of caring for livestock was "to set his country the example.”
The differences in cattle size between various regions of the country, which could be considerable, Washington attributed to local variation in the quality of both pastures and care. (It's estimated his cattle were less than half the size of present-day dairy cattle). As Washington himself explained to one foreign correspondent, he blamed the smaller size of American livestock, compared to those in Europe, on "deficient care in providing for their support." He went on to claim that where they were properly cared for, American animals "are not inferior to the best of their respective kinds which have been imported from England."
Watch this video to learn more about the "Ruby Red" Devon, a very important and versatile member of the plantation community at Mount Vernon.
There is evidence that dairying was undertaken on at least three of George Washington's five farms and that he had plans at one point to expand it to one more.
Always looking for new ways to create income for the plantation, Washington was eager to develop a working dairy. Soon after marrying Martha Custis, Washington began dairy operations in a small building near the Mansion, probably to supply milk, cream, and butter to plantation residents. Work reports show an active dairy at the Mansion House Farm, where certain slaves worked between two and six days a week, doing such chores as milking and churning butter.
In 2013, Mount Vernon archaeologists uncovered a small portion of this early dairy, which Washington demolished in the 1770s to make way for a new kitchen and servants' hall.
In 1788, Washington was thinking much bigger, hoping to cash in on the growing populations of Alexandria and Georgetown. That spring he ordered his manager to construct a dairy at River Farm, to be followed by the construction of similar operations at Union and Dogue Run Farms, "to see if the Milk at each could not be turned to some account." For reasons unknown, all but the Dogue Run Farm dairy were constructed, yet Washington remained frustrated that his dairy's productivity continued to come up short.
This diagram illustrates the layout of the Mansion and its outbuildings prior to Washington's building campaign in the 1770s. The early dairy was located southwest of the Mansion.
This illustration overlays the original outbuildings (in blue and white) onto Mount Vernon's existing layout (red and white), designed and constructed by Washington in the 1770s.
Family purchases over the years help paint a picture of Mount Vernon’s dairy operations. Equipment purchased or manufactured on the estate for dairying included milk pans, milk pails (presumably for collecting the milk), wooden and stoneware churns, several sizes of firkins, kegs, and stoneware pots (capable of storing up to 40 or 50 pounds of butter), printers for marking butter, presses for making cheese, and lead cheese cases or boxes (probably used for storage so that mice, bugs, and other vermin could not get to it).
Fragments of some of these utensils have been recovered throughout the years by Mount Vernon’s archaeologists.
From their names—Kitty, Sinah, Anna, and Grace—the slaves from the dairy at the "Home House" were all female. In addition, all these women were dower slaves, meaning they belonged to Mrs. Washington and either they themselves or their parents came to the estate at the time of her marriage.
In addition to slaves, Washington also expected the wives of hired whites to supervise the dairy workers upon occasion. For instance, in 1797, when he was considering hiring a gardener, Washington mused that he would prefer a man who was single, but would not object to a married man with no more than two children if the fellow's wife would supervise his spinners and the operations of the small dairy near the Mansion.
Many years earlier, Washington made a similar arrangement which allowed for the wife of a hired worker to keep “her one-fourth part of what Butter she can make.”
Although depicted at the right, there are no records of Kitty’s appearance. Female laborers like Kitty wore coarse linen shifts—long, loose-fitting shirts— tucked into a skirt.
For the hired and indentured white servants at Mount Vernon, dairy products were available, but not nearly in the quantities used by the Washingtons and their guests in the "big house." In addition to salaries, the contracts drawn up when white servants were hired often specified food items their employer would provide for the upkeep of the servant and his family. For example, when James Bloxham was hired as the farm manager in 1786, George Washington agreed to lend “two Cows for Milk." Washington, therefore, was furnishing the raw materials for cream, butter, and cheese; Bloxham's family would provide the labor. It was clearly understood, however, that when the hired servant left Washington's employ, the cows stayed at Mount Vernon.
In stark contrast to the white population at Mount Vernon, slaves on the estate probably did not have ready access to any dairy products save buttermilk. George Washington mentioned in a letter to an English agronomist that slaves were generally fed cornbread, pickled herrings, the occasional meat, and buttermilk, which was the liquid left behind after churning butter.
The fact that the Mount Vernon slaves may not have received very many dairy products could actually have been something of a blessing. Medical studies have shown that a sizable percentage of adults living in sections of West Africa where the slave trade was conducted lack the enzymes necessary to digest cows' milk.3 According to one historian, the milk that was distributed to slaves on southern plantations probably went only to the very youngest children, whose bodies were still able to digest milk. There is no surviving evidence from Mount Vernon about lactose intolerance among Washington's adult slaves or to suggest that only children received milk, but these are strong possibilities.
Washington suspected both the slaves and hired whites associated with the dairies of pilfering the butter and milk. He directed, for example, to one of his managers that when there was too much work for Kitty to manage in the dairy at the Home House by herself, that Anna should help her, complaining that Kitty's daughter Sinah, "besides idling away half the day...never failed, I am well convinced, to take a pretty ample toll of both Milk and butter.”
Several years later, there seemed to be an even more serious situation involving the wife of William Stuart. As the white overseer at River Farm, Stuart was allowed to keep one-fourth of all the butter produced on the farm he directed, or its cash equivalent. Washington informed his estate manager that he wanted all the butter, except what Stuart needed for use by his family, brought to the Mansion House, and it would be taken to market from there. The overseer would then be given his quarter of the profit from the sale.
This change was instituted because Washington had learned that Stuart's wife was supplying butter to a tavern in Alexandria and that the couple might be stealing: "...I have no doubt of Mrs. Stuarts [sic] having furnished Butter for McKnight's Tavern, and if the quantity bears any proportion to what is asserted in the paper...it has been fraudulently done.”
For the Washington family and their guests, dairy products were undoubtedly considered a necessity and were served in some form every day.
Consumption of these foods began first thing in the morning. According to Martha Washington's grandchildren, George Washington's typical breakfast consisted of three hoecakes, which he ate "swimming in butter and honey" and three cups of tea "without cream." (The fact that the caveat "without cream" was added suggests that Washington's practice was contrary to the norm.)
There was some variation, however, on days when he planned to go hunting right after breakfast. On those occasions, he ate only "an Indian-corn cake and a bowl of milk..."
The main meal of the day, dinner, was eaten in mid-afternoon and would hardly have been complete without the products of the dairy. For dessert, ice cream was a particular favorite for the Washingtons, evidenced by the assortment of ice cream-related equipment and dishes they owned.
Dairy products were eaten again sometime after dinner. Because the Washingtons rarely ate supper, at least in their later years, their last meal each day was tea, served "at sunset in summer and at candlelight in winter."4
Aside from drinking tea, with its accompanying cream, it was customary in the 18th century to eat bread, butter, and little "cakes" or cookies at tea. A tantalizingly brief reference, left by Martha Washington's grandson, indicates that the family probably followed the usual custom in this regard.
Among the foods customarily added to a large tea would be various meats and cheeses. A cream pail and cream ladle, ordered by George Washington from England, are among the objects in Mount Vernon's collection.
These may well have been used in serving the family's evening tea and, once again, are an example of the sort of costly equipment associated with the service of dairy products in an upper-class household.
How successful were the dairying operations at Mount Vernon? Enough of a surplus existed occasionally for the estate to sell butter to people in the neighborhood.
During the presidency for instance, Martha Washington wrote to her niece, Fanny Bassett Washington, who was managing the domestic affairs at Mount Vernon in her absence, about the disposition of surplus butter: "...this fine wet summer I should think there must be a great quantity of Butter made--which might be sold to bye [sic] such necessaries as one wanted about the House—as it will be needless to put up a large quantity for winter," since the president's immediate family would be staying in Philadelphia.5
Despite this happy picture, however, there were many more times when butter had to be purchased for the plantation. As Washington complained just four days before his death: "...It is hoped, and will be expected, that more effectual measures will be pursued to make butter another year; for it is almost beyond belief, that from 101 Cows actually reported on a late enumeration of the Cattle, that I am obliged to buy butter for the use of my family."
In May, weekend visitors to Mount Vernon can observe the Historic Trades staff making dairy products using 18th-century methods and period tools. At the Pioneer Farm, demonstrators produce goods such as:
Produced on a much smaller scale than in Washington’s time, butter is made today at Mount Vernon using a small ceramic churn. As the heavy cream is agitated, it begins to solidify. Historic Trades Manager Sara Marie Massee explains, “The fat molecules that are in the cream are surrounded by protein barriers. Fat wants to stick to itself, but it can’t do that because it’s surrounded by these barriers. So the agitation is basically breaking up those protein barriers so that the fat molecules can combine.”
Eighteenth-century butter was often salted in order to preserve it. In fact, many recipes from that period that used butter suggested rinsing the salt from the butter in order to make it palatable. With the benefit of modern freezers, however, the Trades team can store away unsalted butter to be used in other cooking demonstrations throughout the year.
Making butter in the 18th century wasn't so different from today. Watch as Mount Vernon's historic interpreters demonstrate the process.
Most of the cheese made at Mount Vernon during Washington’s time would’ve been hard cheese, as it stays preserved the longest. This required a press in order to remove as much liquid from the cheese as possible. Rubbing salt on the exterior of the cheese would develop a rind, further preserving the wheel.
For cooking demonstrations, the Trades team produces soft cheese. “They probably did produce soft cheese at Washington’s dairies, but it’s not something that was recorded on a regular basis because it didn’t end up in inventory,” Massee explains. “Things that are stored would have been recorded. Things that needed to be used immediately, such as soft cheese, would not have been.”
Cheese at Mount Vernon would likely have been made using rennet, an enzyme produced in the stomachs of animals. Milk was brought to “blood warm” temperature, then either mixed with powdered calf stomach or run through a preserved calf stomach.
Today, the Trades team uses a modern rennet, which is derived from plants.
The amount of ice cream-related equipment owned by the Washingtons indicates it was a popular treat at Mount Vernon. With the aid of 18th-century cookbooks, the Trades team can demonstrate to visitors how ice cream was made in Washington’s time (seen below).
Mount Vernon's Samuel Murphy demonstrates the process of making a favorite Washington family dessert—ice cream.
1. Noël Hume, Audrey. Food. United States: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1978. pp. 49-50.
2. Brissot de Warville, Jacques-Pierre. New Travels in the United States of America, Performed in 1788. New York: A. M. Kelley, 1970. pp. 237-239.
3. Savitt, Todd Lee. Medicine and Slavery: The Diseases and Health Care of Blacks in Antebellum Virginia. Blacks in the New World. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978. pp. 45-46.
4. Nelly Custis Lewis to Elizabeth Bordley Gibson, 2/23/1823.
5. M.W. to Fanny Bassett Washington, 8/4/1793.
Adapted from research by Mary V. Thompson (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)