Enslaved children received a formal work assignment between ages 11 and 14, depending on their physical abilities. Before that, they performed simple tasks like hauling buckets of water, gathering firewood, and watching younger siblings. They were not given the opportunity to attend school.
This 1830 watercolor by Martha Washington’s great-granddaughter depicts an enslaved girl at Arlington House. The child may be the daughter of one the Custis “dower” slaves, who were inherited by Mrs. Washington’s grandchildren after her death in 1802.
What's in a Name?
By the 1780s and 1790s, enslaved people at Mount Vernon were probably permitted to name their own children. Many babies were named for their mothers or fathers, such as William, the son of Kate and Will at Muddy Hole Farm. Naming traditions reinforced family identity, even as relatives faced temporary or permanent separation.
Many of the African ancestors of Mount Vernon’s enslaved people were stripped of their native names. Slave traders and slaveowners often assigned captives names that emphasized their status as slaves, drawing from diminutive versions of English names (Jack, Suckey), Greek and Roman mythology (Hercules, Neptune), or geographic locations (Bristol, London). Some captives maintained their African names privately as a form of resistance.
Explore the slavery database to see the range of names of Mount Vernon’s enslaved people.