The standard rations enslaved people received were cornmeal and salted fish, which they harvested themselves.

These monotonous rations provided protein and carbohydrates but lacked essential nutrients and were not always sufficient for the demands of daily work. Enslaved people created variety in their diets by keeping gardens, raising poultry, foraging for plants, fishing, and trapping and hunting wild animals.

...one [peck], one gallon of maize per week; this makes one quart a day, and half as much for the children, with 20 herrings each per month.

–Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, Mount Vernon visitor, 1798

Washington believed that he provided his workforce an adequate amount of food (“as much as they can eat without waste and no more”). Enslaved people did not always agree. On one occasion in 1793, enslaved overseer Davy Gray informed Washington that the people on his farm “would often be without a mouthful for a day, and sometimes two days.” Sensitive to criticism that he did not feed his slaves enough, Washington agreed to increase the rations slightly.

Daily rations for an enslaved adult

1 quart cornmeal
5 to 8 ounces salted fish (usually shad or herring)

“Procure for themselves a few amenities”

In their limited personal time, enslaved people kept fruit and vegetable gardens, raised poultry, and foraged for wild plants. Some of this produce and meat supplemented their rations. They also sold items at the weekly market in Alexandria to earn small amounts of money. Washington himself purchased melons, honey, chickens, ducks, and other items from them.

Hunting

Enslaved people hunted, fished, and trapped wild animals to supplement their diets and to sell. Animal bones, excavated from the cellar of the House for Families slave quarter, reveal many different species, including deer, opossum, and turkeys.

Some enslaved men had access to guns for hunting. Tom Davis, a bricklayer, frequently hunted with his large Newfoundland dog named Gunner. On October 3, 1792, Washington paid Davis 7 shillings, 6 pence for six dozen birds. Gunflints and lead shot excavated from the House for Families confirm that the residents had access to guns.

Botanical Remains

Archaeology at the House for Families slave quarter unearthed remains from fruits and vegetables that enslaved people ate. They likely foraged peaches, cherries, and persimmons from Mount Vernon’s orchards or nearby woods. In personal gardens, they grew beans and cowpeas (a legume originating in Africa).

“A very small garden planted with vegetables was close by, with 5 or 6 hens, each one leading ten to fifteen chickens…They sell the poultry in Alexandria and procure for themselves a few amenities.”

– Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, Mount Vernon visitor, 1798

Personal Enterprise

An enslaved person may have earned this eighth of a Spanish coin by selling vegetables or poultry to George Washington or at the market in Alexandria. Spanish coins were accepted currency in colonial America. Partial values were created by literally cutting a circular coin into pieces.

Spanish Real, HVAC excavation, MVLA.

Fishing

This River...is well supplied with various kinds of fish at all seasons of the year; and in the Spring with the greatest profusion of Shad, Herring, Bass, Carp, Perch, Sturgeon...

-George Washington, 1793

Each spring, enslaved people used a large seine, or net, to haul hundreds of thousands of herring, shad, and other fish from the Potomac River. The fish were salted and packed into barrels. Some served as rations on the plantation. Washington sold the rest locally and internationally. Enslaved people also fished independently and harvested clams, oysters, and turtles from the river.

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Housing

Enslaved people at Mount Vernon lived in small cabins or larger barracks-style quarters.

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The content on this page was adapted from Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, an exhibition on view in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum & Education Center from 2016–2020.

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