Slavery at George Washington's Mount Vernon
Lives Bound Together explores the personal stories of the people enslaved at Mount Vernon while providing insight into George Washington’s evolving opposition to slavery.
After their manumission in 1801, many people formerly enslaved by George Washington settled in free black communities near Mount Vernon.
In the following decades, they purchased land, planted crops, started businesses, formed churches, founded schools, created civic organizations, and helped freed and runaway slaves. Many of their descendants continue to live in the area today.
Even as they celebrated freedom, formerly enslaved people faced great challenges. Many had been separated from family members who remained enslaved. African Americans also encountered racism and discrimination in Virginia, as laws restricted the rights of free blacks in the state.
Bowls were passed down in the family of Loretta Carter Hanes (pictured below), a descendant of Sukey Bay and her daughter Rose Carter—both enslaved field workers at Mount Vernon’s River Farm who were emancipated by George Washington’s will. The family has long used blue-and-white tableware, a tradition they trace to their ancestors at Mount Vernon. Many fragments of blue-and-white ceramics have been unearthed in archaeological excavations of 18th-century Mount Vernon slave quarters.
Gum Springs was founded in 1833 by West Ford, a man who had been enslaved by Bushrod Washington (who had inherited Mount Vernon from his uncle George Washington in 1802). Ford was likely the son of either Bushrod, his father, or one of his brothers. The family emancipated Ford in 1806, and, in 1829, Bushrod bequeathed him a 160-acre tract of land. Ford sold this property and used the money to purchase 214 acres adjacent to Mount Vernon, near a stand of gum trees and a spring that gave the place its name.
Charles Henry Quander founded the community of Spring Bank when he purchased 88 acres of land between Alexandria and Gum Springs after the Civil War. The Quander family has deep ties to Maryland and Virginia, tracing their history to the 17th century. Nancy Carter, an enslaved woman at Mount Vernon, married into the Quander family after receiving her freedom by George Washington’s will.
Before George Washington died, he wrote in his will that after he and Martha died, he wanted the enslaved people that he owned to be freed. But did the enslaved people know they were to be freed?
Virginia law required that free African Americans register every three years to obtain a certificate of freedom proving they were not fugitive slaves. Without proper documentation, they risked being arrested and sold back into bondage. Registration records consisted of name, age, a detailed physical description, and a report of how the individual became free (whether by birth or manumission).
William Anderson is a mulatto man, about 30 years old, 5 feet 10 1/2 inches tall, with smallpox marks on his face. He was emancipated by Sambo Anderson.
Many former Mount Vernon slaves and their children appear in these records. The entries reveal that some people who were emancipated in Washington’s will were able to buy the freedom of enslaved family members owned by the Custis estate. Sambo Anderson purchased and then freed his daughter Charity, his grandchildren William and Eliza, and Eliza’s children James, William, and John.
A few free people continued to live on the Mount Vernon property after being emancipated. For some, Mount Vernon was the only home they had ever known. Others stayed because they were elderly or disabled and had nowhere else to go. Per the terms of his will, Washington’s executors provided financial assistance for those unable to support themselves.
William Lee, Washington’s longtime valet, had severely injured both of his knees in the 1780s and had limited mobility. In his will, Washington freed Lee immediately and provided him an annual allowance of $30. The aging man continued to live in his old quarters and shared memories with Revolutionary War veterans who visited Mount Vernon.
Frank Lee, William’s brother and former Mount Vernon butler, also stayed on the estate as a free man. He may have wanted to be close to his wife and two children who remained enslaved at nearby Woodlawn plantation. When Frank Lee died in 1821, his obituary appeared in the Alexandria Gazette.
Sambo Anderson, a formerly enslaved carpenter, lived in a cabin on River Farm until his death in 1845. He made a living by hunting wild animals and selling them to local residents and hotels. In 1812, his son Ralph (who was owned by the Custis estate and therefore not been freed) escaped from one of the Peter properties in Maryland. A newspaper advertisement suggested that he may have sought refuge with his father at Mount Vernon. Later, Anderson was able to use his earnings to purchase the freedom of several enslaved family members.
In 1835, a group of twelve people formerly enslaved at Mount Vernon and their children returned to the estate to assist with landscaping around George Washington’s new tomb. They had all been emancipated by Washington’s will or were born free after his death.
According to a local newspaper reporter, they stated that “they had offered their services…as the only return in their power to make to the remains” of Washington.
The reporter continued, “I trust their names will not be forgotten,” recording them as: Sambo Anderson, William Anderson, Berkley Clark, William Hayes, Dick Jasper, Morris Jasper, George Lear, William Moss, Joe Richardson, Levi Richardson, Joseph Smith, and Nancy Quander.Learn More About Washington's Tomb
Nancy was eleven years old in 1799, when George Washington made a list of all the enslaved people on his plantation.
She lived on River Farm with her mother, Suckey Bay, a field-worker. Nancy’s father, an enslaved man with the last name of Carter, lived at the plantation of Washington’s closest neighbor, Abednego Adams.
Nancy had two siblings who also lived on River Farm. Because Suckey Bay belonged to George Washington directly, she and her children were among those freed in January 1801.
We only know snippets about Nancy’s life after freedom. Sometime in the next ten years, she married Charles Quander, a free black man from Maryland. The couple had three children.
Meet some of the descendants of Mount Vernon's enslaved population.
In 1799, there were 317 men, women, and children enslaved at Mount Vernon’s five farms, which covered 8,000 acres. They made up more than 90% of the estate's population.Learn More
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.