Caroline Branham was about 35 years old in 1799. She began her work before sunrise and finished after sundown each day.
A staff of enslaved butlers, housemaids, waiters, and cooks made the Washingtons’ lifestyle possible.
I beg you will make Caroline put all the things of every kind out to air and Brush and Clean all the places and rooms that they were in…
Frank Lee, Caroline Branham, Molly, Charlotte, and other enslaved people who worked in the mansion faced a relentless cycle of tasks: lighting fires, making beds, washing clothes and linens, polishing silver, sweeping and scrubbing floors, dusting furniture, and emptying chamber pots, among many other duties.
Their daily labor brought them into frequent contact with the home’s furnishings. Many objects in Mount Vernon’s collection were touched by enslaved people as much—if not more—than by the Washingtons themselves.
This metal bell belonged to Mount Vernon’s original house bell system, installed in the 1780s. A series of wires, cranks, and pins connected pulls in the dining room and bedrooms to bells affixed to an outside wall. The bell’s “ding” alerted enslaved laborers in the Mansion area that they were wanted. Those who worked in the house were always on call.Learn More
Some enslaved people had access to intimate details of the Washingtons’ daily lives. Valets, chamber maids, and nannies helped their masters and mistresses dress and bathe, arranged their hair, cleaned and mended their clothes, and delivered their messages. The Washingtons relied on this labor and grew attached to the servants they interacted with frequently. The feeling may not have been mutual. Several enslaved domestic workers tried to escape, including Martha’s maid Ona Judge (who succeeded) and George’s valet Christopher Sheels (who did not).
William Lee arrived at Mount Vernon in 1768, after Washington purchased him from a wealthy Virginia widow for 61 pounds and 15 shillings. Lee served as Washington’s vale for over twenty years, accompanying him everywhere. After severe knee injuries limited his mobility, Lee was reassigned to work as the estate’s shoemaker.
- Olney Winsor, Mount Vernon Visitor, 1788
The Washingtons relied on enslaved butlers, cooks, waiters, and housemaids to support their daily meals and frequent dinner parties. The family typically ate two substantial meals per day—breakfast at 7 a.m. and dinner at 3 p.m. Tea or coffee sometimes followed in the early evening.
At Mount Vernon, enslaved butler Frank Lee supervised preparations for the Washingtons’ meals, sometimes in conjunction with a hired white housekeeper. Lee ensured that the enslaved waiters and housemaids set the table properly with an elaborate array of porcelain dishes, glasses, silverware, and decorative ornaments. When the cooks had finished preparing the food, waiters carefully transported heavy platters from the detached kitchen to the dining room.
During the meal, waiters in white-and-red livery suits stood silently against the walls, ready to refill wine glasses or pass serving dishes. When the diners had finished, Frank Lee oversaw as the waiters and housemaids cleared the table, shook out table linens, swept up crumbs, took dishes to be washed by the cook’s assistant, polished silver, and returned tableware to storage.
As butler, Frank Lee was often the first person visitors to the Mount Vernon Mansion encountered. Described as “portly, polite, and most accomplished,” he played a vital role in managing the household. On the inventory of the Mansion taken after Washington’s death, the pantry near the dining room was called “the closet under Frank’s direction.”
The Washingtons used Mount Vernon’s piazza as an outdoor parlor in the hot summer months. To transform the space, enslaved workers moved a table from the house onto the piazza’s flagstone floor. They also carried out the hot water urn and tableware for coffee or tea.
Slavery made the Washingtons’ famous hospitality possible. After retiring from the presidency, George Washington hosted more than 650 overnight stays in one year. Visitors meant extra duties for enslaved cooks, waiters, housemaids, and grooms. English architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe visited in July 1796. His diary entries suggest the many tasks the estate’s enslaved workers performed.
Though not an invited guest, Latrobe brought a letter of introduction from George Washington’s nephew Bushrod. He probably handed it to the butler, Frank Lee.
Enslaved cooks Hercules and Lucy prepared the meal. Frank Lee, along with waiters Marcus and Christopher Sheels, served the family and guests at the table.
Latrobe made several sketches of the Washingtons enjoying coffee on the piazza. One shows an enslaved man, possibly Frank Lee, standing behind the table. This figure is missing from Latrobe’s final watercolor of the scene.
A housemaid, possibly Caroline Branham or Charlotte, prepared Latrobe’s room, ensuring the bed had fresh linens, filling a jug with clean water for washing, and if needed, emptying his chamber pot the next morning.
Cyrus or Wilson, Mount Vernon’s grooms, likely cared for Latrobe’s horses, boarding them in the stable overnight and bringing them back to the house for his departure.
Cooking in Mount Vernon’s kitchen was hot, smoky, demanding, and skilled work. Enslaved cooks like Doll, Hercules, Nathan, and Lucy, arose at four each morning to light the fire in the oven and prepare for the meals to be served in the Mansion. Their duties could continue well into the evening. The Washingtons placed great trust in their cooks, whose talent was evident in visitors’ descriptions of sumptuous meals.
Under Martha Washington’s supervision, cooks planned menus and selected ingredients for each day’s meals. Enslaved laborers on the estate grew and harvested most of the Washingtons’ food: wheat and corn from the fields, fresh vegetables from the garden, fruit from the orchards, fish caught in the Potomac, and smoked ham from hogs raised on site. Imported luxuries like tea, coffee, chocolate, olives, oranges, and wine supplemented homegrown ingredients.
Their role in the kitchen allowed enslaved cooks to shape the tastes of the household—and the region. Many iconic southern dishes bear the influence of West African cuisine, from stews like gumbo to ingredients like okra, sweet potatoes, peanuts, and collard greens.
Purchase, 1939 [W-1057]
Doll was 38 years old when she arrived at Mount Vernon in 1759 as part of Martha Washington “dower” share of her first husband’s estate. She served as the Washingtons’ cook until the 1780s, preparing countless meals for the family and their guests.
As chef at the executive residence in Philadelphia, Hercules produced elaborate meals for the Washingtons, members of Congress, and foreign dignitaries. Described as a “celebrated artiste,” he became a well-known figure in the city. He escaped from Mount Vernon in 1797 and was never recaptured.
Cooks were expected to be in the kitchen by 4:30 a.m. to begin preparing the Washingtons' breakfast and often did not finish their work until 8:00 p.m.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.