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Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon explores the personal stories of the people enslaved at Mount Vernon while providing insight into George Washington’s evolving opposition to slavery.

This exhibit first opened to the public in October of 2016 after years of research. Mount Vernon is now happy to share much of the contents of the exhibit online. Experiencing the exhibit in its physical space is very moving and impactful in a way a website is not. However, we wanted to share with as many people as possible the stories of the individuals who were enslaved here at Mount Vernon. 

Slavery in the 18th Century

Slavery was an integral part of George Washington's world. Like his elite contemporaries, Washington participated in a global commercial system in which the slave trade and enslaved labor played a key part.

18th Century Atlantic Economy

The transatlantic slave trade began to flourish in the 16th century. It quickly became a major enterprise for Portuguese, British, Spanish, French, and Dutch traders. They established posts along the African coast and allied with local leaders to capture people from the interior, often the victims of war and political conflict. European slave traders provided guns, cloth, and other manufactured goods in exchange for captives.

These enslaved men, women, and children endured the brutal “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic Ocean. They were shackled and crammed into the hold of a ship alongside hundreds of others. Crowded conditions and inadequate hygiene facilities meant that disease and malnutrition were rampant. Many did not survive the nightmarish journey. Those who did were sold at ports in North America, the Caribbean, and South America.

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Tableware

The popularity of sugar and sweet beverages inspired a variety of associated tableware. The Washingtons used fashionable pieces to consume drinks like rum punch, coffee, tea, and chocolate—all sweetened with sugar. Enslaved household staff, like butler Frank Lee, prepared and served the beverages.

Tom

In 1766, after Tom attempted to run away, George Washington sold him to Saint Kitts in the West Indies. In return, Washington received 66 gallons of spirits (liquor), 10 pounds of sweetmeats (candied fruit), and several silver and gold coins. Tom probably ended up on a sugar plantation, known for especially brutal and dangerous working conditions.

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Slavery at Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon was the home of George Washington. It was also home to hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children who lived here under Washington’s control. He depended on their labor to build and maintain his household and plantation. They, in turn, found ways to survive in a world that denied their freedom.

The people enslaved on George Washington’s estate had little control over their lives. Their unpaid labor in Mount Vernon’s fields, workshops, and Mansion kept the estate running and supported the Washingtons’ elite lifestyle. Considered property by law, enslaved people had no legal rights and little personal autonomy. They could be sold or separated from family members at any time.

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Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon


Explores the personal stories of the people enslaved at Mount Vernon.

The Growth of Mount Vernon’s Enslaved Community

Over the course of George Washington’s life, at least 577 enslaved people lived and worked at Mount Vernon. The number of enslaved people at Mount Vernon grew steadily during Washington's residence from 1754 to 1799. As a young man, Washington purchased dozens of enslaved people. At times, he rented laborers temporarily from relatives and neighbors. Washington also inherited enslaved people from his parents and siblings.

When he married widow Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759, Washington gained control of a large number of men, women, and children from her first husband’s estate (though he did not legally own them). When women in bondage at Mount Vernon gave birth, their babies were also enslaved, increasing the population under Washington’s control.

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George Washington as a Slaveowner

As a young Virginia planter, Washington accepted slavery without apparent concern. But after the Revolutionary War, he began to feel burdened by his personal entanglement with slavery and uneasy about slavery’s effect on the nation. Throughout the 1780s and 1790s, Washington stated privately that he no longer wanted to be a slaveowner, that he did not want to buy and sell slaves or separate enslaved families, and that he supported a plan for gradual abolition in the United States.

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Timeline of Washington and Slavery at Mount Vernon

Explore key events in the lives of people enslaved at Mount Vernon as well as George Washington's public and private actions relating to slavery. Both are set in context with landmark moments in the history of the United States.

Explore the Timeline

William Lee

As George Washington’s enslaved valet during the Revolutionary War, William Lee rode beside the general and was responsible for his personal gear and camp equipment throughout the American Revolution. The two men developed a close relationship, and in 1799, Lee became the only enslaved person freed immediately by Washington’s will.

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Washington as President

After the American victory in the Revolution, George Washington repeatedly voiced opposition to slavery in personal correspondence. He privately noted his support for a gradual, legislative end to slavery, but as a public figure, he did not make abolition a cause. He was wary of overstepping his constitutional authority, violating slaveholders’ property rights, and igniting sectional conflict that would divide the young nation. He chose instead to focus on a solution to his personal entanglement with slavery.

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Ona Judge

Lady’s maid Ona Judge escaped from the presidential residence in Philadelphia in May 1796 and made her way to New Hampshire. Despite George and Martha Washington’s efforts to recapture her, she lived the rest of her life as a free woman.

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Martha Washington as a Slaveowner

Few of Martha Washington’s letters survive, so her feelings often remain elusive. Still, her actions suggest she did not question slavery as George Washington did. Her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, was one of the wealthiest planters in Virginia. When Custis died, his widow received life rights to one-third of his property, including 84 slaves. As property of the Custis estate, they could not legally be freed or sold, and were inherited by the Custis heirs upon Martha Washington’s death.

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Labor

George and Martha Washington's lives depended on the labor of Mount Vernon's enslaved community. They relied on enslaved butlers, cooks, waiters, and housemaids. There were also many enslaved men and women trained in specific trades. However, the majority of enslaved laborers at Mount Vernon performed agricultural work on the estate’s four outlying farms.

Labor in the Mansion

A staff of enslaved butlers, housemaids, waiters, and cooks made the Washingtons’ lifestyle possible. 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.

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A Day in the Life of an Enslaved Cook in 1799

Both enslaved men and women served as cooks at Mount Vernon and much was expected of them every day.

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Skilled Trades

In 1799, more than 50 enslaved men and women were trained in specific trades that kept parts of Mount Vernon’s operation self-sufficient. These individuals used their skills to make tools and textiles, care for livestock, process food, and construct and repair many of Mount Vernon’s buildings, including the Mansion itself. 

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Sambo Anderson

Sambo Anderson was captured as a child in Africa and taken to Virginia around 1750. At Mount Vernon, he served as a carpenter. After being freed by Washington’s will in 1801, Anderson continued to live on the estate and hunted to earn money. He was able to use his earnings to purchase the freedom of several enslaved relatives.

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Field Labor

The majority of enslaved people at Mount Vernon were assigned to agricultural work on the plantation’s four outlying farms. Under the supervision of overseers, field hands toiled from sunrise to sunset. They planted and harvested crops including tobacco, wheat, corn, vegetables, and grasses.

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A Day in the Life of an Enslaved Field Worker

George Washington expected his workforce to get as much done as possible every day, which could mean 14-hour days in the summer.

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Daily Life

The story of slavery at Mount Vernon is complex and painful. But it is also a story of strength, humanity, and hope. 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.

Plantation Structure

In 1799, Mount Vernon consisted of 8,000 acres divided into five farms, plus a gristmill and distillery. Enslaved men, women, and children lived on each farm The workers at Mansion House Farm were primarily domestic servants and craftsmen, while those on the outlying farms labored in the fields.

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Family Life

Families were often separated by miles. Field-workers could be assigned to any one of the five farms without regards to their wives, husbands, or children. So efforts had to be made to share whatever free time they could with loved ones. 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. When a member of the enslaved community died, the estate’s carpenters crafted a coffin. Close family members sometimes received a day off to mourn and prepare the body for burial. Funerals probably occurred at night, when more people could attend.

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Priscilla

Priscilla, a field worker, lived in a cabin at Dogue Run Farm. Joe, a ditcher, lived in the greenhouse slave quarter on Mansion House Farm. He could visit Priscilla and their six children on Sundays or holidays.

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Housing

The standard slave quarter on Mount Vernon’s five farms was a rough one-room log structure with a wooden chimney, measuring about 225 square feet. As many as eight people could be crowded into a single room. They slept on pallets or on the dirt floor. On Mansion House Farm, many enslaved house servants and craftsmen lived in larger barracks-style quarters. These structures provided efficient housing for the large number of laborers, primarily men, who worked near the Mansion.

The Return

These artifacts were excavated from the House for Families, a slave quarter used at Mount Vernon from the 1760s to 1792. For this series, the objects were photographed in the greenhouse slave quarter, which replaced the House for Families. The return of the artifacts to an 18th-century slave quarter provides a rare opportunity to see the objects in a context similar to where enslaved people originally used them. This segmented still life contemplates the artifacts individually, then together—in situ—so that people, spaces, and things are not distinct, abstract pieces of the past but together form the material culture of plantation slavery at Mount Vernon.

By Karen E. Price Photographer and Archaeologist, 2016

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Food

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.

Daily rations for an enslaved adult

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

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Clothing

Mount Vernon’s enslaved people usually had no choice but to wear clothing identifying them as slaves. Yet some did find ways to purchase or trade for other garments and accessories. For those who owned little (legally, not even themselves) these items could carry great meaning. Enslaved field workers like Priscilla received just one suit of clothes and a single pair of shoes per year, with one or two specialized articles for summer and winter. Because enslaved house servants were highly visible, Washington provided them more and better-quality clothing than field workers. Waiters like Christopher Sheels wore three-piece white-and-red livery suits, stockings, and black leather shoes with buckles.

Buckles

Archaeology at the site of the House for Families slave quarter has unearthed buckles, buttons, beads, watch fobs, and other objects of adornment that the dwelling’s residents left behind. Washington supplied ornamental buckles for enslaved household workers like Frank Lee and Austin to wear on their shoes and breeches. Field hands were provisioned shoes without buckles, perhaps prompting some to make or acquire their own.

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Community and Tradition

Maintaining customs and community allowed Mount Vernon’s enslaved people to affirm their humanity in a world that denied it. Music, storytelling, and religion provided an emotional outlet and carried on traditions—some from Africa and others forged in years of enslavement. In the life-altering moments of birth, illness, and death, the enslaved cared for each other and came together to celebrate and grieve.

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Caesar

An advertisement seeking Caesar, an enslaved field worker from Union Farm who had run away stated that he could read, write, and “frequently” preached to other blacks in the area. This description of Caesar as a minister provides a rare window into the religious lives of enslaved people. Though we lack the words of enslaved people, we can speculate that religion, heard through Caesar or other ministers, provided comfort as they faced the horrors of bondage.

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Slave Cemetery Survey

Little is known about the history of the sacred wooded area thought to be the resting place for dozens of African Americans. In 2014, archaeologists at Mount Vernon embarked on a multi-year archaeological survey of the site. Much work remains to be done before we can understand precisely how many individuals call this spot their final resting place, and where exactly in the burial ground they are located. However, this important project has already taught us much about the use of this space at Mount Vernon.

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Resistance and Punishment

Mount Vernon slaves found many ways to resist bondage and challenge George Washington’s authority. Resistance ranged from subtle behavior like pretending to be sick, working slowly, and stealing supplies, to more visible actions like fighting with overseers and running away. Though we don't have documentation from the enslaved peoples themselves, Washington’s records reveal how they resisted slavery in small but significant ways. Actions that Washington attributed to carelessness or laziness were more likely deliberate resistance by those weary of a system that profited from their unpaid labor.

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Continuing the Story: George Washington's Will

Washington addressed the issue of slavery in his will, when he ordered that his slaves be freed at his wife’s death. This emancipation provision was a powerful public statement of Washington’s antislavery views. Unfortunately, it applied to fewer than half of the people in bondage at Mount Vernon.

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A Community Divided

Mount Vernon’s enslaved community was divided several times over. The first division occurred when Martha Washington chose to free her late husband’s slaves early, 123 people, on January 1, 1801. The second division occurred after Martha Washington died on May 22, 1802. The enslaved people owned by the Custis estate—numbering about 150—were dispersed to her four grandchildren. Legally considered property, enslaved people had no control over their destination. Once again, many families were separated.

The Custis Heirs

The Custis heirs were the four children of John (Jacky) Parke Custis, Martha Washington’s son from her first marriage, who had died in 1781 at age 26. George and Martha Washington had helped raise the children after their father’s death. All four had close relationships with their grandmother and adopted grandfather and spent considerable time at Mount Vernon. As adults, they married and established their own estates in Virginia and the District of Columbia—the ultimate destinations of the enslaved people they inherited.

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From Slavery to Freedom

After their manumission in 1801, many former Mount Vernon slaves settled in free black communities nearby. 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.

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Nancy Quander

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 closet 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.

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Mount Vernon after 1799

After Martha Washington’s death in 1802, the property passed to her late husband’s heirs. Three generations of later Washington owners brought with them new communities of enslaved people. Slavery continued at Washington’s home until 1860, when the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association took possession of the property.

Like their 18th-century predecessors, West Ford, Jim Mitchell, Sarah Johnson, and hundreds of others endured forced labor and separation from family members. But Mount Vernon was no typical plantation. Those enslaved here encountered a steady stream of tourists making pilgrimages to George Washington’s home. And as Mount Vernon’s 19th-century owners encountered financial pressures, their enslaved laborers often suffered the consequences.

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Edmund Parker

In the summer of 1898, a Washington Post reporter visited Edmund Parker on his deathbed. For the previous fifteen years, Parker had worked for the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association as the guard at Washington’s tomb. Years earlier, he had been enslaved on the estate. Stricken with stomach cancer, the seventy-one-year-old spoke candidly about his life and journey from slavery to freedom, first as the property of a Washington heir and then in his role as a beloved employee of the historic preservation organization maintaining the estate.

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Researching Slavery

Most enslaved people never had an opportunity to learn reading or writing, so they left few written records of their own. At Mount Vernon we use Washington's words, combined with archaeology and oral history with descendants, to piece together the stories of Mount Vernon’s enslaved community.

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Slavery Database

To create this database, a team of Mount Vernon staff and volunteers spent more than two years analyzing Washington’s papers and compiling references to the enslaved people who lived and worked on his plantation.

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Oral Histories with Descendants


Descendants of those enslaved at Mount Vernon share their stories.

Archaeology at Mount Vernon

Archaeology has shaped our knowledge of Washington's world and those living in bondage at Mount Vernon. Archaeological excavation of the cellar trash pit of the House for Families slave quarter (used at Mansion House Farm from the 1760s to 1792) has revealed many artifacts that its residents owned and used.

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Interpretation of Slavery at Mount Vernon

The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association is committed to interpreting the lives of the enslaved people who lived and labored on George Washington's estate. While an open discussion of slavery has evolved gradually, the organization has made efforts throughout its history to preserve, interpret, and memorialize those who were enslaved at Mount Vernon.

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