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.

Negros are growing more & more insolent & difficult to govern…

--George Washington, 1798

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.

How did they resist?

FEIGNING ILLNESS

“I find Doll at the Ferry is constantly returned sick; the Overseer at that place ought to see that this sickness is not pretense.” –George Washington, 1794

Working slowly

“Muclas [spent] six days paving, & sanding the Cellar which a man in Philadelphia would have done in less than as many hours.” –George Washington, 1794

Theft

“I wish you could find out the thief who robbed the Meat house at Mount Vernon, and bring him to punishment. And at the same time secure the house against future attempts.” –George Washington, 1795

Breaking tools and supplies

“Enquire what is become of the Corn Tubs...It is a most shameful thing that conveniences of this sort which ought to last for years are suffered to go to destruction after once or twice using, & then new ones are to be provided.” –George Washington, 1793

Fear of Retribution

In 1786, Mount Vernon overseer James Bloxham wrote that he feared he was “rather in danger of being poisoned among” the enslaved workers on Washington’s plantation. We do not know if Bloxham’s fears were justified, but poisonings did occur elsewhere. In 1767, two enslaved men owned by George Mason, Washington’s friend and neighbor, were convicted of attempting to poison an overseer. They were executed and their heads displayed on the chimney of the Alexandria courthouse.

A Thirst for Freedom

Advertisement for the return of Ona Judge, Pennsylvania Gazette, May 24, 1796 (DAMS 9594), Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Advertisement for the return of Ona Judge, Pennsylvania Gazette, May 24, 1796 (DAMS 9594), Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

At least 47 enslaved people tried to run away from Mount Vernon or other lands belonging to Washington during his lifetime (about 7% of the total population). Most runaways were young men, but women tried to escape too. The majority left alone, but some fled in groups. The largest flight occurred in 1781, when 17 men and women escaped to the British warship Savage while it was anchored in the Potomac near Mount Vernon.

The Risks of Running Away

A thirst for compleat freedom...had been her only motive for absconding.

–JOSEPH WHIPPLE DESCRIBING ONa JUDGE, WHO RAN AWAY IN 1796

Most fugitives could not read or write and had few resources or connections to help them escape from Virginia. Without help, they risked dying from starvation or exposure as they traveled great distances on foot. Few destinations were truly safe, as slaveholders could legally reclaim their “property” at any time. If recaptured, fugitives faced severe punishments.

Yet a number of enslaved people were willing to take these risks. Some tried to run away multiple times. Many made the agonizing choice to leave spouses or children behind to improve their chances of success.

Caesar

An advertisement was placed in a newspaper on April 14, 1798, seeking Caesar, an enslaved fieldworker from Union Farm. He was described as a “black negro” with “a sharp aquiline nose” who stood about five feet seven or eight inches tall and was missing some of his front teeth.

This was not the first time that Caesar had left Mount Vernon without permission. Weekly farm reports note his absence for six days in February 1796, six days in January 1797, and three days in July 1797. It is unclear whether Caesar was captured each time or returned of his own accord. Any punishment he may have received for fleeing also went unrecorded. 

Learn About Caesar

“Ran away from the subscriber…”

If runaways evaded detection for several weeks, slaveowners often placed a notice in the newspaper with a detailed physical description and offer of a reward. George Washington advertised in the Maryland Gazette when four enslaved men—Peros, Jack, Neptune, and Cupid—ran away from Mount Vernon in August 1761. His description notes that the men were all native Africans and two could barely speak English. A year after their escape, three of them had been recaptured and were back at Mount Vernon.

Explore the Newspaper

Forms of Punishment

The threat of physical and psychological violence underpinned slavery.

if…any…of the Servants will not do their duty by fair means—or are impertinent, correction (as the only alternative) must be administered.

– George Washington, 1793

Slaveowners administered punishments to control their workforce. In his later years, George Washington believed that harsh and indiscriminate punishments could backfire and urged overseers to motivate workers with encouragement and rewards. Still, he approved of “correction” when those methods failed. Mount Vernon’s enslaved people endured a range of punishments depending on the alleged offense.

I am determined to lower her Spirit or skin her Back...

–ANTHONY WHITTING TO GEORGE WASHINGTON, 1793

In 1793, farm manager Anthony Whitting accused Charlotte, an enslaved seamstress, of being “impudent,” by arguing with him and refusing to work. As punishment, he whipped her with a hickory switch, a reprisal Washington deemed “very proper.” Charlotte’s response—that she had not been whipped for 14 years—suggests that physical punishment was sporadic, but not unheard of, at Mount Vernon. 

Demotion

A common punishment was demoting an enslaved person to a less desirable work assignment, such as sending a house slave or craftsman to work in the fields. In 1793 Washington instructed his farm manager to threaten Muclus, an enslaved bricklayer whose work ethic was called into question, with a transfer to farm labor. 

…if his pride is not a sufficient stimulus to excite him to industry have him severely punished and placed under one of the Overseers as a common hoe negro.

–GEORGE WASHINGTON, 1793

Whipping

Washington approved of whipping when he believed conduct warranted it. His secretary once noted, “no whipping is allowed without a regular complaint & the defendant found guilty of some bad deed,” the guilt being determined by Washington or an overseer. There are several documented incidents of enslaved people being whipped, or threatened with whipping, at Mount Vernon.

As to the Carpenters, I have minded em all I possibly could, and has whipt em when I could see a fault.

–OVERSEER HUMPHREY KNIGHT TO GEORGE WASHINGTON, 1758

Sale

Washington’s punishment of last resort was to sell enslaved people to other plantations, usually when they kept trying to run away. He sold at least three men to the West Indies: Tom in 1766, Will Shagg in 1772, and Jack in 1791. Even after stating his opposition to selling enslaved people, Washington did sell those he deemed troublesome. 

For Tom, Will, and Jack, being sold meant never seeing family or friends at Mount Vernon again. Given the treacherous conditions and high mortality rate on Caribbean sugar plantations, their sales may have been death sentences.

[Paid] for the passage of Negroe Jack sent…to the West Indies to be disposed of…

–George Washington’s Ledger, 1791

Community and Traditions

Maintaining customs and community allowed Mount Vernon’s enslaved people to affirm their humanity in a world that denied it.

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.

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