A Case of Mistaken Identity
An 18th-century portrait, once thought to portray George Washington’s enslaved cook Hercules, yields new information—and new mysteries.
Despite having been an enslaver for 56 years, George Washington struggled with the institution of slavery and wrote of his desire to end the practice. At the end of his life, Washington made the decision to free all of the enslaved people he owned in his 1799 will.
When Washington’s father Augustine died in 1743, George Washington inherited enslaved people at the early age of eleven. In his will, Augustine left his son the 280-acre family farm near Fredericksburg, Virginia. In addition, Washington was willed ten enslaved people. As a young adult, Washington purchased at least eight more enslaved people, including a carpenter named Kitt. Washington purchased more enslaved people in 1755, including four men, two women, and a child.
Of the 317 enslaved people living at Mount Vernon in 1799, a little less than half (123 people) were owned by George Washington himself. Another 153 enslaved people were owned by the Custis estate. When Martha Washington's first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, died without a will in 1757, she received a life interest in one-third of his estate, including enslaved people. Neither George nor Martha Washington could free these people by law and upon Martha’s death, these people reverted to the Custis estate and were divided among her grandchildren.
After marrying Martha Dandridge Custis in January of 1759, George Washington gained control of many more people. As the widow of a wealthy planter who died without a will in 1757, Martha’s share of the Custis estate brought eighty-four enslaved people under Washington's control. While they did not all come to Mount Vernon immediately, many would over the coming years.
The stark increase in the enslaved population at Mount Vernon at this time reflected similar trends in the region. When George Washington took control of the Mount Vernon property in 1754, the population of Fairfax County was around 6,500 people, of whom a little more than 1,800 or about 28% were enslaved people of African origin. The proportion of enslaved people in the population as a whole rose throughout the century; by the end of the American Revolution, over 40% of the people living in Fairfax County were enslaved.
Enslavers 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.
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.
Influences from both African and European religious practices can be found amongst Mount Vernon’s enslaved population. Some enslaved people at Mount Vernon participated with local, organized Christian congregations, to some degree. Also, Mount Vernon's enslaved community developed at least one spiritual leader from within their own community, named Caesar, according to a runaway slave advertisement from the spring of 1798.
Further, the enslaved population at Mount Vernon had contact with at least three other Christian denominations: Baptists, Methodists, and Quakers. There were also several remnants of religious traditions from Africa continuing to some degree at Mount Vernon, including both Vodoun and Islam.
Mount Vernon’s enslaved community took opportunities, when possible, to physically escape their enslavement. For example, during the American Revolution, seventeen members of the Mount Vernon enslaved population—fourteen men and three women—fled. Some left Mount Vernon on the British warship the HMS Savage anchored in the Potomac.
In other instances, members of the enslaved community either attempted to or were successful in their escape plans. These individuals included Washington’s personal assistant Christopher Sheels, whose plan to escape with his fiancée was thwarted; cook Hercules; and Martha Washington’s personal maid Ona Judge, both of whom escaped successfully.
Running away was a risky venture that often did not succeed. As a result, Mount Vernon’s enslaved population frequently resisted their bondage through a variety of methods while working on the plantation. Individuals utilized less noticeable methods of resistance, including feigning illness, working slowly, producing shoddy work, and misplacing or damaging tools and equipment. More active methods of protest included actions such as theft, arson, and sabotage of crops. Theft was a particularly frequent act of visible resistance. Over the years enslaved people at Mount Vernon were accused of stealing a wide variety of objects, including tools, fabrics, yam, raw wool, wine, rum, milk, butter, fruits, meats, corn, and potatoes.
Phillis Wheatley was brought to Boston from West Africa and enslaved at just seven years of age. Uncommon for practices at the time, Wheatley received instruction in subjects ranging from Greek, Latin, and poetry. By age twelve, Wheatley began writing poetry. By eighteen, she had become well-known for the publication of an elegy she wrote commemorating the death of a prominent preacher. In the winter of 1775, Wheatley sent Washington a letter containing an ode to the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. The poem concluded: "Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side, / Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide. / A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine, / With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine."
Washington responded kindly to Wheatley in a letter, the only known missive that he wrote to an enslaved individual, and even addressed the letter to "Miss Phillis," an unusually polite way for a member of the gentry to address an enslaved person. Although there is no proof that the two met in person, General Washington invited Wheatley in March 1776 to call on him at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Mount Vernon’s enslaved community usually worked a six-day week, with Sunday generally being the day off for most people on the plantation. In addition to their day's work assigned by the Washingtons, enslaved people had their own work such as tending chickens and garden plots, cooking, preserving the produce of gardens, and caring for clothing. With precious little free time and control over their own schedules, enslaved people at Mount Vernon attempted to exert some control over their personal lives. Some spent their free time socializing at Mount Vernon or neighboring plantations where friends, family, or spouses lived. Others used their time to rest, care for children, or possibly play games and sports. A visitor to Mount Vernon from Poland during the summer of 1798 recorded witnessing a group of about thirty people divided into two teams, playing a game he referred to as "prisoner's base," which involved "jumps and gambols.”
Washington wrote his will several months before his death in December 1799. In the document, Washington left directions for the eventual emancipation of enslaved people he owned after the passing of Martha Washington. Of the 317 enslaved people at Mount Vernon in 1799, 123 of the individuals were owned by George Washington and were eligible to be freed as per the terms of the will.
By law, neither George nor Martha Washington could free the people owned by the Custis estate. Upon Martha Washington’s death in 1802, these individuals were divided among the Custis grandchildren. By 1799, 153 of the people enslaved at Mount Vernon were part of this dower property.
In accordance with state law, George Washington stipulated in his will that elderly enslaved people or those who were too sick to work were to be supported by his estate in perpetuity. In December 1800, Martha Washington signed a deed of manumission for her deceased husband's enslaved people, a transaction that is recorded in the Fairfax County, Virginia, Court Records. They would finally be emancipated on January 1, 1801.