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Take a peek inside the world of Mount Vernon's Research Historian Mary V. Thompson.

Although Mary Thompson’s office is located on the ground floor of the Washington Library at Mount Vernon, it contains an impressive collection in its own right—books about all aspects of the Washingtons’ lives and legacies, and the people and events that impacted them. As Mount Vernon’s research historian, Mary uses these books to supplement primary sources and answer the queries she receives daily from students, educators, and the media. Questions like, “What do you know about Washington’s executive orders?” or “How did the Washingtons celebrate Easter?” The work she has done in her two decades here has led to new discoveries about Mount Vernon, George and Martha Washington, as well as the estate’s enslaved community.

Mary V. Thompson. (MVLA)
Mary V. Thompson. (MVLA)

Before she arrived at Mount Vernon, Mary confesses, “I thought George Washington was boring. He’d been dead for almost 200 years, and I assumed everything that anyone would want to write about [him] would have been done. But it hadn’t.”

Through studying George Washington’s financial records, for example, Mary discovered Washington paid 18 shillings to a man who brought a camel to Mount Vernon for “a show” two days after Christmas in 1787. In response to an inquiry, Mary conducted research to explain the religious practices of George Washington. She uncovered so much information that the simple inquiry evolved into her first book, "In the Hands of a Good Providence": Religion in the Life of George Washington.

Mary’s next main focus was on the daily lives of enslaved people at Mount Vernon. Seeking to connect her findings to the present, she used records from George Washington and his grandchildren to trace the genealogy of enslaved families into the 19th century. As a result, she helped several descendants trace their lineage to Mount Vernon’s enslaved community and learn more about their ancestors. On one occasion, a woman called inquiring whether her ancestor was enslaved at Mount Vernon. When Mary confirmed the stories handed down in the woman’s family, it had a profound impact, “She started crying and couldn’t stop ... she had to get off the phone and called back a couple days later when she was strong enough to talk,” Mary recalled.

Another descendant, Zsun-nee Matema, reached out to Mary inquiring about her ancestry. Providentially, just two weeks prior, Mary had found a reference to Matema’s ancestor, Caroline Branham, an enslaved housemaid who worked at Mount Vernon and was inherited by George Washington Parke Custis. By comparing records, Mary was able to help Matema establish her lineage from the 1790s to the present.

Mary’s research eventually led to the publishing of her book “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret": George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon.

“Working on slavery has been very important ... telling the stories of the people that haven’t been told before is very special,” she said.

And now she knows that, afterward, there will be another still-unexplored topic for her to delve into.

Interview: "The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret"

Read an interview with Mary V. Thompson about her book detailing George Washington, slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon.

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Interview: "'In the Hands of a Good Providence': Religion in the Life of George Washington"

Mary V. Thompson discusses her book about George Washington's religious views and practices.

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