Austin was an enslaved man who worked as a waiter at George Washington's Mount Vernon. He was owned by the estate of Martha Washington's first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. Little remains in the historical record regarding Austin. However, a few events—a plan to keep him and his fellow workers enslaved, as well as an incident that led to his death—provides some perspective on his life.
The earliest references to Austin come from surviving family papers dealing with the estate of Daniel Parke Custis. In the inventory of Custis' property in New Kent County, Virginia from the fall of 1757, a woman named Betty was listed with her child Austin; the two were valued together at £60.1 They were mentioned again in a second list, drawn up about two years later, which spelled out the names and values of those owned by the Custis estate who were to be included in the one-third of the estate that his widow, Martha—now remarried to George Washington—had a life interest. Betty worked as a seamstress and lived on Mansion House Farm. Austin began working in the Mount Vernon mansion around 1774. Betty had two daughters, Ona Judge, born around 1774 Philadelphia in 1780. The girls' father was Andrew Judge, a white English tailor whom Washington hired from 1772 to 1784.
Other passing references to Austin exist in the record. Austin was inoculated as a means of protecting him from smallpox in September of 1776.3 One possible explanation for his inoculation was so he could accompany Martha Washington to her husband's winter encampments during the Revolution, where smallpox was a significant problem especially in the early years of the war.
By February of 1786 Austin, who was in his late twenties, was working with William Lee's brother Frank Lee as one of the enslaved "Waiters in the House."4 Much like William Lee, whose duties while enslaved included acting as Washington's huntsman, riding was a significant part of Austin’s duties. As early as the fall of 1777, when Austin was probably in his late teens, two pounds, eleven shillings, and six pence were expended to buy a saddle for him.5
Austin was one of several enslaved people taken to the executive mansions in New York and Philadelphia during George Washington's presidency.6 On April 5, 1791, Attorney General Edmund Randolph called on Martha Washington in the Philadelphia executive mansion to let her know that three of his enslaved people had just told him they were going to utilize a Pennsylvania law that allowed them to claim their freedom after six months of residence in that state.7 When informed about this development, George Washington suggested, as a precaution against his and Mrs. Washington's enslaved workers attempting a similar exodus, that they be sent out of the state. Washington was especially concerned because all but two of the enslaved individuals then with the family in Philadelphia were directly owned by the Custis estate.
Two weeks after Randolph's initial conversation with Martha Washington, Austin was sent to Mount Vernon, as Martha Washington explained to her niece, for the purpose of seeing his "friends."8 George Washington's secretary Tobias Lear later consulted with the Attorney General and fleshed out a more detailed plan to prevent any of the Mount Vernon enslaved community from being emancipated because of the Pennsylvania law in the future, but it differed little from the initial strategy devised by the president and first lady.9
It was on one of those trips to Mount Vernon that Austin met his tragic end. On December 17, 1794, Austin was given $20.00 to pay for "his expenses to & from Virginia."10 Three days later, a letter was sent from Havre de Grace, Maryland, to let the President know that Austin had encountered some type of trouble while trying to cross a river near Harford. Austin had been "with Great Difficulty...Dragged out of the water," and was "likely to Lose his Life."11 Soon after, Austin succumbed to those injuries, leaving behind his wife.
Mary V. Thompson
George Washington's Mount Vernon
1. "Worthy Partner": The Papers of Martha Washington, compiled by Joseph E. Fields (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994), 61.
2. "Herman Stump to George Washington, 20 December 1794" (manuscript, Washington Papers, Library of Congress; microfilm, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association).
3. "Cash Paid on Act. Of General Washington by L.W.," 2 September 1776, Lund Washington Account Book, 1774-1786, 54.
4. George Washington, "List of Slaves at Mount Vernon, 18 February 1786," The Diaries of George Washington, Vol. 4, 277.
5. "Cash paid on Acct. of General Washington," 8 October 1777, in Lund Washington Account Book, 1774-1786, 66.
6. "George Washington to Tobias Lear, 22 November 1790," The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, Vol. 6, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino (Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1996), 682.
7. "Tobias Lear to George Washington, 5 April 1791," The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, Vol. 8, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino (Charlottesville, Virginia, and London: University Press of Virginia, 1999), 67.
8. "Martha Washington to Fanny Bassett Washington, 19 April 1791," "Worthy Partner," 230. Austin was given $11.66 for the trip to Mount Vernon—passage to Baltimore in the stage cost $4.55, while the leg of the trip from Baltimore to Alexandria, required $4.00 for transportation and another $3.00 for other expenses, such as food and overnight lodging.
9. "Tobias Lear to George Washington, 24 April 1791," The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, Vol. 8, 131-2.
10. Philadelphia Household Account Book, 1793-1797, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography XXX, no. 3, (1906), 309-331.
11. Ibid., 47-48.