In June 1796, George Washington sent instructions to his farm manager William Pearce for preparing the Mount Vernon Mansion for the family’s arrival from Philadelphia. He told Pearce to have the rooms in the servants’ hall cleaned and the beds put in order, to attach a lock on the door, and to “order Caroline, or whoever has the charge of those rooms, to suffer no person to sleep, or even to go into it, without express orders from her Mistress or myself.”1
Washington’s reference to the enslaved housemaid Caroline Branham illuminates the role she played in cleaning, maintaining, and protecting the rooms of the Mansion and its associated structures. Caroline, Molly, Charlotte, and other enslaved housemaids faced a relentless cycle of domestic work: lighting fires, making beds, washing clothes and linens, sweeping and scrubbing floors, and dusting furniture, among many other duties. George Washington expected them to be productive even when not performing household work. Branham was also a seamstress, sewing household linens and such clothing as shirts and shifts for her fellow enslaved workers.
The recollections of Hannah Taylor, a resident of Alexandria, provide an intimate glimpse of Branham’s role in the house. As a seven-year-old girl, Taylor accidentally fell asleep in Washington’s carriage when it was in Alexandria for repairs. She did not awaken until the carriage arrived at Mount Vernon, at which point it was late and stormy, prompting the Washingtons to insist that she stay the night (they sent an enslaved messenger to alert her parents). After dining with the family, Taylor told an interviewer years later, “Caroline Brannum, a colored maid . . . took her to a little room at the head of the stairway. She then brought a copper warming-pan, the first Hannah had ever seen, and ran it between the sheets of the bed, and produced a nightgown of Miss Nelly’s and put it on the little girl . . . . She was covered up and tucked in the feather bed, and Caroline left the candle burning until Hannah had gone to sleep.” The next morning, “Mrs. Washington told Caroline to have a brick heated and put in the coach, which was waiting at the door to take Hannah home to Alexandria.”2
Given the large number of visitors each year, Branham had many guests—not to mention the Washington family—for whom to fetch warming pans, light fires and candles, provide fresh jugs of water for washing, and empty chamber pots. One of her daily duties was lighting the fire in the Washingtons’ bedchamber each morning at dawn. On December 14, 1799, she entered the room to discover that George Washington was ill. Martha dispatched her to wake Washington’s secretary Tobias Lear, who sent for a doctor. Branham remained nearby throughout the day as Washington’s condition worsened. When he died late that evening, she was one of four enslaved people in the room.3
Caroline Branham was married to Peter Hardiman, an enslaved groom whom Washington rented for £12 per year from David Stuart, who had married the widow of Martha’s son, John (Jacky) Parke Custis.4 Though there was no guarantee they could stay together, Caroline and Peter benefited from Washington’s preference to keep enslaved families intact. In 1788 Washington wrote to Stuart that he was hiring Peter that year “as well on acc[oun]t of my Jacks, Stud Horses, Mares, etc., as because he seems unwilling to part with his wife and Children.”5 By that time the couple had two children, two-year-old Wilson and one-year-old Rachel. They later had at least six more: Jemima, Leanthe, Polly, Peter, Austin, and Daniel.
After Martha Washington’s death in 1802, Caroline Branham and her children were inherited by George Washington Parke Custis, Martha Washington's grandson. Peter Hardiman was also inherited by Custis, allowing the family to stay together.6 Caroline Branham died in 1843 and is buried in the graveyard of Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia.7
Around 1806, while enslaved at Arlington House, Caroline gave birth to another daughter, Lucy. One nineteenth-century author who knew Lucy noted that “it was generally believed that Lucy…was the daughter of George [Washington] Parke Custis and Caroline. She bore a very strong resemblance to his daughter, Mary Custis.”8 Custis sold Lucy—whose married surname was Harrison—and her children with the understanding that they be freed. Quaker merchant Robert H. Miller freed Lucy Harrison and her infant son in 1846.9
At some point, Lucy Harrison gained possession of a Windsor chair said to be from Mount Vernon. In 1890, she sold the chair to Phoebe Apperson Hearst, who donated it to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. It remains in the collection today.
George Washington's Mount Vernon
If not specifically cited, biographical and genealogical information about enslaved people has been drawn from Washington’s 1786 and 1799 slave lists: George Washington, Diary, Feb. 18, 1786, and “Washington’s Slave List,” 1799, Founders Online, National Archives. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel, Edward G. Lengel, et al. (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008)]; the Mount Vernon slavery database, which compiles references to the estate’s enslaved people; and the files of Mary V. Thompson, Mount Vernon’s research historian.
1. George Washington to William Pearce, June 5, 1796, in The Writings of George Washington, from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745–1799, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick, (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1931–44), 35:79.
2. Mary G. Powell, The History of Old Alexandria, Virginia, From July 13, 1749, to May 24, 1861 (Richmond, VA: William Byrd Press, 1928), 76–78.
3. Tobias Lear, “The last illness and Death of General Washington, Journal Account,” Dec. 15, 1799, National Archives, Founders Online, [Original source: The Papers of George Washington].
4. Credit entries, Sept. 24, 1792 and July 2, 1793, Ledger Book 2, 1772–93, George Washington Papers, 1741–99, Series 5: Financial Papers, 1750–96, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, folios 345R, 368R (images 689, 735) memory.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/gwseries5.html; George Washington, entry for Aug. 18, 1797, Cash Memoranda, Sept. 29, 1794–Aug. 31, 1797 [photostats], vol. 29-A, Washington Library, from original manuscripts at John Carter Brown Library, Providence, RI, p. 30a; George Washington, entry for June 3, 1799, Cash Memoranda, Sept. 1, 1797–Dec. 3, 1799 [photostats], vol. 31-A, Washington Library, from original manuscripts at John Carter Brown Library, Providence, RI, p. 96.
5. George Washington to David Stuart, Jan. 22, 1788, Founders Online, National Archives, [Original source: The Papers of George Washington].
6. “List of the different Drafts of Negros” [ca. 1802], in scrapbook, box 34, Peter Family Archives, Washington Library.
7. Christ Church Burial Register, p. 91. Collection of Christ Church Alexandria, Virginia.
8. Mary Gregory Powell, “Scenes of Childhood,” reproduced in The Fireside Sentinel: The Alexandria Library, Lloyd House Newsletter, Volume IV, Number 1 (January 1990), 3-9.
9. Alexandria Deed Book, April 13, 1846 (H-3:203), cited on the Friends of the Freedmen’s Cemetery, accessed November 30, 2020, freedmenscemetery.org/resources/documents/manumissions.shtml.