Gabriel Johnson was an enslaved man who spent most of his life on the Mount Vernon estate while John Augustine Washington III owned it. He continued to live on the Mount Vernon plantation after he gained his freedom in the 1860s.
Gabriel Johnson was born on August 30, 1820, on Blakeley Plantation in Jefferson County, a property owned by John Augustine Washington II, in present-day West Virginia.1 On December 22, 1837, Johnson was sent to the Mount Vernon estate by Jane Charlotte Blackburn Washington, widow of John Augustine Washington II, along with Willoughby, another enslaved man, with the hope that they would be “faithful & useful” to her son John Augustine Washington III. She described the two enslaved men as valuable servants, though their mistress noted that Johnson required a “strict tho kind discipline.”2
John Augustine Washington III became Gabriel Johnson’s master in December of 1837 and would be until Washington’s death in September 1861, during the Civil War. In order to maintain farming operations at Mount Vernon, Washington relied on his enslaved workers having their own children, rather than buying additional enslaved people to work on the plantation. In order to accomplish this, he bought potential spouses for his enslaved workers. The people born in the 1830s would later go on to work as enslaved field and household laborers at Mount Vernon. After Washington’s marriage to Nelly Selden in 1843, Washington bought an enslaved woman named Mary from one of Nelly’s relatives. Mary would later marry Gabriel Johnson, and the couple had at least one child, a daughter.3
During his time at Mount Vernon, Johnson sometimes resisted his enslavement. For example, on March 7, 1842, Washington informed his mother that Johnson “failed to return from a day’s work,” though he admitted that it seemed unlikely that Johnson was attempting to escape, since he had left his clothes and did not have any money.4 Washington claimed that Johnson had always shown “the greatest affection towards” him and that "no servant could have been treated with more kindness.”5 However, Johnson knew the road going back to the Blakeley Plantation, where he was born and raised and where his family was still living. On March 11, 1842, Jane Charlotte Washington reported to her son that Johnson had indeed gone home, in order to see his family.6 It was not unusual for enslaved people to visit their families on other plantation, although they typically did not remain away for an extended period, as Johnson did, and were often punished for their actions.7
Johnson’s trip to Blakeley Plantation was not his last act of resistance. In fact, Washington considered selling Johnson, but decided against it in favor of punishment in order to send a message to his other enslaved workers.8 Washington did, however, sell other defiant enslaved people, including his personal servant, Alfred, in the 1840s. Another possible explanation for why Washington did not sell Johnson was that he remained the property of Washington’s mother and did not have legal title to him. Another plausible reason may have been the fact that Washington and Johnson had grown up together on the Blakeley Plantation.9
Johnson’s most prominent form of resistance occurred in 1845. On Saturday, August 2, 1845, Johnson was sent by Washington's overseer, Joseph McFarland, to sell corn and bran that had been grown on the plantation. Hours later, McFarland found that Johnson still had not made his delivery. As McFarland approached him, Johnson became angry and began cursing and arguing with the overseer. Things escalated, and as McFarland reached for a whip to punish Johnson, who then ripped it from McFarland’s hand. Johnson ran away, only to be chased and caught by McFarland and four to five other men. Still defiant, Johnson told McFarland that he could not whip him because he was not his master and did not have permission to do so from Washington. As punishment, Johnson was sent to Bruin’s Slave Jail in nearby Alexandria.10
McFarland informed Washington of Johnson’s conduct and confinement in Bruin’s Slave Jail on August 3, 1845.11 The jail, which was run by Joseph Bruin and Henry P. Hill, typically housed enslaved people who would later be sold to slave traders further south, mainly to New Orleans. This practice became increasingly common as Virginia's tobacco economy declined and as cotton created a steady demand for enslaved workers across the Deep South.12 After 1830, Alexandria became known as a center of the domestic slave trade. Slave jails, such as Bruin's, were used to temporarily hold enslaved people, who were for sale or had recently been sold, until their new owners moved them. These jails also held enslaved people who ran away and were caught, as well as those whose owners were traveling and did not want to leave them unsupervised.13
On August 5, 1845, two days after the altercation with McFarland, Johnson dictated a letter to Hill, in which he gave his account of why he had been incarcerated.14 Johnson addressed Washington, asking if he could come to the jail to get him, declaring his love for the Washington family, and insisting that he would not embarrass or offend them if he could avoid it. Johnson denied any responsibility for his predicament. In Johnson’s account, he stated that McFarland “caught hold of my whip to strike me and I pulled it out of his hand and told him that he could not whip me, as I did not think any person but my master ought to do it, or at least to authorize it.” In response to this, “Mr. McFarland took hold of me and ordered me to cross my hands. I pulled loose and ran off when [he] and four or five others pursued and caught me and [then] brought me here.” Johnson remained in the jail for at least another two weeks before returning to Mount Vernon.15
Although Washington sold much of his property to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in 1858, he retained a portion of the land, on which Johnson and other enslaved people continued to work during the Civil War. Washington and his family left in 1860 shortly before the outbreak of war. During the war, enslaved people still living on what remained of Washington's land came to see themselves as free people. In the summer of 1862, with Union forces in control of Alexandria and eastern Fairfax County, Johnson harvested the corn crop on the property "as his own," while the Union Army took the wheat, oats, horses, and livestock. Johnson also defended what he saw as his property against the efforts of the local sheriff, Jonathan Roberts, to expel him from his house and to confiscate twenty-five cords of valuable wood that he had cut, along with $85 in cash. In protecting his property, one historian observes, Johnson “displayed a remarkable comprehension of contract relations and legal process.”16
After the war, Johnson continued to live on the land he saw as his own with his wife and daughter. It is unclear when Johnson died, but he lived at least until October 22, 1867, when he voted as a free man for the first time.17
George Mason University
1 John Augustine Washington’s 1852-1856 Diary. Digital Collections from the Washington Library. Accessed November 12, 2019. http://catalog.mountvernon.org/digital/collection/p16829coll25/id/245.
2 Jane C. Washington, Blakeley, to John Augustine Washington, 1837 December 22. Digital Collections from the Washington Library. Accessed November 12, 2019. http://catalog.mountvernon.org/digital/collection/p16829coll25/id/701/rec/1.
3 Scott E. Casper, Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon: The Forgotten History of an American Shrine (New York: Hill & Wang, 2009), 46.
4 Casper, Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon, 54; John Augustine Washington III, Mount Vernon, to Jane C. Washington, Charlestown, 1842 March 7. John Augustine Washington III Family Collection, 2018-SC-058-001. Special Collections at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. https://archives.mountvernon.org/repositories/3/archival_objects/14378 Accessed November 12, 2019.
5 “Mar 29, 2018 | Printed & Manuscript African Americana.” Swann Galleries News RSS. Accessed November 12, 2019. https://catalogue.swanngalleries.com/asp/fullCatalogue.asp?salelot=2471++++++10+&refno=++741802&saletype=.
6 Jane C. Washington to John Augustine Washington III, Mount Vernon, 1842 March 11. John Augustine Washington III Family Collection, 2018-SC-058-002. Special Collections at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. https://archives.mountvernon.org/repositories/3/archival_objects/14379 Accessed November 12, 2019.
7 Philip M. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 527-30.
8 Casper, Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon, 45-46.
9 Scott Casper, November 10, 2019, email communication with author.
10 Joseph McFarland, Mount Vernon, to John Augustine Washington III, 1845 August 3. John Augustine Washington III Family Collection, 2018-SC-058-003. Special Collections at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. https://archives.mountvernon.org/repositories/3/archival_objects/14381 Accessed November 12, 2019.
11 Joseph McFarland, Mount Vernon, to John Augustine Washington III, 1845 August 3. John Augustine Washington III Family Collection, 2018-SC-058-003. Special Collections at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. https://archives.mountvernon.org/repositories/3/archival_objects/14381 Accessed November 12, 2019.
12 “Bruin's Jail.” AfroVirginia. Accessed November 12, 2019. http://afrovirginia.org/items/show/67.
13 Turner, Ruth. “The Presence of Absence: A Conceptual Tour of African-American History in Baltimore.” Link no. 4 (April 30, 2000): 12. http://search.proquest.com/docview/229876037/.
14 Gabriel Johnson, Alexandria, to John Augustine Washington III, 1845 August 6. John Augustine Washington III family collection, 2018-SC-058-004. Special Collections at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. https://archives.mountvernon.org/repositories/3/archival_objects/14382 Accessed November 12, 2019.
15 “(Slavery and Abolition Mount Vernon.) [Washington, John Augustine.] Letter From Henry Hill, Noted Slave Dealer Regarding Washingtons.” Swann Galleries News RSS. Accessed November 12, 2019. https://catalogue.swanngalleries.com/auction-lot/(SLAVERY-AND-ABOLITION--MOUNT-VERNON.)-[WASHINGTON,-JOHN-AUG-2441 30 - 729434.
16 Casper, Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon: The Forgotten History of an American Shrine, 94-97.
17 Casper, Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon: The Forgotten History of an American Shrine, 109.
Bancroft, Frederic. Slave Trading in the Old South. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.
Casper, Scott E. Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon: The Forgotten History of an American Shrine. New York: Hill & Wang, 2009.
Morgan, Phillip M. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.