In November 1790, George Washington enclosed a thin strip of paper in a letter to his secretary Tobias Lear, who was setting up the new presidential household in Philadelphia. On it Washington wrote, “The whole length of this paper is the circumference of Giles cap measured at the bottom and on the inside . . . being the exact Band of the head. . . . To the black line drawn across the paper is the size of Paris’s cap.”1
Giles and Paris were Washington’s enslaved postilions, men who rode and drove the horses that pulled his carriage. Washington had noticed that their hats were wearing out and asked Lear to commission two “handsome” new caps, “with fuller and richer tassels at top than the old ones have.”2 These hats formed part of the white-and-red livery suits that Giles and Paris wore as they guided Washington’s coach, emblazoned with his coat of arms, through the busy streets of Philadelphia. Made of fine wool and decorated with woven tape (called livery lace), this distinctive uniform immediately identified Giles and Paris—and the other enslaved men who wore it—as the human property of George Washington.
The more senior of the two postilions, Giles had arrived at Mount Vernon in 1765 as the property of Lund Washington, the estate manager and a distant cousin of George Washington. The latter officially purchased Giles in 1771 for £76.3 Giles’s exact age is unknown, but he was at least twenty years old in 1771. Described at various times as a “house servant” and a coachman, Giles was also a trusted messenger, delivering letters to and from his master as far as Philadelphia and Williamsburg (each about 150 miles from Mount Vernon). Washington provided Giles with a small sum to cover his expenses on these multiday solo journeys.
Giles’s position meant that he accompanied Washington on several high-profile trips, seeing far more of the country than most slaves. In May 1787 Giles was one of three slaves who traveled with Washington to Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention. The others were Paris, the younger postilion, and William Lee, Washington’s valet. That summer, an observer recorded meeting “his Excellency General Washington taking a ride on horseback, only his coachman Giles with him.”4
Giles later returned to Philadelphia, by way of New York, as a postilion in Washington’s presidential household. He joined his owner’s tour of the southern states in the spring of 1791, driving the baggage wagon. At some point on the trip, Giles suffered an injury or illness that affected his ability to ride a horse. After returning from the trip in June 1791, Washington noted “the incapacity of Giles for a Postilion, who I believe will never be able to mount a horse again for that purpose.”5 Two months later, Martha Washington commented in a letter to her niece, “I am sorry for poor Giles, & fear he never will be well again.”6 Giles does not appear in any of Washington’s subsequent letters or accounts.
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, 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. References to The Papers of George Washington, Digital Edition are abbreviated as PGWDE throughout.
1. This strip of paper is now in the Mount Vernon collection (W-2079).
2. To Tobias Lear, Nov. 17, 1790,The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008).
3. Cash Accounts, Nov. 16, 1771, Papers of George Washington.
4. Jacob Cox Parsons, ed., Extracts from the Diary of Jacob Hiltzheimer, of Philadelphia, 1765–1798 (Philadelphia, Press of W.F. Fell, 1893), quoted in editorial note, Diary, July 3, 1787, Papers of George Washington.
5. To Tobias Lear, June 19, 1791, Papers of George Washington.
6. MW to Fanny Bassett Washington, Aug. 29, 1791, in Joseph E. Fields, Worthy Partner: The Papers of Martha Washington (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), 233.