A Case of Mistaken Identity
An 18th-century portrait, once thought to portray George Washington’s enslaved cook Hercules, yields new information—and new mysteries.
Hercules Posey (1747?-1812) was an enslaved cook for George Washington during the 1780s and 90s. A renowned chef during his lifetime, Hercules self-emancipated from Mount Vernon in 1797.
Hercules Posey was likely born sometime between 1747 and 1749.1 Before he became the property of George Washington, he was enslaved by Washington’s neighbor John Posey, who owned an adjoining plantation called Rover’s Delight. Whether Hercules had been born at Rover’s Delight or purchased from another plantation by Posey is unknown. However, based on 1770 tithable lists for the Mansion House Farm, Hercules had likely been serving as the pilot of a ferry that Posey operated across the Potomac.
Posey was indebted to Washington who had tried, unsuccessfully, to be repaid for some years. Even while seeking redress for his debt, Washington maintained a cordial relationship with John Posey, Posey’s first wife Martha, and their children.
In 1769, Washington called in a mortgage note he held against Posey because of rumors that Posey was going to sell his enjoined goods in Pensacola, Florida and pocket the money.2 Among the property Posey relinquished to Washington were twenty-six enslaved persons including Hercules, who was then about twenty years old. Although the exact date he began working in Mount Vernon’s kitchen is unknown, by 1786 he is listed in the slave census as a cook in the Mansion House.3
Hercules would have learned to cook as an apprentice under the older enslaved chefs, Doll and Nathan. He likely started out doing scullery work—peeling vegetables, plucking fowl, fetching water— and worked his way up to master chef, laboring sixteen-hour days to produce sophisticated feasts for his enslavers.
Hercules married Alice, a seamstress in the Mansion house. Alice, a dower slave owned by Martha Washington’s first husband’s estate, is referred to in Washington’s accounts as “lame.” The couple’s wedding date is unknown, but Alice gave birth to Hercules’ son Richmond in 1777.
Alice and Hercules also had two daughters, Delia and Eve. Eve was born in 1782 and was later listed as a “dwarf” in Washington’s 1799 slave census at Mount Vernon.4 The hired white midwife Susannah “Soukey” Bishop was paid 10 shillings to attend Alice at the birth of both of her daughters.5 Because Alice was Martha Washington’s dower property, her children also belonged to Martha Washington while their father, Hercules, belonged to George Washington.
Hercules, Alice, and their children may have lived together in the House for Families near the Mansion House where they both worked. In January of 1787, Hercules was allowed to draw gunpowder from the plantation storehouse with the permission of Mrs. Washington.6 Sometimes enslaved men at Mount Vernon were allowed to hunt to supplement their rations but the occurrence was rare and only reserved for the trusted few lest they turn the firearm to the purpose of self-emancipation.
Alice died in 1787. Hercules was given three bottles of rum “to bury his wife.”7 The rum may have been used for mourners or as payment to the women who washed and prepared Alice’s body for burial.
Three years after Alice’s death, in the second year of Washington’s presidency, the capital relocated from New York City to Philadelphia. In November 1790, Washington summoned Hercules to cook diplomatic—and personal—meals for him in the President’s house.8,9 In Philadelphia, Hercules gained public renown. Known as an exacting and skilled cook, he produced elaborate, multi-course meals for Washington, politicians, and others.10
Washington’s step-grandson George Washington Parke Custis later wrote that Chef Hercules was a commanding presence who enjoyed fine clothes and the Early Federal Philadelphia social scene. While in Philadelphia, Hercules earned money, with Washington’s permission, by selling “slops” or leftovers from the kitchen. He earned a $200 yearly salary that was more than four times that of an overseer at Mount Vernon.11
While he had some limited leeway, Hercules remained the property of Washington and was not completely independent in his movements. He and the eight other enslaved persons in the President’s House were required to return to Virginia periodically. These trips were a crucial part of the Washingtons’ plan to keep their bound people enslaved. As advised by Attorney General Edmund Randolph, the First Couple “rotated” Hercules and the others out of Pennsylvania every six months to thwart the 1780 Gradual Abolition law that gave freedom to enslaved people who remained in the state for more than half a year.12 In 1791, however, Washington’s secretary Tobias Lear wrote to Washington that Hercules learned of this plan. Lear said that Hercules had approached him to express dismay that he was not trusted. According to Lear, Hercules pledged his loyalty and attachment to the family. Mrs. Washington allowed him to remain in the city.13
Had he so chosen, Hercules could have pressed his right to freedom at any time after that stay in 1791, yet he did not. However, the door to self-emancipation from Philadelphia closed when, on a trip to Mount Vernon with the Washington family in the summer of 1796, Hercules’ son Richmond was accused of stealing money from a white servant. Washington believed the theft was part of a plan by Richmond and his father to fund an escape. Fearful for the loss of his human property—particularly from the pro-abolition city of Philadelphia—Washington left Hercules at Mount Vernon when the household returned to the capital city.
Back at Mount Vernon, Hercules did not work in the kitchen any longer. He instead did a number of other tasks on the plantation including working alongside the enslaved steward Frank and footman Cyrus in the garden and digging clay for bricks.14 Trapped and likely enraged, the chef self-emancipated on February 22—Washington’s birthday—in 1797, while the President celebrated his last Birth Night Ball in Philadelphia.15
When Washington returned to Mount Vernon during the first week of March 1797, he promptly wrote to Lear that he wanted Hercules found and returned to Mount Vernon.16 Both Washington and Mrs. Washington lamented the loss of their cook long after he departed and to whomever would listen. In August of 1797, Martha Washington wrote to her youngest sister Elizabeth Dandridge Henley that she was “plaiged” [sic] by the loss of the cook.17
Washington wrote to Major George Lewis in November of 1797 that he was thinking of buying another enslaved cook even though he “had resolved never to become the master of another slave by purchase."18 He also continued to press his former steward Frederick Kitt, who still lived in Philadelphia, for news of Hercules. In January of 1798, Kitt wrote to the former president that while he believed Hercules was in the city it would be very difficult to find him.19 Washington wrote back asking Kitt, “to hire someone who is most likely to be acquainted with his haunts.”20
The future king of France Louis Phillipe visited Mount Vernon soon after Hercules’ departure and noted in his travel journal the mediocre quality of the meal in Hercules’ absence. While at Mount Vernon the royal spoke with one of Hercules’ daughters.21 He asked the child who, by her description as small, seems likely to be Eve whether she was sorry that her father had gone. “No sir,” she answered. “I’m very glad for he is free now.”22
Washington died in December of 1799, never having found Hercules Posey. He did emancipate Hercules and 122 others he personally enslaved in his will. Likely fearing for her safety among people whose freedom depended on her demise, Martha Washington signed a deed of manumission for Washington’s enslaved in December of 1800 to take effect in January 1801.
Hercules was only seen once more—in New York City by Mayor Richard Varick at the end of 1801. Varick wrote to Martha Washington about the sighting, but by then she had manumitted Washington’s enslaved people —including Hercules.
Following Martha Washington’s death in 1802, her own enslaved people were inherited by her grandchildren. This included Hercules’ three children with his wife Alice. The children were separated. Richmond went to Eliza. Delia and Eve went to Nelly. Nothing further is currently known about their lives.
Hercules lived in William Street at the edge of New York’s current financial district and on Orange Street, which is now Baxter street in the city’s Chinatown. Longworth’s City Directories for 1807, 1808, 1810, and 1812, indicate he worked alternatively as a laborer and as a cook, living in a neighborhood that formed a vibrant inter-racial community. He died in 1812 and was buried in the Second African Burying Ground in Chrystie Street.23
Author: Ramin Ganeshram, Westport Museum for History & Culture
Published: November 16, 2023
1. Hercules Posey’s New York City death record indicates that he was 65 at the time of his death in 1812, putting his birth at 1747. Accurate birth dates can often be found for enslaved persons born on Mount Vernon, particularly after Washington’s marriage, because precise record keeping was called for to keep George Washington’s property separate from the dower estate that his wife, Martha, inherited from her first husband Daniel Parke Custis. Posey was born on another plantation and so, like many other enslaved persons, his correct birthdate may not have been known, even to him.
2. PGW Colonial Series, vol. 8, 24 June 1767?–?25 December 1771, ed. W. W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig.
3. "1786 Mount Vernon Slave Census," Diaries of George Washington, vol. 4, Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds., (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press), pp. 277-83; George Washington, “Memorandum: List of Tithables,” [circa 6/14/1771], The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, 8:479 and 479n.
4. Washington’s Slave List, June 1799, Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-04-02-0405.
5. Lund Washington Account Books 1772-1786 Special Collections at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington Repository.
6. Mount Vernon Storehouse Account Book entry 2/1787 (Mount Vernon Ladies Association) Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington Repository.
7. Ibid entry 9/9/1787
8. George Washington to Tobias Lear, Baltimore, Maryland, 9/9/1790, The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 6:409.
9. George Washington to Tobias Lear, Mount Vernon, 9/17/1790, The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, 6:466 & 467n.
10. Letter, Theophilus Bradbury (Congressman from MA) to his daughter Harriet, December 26, 1795
11. See "Cash Account," Mount Vernon Farm Ledger, Jan. 1794-Dec. 1796 (Mount Vernon, VA: Mount Vernon Ladies' Association), 81; see also "Account with John Violet" and "Cash Account," Mount Vernon Farm Ledger, Jan. 1794-Dec. 1796 (bound photostat, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association), 109, 113.
12. “From George Washington to Tobias Lear, 12 April 1791,” The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol. 8, 22 March 1791?–?22 September 1791, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999, pp. 84–86.]
13. PGW Presidential Series, vol. 8, 22 March 1791?–?22 September 1791, ed. Mark A. Mastromarino. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999, pp. 231–235.]
14. See Weekly Reports for "January 7, 14, 20, and 28, 1797, and February 11 and 25, 1797," in Mount Vernon Farm Accounts, January 7-September 10, 1797 (bound Photostat, Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon); and "Weekly Report for February 18, 1797," in Mount Vernon Weekly Reports, January 10, 1795- March 18, 1797 (bound photostat, Fred W. Smith National Library).
15. Weekly Report, 2/25/1797, in Mount Vernon Weekly Reports, Jan. 7, 1797-Sept. 10, 1797, .
16. "From George Washington to Tobias Lear, 10 March 1797," Founders Online, National Archives. Source: The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, vol. 1, 4 March 1797?–?30 December 1797, ed. W. W. Abbot (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998), 27–8.
17. Martha Washington, "Letter, Martha Washington to Elizabeth Dandridge Henley, August 20, 1797," Martha Washington Collection, Washington Presidential Library. http://catalog.mountvernon.org/digital/collection/p16829coll7/id/34/rec/5
18. Stephen Decatur, Jr., Private Affairs of George Washington (Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press, 1933), p. 296.
19. “To George Washington from Frederick Kitt, 15 January 1798,” Founders Online, National Archives,
20. “From George Washington to Frederick Kitt, 29 January 1798,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/06-02-02-0053. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, vol. 2, 2 January 1798?–?15 September 1798, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998, p. 60.]
21. Louis-Philippe, Diary of My Travels in America, translation by Stephen Becker (New York: Delacorte Press, 1977), p. 32;