Most of the slaves that inhabited the Mansion House Farm lived in the House for Families (built by the 1760s), including sixty-seven of a total 216 living on the entire plantation in 1786. These slaves performed duties as house servants, blacksmiths, carpenters, spinners, weavers, and as other domestic retainers and craft workers. The majority of the remainder of the slaves were field hands and resided at the plantation's other four, outlying farms.
Archaeological analysis has illuminated much about slave life at Mount Vernon. Data from several sites has illustrated that slaves had a somewhat diverse diet. George Washington operated a Potomac River fishery as a commercial venture and, according to his writings, also utilized a portion of the annual spring catch as rations for his slave community. In addition, Washington's slaves were able to augment their rations of fish, cornmeal, and pork by hunting small wild game, fishing, and raising chickens. Hogs and pigs foraged freely in the wooded areas of the estate and of the numbers butchered in late autumn a portion was given to the slaves.
One of the rare contemporary accounts known to exist pertaining to slave life at Mount Vernon was written by Julian Niemcewicz, a Polish visitor to Mount Vernon in 1798. Niemcewicz described slave foodways in his writings, noting that: "A very small garden planted with vegetables was close by [the quarter], with 5 or 6 hens, each one leading ten to fifteen chickens. It is the only comfort that is permitted them; for they may not keep either ducks, geese, or pigs. They sell the poultry in Alexandria and procure for themselves a few amenities."
As a result of an intensive analysis of bone fragments, it is also possible to determine the size and age of the animals and the cuts of meat available to Mount Vernon's slaves. For example, the pork and beef bones recovered are small fragments and often less desirable cuts, suggesting one-pot stews instead of roasts. In addition, the more desirable species of fish from the Potomac River such as sturgeon and smallmouth and largemouth bass were not found in the cellar site. Therefore, the slaves' rations at Mount Vernon were of relatively low quality in comparison with that of the planter household.
The domestic items recovered include a wide variety of ceramics, table glass, table utensils, wine bottles, tools, and personal items such as tobacco pipes, buckles, and buttons. Most of these artifacts were probably passed down to the slaves from the main household, as they were typical objects that would be expected to derive from a planter household of middling to upper level wealth and status. While some of the items may have been stolen, and a few could have been purchased, the quantity suggests that most were given to the slaves for their use, probably after they had become worn, unfashionable, or broken.
As with all large southern plantations, enslaved labor served as the engine driving the complex, multi-functioning Mount Vernon community. In 1793, this quarter probably was demolished and the slaves moved into new quarters located in wings attached to either side of the greenhouse.
Dennis J. Pogue, Ph.D.
Kelso, William M. Kingsmill Plantations, 1619-1800: Archaeology of Country Life in Colonial Virginia. Orlando: Academic Press, 1984.
Niemcewicz, Julian U. Under Their Vine and Fig Tree, ed. M. Budka. Elizabeth, New Jersey: Grassman Publishing Company, 1965.
Sobel, Machel. The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in 18th-Century Virginia. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1987.
Wall, Charles C. George Washington: Citizen-Soldier. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1980.