Most of the enslaved community that worked at Mansion House Farm lived in the House for Families. The building was in existence from circa 1760 until it was demolished in late 1792 or early 1793. In 1786, there were 71 enslaved people living at Mansion House Farm out of a total of 217 enslaved people living on the entire Mount Vernon plantation. Those who lived at Mansion House Farm were usually assigned to work as cooks, butlers, housemaids, waiters, blacksmiths, carpenters, spinners, weavers, and other skilled trades.

The Edward Savage painting shows the House for Families

Archaeological analysis has illuminated much about the lives of those enslaved at Mount Vernon. Data from several sites has illustrated that enslaved people had a somewhat diverse diet. George Washington operated a fisher on the Potomac River as a commercial venture and, according to his writings, also utilized a portion of the annual spring catch as rations for his enslaved community. In addition, Washington's enslaved people were able to augment their rations of fish, cornmeal, and pork by hunting small wild game, fishing, and raising chickens. 

One of the rare contemporary accounts known to exist pertaining to the life of enslaved people at Mount Vernon was written by Julian Niemcewicz, a Polish visitor to Mount Vernon in 1798. Niemcewicz described the enslaved community's 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 enslaved people. 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 enslaved people's 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 enslaved people 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, 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 estate. In late 1792 or early 1793, this quarter probably was demolished and the inhabitants moved into new quarters located in wings attached to either side of the greenhouse.

 

Dennis J. Pogue, Ph.D.

 

Bibliography

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.

Thompson, Mary. "The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret": George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon. Charlottesville, Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 20019.

Wall, Charles C. George Washington: Citizen-Soldier. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1980.

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