James Butler was an Irish immigrant hired in December of 1792 as an overseer for Mansion House Farm at Mount Vernon. Butler was described by George Washington as being elderly and somewhat clumsy, though experienced with farming, grazing, horses, and livestock. Butler was assigned to live at quarters behind the Circle Storehouse.1 In a letter written a year later in 1793, Washington explained that Butler "may mean well," but had little authority over the enslaved people that he oversaw. Washington believed that Butler was "unable to get a proper days Work done."2
Butler was not married. Though he was literate Butler appears to have had difficulties upon leaving Mount Vernon. In a letter written to his farm manager, Washington indicated that Butler had left his employ by December of 1794: "The enclosed letter from old Butler shews his distress. I think you were perfectly right in detaining part of his wages for lost time; yet, as I can better afford to be without the money than he can, you may pay him for the full time he was at Mount Vernon."3
Butler must have asked for help again a few months later, leading Washington to write: "Enclosed you will find two letters, one from Smith, respecting the fishery at Union farm, and the other from old Butler. . .To the other I have given no answer; but would have you enquire from time to time into his real situation, and afford him such relief as his necessities shall appear to require."4
By May of 1795, Butler was teaching at the school for poor children in Alexandria, one of the causes George Washington supported. Despite the job, Butler wrote to Washington looking for financial assistance.5 Butler's difficulties seem to have continued into the next year and he kept looking to Washington for help. In March of 1796, Washington wrote his farm manager, "Enclosed is a Letter, and some certificates from Mr. Butler. Let the latter be given to him; and if his distresses are truly represented, given him five or Six dollars; or more if it appears that he merits them: But tell him at the sametime, his claim on me is no greater than any other; and therefore not to think of establishing it. And with respect to the school, I have nothing to do in providing Tutors for it." About six weeks later, on May 9, 1796, James Butler was paid one pound, ten shillings "as a Gift from the president."6
1. "George Washington to Anthony Whitting, 16 December 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-11-02-0315.
2. "George Washington to William Pearce, 18 December 1793,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-14-02-0356-0001.
3. "George Washington to William Pearce, 28 December 1794,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-17-02-0222.
4. "George Washington to William Pearce, 15 February 1795,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-17-02-0353.
5. "George Washington to William Pearce, 14 June 1795,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-18-02-0172.
6. Cash Account, Mount Vernon Farm Ledger, "January 1794-December 1796" (Mount Vernon Ladies Association), 73.