James Donaldson was a Scottish craftsman who supervised enslaved carpenters at Mount Vernon between September 1794 and November 1795. Donaldson was not trained as either a carpenter or joiner. However, he was skilled at making farm implements such as plows, carts, and wheels, and also had experience crafting sashes and doors.
Despite Donaldson's lack of experience, George Washington thought he would be "sober and industrious" and set a good example for the enslaved carpenters at Mount Vernon.1 Donaldson arrived to work at Mount Vernon in the fall of 1794.
The articles of agreement signed on September 29, 1794, between Washington and Donaldson outlined that Donaldson was to receive a variety of materials annually in addition to his paid wages. These provisions included 400 pounds of pork, 200 pounds of beef, 1,000 herring, 200 shad, and 200 pounds of flour. Also, Donaldson was to receive twenty bushels of Indian meal or grinding flour valued at $120. The agreement also stipulated that Washington would pay for Donaldson and his family's move to Mount Vernon. Washington was also responsible for providing Donaldson tools, a house, and the use of a cow for milk for the family.2
Donaldson's labor agreement also mandated that he was to be supplied with bedding and "drink" and was expected to work from "the time it is light enough in the morning, until twilight in the evening (with proper allowance at his breakfast and dinner)." When Donaldson first arrived at Mount Vernon, Washington expressed doubts about his new hire's ability to supervise the enslaved carpenters.
In addition, Washington had concerns about Donaldson's family living among the enslaved community in the Greenhouse. Washington explained in a letter to farm manager William Pearce in November 1794 that "I did not expect much from James Donaldson as an Overlooker of my Carpenters, when I engaged him."3 Thereafter, however, Washington generally considered Donaldson to be a good worker. Donaldson left Washington's employ by August of 1797.
1. "George Washington to William Pearce, 2 November 1794,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-17-02-0089.
2. "Agreement with James Donaldson, 29 September 1794,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-16-02-0501.
3. "George Washington to William Pearce, 2 November 1794."