George Washington once wrote of Mount Vernon that the ten miles of shoreline at his estate were “one entire fishery.” The Potomac River, he boasted, was “well supplied with various kinds of fish at all seasons of the year; and in the Spring with the greatest profusion of Shad, Herring, Bass, Carp, Perch, Sturgeon &ca.”1 Washington, of course, never expected the fishery to be his main source of income – he first intended to make his fortune on tobacco, and then on wheat and other grains when tobacco failed – but the river did become one of the many ways he turned the natural resources of his Mount Vernon estate into profit. Enslaved workers at the plantation caught hundreds of thousands of fish every year, especially herring and shad, which Washington sold both locally and internationally.
Washington’s development of his Potomac fisheries coincided with the downfall of Virginia’s tobacco market in the mid-eighteenth century. Tobacco required notably more labor than other crops, and Washington’s conversion to wheat in the mid-1760s resulted in a surplus of enslaved labor. He worked to diversify his sources of income, assigning his enslaved workers new tasks, such as spinning, weaving, blacksmithing, and fishing. The fishing venture in particular built upon Washington’s existing interests; he had grown up on the water and was certainly acquainted with the Potomac’s opportunities. Even in 1760, when Washington was still growing tobacco, he began testing the fishing grounds and wrote in his diary that he “hauled the Sein and got some fish,” seemingly by himself.2
Although Washington may have used the fisheries of the Potomac on his own and certainly enjoyed fishing for sport, large-scale fishing for economic benefit soon became additional work for his enslaved community. Washington’s enslaved workers were probably already familiar with the abundance of the Potomac – archeology has shown that they supplemented their rations considerably with wild species, both fish and game. However, for Washington, their goal was to catch impressive yields of herring and shad. Some of the catch Washington turned around and doled out as rations, he also sold as near as Alexandria and as far as the West Indies.
Commercial fishing was a seasonal job, conducted when the shad and herring ran in spring from April through May. For this reason, no enslaved person at Mount Vernon was a full-time fisherman, but rather labor was drawn from around the plantation. This meant that fishing brought together enslaved workers who did not usually work together, since they generally lived where they worked. Washington considered fishing to be especially important work, as it was one of the services for which he awarded extra rations of rum or other spirits.
To conduct commercial fishing, Washington ordered seine nets that were twelve feet in height and several hundred feet wide. Dropped in an arc by two men in a rowboat, the net formed a barrier that could trap thousands of fish, which enslaved people collected in baskets as teams onshore pulled the net in. Polish traveler Julian Niemcewicz, who visited Washington in 1798, “went out with the steward Anderson and some negroes to catch fish,” and noted that while the method of fishing was similar to the one used in Europe, the fish were smaller. (By twenty-first-century standards, Washington’s Potomac River was filled with enormous fish – six-foot sturgeon, and oysters up to 14” – but Niemcewicz did not note these.) Niemcewicz also commented on the racial division of the catch; the gar and one species of catfish, “which is black, is left for the blacks,” while the white catfish, perch, and “tobacco box” fish were considered fit for whites to eat.3
After the fish were caught, they needed to be cleaned and packed for preservation. Enslaved workers were required for these tasks as well, down to the construction of barrels for fish to be stored in. Contemporary preservation techniques meant that the fish would be gutted and packed in salt, tightly layered in barrels, head to tail and upside-down so salt filled the interior cavities. If packed correctly, herring could last up to a year, if not more, making it an ideal ration for enslaved people as well as a promising export. In his young days as master of Mount Vernon, Washington owned two vessels capable of navigating rivers and oceans for trade. One of these, a schooner with no recorded name, was built in 1765 at Mount Vernon by enslaved carpenters trained by John Askew. The schooner carried timber, grain, and other goods along the rivers of Virginia, and brought herring as far as Antigua. Washington also used the vessel for recreational fishing trips. In 1774, Washington acquired the brig Fairfax, a vessel that he had originally hired to ship flour from Mount Vernon. The captain, however, had failed to pay Washington, and a court order put the brig up for sale. Washington wrote in that year that he “had no desire of being concernd in Shipping,” having realized that seagoing vessels were too expensive to maintain himself, but nevertheless he bought the brig when no other buyers came forward. Renamed the Farmer, it carried fish and other goods to such destinations as Portugal and Jamaica, before Washington resold it in 1775.
Although Washington managed his own shipping for only a few years, the Potomac fisheries were an important source of revenue for the rest of his life. He held shares in other shipping vessels, and routinely sold his fish to merchants. Washington was also a careful businessman, trying his best to get the highest price. Even while president, he wrote from Philadelphia telling his manager William Pearce that he hoped to sell his surplus to Alexander Smith of Alexandria, but asked Pearce to enquire after better prices before committing to Smith’s, which were “very low.”4 While he was away he also had his manager help him rent out his “best” landing, modeling his business venture on that of his neighbor George Mason.5 Fish were clearly profitable; as early as 1772, Washington sold surplus herring and shad for 184 pounds and by 1797 sold them for 165. Through his different ventures, fisheries remained an annual source of income from Washington’s earliest years as master of Mount Vernon to the end of his life.
George Washington University
1. “George Washington to Arthur Young, 12 December 1793,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-14-02-0337.
2. “[Diary entry: 3 January 1760],” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-01-02-0005-0001-0003.
3. Julian Niemcewicz, Under the Vine and Fig Tree: Travels Through America in 1797-1799, ed. Metchie J. E. Budka (Elizabeth, NJ: Grassmann Publishing Company, 1965), 106.
4. “George Washington to William Pearce, 23 March 1794,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-15-02-0334.
5. “From George Washington to Anthony Whitting, 14 November 1792,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-11-02-0217.
Pogue, Dennis J. Founding Spirits: George Washington and the Beginning of the American Whiskey Industry. Buena vista, VA: Harbour Books, 2011.
Pogue, Dennis J. “Interpreting the Dimensions of Daily Life for the Slaves Living at the President’s House and at Mount Vernon.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 129, no. 4 (October 2005): 433-443.
Leach, Donald B. “George Washington: Waterman-Fisherman, 1760-1799.” Yearbook of the Historical Society of Fairfax County 28 (2001-2002): 1-28.
Wharton, James. “Washington’s Fisheries at Mount Vernon.” The Commonwealth (August 1952): 11-13, 44.