"A large Virginia estate," wrote Washington Irving in his biography of George Washington, "was a little empire. The mansion-house was the seat of government, with its numerous dependencies, such as kitchens, smokehouse, workshops and stables."1 Mount Vernon is a good example of this type of empire, and the orderly arrangement of its dependencies imparted a village-like character to the group of buildings around the mansion.
Subsidiary buildings housed many people and served a variety of essential purposes. Only a carefully developed plan could have subordinated them in such proximity to the main house and at the same time incorporate them as harmonious units of the group.
When George Washington began farming at Mount Vernon in 1758, the plantation had a work force of around twenty slaves. His marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis the following year increased the number to fifty working slaves above the age of sixteen. The earliest complete census of Mount Vernon slaves was drawn up by Washington in 1786. Listed were 216 men, women, and children. One hundred five slaves were owned by George Washington while the remaining 111 slaves were from the estate of Martha Washington's first husband, Daniel Parke Custis.
In July of 1799, the summer before he died, Washington drafted a final census in preparation for freeing his slaves under the terms of his will. By then the population had grown to 314. Of this number, 125 belonged to Washington and another 132 of the total were too sickly, young, or old to work.
Mount Vernon was essentially a self-contained community, nothing was purchased that could be produced on the estate. Most of the work done on the plantation was provided by slave labor. Many of the slaves lived and worked on the outlying farms, where they were engaged in a variety of agricultural tasks. The overseers in charge of several of the farms were themselves slaves. Around one-third of the working slaves were skilled craftsmen, including blacksmiths, carpenters, gardeners, shoemakers, painters, brickmakers, and herdsmen.
Other slaves worked as house servants or coachmen. Women at the Mansion House Farm served as spinners, weavers, and seamstresses as well as cooks, dairy maids, and house servants. There were also millers and coopers who lived and worked at the mill located about two miles from the mansion, as well as boatmen, who operated Washington's fishing industry and his river ferry. The spinning house was the most important structure on the north lane. At Mount Vernon ten or more slaves were constantly employed spinning and knitting. The wool and flax fiber that they worked with were grown on site.
A surviving account book records the work of Thomas Davis, a hired weaver at Mount Vernon from 1767 to 1771. In 1768, Davis was reported to have produced 815 yards of linen, 365 yards of woolen cloth, 144 yards of linsey (a combination of wool and linen), and 40 yards of cotton. The salt-house, located just behind the "Gardiners House," provided storage space for salt and other materials used by the fishery.2
The extensive fishing operation Washington carried on in the Potomac was an important source of additional revenue for Mount Vernon, and there were many years where the harvest from the river surpassed that of the crops cultivated on shore. Fishing was a seasonal activity. In the spring, when the shad and herring made their run up the river, much of the work force was engaged in netting them.
1. Washington Irving, Life of George Washington, Vol. 1 (New York: G.P. Putnam & Co., 1856), 287.
2. Book of Accounts, 1762 to 1784, of Lund Washington, overseer of Mount Vernon for General Washington, [microform]. 1762-1784. (Mount Vernon, VA: Mount Vernon Ladies' Association Library)
Dennis J. Pogue, "The Archaeology of Plantation Life: Another Perspective on George Washington's Mount Vernon," Virginia Cavalcade 41, no. 2, 1991: 74-83.