In early July 1798 at Dogue Run Farm, thirty-five-year-old Priscilla gave birth to Christopher, her sixth living child.1 She did not resume working in the fields until five weeks later. Priscilla’s husband and Christopher’s father, Joe, was likely unable to see much of his newborn son. Like many enslaved couples at Mount Vernon, Priscilla and Joe lived separately.
George Washington recognized marriages between enslaved couples but nevertheless dictated that work assignments rather than family units determine their living arrangements. Joe worked at the Mansion House Farm as a ditcher and lived in the greenhouse slave quarter during the week.2 Priscilla was a field-worker and lived with their children in a cabin on Dogue Run Farm. Joe could visit his wife and children on Sundays and holidays. Sometimes Joe may have walked the four miles to Dogue Run after sunset, returning in time for work the next morning. Washington occasionally complained that his enslaved workers were fatigued from this practice of “nightwalking” to visit their families.3
As a result of these living arrangements, Priscilla raised her children largely alone, supported by the community at Dogue Run and, as time went on, her older children. When Christopher was born, Priscilla’s older children—Sophia (age thirteen), Savary (twelve), Penny (ten), and Israel (nine)—could help their mother with the newborn and two-year-old Isrias.
Priscilla appears to have lost at least one child, possibly two. In a 1792 letter to his farm manager, Washington assured him that, “if proper care and attention has been paid to Cilla’s child, it is all that humanity requires.”4 Whether the child had died or was ill is unclear. There is a record in November 1794 of Priscilla giving birth, but Washington’s 1799 list of enslaved people does not include a five-year-old child by her.5 Regular references to Mount Vernon’s carpenters making child-sized coffins and the small burial sites unearthed at the enslaved cemetery reveal the frequency with which the estate’s enslaved community bore such losses.
Mount Vernon records indicate that Priscilla tried to flee at least twice. The work report for the week of May 31, 1794, notes that “Silla ran away” for six days. On this occasion, Priscilla was probably pregnant—she gave birth six months later. On October 24, 1796, Washington’s farm manager paid £1 to a William Green for “taking up Sillar” (a common spelling of her name).6 What induced Priscilla to run away while pregnant (on the first occasion) and again just nine months after the birth of her son Isrias (on the second)? Did something happen? Did she intend to return? Did she take any of her children? Was the promise of freedom greater than the pain of leaving her family? Without any records left by Priscilla, answers to these questions remain elusive.
Priscilla’s third daughter, Penny, was eleven years old in 1799. We know relatively little about the lives of enslaved children at Mount Vernon because Washington and his managers did not document their activities in the same way they did enslaved adults. Sometime between ages eleven and fourteen, depending on their physical abilities, enslaved children at Mount Vernon were given formal work assignments. In 1799 Penny’s older sisters, Sophia (age fourteen) and Savary (thirteen), joined their mother working in the fields at Dogue Run. Although Penny did not yet have an official assignment, she and other children were expected to perform such simple tasks as fetching water and gathering sticks. She likely also helped care for her three younger siblings while her mother worked in the fields.
In 1801 Priscilla, Penny, and her siblings received their freedom from the provision in George Washington’s will. Priscilla’s husband Joe, who belonged to the Custis estate, remained enslaved and was inherited by one of Martha Washington’s grandchildren. Priscilla now found herself responsible for six children and forcibly separated from her husband. In his will, Washington stipulated that children with parents who were “unable or unwilling to provide for them, shall be bound by the Court until they shall arrive at the age of twenty five years.” In such cases, he also instructed that the children “be taught to read & write; and be brought up to some useful occupation.”7 We do not know whether Priscilla was forced to use this provision, or if she was able to find the financial security to care for her family. Similarly, we do not know whether Penny and her siblings received the education that Washington desired. Emancipation brought hope for the future, but it did not mean that Priscilla, Penny, and their family were free from the long shadow of slavery.
George Washington's Mount Vernon
If not specifically cited, biographical and genealogical information about enslaved people has been drawn from Washington’s 1786 and 1799 slave lists: George Washington, Diary, Feb. 18, 1786, and “Washington’s Slave List,” 1799, Founders Online, National Archives. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel, Edward G. Lengel, et al. (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008)]; the Mount Vernon slavery database, which compiles references to the estate’s enslaved people; and the files of Mary V. Thompson, Mount Vernon’s research historian. References to The Papers of George Washington, Digital Edition are abbreviated as PGWDE throughout.
1. James Anderson to George Washington, Weekly Report, July 7, 1798, in MV Farm Accounts [Photostats], Mar. 31, 1798–Jan. 1799, vol. 20-Fa, p. 54, Washington Library, from original manuscript at MNHP.
2. Washington’s team of enslaved ditchers did more than just dig ditches. They leveled earth, prepared fields, redirected waterways, and built and repaired fences.
3. See Washington to John Fairfax, March 31, 1789; and Washington to William Pearce, May 18, 1794, The Papers of George Washington, Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008)
4. To Anthony Whitting, Dec. 16, 1792, Papers of George Washington.
5. William Pearce to George Washington, Weekly Report, Nov. 8, 1794, GW Papers, 1741–1797, Series 4. General Correspondence, 1697–1799, LOC.
6. William Pearce, credit entry for Oct. 24, 1796, MV Account Book, 1794–1796, folio 80R (image 193), GW Papers, 1741–1797, Series 5. Financial Papers, 1750–1796, LOC.
7. Washington's Last Will and Testament, July 9, 1799, Papers of George Washington.