In many ways, the Mount Vernon estate was comprised of several small African American villages, presided over by an Anglo-American ruling class. At the time of George Washington's death in 1799, African Americans made up roughly 90% of the plantation's population, with 317 enslaved people and roughly 20 to 30 Anglo-Americans living on the five farms comprising Mount Vernon.
The largest village was at the Mansion House Farm, where around ninety enslaved people resided. The others ranged in size from Dogue Run Farm, with forty-five enslaved residents on 650 acres of land, to fifty-seven at River Farm, containing 1,207 acres of arable land, forty-one enslaved people at Muddy Hole Farm which had 476 acres, and seventy-six at the 928-acre Union Farm.
There were three basic types of housing used on the estate by the enslaved community, which varied considerably in their style, quality of construction, and degree of privacy. The majority of the people who worked in the house and skilled workers on the Mansion House Farm were assigned quarters that were considerably better in terms of the first two elements—style and quality—than the residences of enslaved people on the outlying farms. From considerations of privacy, however, field workers on the four outlying farms had an advantage, both because of the configuration of their quarters—the largest of which housed no more than two families—and because these quarters were a greater distance from their master's supervision.
The most substantial buildings used for housing the enslaved population were the quarters at George Washington's Mansion House Farm. For approximately thirty years, beginning in the 1760s, the principal dwelling for enslaved people was a two-story frame building, constructed on a brick foundation, with two chimneys, one on each end, and glazed windows. This structure was known as the "Quarters [or House] for Families" and was located on the service lane north of the Mansion.
These quarters were eventually torn down in the 1790s. From around 1793 until George Washington's death in 1799, most of the enslaved people at the Mansion House Farm lived in the brick wings flanking the Greenhouse, in four large rectangular rooms each measuring thirty-three feet, nine inches by seventeen feet, nine inches, a total living space of about 600 square feet. Each of the rooms had a fireplace on one of its shorter walls and glazed windows. Certain enslaved people on the Mansion House Farm lived in rooms over the kitchen building, while still other families had individual cabins.
The standard form of housing for enslaved people on George Washington's four outlying farms was described by one eighteenth-century visitor as "log-houses." These cabins were daubed with mud to keep out draughts and rain and often had exterior wooden chimneys that were fashioned of sticks plastered with mud. There appear to have been two sizes of cabins used as slave quarters, small ones made up of one room and a larger "duplex type" for two families, consisting of two rooms, each with a separate entrance divided by a chimney in the middle. Most living quarters were poorly constructed and leaky, described by one observer visiting Mount Vernon in 1797 as being "wretched." The visitor further explained, "We entered one of the huts of the Blacks...The husband and wife sleep on a mean pallet, the children on the ground; a very bad fireplace, some utensils for cooking, but in the middle of this poverty some cups and a teapot."1
1. Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, Under Their Vine and Fig Tree: Travels through America in 1797-1799, 1805 with some further account of life in New Jersey, ed. Metchie J.E. Budka (Elizabeth, New Jersey: The Grassman Publishing Company, Inc., 1965), 100.