The enslaved population at Mount Vernon did not meekly accept their bondage. Many resisted slavery in a variety of ways, differing in intensity and methodology. Among the less obvious methods of resistance were actions such as feigning illness, working slowly, producing shoddy work, and misplacing or damaging tools and equipment. The major advantage of these seemingly "passive" tactics was that they were often difficult for George Washington and his managers to observe and prove. Further, almost any enslaved person, regardless of age or physical prowess, could utilize these methods of protest.1
On the opposite end of the resistance spectrum were more active and noticeable actions such as theft, arson, sabotage of crops, and running away. While these actions might be especially satisfying for a frustrated person to carry out, they also carried a far greater risk of detection and punishment. Theft was one of the most frequently mentioned acts of visible resistance in George Washington's personal papers. Over the years, enslaved workers at Mount Vernon were accused of stealing a wide variety of objects, including tools, fabrics, yams, raw wool, wine, rum, milk, butter, fruits, meats, corn, and potatoes.
Enslaved people also utilized running away and escape as a means to resist forced servitude. At least 47 enslaved people tried to run away from Mount Vernon or other lands belonging to Washington during his lifetime (about 7% of the total population). Most runaways were young men, but women tried to escape too. The majority left alone, but some fled in groups. The largest flight occurred in April of 1781. Seventeen people—Lucy, Ester, Deborah, Peter, Lewis, Frank, Fredrick, Harry Washington, Tom, Sambo, Thomas, Peter, Stephen, James, Wally, Daniel, and Gunner—escaped Mount Vernon while the British warship Savage anchored in the Potomac off the shore of the plantation.2
At least three of the people who attempted to escape from the Washingtons over the years worked very closely with the Washington family. Christopher Sheels worked as George Washington's personal valet made plans to escape in 1799 but was found out. Hercules who worked as a cook ran away on February 22, 1797, and was never heard from again. Lastly, Ona Judge, the personal maid of Martha Washington, left the executive mansion in Philadelphia on May 21, 1796, and despite repeated attempts by the Washingtons could not be convinced to return to Mount Vernon and once again be enslaved.
Mary V. Thompson
Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens
1. For more on resistance methods used by enslaved people, see John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweniger, Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003); Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Vintage Books, 1976).
2. "George Washington to Lund Washington, 30 April 1781," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 22, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington. DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1942), 14-5, 14n.