Despite the volumes of papers and letters that George Washington kept in his lifetime, we know very little about the history of the sacred wooded area thought to be the resting place for dozens of African Americans. Here is a timeline of events pertaining to the burial ground from the earliest reference through today.

Who was Buried Here?

Graves in the Slave Cemetery at Mount Vernon are unmarked, but we have the names of a few individuals thought to be buried in the cemetery including Frank Lee, the Washington’s butler who was present at the funeral of George Washington. Lee was freed according to the stipulations of Washington’s will and remained at Mount Vernon until his death in 1821.

William Lee

General Washington, engraved by Valentine Green after John Trumbull, 1781. Purchase, 2002 [Print-5336/RP-909]

General Washington, engraved by Valentine Green after John Trumbull, 1781. Purchase, 2002 [Print-5336/RP-909]

William (Billy) Lee, died in 1828, just a few years after his brother Frank. William Lee served as George Washington’s body servant throughout the Revolutionary War and was the only slave freed outright in Washington’s will. Like his brother, William Lee remained at Mount Vernon until his death and may also be buried in the cemetery. In fact, Lee’s grave site may be the one mentioned in an 1846 visitor account. “One of the servants pointed out that [grave] of Washington’s favorite servant, who was with him in his campaigns…” The visitor also remembered seeing a recently dug burial enclosed in a fence, that of “a favorite servant, an aged colored women.” The visitor concluded that though “there are many graves in the grove,” the “humble” cemetery was not “a mournful spot.”    

West Ford

Sketch of West Ford. Gift of Mrs. John Beebe, 1985 [Print-3715/RP-406]

Sketch of West Ford. Gift of Mrs. John Beebe, 1985 [Print-3715/RP-406]

In 1863, West Ford, long-time servant of the Washington family, died at Mount Vernon and is thought to be the last individual buried in the cemetery. Ford was freed in 1829 and continued to work at Mount Vernon for the Washington family.

Visitor Account

Caroline Moore’s account of her visit to Mount Vernon on April 30, 1833 provides our first eye-witness account of the burial ground. She wrote, “Our guide first took us to the tomb where the remains of General Washington are now interred. They were removed from the old tomb about 3 years since....Near his Tomb, you see the burying place of his slaves, containing 150 graves.” We believe that the narrow ridge south of the Washington family tomb could accommodate 150 burials.  

Historical Map

Plan of Mt. Vernon. The Home of Washington. Lithograph by Charles Currier, 1855. Gift of Mrs. Fairfax Harrison, Vice Regent for Virginia, 1935 [M-836]

Plan of Mt. Vernon. The Home of Washington. Lithograph by Charles Currier, 1855. Gift of Mrs. Fairfax Harrison, Vice Regent for Virginia, 1935 [M-836]

The earliest and only known historical map of the cemetery was printed by Charles Currier in c. 1855. The key for number 21 reads, “Negro Burying Ground” and depicts 12 graves in a fenced-in plot. Though we believe this map is a stylized depiction of Mount Vernon plantation, it may suggest that visible traces of the burials had begun to disappear.

1929 Memorial

In 1928, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association became concerned that the unmarked cemetery for General Washington’s slaves would be forgotten and “recommended that a simple marker, suitable inscribed, be placed on this consecrated ground.”  We believe this marker to be the earliest of its kind on a historic plantation.

1983 Memorial

By the 1980s, the cemetery site had become overgrown and the 1929 memorial was lost amongst unchecked vegetation. Efforts to create a more visible marker culminated in the memorial you see when you visit the site today.

The Mount Vernon Slave Memorial

Geophysical Study

The first scientific study of the burial ground was undertaken in 1985. A geophysical study found that possibly 51 burials were located south and west of the 1983 memorial.

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