Skip to main content

18th Century Farming at Mount Vernon

Enslaved Labor

The majority of enslaved people at Mount Vernon were assigned to agricultural work on the plantation’s four outlying farms. Under the supervision of overseers, field hands toiled from sunrise to sunset, which could mean 14-hour days in the summer. They planted and harvested Mount Vernon’s major cash crops—first tobacco and later wheat—as well as corn, vegetables, and grasses. Most field workers were women, as men were more likely to be trained in a trade.

Washington was a strict taskmaster to all of his workers, both hired and enslaved. He expected laborers to share his enthusiasm for the plantation’s success and work diligently to execute his plans, though they did not stand to benefit from his innovations.

Learn More

Crop Rotation

When George Washington inherits Mount Vernon, it was a 2,100-acre tobacco plantation. Tobacco proved to be a difficult cash crop for Washington. It was labor-intensive, hard on the soil, and pushed Washington into debt.

In the mid-18th century, England regulated the tobacco trade to support the mercantile system. Washington's enslaved workers were growing, harvesting, packing, and shipping tobacco in exchange for finished goods for the Washingtons. With the increased competition from other tobacco growing colonies and falling tobacco process, debt for Washington was inevitable, and it pushed Washington to find a new cash crop, wheat.

Washington and other farmers of his time believed that by rotating crops their fields would not become "exhausted" or depleted of nourishment. Based on his studies of English farming methods, Washington expanded a three-year crop rotation into a seven-year schedule. Under this system, no crop, except clover or grass, was planted in the same field for more than one year in a row. Also by pasturing livestock on fields planted with grass, their manure helped to replace valuable nutrients in the soil. Buckwheat was plowed under while still green to serve as a natural soil enhancer, or "green manure."

An example of one field's seven-year schedule: buckwheat, wheat, clover or grass, clover or grass, clover or grass, corn and potatoes, finally wheat. 

Treading Barn

The 16-Sided treading barn is George Washington’s very own invention, and is used for processing wheat.

Learn more