Following aristocratic British practice, George Washington fenced off 18 acres on the eastern slope, between the Mansion and the Potomac River, to serve as “a paddock for deer” or deer park.

Originating in the Middle Ages, deer parks initially served as large hunting preserves for kings and nobles. While still a clear marker of elite status, Washington’s deer park served a more picturesque function, providing his guests with the delightful spectacle of seemingly wild deer roaming through parkland.

Visual Evidence

In the earliest known view of Mount Vernon from the east, the artist, Edward Savage, captured the short-lived “paddock of deer” inside the picketed fence in the left foreground. The fence was not visible from the yard, creating the intended illusion that the deer roamed wild.

This painting is the earliest known view of Mount Vernon's east front, by Edward Savage (American, 1761 - 1817), c. 1787-1792, oil on canvas, H-2445/A, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, Bequest of Helen W. Thompson. (MVLA)

"A small park on the margin of the river, where the English fallow-deer and the American wild deer are seen through the thickets, alternately with the vessels as they are sailing along, add a romantic and picturesque appearance to the whole Scenery."

- Jedidiah Morse, a visitor to Mount Vernon in 1789

Documentary Evidence

In August 1785, Washington wrote friends both home and abroad, seeking English deer in addition to the common American variety. The following summer, Benjamin Ogle sent six English fawns captured on his Maryland plantation, providing Washington with an initial stock of English deer.

In addition, Washington’s old friend and neighbor, George William Fairfax, sent directly from Great Britain a “buck & doe of the best English deer.” Washington commented that the English deer are “very distinguishable by the darkness of their colour, and their horns.” Washington also obtained American deer, noting that, "Of the Forest deer of this Country, I have also procured six, two bucks and four does."

When writing about his deer park, George Washington alluded to its role in allowing him “to be a participator of the tranquility and rural amusements” that he so eagerly sought after the Revolutionary War.

British landscape manuals advised paddock owners not to approach the deer, so that they would remain wild. However, at least some of Washington’s deer were tame, and even family pets.

The Fate of the Deer Park

George Washington's drawing of the deer park wall at Mount Vernon. (MVLA)

George Washington's drawing of the deer park wall at Mount Vernon. (MVLA)

Sadly, George Washington’s deer park declined while he was away serving as president. He replaced its fence with a ha-ha or walled ditch in 1792, drawn here in black. Not pleased with its appearance, Washington drew a new course for the ha-ha, represented by the dotted line following “the natural shape of the hill.”

Explore this Drawing

Tame deer continued to roam the estate as late as 1799. Writing in that year, Washington explained, “I had them once in a Paddock, but during my absence the fencing was neglected, and getting out, they have run at large ever since. The old ones are now partly wild, and partly tame; their descendants are more wild, but associate with them; and seldom go beyond the limits of my own woodland.”

Washington was very fond of the deer, admitting in a letter that he had given up his beloved pack of hounds because the deer were afraid of them. Over the years, Washington exchanged a number of letters with his neighbors the Chichesters, forbidding them to hunt deer on his property because of his affection for the animals.

Washington's Deer Park

Learn more by visiting Mount Vernon's Digital Encyclopedia.

Learn More

Enjoy the View

While the deer might be gone, you can still enjoy Washington's view.

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