16 Details About What Life Was Like for a Slave on Mount Vernon
16 Details About What Life Was Like for a Slave on Mount Vernon

16 Details About What Life Was Like for a Slave on Mount Vernon

Trista - May 26, 2019

George Washington wanted his slaves to know a trade and dress a certain way. His house slaves, because visitors saw them, received better treatment than field slaves. When his slaves ran away but returned, he sold them. As a prim and proper elite gentleman of the 18th century, he couldn’t have the embarrassment of runaway slaves. However, when it came to the end of his life, he felt the institution of slavery was a mistake. However, he also thought it was easier to give his wife the slaves than set them free.

 

16 Details About What Life Was Like for a Slave on Mount Vernon
“The Old Plantation” watercolor by John Rose. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation / Wikimedia Commons.

16. Field Slaves Wore the Same Outfit Every Day While House Slaves Received More

The type of clothing slaves at Mount Vernon received depended on the kind of work they did around the plantation. Field hands only received one outfit a year, usually made out of wool or linen, and they often wore the same clothing every day. However, during the summer and winter months, they would receive one or two individual pieces of clothing. Slaves in the fields received one pair of shoes a year, which they often didn’t wear during the summer months.

George Washington, a very prim and proper gentry man, knew the house slaves were in view of his guests. This concept meant that he wanted them to receive better clothing options than the field slaves. For example, the housemaids wore a simpler version of the gowns that Martha Washington had. These garments came from much cheaper fabric and were never silk. They may have also worn corsets under their clothing. Washington’s cook, Christopher Sheels, wore black leather shoes with a buckle, stockings, and a three-piece suit.

16 Details About What Life Was Like for a Slave on Mount Vernon
A painting of slaves working on Mount Vernon. Smithsonian.

15. Slaves Learned Skilled Trades

George Washington wanted some slaves to learn a skilled trade. When chosen, the slave could become a carpenter, distiller, blacksmith, textile worker, gardener, dairy maid, groomer, or coppers. Washington sometimes hired a white laborer, who would come in and teach the slave a specific trade either at the gristmill-distillery complex or Mansion House Farm. All these trades were necessary for Washington’s life, and to make everything easier on the pocketbook, slaves would provide all the services.

In 1799, Mount Vernon had the largest distillery in the nation and produced about 11,000 gallons of whiskey. The slaves combined rye, wheat, corn, and malted barley to make whiskey. Because horses were the primary way of travel, groomers were needed to take care of the horses. The textile slaves made all the clothing for other slaves while the carpenters repaired the fences, coffins, buildings, and everything else around the plantation. The blacksmiths made the tools for everyone living on the estate and the dairymaids focused on milking the cows and making cheese and other dairy products.

16 Details About What Life Was Like for a Slave on Mount Vernon
Slave quarters at Mount Vernon. Explore Mount Vernon.

14. Washington’s Views on Slavery Changed

George Washington’s views on the treatment of slaves changed over time. When he first became a slave owner at the age of 11, Washington often followed the rules and realities of how to treat slaves. He felt that if harsh punishments had to happen to get the work done, then that was how the overseers should treat the slaves. After all, during Washington’s time, this was just all part of slave life. Slaves weren’t treated as human beings because most people felt they weren’t human beings.

While Washington never changed his view on slaves, he did start to change his perspective on the treatment of slaves. Near the end of his life, Washington began to feel that if slaves had to handle harsh punishments, they would not be able to perform the work they needed to do. In fact, at one point, Washington told his overseers to use a system of rewards instead of harsh punishments. However, this didn’t work for all the slaves, so Washington had to agree to tell the overseers to do as they saw fit.

16 Details About What Life Was Like for a Slave on Mount Vernon
A drawing of a slave preaching during church services. Build Nation.

13. Slaves Were Free to Practice Religion

George Washington wasn’t prominent on religion. In fact, he lived near a church that he never attended. Washington, along with many other Founding Fathers, didn’t feel that religion should run this country and didn’t want to establish the state on religious principles. However, Washington also felt that people should have their freedom to choose their religion and continue to develop the cultural beliefs from their homeland. Washington gave this freedom to slaves at Mount Vernon.

The slaves at Mount Vernon practiced both European and African religion. They would not only practice religion at the slave quarters in Mount Vernon, but some took part in church activities near the plantation. One of the slaves worked to become a spiritual leader for the other slaves living on Mount Vernon. Some of the religious diversity the estate saw was Baptists, Quakers, and Methodist. On top of this, research shows that some slaves practiced African religions, Vodoun, and Islam.

16 Details About What Life Was Like for a Slave on Mount Vernon
Inside slave quarters at Mount Vernon. Mark Parker / Pics4learning.

12. Mount Vernon Saw a Huge Slave Population

Not only did George Washington become a slave owner at the age of 11, but the slave population for Mount Vernon grew considerable when Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis. Martha was the widow of a wealthy land and slave owner. When he passed away, he didn’t have a will. Therefore, at least half of his estate and slaves were handed down to Martha.

When Martha married Washington, she not only brought another estate for them to manage but she also brought about 84 slaves to Mount Vernon. Because Washington didn’t have a large number of slaves for the type of plantation he owned, this dramatically increased the slave population. When Washington died 40 years later, there were about 317 slaves who worked between Mount Vernon and the Custis estate. However, Washington actually owned 123 out of the 317 slaves because the other slaves were a part of the Custis plantation.

16 Details About What Life Was Like for a Slave on Mount Vernon
A drawing of runaway slaves. Smash Words / Clipart.com.

11. Slaves Ran Away From Mount Vernon

Runaway slaves were a problem for every slave owner, including George Washington. Even though Washington was known to be a kind man to his slaves in comparison to many other slave owners and allowed slaves freedoms on Mount Vernon that slaves didn’t see on other plantations, he often had to write up an advertisement looking for a runaway slave. Sometimes these slaves were brought back to Mount Vernon and other times the slaves were able to escape to their freedom.

In one advertisement, Washington was looking for his slave, Caesar, who was known as a spiritual leader on Mount Vernon. A few other publications where Washington requests assistance in finding his runaway slave give details of the slave’s physical features. There are even instances where a couple of slaves continued to run away from Mount Vernon. At one point, Washington decided to sell one of his slaves because the slave kept running away.

16 Details About What Life Was Like for a Slave on Mount Vernon
A painting of George Washington, his wife Martha, and her children titled The Washington Family by Edward Savage in 1800. NY Daily News.

10. Slaves at Mount Vernon Spent Their Free Time Wisely

George Washington ran Mount Vernon similar to other plantations of his time. For instance, the slaves at Mount Vernon worked from about sun up to sunset six days a week. The typical day off for slaves was Sunday because this was known as the day of rest. Because of their busy schedule, slaves didn’t get much time to do the tasks they wanted to do as they usually spent their time cooking, cleaning, out in the fields, and tending to the animals or gardens.

When slaves did get their own free time, which was usually in the evening or on Sundays, they spent their time playing games, socializing, or tending to their own gardens. For example, visitors of Mount Vernon noted that Washington’s slaves would go visiting other slaves at neighboring plantations on Sunday. They also played several games, which often involved running and jumping. Sometimes slaves had their own gardens and were allowed to sell the crops they grew to earn some money.

16 Details About What Life Was Like for a Slave on Mount Vernon
A painting of Martha Washington by Rembrandt Peale. Rembrandt Peale / Heritage Auction Gallery / Wikimedia Commons.

9. Upon Martha’s Death, George Left Instructions in His Will to Free His Slaves

While George Washington’s views on slavery changed throughout his life, he never freed his slaves during his lifetime. Like many other slave owners of his time, Washington believed that his plantation couldn’t run without his slaves. Slavery was a way to make sure that Washington, his family, and his home were taken care of during his lifetime and after his death. However, this doesn’t mean that Washington never tried to free the slaves of Mount Vernon.

In fact, Washington stated in his will that all of the slaves of Mount Vernon were to become free once his wife, Martha, passed away. Unfortunately, for many of the slaves, they would never see freedom because laws and Martha’s family wouldn’t allow this. Because Washington gained many of the slaves through Martha’s inheritance, he couldn’t legally free them in his will. Therefore, they would remain the property of Martha’s estate after her death. Instead of becoming free, Martha’s family inherited the slaves or sold them.

16 Details About What Life Was Like for a Slave on Mount Vernon
Washington at Mount Vernon by McNevin. eBay.

8. Mothers Who Gave Birth Received Time Off Of Work

The rules that slaves had to follow depended on what their slave owners wanted. For example, slaves who had recently given birth might or might not get time off. For the slaves who worked at George Washington’s plantation, the mothers were given about five weeks off their regular assigned tasks after giving birth. This break not only allowed them to heal but also allowed them to feed and care for their infants correctly. However, Washington also believed that women could do specific tasks while they recovered, such as sewing.

Washington would sometimes hire white midwives to help with the birthing process. However, he usually assigned a midwife among the slaves. The future president also cared for the infants as he wanted to see them live and thrive. While they were not cared for like his children, he made sure that the slaves had the tools and supplies needed so the babies could be born healthy. However, Washington understood the life of a slave owner and knew that every new slave made him wealthier.

16 Details About What Life Was Like for a Slave on Mount Vernon
A painting of George Washington on horseback in the slave fields. Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association / MountVernon.org.

7. Slave Children at Mount Vernon Began Receiving Big Tasks Around 11 Years Old

Another factor of slave life which varied from plantation to plantation was the treatment towards slave children. Children who were born to mothers who were slaves were seen as property and slaves even if their father was a free man. On some plantations, young children would be seen out in the fields with their mother picking the crop. Babies would often be seen on the backs of their mother if she was working out in the field and didn’t have an older child who could tend to her baby.

George Washington never cared to see babies out in the fields with their mother. Often, the babies would stay in the slave quarters with another female slave who would care for them. As the children grew, they would start to perform minor tasks, such as bringing water, watching their younger siblings, and gathering firewood. When they became around the age of 11 or 12, the children would start to perform a more physical task, depending on their strength. Washington did not allow the overseers to push the children into jobs they couldn’t do because he felt this would backfire.

16 Details About What Life Was Like for a Slave on Mount Vernon
An aerial view of the bowling green side of the Mount Vernon mansion in Virginia. MountVernon.org.

6. Many Slaves Worked Inside the Walls of Mount Vernon

During George Washington’s time, Mount Vernon was one of the most beautiful plantations in Virginia. Washington frequently had visitors staying at Mount Vernon. On top of this, Washington strived to live like an elite gentleman of his times. Therefore, he spent hours every day making sure he followed the rules he needed to remain an elite gentleman in the eyes of the United States. However, in order for Washington to live this type of life, he had to make sure the work inside the mansion ran as smoothly as possible.

Several slaves worked in the mansion to keep the day to day tasks going. Not only did Washington have a cook and a gardener who focused on the grounds close to the estate, but had had several slaves who took care of the daily tasks. Caroline Branham, Frank Lee, Molly, and Charlotte took care of tasks like cleaning, taking care of the children, helping Martha with daily tasks, making beds, washing clothes, scrubbing floors, sweeping, starting the fires, dusting furniture, and emptying chamber pots, and any other tasks that needed to be completed.

16 Details About What Life Was Like for a Slave on Mount Vernon
George Washington on Mount Vernon. Junius Brutus Stearns / UIG via Getty Images / NBC News.

5. Washington Kept A Tight Schedule But Didn’t Like Confrontation

While George Washington kept a tight schedule for his family and the slaves who work at Mount Vernon, he also didn’t like confrontation. This idea often allowed the slaves to get away with more than slaves on other plantations. Like most lives for slaves, they couldn’t control where they worked or what hours they worked. This type of schedule was the same for all slaves who work for George Washington as he made sure slaves received a tight schedule to make sure all the work got done inside Mount Vernon and on its fields.

However, even though Washington made sure the overseers kept a tight schedule, the slaves of Mount Vernon were still able to acquire possessions and special treatment that other slaves were not. For example, Washington allowed slaves to purchase furnishing for their quarters in order to make them more homelike. On top of this, Washington allowed slaves at Mount Vernon to take time off to mourn the death of a loved one or the birth of a child. Historians also say he allowed them to celebrate their birthdays.

16 Details About What Life Was Like for a Slave on Mount Vernon
A 1793 map of Mount Vernon. Old Maps Blog.

4. Mount Vernon Had Five Farms, Not Just One

George Washington needed as many slaves as he could keep on his grounds because Mount Vernon didn’t just have one farm but five. Washington had to make sure that all of the farms connected to Mount Vernon had enough slaves to make sure the work could get done daily. Many historians feel that because Washington had so much work that needed to get done, he realized that the slaves needed to remain healthy and this is why, while slaves received punishment, it became a rare occurrence.

In total, Mount Vernon had about 8,000 acres that needed tending. The five farms on the land included the Mansion House Farm, Muddy Hole Farm, River Farm, Union Farm, and Dogue Run Farm. In fact, for some of the farms, Washington noticed that there weren’t enough slaves to perform the work, so he decided to rent slaves from neighboring plantations. On top of this, Washington also had a Distillery and Gristmill that used over 100 slaves.

16 Details About What Life Was Like for a Slave on Mount Vernon
An illustration of Ona Judge. Daily Mail.

3. Ona Judge, a Story of One Mount Vernon Slave

Ona Judge became Lady’s Maid to Martha Washington. Martha, who didn’t have the same conflict about slavery as her husband and didn’t mind confrontation, treated the slaves a bit differently than George. Other than taking care of Martha, Ona’s main job was to sew. She would sew whatever Martha needed, such as new dresses and other clothing.

This particular slave would have worn a simpler dress than Martha, a cap on top of her head to cover her hair, and an apron over her dress. In 1796, Ona ran away from the Mount Vernon mansion. While Washington put an advertisement in for her return, no one ever captured Ona. She ran off to New Hampshire, where she lived out the rest of her life hidden from the world of slavery. Today, Ona’s story is in a new book called Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge.

16 Details About What Life Was Like for a Slave on Mount Vernon
Female slaves working in a cotton field. Atlanta Black Star.

2. Kate, Story of a Field Worker at Mount Vernon

There were more field slaves on Mount Vernon than there were any other types. These slaves worked in the fields, where they would plant and pick whatever crops Washington decided to plant. They lived in the slave quarters close to the field they had to work. Kate is one of the field worker slaves who not only worked outside but also as a midwife to Mount Vernon’s enslaved community.

The time of year didn’t matter for slaves at Mount Vernon. Even field slaves worked outside during the winter. Kate would be seen wearing a skirt that reached her ankles. The cloth would be cut off at the ankles so that movement could be more natural. She would also wear a loose-fitting shirt, which she would tuck into her skirt. Her shoes had buckles on them, and in the winter she would wear wool on top of her shirt.

16 Details About What Life Was Like for a Slave on Mount Vernon
George Washington’s Tomb. Getty Images / Hulton Archive / History Today.

1. Slaves Kept Watch Over Washington’s Tomb

After George Washington passed away in 1799, many slaves took care of Washington’s Tomb. Their job was not only to keep the grounds neat and clean but also make sure no one came in to try to damage the tomb or steal George Washington’s body. Some of the tomb keepers were slaves at Mount Vernon who took the task. However, once slavery ended, former slaves started to sit at the tomb while receiving a little pay.

Edmond Parker became one of the paid tomb guards. Parker had been a slave under John Augustine Washington III but gained his freedom. Parker became popular among the tourists who came to see Washington’s Tomb. He would often tell the tourists stories of Washington that he heard from John over the years and never had a negative word to say about Washington. For his outfit, Parker would wear a silver badge on a blue uniform with nickel-plated buttons. Parker received his payment through the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Slavery.” George Washington’s Mount Vernon official website.

“Time to Tell the Truth About Slavery at Mount Vernon.” Sadie Hofmann, Zinn Education Project. February 2015.

“10 Facts About Washington & Slavery.” George Washington’s Mount Vernon official website.

“Slave who escaped George Washington and lived out her years in New Hampshire hiding from his family is profiled in new book.” Germania Rodriguez, Daily Mail. October 2017.

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