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

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.