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
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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