By Mary Gallagher
“No estate in America is more pleasantly situated than this…” George Washington, 1793
Open to the public since 1858 and just 16 miles from Washington, D.C. Mount Vernon is located at the southern end of the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Owned and operated by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association; founded in 1853, making it America’s oldest national preservation organization.
Living less than thirty minutes away for almost fifteen years, I’ve visited Mount Vernon several times, watched it grow and expand with further archaeological research. The opening of the Slave Memorial was one of the most moving ceremonies of my life with the rhythmic sound of drums and chanting of slaves’ names. When you stand on the bank in front of the main house looking at the sweeping view of the Potomac, you’ll under stand Washington’s feelings as stated above. Although a winter visit will remind you of how a cold wind sweeping across water can chill you to the bone.
The estate originally extended over eight thousand acres and was divided into five farms, each with its own overseers, work force of slaves, livestock, equipment, and buildings. I have friends whose very old home, likely that of a freed slave, is quite close to Mount Vernon and directly on the Potomac. The rest of the neighborhood has developed into massive houses and any remnants of that history is likely lost under the bulldozers and in the name of “progress”. Virtually a self-contained community, at Mount Vernon, nothing was purchased that could be produced on the estate. The area was so well designed that the service lanes did not intrude upon the area reserved for the enjoyment of Washington, his family, and his many guests. From the Potomac River on the east to the west gate entrance ran the pleasure grounds and wide vistas; along the north-south line were the outbuildings or dependencies where much of the work of the estate was done.
The slaves living at the Mansion House farm were housed in communal quarters. The House for Families Slave Quarter was used until 1793. Archaeologists excavating the site in recent years have uncovered many objects which helped discover how slaves in the House for Families lived.
Mount Vernon has changed very little over the last 200 years. The estate stands today as George Washington designed it. You can examine the Vaughan Plan, the 19th century Birds-eye view and the 20th century aerial photograph at the excellent and comprehensive official Mount Vernon web site.
February 1 through 28, in observance of Black History Month, Mount Vernon will honor the contributions of the Mount Vernon slaves with special programs. Historic Interpreters, stationed at the Slave Quarters daily from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., wi1l highlight the lives and contributions of the African-Americans who built and operated the plantation home including their family life, diet, work, and resistance efforts. Washington maintained meticulous writings including his diary, ledgers and correspondence with his resident farm managers and plantation overseers which have been drawn upon. Former slaves and their families also contributed valuable information.
Daily wreath laying will also occur at 12:00 p.m. at the Slave Memorial. On Saturdays and Sundays only at 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m., visitors can enjoy a program of African-American music, singing and story-telling featuring colonial slave-life interpretation by Larry Earl, a professional living-history performer and educator.
Larry Earl, professional living-history performer and educator
George Washington was born into a society that accepted slavery, inheriting slaves from his father at the age of 11. When he and Martha Custis married in 1759, their combined slave community at Mount Vernon numbered about 50. According to records, Washington, purchased approximately 50 slaves between 1754 and 1772, just two years before the Revolutionary War. It was during the War, when leading the new nation in its battle for freedom, that his views on slavery began to change, eventually leading to his resolve never to buy or sell another slave. In 1797, just two years before his death, Washington wrote to Lawrence Lewis saying, “I wish from my soul that the legislature of this State could see a policy of gradual abo1ition of slavery.”
Washington provided for the emancipation of his slaves in his last will and testament. In addition to freedom he left detailed instructions for the continued care and support of the elder1y and children. Many newly freed s1aves lived at Mount Vernon as pensioners into the 1830s. Of the 316 slaves living at Mount Vernon in 1799, 123 belonged to George Washington. Those 123 slaves were freed on January 1, 1801.
The daily slave rations included: one quart of cornmeal; five ounces of fish, either salted or pickled; and at times, fresh meat. The slaves supplemented the rations with vegetables from their own gardens, chickens and ducks that they raised, and game through hunting, trapping, and fishing. Washington indicated that he bought chickens, eggs, melons, cucumbers and ducks from slaves. Sambo Anderson, an enslaved carpenter at Mount Vernon, sold honey to Washington and, in turn, bought from him a barrel of fine flour and later 162 pounds of pork.
Each of Washington’s five farms had overseers who managed the slave population. While some slaves became overseers, the majority worked as house servants, skilled laborers or field hands. Skilled laborers would have included masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, plasterers, gardeners and painters, and were primarily men. Women filled other skilled positions such as spinners, weavers; and dairymaids. Most women, however, worked as field hands.
Mount Vernon, in general, is very accessible although the main house is surprisingly small and the upper levels not accessible. Various outbuildings can have one or steps and no ramps, to get inside. They can provide wheelchairs, audio tapes, Braille pamphlets and written information for the hearing impaired. The grounds and out buildings cover a large area and all the buildings are not very “toasty” in cold weather. Dress accordingly including good walking shoes. Check the web site for onsite dining options including a “food” court with several franchise represented and a sit down restaurant. There are no fast food outlets or other venues closer than a 15 minute drive and no eating once you are through the gates. There is a large parking lot and many visitors come by tour bus. The drive down the George Washington Parkway from Old Town Alexandria is very beautiful with river views and occasional pull-off parking for picnics or using the extensive walking trails.
Photos: Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and Harry Connelly.
Public Information: 703-780-2000; 703-799~8697 (TDD); www.mountvernon.org
Hours of operation: April – August; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; March, September~ October, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.~ November – February, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Regular admission rates for 2003: adults, $11.00; senior citizens, $1.0.50; children age 6-11., when accompanied by an adult, $5.00; and children under age 5, FREE. Admission fees, restaurant and retail proceeds, along with private donations support the operation and, restoration of Mount Vernon.