Mount Vernon

Historical Significance

Due to to George Washington's conscientious  record-keeping and his prominence in American history, Mount Vernon is one of the best-documented plantations in the United States. Initially acquired by Washington's great-grandfather in 1674, it remained in the Washington family until just before the Civil War, when it was purchased by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, the oldest national preservation organization in the country. Throughout this almost two-hundred year period, Mount Vernon was home not only to the Washingtons, but also to hundreds of enslaved laborers of African and African-American descent.

For two centuries Mount Vernon was an active plantation, where crops and animals were raised. Activities included blacksmithing, weaving, fishing, milling, and distilling. At the time of Washington's death in 1799, more than three hundred enslaved African Americans labored on the five farms comprising the 8,000 acre estate. Of this number, 123 belonged to George Washington; 153 belonged to the estate of Martha Washington's first husband, Daniel Parke Custis; at least 40 were rented from a neighbor; and one was rented from a relative. Slightly more than a quarter of the slaves were skilled artisans (blacksmiths, bricklayers, carpenters, carriage workers, coopers, spinners, knitters, seamstresses) or domestic workers (butlers, cooks, maids, valets), while the remainder toiled in the fields.

George Washington's views on slavery changed throughout the course of his life. Prior to the American Revolution, he considered slavery a simple fact of life. By the end of the war, he had come to believe that slavery was wrong and often voiced his hope that the state legislatures would set up a system of gradual emancipation. In his last will and testament, he directed that all the slaves who belonged to him were to be freed upon the death of his widow, Martha Washington. Concerned for her own safety, she signed papers in December 1800 to free all of George Washington's slaves on January 1, 1801. The joyful occasion was marred by the breakup of many families, due to the intermarriage of the Custis and Washington slaves. Eventually, the rented slaves would be returned to their owners, and those who belonged to the Custis estate would be divided among Mrs. Washington's four grandchildren. Later generations of Washingtons who inherited the plantation brought their own slaves to Mount Vernon. 

Physical Description

The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association owns about 500 acres of the Mount Vernon tract, of which roughly 50 comprise the exhibition area.  In addition to the surviving original buildings (the mansion and ten outbuildings), visitors will see gardens, fields, and reconstructions of other buildings and places where enslaved people lived and worked, including the blacksmith shop, mill, distillery, 16-sided barn, slave cabin, and communal slave quarters.  The slave burial ground, near the Washington family tomb, is the site of two monuments to the many enslaved people who spent their lives on the plantation.  There are also permanent museum exhibits on slave life, as well as special tours and programs throughout the year focused on the lives and contributions of the estate's African and African-American residents.

Geographical and Contact Information

3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Highway
Alexandria, Virginia
22309
Phone: 703-780-2000
Fax: 703-799-8698

Cite this Page:

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, “Mount Vernon,” African American Historic Sites Database, accessed November 20, 2017, http://www.aahistoricsitesva.org/items/show/283.

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