Weird History

What It Was Like To Be A Slave At George Washington's Mount Vernon  

Genevieve Carlton
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Many people know George Washington owned slaves, but what was life like for the slaves at Washington's Mount Vernon plantation? Hundreds of enslaved people toiled on the estate, where Washington expected them to work all day, six days a week. Many saw Washington as a harsh slave owner, and dozens of his slaves attempted to escape.

The enslaved people at Mount Vernon were also expected to live apart from their families, on opposite ends of the enormous plantation, and Washington reportedly complained if they walked to visit their children at night. Washington may have been devoted to his family in his private life, but he didn't place the same value on slave families.

And add this to the list of horrifying facts about the Founding Fathers: Washington rounded up his slaves' dogs and had them killed. He also forced slaves to return to work right after having children and bought teeth from them to transplant into his own mouth. Washington set some of his slaves free through his will, but that doesn't mean life for enslaved people at Mount Vernon was ever easy.

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Photo: Junius Brutus Stearns/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
The Slaves Were Expected To Work From Dawn Until Dark

At Mount Vernon, Washington expected his slaves to labor whenever it was light out. In a 1789 letter to one of his overseers, he wrote:

To request that my people may be at their work as soon as it is light - work 'till it is dark - and be diligent while they are at it can hardly be necessary, because the propriety of it must strike every manager who attends to my interest.

Washington added, "Lost labour can never be regained." Because of that, he ordered the overseer to ensure that "every labourer (male or female) does as much in the 24 hours as their strength, without endangering their health, or constitution, will allow."

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Photo: Thomas Prichard Rossiter and Louis Rémy Mignot/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Enslaved Families At Mount Vernon Saw Each Other Once A Week

While Washington and his family lived together in the mansion at Mount Vernon, their slaves weren't so lucky. The living arrangements at Mount Vernon separated members of enslaved families so they rarely saw each other.

For example, one enslaved man at Mount Vernon, Joe, lived at Mansion House Farm, one of five farms on the plantation. His wife, Priscilla, was a field worker and lived at one of the outlying farms, Dogue Run. She lived with the couple's six children. Joe was only allowed to visit his family on Sundays and holidays, the slaves' only days off.

Sometimes slaves walked miles to visit their families after sunset - Joe and Priscilla lived 3 miles apart - and had to walk home before sunrise the next day. Washington didn't appreciate those trips. He complained that his slaves were tired because of their "night walking" to see their families.

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Photo: Tim Evanson/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-2.0
They Lived In Tiny Quarters That Promoted Illness

The enslaved people at Mount Vernon lived in tight quarters. In 1798, a Polish poet visited the plantation and recoiled at what he found. He wrote:

We entered some negroes' huts, for their habitations cannot be called houses. They are far more miserable than the poorest of the cottages of our peasants. The husband and his wife sleep on a miserable bed, the children on the floor.

In one home, the visitor witnessed "a boy about fifteen... lying on the floor with an attack of dreadful convulsions."

The living conditions, coupled with poor nutrition, meant slaves were often struck with infectious diseases. On January 22, 1792, the farm manager recorded, "a Great many children are very bad with the Hooping Cough at every Qu[arte]r."

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Photo: Snapshots Of The Past/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-2.0
Washington Bought Teeth From His Slaves

Sometimes Washington's requests went beyond what most slave owners asked from their slaves. According to historian Robert Darnton, who wrote a book called George Washington's False Teeth, the Founding Father bought teeth from his slaves. In 1784, the Mount Vernon plantation book recorded the transaction: "By Cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire." The doctor referenced was Washington's dentist, Dr. Jean Le Mayeur.

At the time, dentists bought teeth to transplant into patients' mouths, but Washington paid three times less than the going rate. In 1784, Washington wrote, "I confess I have been staggered in my belief in the efficacy of transplantion." Several years later, he lost his last tooth and moved to full dentures.

Washington's famous dentures also contained human teeth - possibly teeth he bought from his slaves.