An Enslaved Chef in a “Free” City
TOPICS: Short Biography, Slavery, Washington or Custis Family, Washington’s Presidency
by Kathryn Gehred, Research Assistant
April 7, 2016
My last blog post about slavery at Mount Vernon received a boost in readership when it came out around the same time a children’s book about slavery at Mount Vernon was pulled by its publisher. The book was about Hercules, George Washington’s enslaved chef.
With controversy surrounding the book, I thought it would be useful to provide some documentation from the papers of George Washington about Hercules, his life with Washington, and his escape.
George Washington first listed Hercules (although he spelled the name Herculus) as a cook in 1786.1
When the president transplanted his household to Philadelphia in 1790, he sent Hercules ahead. Washington wrote that “Richmond and Christopher embarked yesterday by Water – the former not from his appearance or merits I fear, but because he was the son of Herculas & his desire to have him as an assistant, comes as a Scullion for the Kitchen.”2 Hercules had avoided separation from his son while he was in Philadelphia.
The most vivid description of Hercules comes from Martha Washington’s grandson in his 1861 memoirs. George Washington Parke Custis, who was 10 years old when Hercules left for Philadelphia, recalls the chef as an imposing figure. He “would have been termed in modern parlance, a celebrated artiste.” Custis’s memoirs were heavily colored by nostalgia. At one point, he writes of Hercules, a “gold-headed cane completed the grand costume of that celebrated dandy (for there were dandies in those days)…” Nonetheless, Custis clearly describes a skilled chef. He wrote that “His underlings flew in all directions to execute his orders, while he, the great master-spirit, seemed to possess the power of ubiquity, and to be everywhere at the same moment.”3
While Custis remembers Hercules fondly, one of Washington’s housekeepers did not wish to work with an enslaved cook. He repeatedly insisted that they hire a white woman named Mrs. Read instead. George Washington refused though, because “Herculas can answer every purpose that Mrs Read would do, and others which she will not; and sure I am that the difference in the expense between the two will bear no comparison.”4
At the time that Washington was residing in Philadelphia, there was a law that any slave living in the state for more than six months would be freed. Washington wrote about this with concern to his secretary, Tobias Lear:
in case it shall be found that any of my Slaves may, or any for them shall attempt their freedom at the expiration of six months, it is my wish and desire that you would send the whole, or such part of them as Mrs. Washington may not chuse to keep, home—for although I do not think they would be benefitted by the change, yet the idea of freedom might be too great a temptation for them to resist. At any rate it might, if they conceived they had a right to it, make them insolent in a State of Slavery. As all except Hercules and Paris are dower negroes, it behoves me to prevent the emancipation of them, otherwise I shall not only loose the use of them, but may have them to pay for. If upon taking good advise it is found expedient to send them back to Virginia, I wish to have it accomplished under pretext that may deceive both them and the Public;—and none I think would so effectually do this, as Mrs. Washington coming to Virginia next month (towards the middle or latter end of it, as she seemed to have a wish to do) if she can accomplish it by any convenient and agreeable means, with the assistance of the Stage Horses &c. This would naturally bring her maid and Austin—and Hercules under the idea of coming home to Cook whilst we remained there, might be sent on in the Stage. […] I request that these Sentiments and this advise may be known to none but yourself & Mrs. Washington.5
Lear agreed to set up the arrangement but noted, “You will permit me now, Sir, (and I am sure you will pardon me for doing it) to declare, that no consideration should induce me to take these steps to prolong the slavery of a human being, had I not the fullest confidence that they will at some future period be liberated, and the strongest conviction that their situation with you is far preferable to what they would probably obtain in a state of freedom.”6
Apparently, Hercules did not agree. Sometime in 1797, he made his escape from Mount Vernon. George Washington quickly began working to recapture him. Washington was sure Hercules was in Philadelphia and was equally certain that he would try to resist recapture:
If by indirect enquiries of those who know Herculas, you should learn that he is in the City, inform Colo. Clemt Biddle thereof, and he will, I hope, take proper measures to have him apprehended at the moment one of the Packets for Alexandria is about to Sale, and put him therein, to be conveyed hither; and will pay any expence which may be incurred in the execution of this business; which must be managed with address to give it a chance of Success—for if Herculas was to get the least hint of the design he would elude all your vigilance.7
From that point on, history loses track of Hercules. As a result, my blog post is more reflective of George Washington than it is of Hercules’s life and personality. There is one fascinating document, however, that backs up Custis’s description of Hercules as “one of the most polished gentleman and the veriest dandy of nearly sixty years ago.”8 An untitled portrait of a dark-skinned man wearing chef’s attire was completed by Gilbert Stuart while Stuart was working on his famous portrait of George Washington. It very likely depicts Hercules, and if so, is one of very few portraits of enslaved Americans of this time.
1. George Washington, Diary entry: 18 February 1786.
2. GW to Tobias Lear, 22 November 1790.
3. Custis, George Washington Parke, Recollections and Private memoirs of Washington, 421-424.
4. GW to Tobias Lear, 19 June 1791.
5. GW to Tobias Lear 12 April 1791.
6. Tobias Lear to GW, 24 April 1791.
7. GW to Frederick Kitt, 10 January 1798.
8. Custis, Recollections, 428.