New Video! “George Washington’s Black Cattle”

By Caitlin Conley
February 2, 2015

Caitlin is a Research Assistant for the Bibliography Project and is part of the Papers of George Washington social media team.

Have you ever been curious about what George was up to when he wasn’t on the public stage? We all probably tend to hear a lot more about George Washington the general, and George Washington the president, than about George Washington the farmer. Perhaps counter-intuitive to us today, farming was the true means for supporting himself, his family, and his staff. He did not accept a salary as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, and he accepted a salary as president only reluctantly, a salary that even still was not adequate to his needs.

However, even as it was necessary to his economic survival, farming was also George’s most treasured occupation. When he returned home from his eight-year absence due to the Revolutionary War, he found his farms in bad repair. He wrote to the celebrated British agriculturalist Arthur Young that “agriculture has ever been amongst the most favorite amusements of my life, though I never possessed much skill in the art, and nine years total inattention to it, has added nothing to a knowledge which is best understood from practice…” (George Washington to Arthur Young, August 6, 1786).

“George Washington’s Black Cattle” is the first installment of our four part series called “George’s Farm Animals”, which is set in this fascinating period between the Revolutionary War and his first term as president. Raising animals was connected with every part of George’s daily life: growing crops, improving buildings, managing overseers and slaves, fertilizing fields, and even conducting politics. In this way, the series offers a glimpse into Washington’s life as a complex whole.

This video series is special because it heavily features George’s correspondence; you’ll hear in his own words what he thought about his farms and his cattle. You’ll see his personality thrown into relief, including his humor, passion, strict discipline, anger, and deep love for the land. You’ll also glimpse the lives and personalities of his contemporaries, ranging from his farm managers, to his fellow farmers, to foreign experts and court officials.

This first video features a letter to Anne Cesar, Chevalier la Luzerne, a letter from Howell Lewis, a letter to George William Fairfax, a letter to Anthony Whiting, a letter to George Augustine Washington, and a letter from George Lee. The following biographical information comes from the identifications in the Papers of George Washington Digital Edition.

Anne Cesar, Chevalier la Luzerne (1741-1791) was French minister to the United States during the Revolutionary War beginning in 1779 and ending in 1784. He then became France’s ambassador to Great Britain. Read the full text of the letter featured in the video here: George Washington to Anne Cesar, Chevalier La Luzerne, 1 August, 1786.

Howell Lewis (1771-1822) was GW’s nephew, being the son of Fielding and Betty Washington Lewis. He worked for GW as a recording secretary until January 1793, when GW sent him to manage affairs at Mount Vernon after overseer Anthony Whitting’s death. Read the full text of the letter featured in the video here: Howell Lewis to George Washington, 31 July, 1793.

George William Fairfax (1724-1787) was one of GW’s neighbors and a close friend of his since youth. He had lived at Belvoir, near Mount Vernon, until summer 1773, when he left for England; he never returned to Virginia, but corresponded with GW from afar. Read the full text of the letter featured in the video here: George Washington to George William Fairfax, 30 June, 1785.

Anthony Whitting (d.1793), a native of England, was recommended to GW by Congressman Lambert Cadwalader to be an overlooker. He was replaced by Howell Lewis upon his death. Read the full text of the letter featured in the video here: George Washington to Anthony Whitting, 5 May, 1793.

George Augustine Washington (1763-1793) was a favorite nephew of GW’s. He had served as an aide to Lafayette during the Revolutionary War. He suffered from what was probably tuberculosis, sailing to the West Indies in 1784 to recover his health. Read the full text of the featured letter here: George Washington to George Augustine Washington, 1 July, 1787.

George Lee (1736-1807) was a planter who lived in Prince Georges and Charles Counties in Maryland. Read the full text of the featured letter here: George Lee to George Washington, 28 April, 1787.

To illustrate these documents in this first video, we are privileged to feature the rare, heritage breed Milking Devon Cows that live at Mount Vernon. This breed was developed originally in England and brought over to the American colonies with the Pilgrims beginning in 1623. The breed was vastly popular through the late 1800’s, when they began to be replaced by cattle bred specifically for beef. See the Livestock Conservancy for more about the breed in general, and Mount Vernon’s website for more on their specific animals.

While we hope that the video will be useful for elementary school classrooms, we know that it will be of interest to anyone curious about George Washington, eighteenth-century daily life, the history of agriculture, and even those just interested in seeing some awesome cows.

Thank you so much to everyone involved in making these videos happen. It was a wonderful adventure and we hope that you’ll all enjoy seeing your efforts come together!

Find the video on our video page.

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