George Washington had a fascination with exotic animals. As a result of a growing number of traveling entertainers and showmen who toured 18th-century America with unusual creatures, Washington, his family, and other members of the American public gained opportunities to experience animals native to other continents, such as elephants and camels. When word circulated about an upcoming event involving the display of an exotic animal, Washington often paid for himself and members of his household to attend the viewing. For instance, as early as January 1761, Washington spent 10 shillings to see a “Lyoness.” And in December 1787, Washington paid 18 shillings to a man who brought a camel from Alexandria, Va., to Mount Vernon “for a show.” Washington’s attendance at such displays, even during periods when he was absorbed in domestic or public business, or in presiding over the burgeoning new nation, demonstrates his keen interest in such animals.
Isaac and Kitty were a married couple who were enslaved at Mount Vernon. Unfortunately, as a result of being enslaved by the Washington and Custis families, there are not many records that document the lives of Isaac and Kitty. In reviewing and visualizing George Washington’s correspondence and financial papers, we can recover some information about them—from the family and community they cultivated to the independent labor they pursued.
Since George Washington made lists of the people enslaved at Mount Vernon for his own benefit (and not for the benefit of future historians), he only recorded the information he needed to know. Still, historians can glean valuable information from these materials. With some effort, researchers can use a detached and dehumanizing resource such as a slave list to tell a human story. I recently learned this lesson while annotating a legal document (likely created in 1802) that divided Martha Washington’s slaves amongst her four heirs. I wanted to identify the people named in that list by more than just a first name and price, so I read through George Washington’s slave lists to learn as much as I could.
An advertisement on Mount Vernon’s website states that “No method of transportation to Mount Vernon was more popular during the 19th century than riverboat cruises.” Even today, Spirit of Mount Vernon excursion vessels transport thousands of visitors to George Washington’s home each year. There was a time, however, when visiting Mount Vernon by water was not so welcome.
If it were not for Martha’s handwritten statement of medical costs for the summer of 1757, we would know little about the state of her household leading up to and immediately following her first husband’s death. Financial papers—that general term for documents such as bills and pay orders, receipts and receipted bills, invoices and inventories, statements of account, bills of lading and exchange, accounts of sales, memoranda, and estate settlement papers—are rich with detailed information. Almost one-third of the 600 Martha Washington documents that The Washington Family Papers project has assembled since its inception in 2015 are financial in nature, whether authored by, addressed to, or written about her.
The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA) has protected and preserved George Washington’s home since before the Civil War. And their mission has always gone beyond one of simple architectural conservation.
During the tense years leading up to the Civil War, Robert E. Lee found himself under the close scrutiny of a group of abolitionists (who his wife described as “fanatical,” “unprincipled & cruel”). Lee’s marriage to Mary Custis, daughter of Martha Washington’s grandson George Washington Parke Custis, came with public visibility and certain expectations. People who Lee had never met demanded that he live up to the precedent set by George Washington and free his slaves.
None of Martha Washington’s writings implies that she held any moral opposition to the institution of slavery. As late as 1795 she wrote to her niece, who was upset that a young enslaved child had died, “Black children are liable to so many accidents and complaints—that one is heardly sure of keeping them—I hope you will not find in him much Loss—the Blacks are so bad in thair nature that they have not the least Gratatude for the kindness that may be shewed to them.”
In April 1781, about six months before the American victory at Yorktown, an opportunity for a different kind of liberty arose for Deborah, an enslaved 16-year-old at Mount Vernon. A fleet of British “plundering vessels” had appeared in the Potomac, burning homes and destroying property as they advanced. The Savage, a sloop of war commanded by Captain Thomas Graves, approached within a quarter mile of the home of the Continental Army’s commander in chief. Deborah saw an opportunity to join the British and gain her freedom.
With the holiday season upon us, it seems appropriate to look back at visitors’ accounts of George and Martha Washington’s Potomac River plantation, Mount Vernon. The Christmas season—stretching from December 24th to January 6th—was widely considered a time to gather with family and friends. As the Washingtons’ estate and reputation grew, visitors came year-round and included not only immediate family and local friends but more distant relatives and strangers with and without letters of introduction.