The History of Mount Vernon When Your Source is a Slave List

TOPICS: Documentary Editing, George Washington, Martha Washington, Mount Vernon, Slavery

by Kathryn Gehred, Research Editor
December 13, 2019

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. As historian Caitlin Rosenthal explains in Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management, plantation account books were designed to increase profits, not record the intricacies of a human society.1 A slave list will not tell you about an individual’s private life. 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.2 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.3

George Washington’s List of Enslaved People at Mount Vernon, 1799. Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.

A slave list is usually little more than a list of first names and occupations. Slaveowners did not always include information about family relationships in these lists, but since the birth of a child was seen as an addition of assets, sometimes such information was deemed relevant to include. Washington recorded spouses, children, and the approximate ages of his slaves in two surviving comprehensive lists: one from 1786, and the other from just before his death in 1799. Comparing the names and ages between these lists helped me to identify the people named in the document from 1802 that I was annotating, and, importantly, to determine family relationships. So, instead of writing only the name “Ephraim,” and listing his price, I could note that Ephraim, a 15-year-old boy, had to leave his mother and three of his younger brothers when the executors gave him to Martha Washington’s son-in-law Thomas Peter. During the era of slavery, children over the age of 11 or 12 were considered adults, due to the work that owners believed they should be able to perform. A slaveholder could legally sell or separate a slave of any age away from their families, but even those who promised not to do so often did after a child was in their early teens. By doing additional research, I was able to more accurately tell Ephraim’s story.

George Washington made a note in his slave lists if a person had a particular skill; an enslaved person with a profitable skill was given a higher monetary value than a person who worked in the fields. Such notes helped me identify the people in the list from 1802. When I read that the document listed two different men named John, but valued one of the men at $120 and the other at $35, I could infer that the person with the higher monetary value was the 20-year-old John whose mother had been a cook. The enslaved men who worked in Washington’s distillery (Hanson, Peter, Daniel, and Timothy) were all estimated at very high prices, as their experience making whiskey had the potential to make their owners a lot of money. Like those who worked in Washington’s fields, Hanson, Peter, Daniel and Timothy would not see the benefits of their labor.

This brings me to my last point—the dehumanization of the people named in these lists. To define a person’s identity based off the monetary value an executor gave him or her makes a kind of logical sense for enslavers, but it is inescapably callous. In just one example (among many others on my list), an executor labeled a 73-year-old woman named Daphne as “old” and valued her at $5, close to worthless. Daphne had labored for the Washington family for nearly half a century. As a young woman, she traveled with Martha Washington from New Kent County, Va. to Mount Vernon after Martha’s marriage to George Washington in 1759 . Daphne raised a son named Jemy, who would certainly never have described or remembered his mother as a person without value. But none of these details translated into profit for the people who enslaved her, and therefore, her “value” can be read on a sheet of paper at the Library of Congress as $5.

Historians do their work by analyzing primary sources. When it comes to writing about someone like George or Martha Washington, we have volumes of personal letters in which they describe their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. These primary sources bridge the gap of centuries between historical subjects and modern readers, making it easy for a researcher to empathize with those long-dead. Enslaved people were often actively barred from learning how to read and write, and thus left behind fewer letters. Slaves could not legally own property, testify in court, or marry, all of which would leave behind the kind of paper trail that historians use to piece together the past. Even if more documents had survived, they may not have been considered valuable enough by the court clerks and archivists of the last 300 years to save. In some cases, the only primary source a historian can find about an enslaved person is a list that provides a first name and monetary value.

It is an unquestionable fact that each person named in a slave list was a human being, with all the messy emotions, desires, and traits that go along with being alive. Slaveholders had a financial interest in writing about slaves as though they were livestock, but a historian should not repeat those attitudes uncritically. To write good history, a researcher must look beyond the frequently biased, dehumanizing sources, and dig out a little bit more of the truth.

1. Caitlin Rosenthal, Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management (Cambridge, Mass., 2018), page numbers.
2. “Division of Dower Slaves,” Washington Family Papers. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
3.  “February 1786,” Founders Online, National Archives, Also available in print: The Diaries of George Washington, 4:269-87; “Washington’s Slave List, June 1799,” Founders Online, National Archives, Also available in print: Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, 4:527-42.