Archive for the ‘Mount Vernon’ Category

“the ostrich feathers . . . took fire”

When the widowed Martha Dandridge Custis married George Washington she brought her two children to live at Mount Vernon: John “Jacky” and Martha “Patsy.” Sadly, her daughter died of consumption in 1773. Jacky was a bit wild, married young, joined the army and died of camp fever shortly after the battle of Yorktown, leaving his wife and four children. The two oldest children stayed with their widowed mother. The other two—George Washington Parke Custis, called “Wash,” and his sister Eleanor Parke Custis called “Nelly”—came to live at Mount Vernon. George Washington officially adopted his two step grandchildren.

G.W.P. Custis married Mary Lee Fitzhugh and their daughter Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the only one of four children who reached maturity, married Robert E. Lee. In 1826, GWP Custis admitted paternity of a child born to a slave who had once resided at Mount Vernon where she served Martha Washington. During his lifetime GWP Custis put down his recollections of George Washington and life at Mount Vernon. After his death his daughter published them in a volume that can be read online. Here is an anecdote he recounts that occurred at one of Martha Washington’s levees.

Mrs. Washington’s drawing rooms, on Friday nights, were attended by the grace and beauty of New York. On one of these occasions an incident occurred which might have been attended by serious consequences. Owing to the lowness of the ceiling in the drawing room, the ostrich feathers in the head-dress of Miss [Mary] McIvers, a belle of New York, took fire from the chandelier, to the no small alarm of the company. Major Jackson, aid-de-camp [sic] to the president, with great presence of mind, and equal gallantry, flew to the rescue of the lady, and, by clapping the burning plumes between his hands, extinguished the flame, and the drawing-room went on as usual.

Custis wrote that George Washington attended his wife’s drawing-rooms.

[He] paid his compliments to the circle of ladies, with that ease and elegance of manners for which he was remarkable. Among the most polished and well-bred gentlemen of his time, he was always particularly polite to ladies, even in the rugged scene of war; and, in advanced age, many were the youthful swains who sighed for those gracious smiles with which the fair always received the attentions of this old beau of sixty-five.

Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington by his adopted son, George Washington Parke Custis, with a Memoir of the author, by his Daughter (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1860), pp 395-96 and 409. I promise you will spend time reading other stories from the Memoirs online HERE.

posted February 15th, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Custis, "Jacky",Custis, Eleanor "Nelly" Parke,Custis, George Washington Parke,Custis, Martha "Patsy",Custis, Mary Anna Randolph,Mount Vernon,New York,Washington, George,Washington, Martha

” to my … man William … I give immediate freedom”

The subject of the Washington slaves still piques me so I decided to look further into the matter. At the time of George Washington’s death in 1799 there were 318 slaves living at Mount Vernon. Of that number 123 belonged to Washington himself. The others were dower slaves from the estate of Martha’s first husband Daniel Parke Custis. Since he died intestate Martha received a life interest in one-third of his estate, including the slaves. Upon her death, the dower slaves and other property were to revert to the Custis estate to be shared by the heirs.

Although recent posts have been concerned with the escape of Oney Judge Staines and Hercules, other slaves had “absconded” from Mount Vernon. In April of 1781 eighteen slaves fled to the British whose warship the HMS Savage was anchored in the Potomac. Washington employed a slave catcher to retrieve seven of them. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote a post in 2012 on another of Washington’s slaves, Harry, who tried to escape but was caught. He succeeded in his second attempt and was one of the many slaves the British evacuated from New York in 1783.

In his will drawn up several months before his death Washington made provision for the eventual emancipation of the 123 slaves he owned. This was to take place after the death of Martha. Here is the section of the will that deals with this subject:

Upon the decease [of] my wife, it is my Will & desire th[at] all the Slaves which I hold in [my] own right, shall receive their free[dom]. To emancipate them during [her] life, would, tho’ earnestly wish[ed by] me, be attended with such insu[pera]ble difficulties on account of thei[r interm]ixture by Marriages with the [dow]er Negroes, as to excite the most pa[in]ful sensations, if not disagreeabl[e c]onsequences from the latter, while [both] descriptions are in the occupancy [of] the same Proprietor; it not being [in] my power, under the tenure by which [th]e Dower Negroes are held, to man[umi]t them. And whereas among [thos]e who will recieve freedom ac[cor]ding to this devise, there may b[e so]me, who from old age or bodily infi[rm]ities, and others who on account of [the]ir infancy, that will be unable to [su]pport themselves; it is m[y Will and de]sire that all who [come under the first] & second descrip[tion shall be comfor]tably cloathed & [fed by my heirs while] they live; and that such of the latter description as have no parents living, or if living are unable, or unwilling to provide for them, shall be bound by the Court until they shall arrive at the age of twenty five years; and in cases where no record can be produced, whereby their ages can be ascertained, the judgment of the Court, upon its own view of the subject, shall be adequate and final. The Negros thus bound, are (by their Masters or Mistresses) to be taught to read & write; and to be brought up to some useful occupation, agreeably to the Laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, providing for the support of Orphan and other poor Children. and I do hereby expressly forbid the Sale, or transportation out of the said Commonwealth, of any Slave I may die possessed of, under any pretence whatsoever. And I do moreover most pointedly, and most solemnly enjoin it upon my Executors hereafter named, or the Survivors of them, to see that th[is cla]use respecting Slaves, and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled at the Epoch at which it is directed to take place; without evasion, neglect or delay, after the Crops which may then be on the ground are harvested, particularly as it respects the aged and infirm; seeing that a regular and permanent fund be established for their support so long as there are subjects requiring it; not trusting to the [u]ncertain provision to be made by individuals. And to my Mulatto man William (calling himself William Lee) I give immediate freedom; or if he should prefer it (on account of the accidents which ha[v]e befallen him, and which have rendered him incapable of walking or of any active employment to remain in the situation he now is, it shall be optional in him to do so: In either case however, I allow him an annuity of thirty dollars during his natural life, whic[h] shall be independent of the victuals and cloaths he has been accustomed to receive, if he chuses the last alternative; but in full, with his freedom, if he prefers the first; & this I give him as a test[im]ony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.

Several points are worthy of note. Washington thought it would be too difficult to free his slaves upon his death as many had intermarried with the dower slaves so he specified that they should be freed when Martha died. Secondly, as was frequently the case with slaves who were freed by their owners, provision was made for the care of emancipated slaves who were too old or disabled to manage on their own as well as care for those who were too young to do so. Washington specified that the latter should be taught to read and write and be equipped with skills which would allow them to make a living. Finally there is the case of William Lee whom Washington had purchased and who had attended him in various capacities in the course of his life, both during war and peace; Washington freed him outright and bequeathed him an annuity.

Martha Washington decided to free her husband’s slaves before she died and had the legal papers necessary to do so drawn up in December of 1800. On January 1, 1801, the slaves that belonged to George Washington were freed, some two years before Martha’s own death. Writing on the subject to her sister, Abigail Adams suggested that Martha Washington’s action may have been motivated by self-interest. “In the state in which they were left by the General, to be free at her death,” Adams wrote, “she did not feel as tho her Life was safe in their Hands, many of whom would be told that it was [in] their interest to get rid of her.” Did Martha fear for her life? I think not. More likely, as has been suggested, she may not have liked to be reminded of her death in this manner.
George Washington’s will, in its entirety, can be found HERE. See this WEBSITE for information about Washington’s slaves. Read Henry Louis Gates’ article HERE. In John Trumbull’s portrait of Washington painted in 1780 (in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) William Lee can be seen on the right.

posted February 4th, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Adams, Abigail,Lee, William,Mount Vernon,Slaves/slavery,Washington, George,Washington, Martha

Bake a cherry pie

Since recent posts have be concerned with the slave Hercules, George Washington’s highly regarded chef who escaped, I thought I would bring to your attention a book describing how the Washingtons’ dinner table might have looked and what the menus were likely to have included. Dining With the Washingtons, Historic Recipes, Entertaining, and Hospitality from Mount Vernon edited by Stephen A. McLeod and published by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association contains many beautiful photographs of table settings, prepared foods, and gardens at Mount Vernon as well as informative essays and several recipes. With Valentine’s Day coming up as well as George Washington’s birthday you might want to prepare a cherry pie. (The “I cannot tell a lie” story about George chopping down the cherry tree is a myth invented by Washington’s biographer Mason Weems.) See the recipe here.

posted January 28th, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Food,Hercules,Mount Vernon,Washington, George,Washington, Martha

Follow-up on Hercules

Apropos the recent controversy over the depiction of Hercules, the cook in the household of George and Martha Washington, in A Birthday Cake for George Washington (see previous post), here are some additional interesting details about Hercules. The Philadelphia Inquirer published an article on January 23, 2016 describing work on the President’s mansion at Sixth and Market Streets in Philadelphia that uncovered the kitchen where Hercules worked. Ironically it is located just in front of the new Liberty Bell Center. Also cited is a farm report from Mount Vernon that shows that Hercules “absconded” on Washington’s birthday in 1797.
Louis-Philippe, the future king of France, visiting Mount Vernon in the spring of 1797 recorded in his diary: “The general’s cook ran away, being now in Philadelphia, and left a little daughter of six at Mount Vernon. Beaudoin ventured that the little girl must be deeply upset that she would never see her father again; she answered, ‘Oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now.'”* How did Louis-Philippe know that Hercules was in Philadelphia? Perhaps Washington said that he suspected that was the case.
At any rate Washington requested that contacts in Philadelphia be on the lookout for Hercules. His former steward Frederick Kitt replied in a letter dated January 1798: “I have been making distant enquiries about Herculas but did not till about four weeks ago hear anything of him and that was only that [he] was in town neither do I yet know where he is, and that will be very difficult to find out in the secret manner necessary to be observed on the occasion. I shall however use the utmost exertions in my power, and hereafter inform you of my sucess.”
Hercules was never recovered. In his will Washington specified that the slaves he owned be manumitted. After his death in 1799, Martha saw that his wishes were carried out. So Hercules became legally free although he did not know it. In 1801 Martha Washington wrote a letter to Richard Varick in New York indicating that she had learned that Hercules was in New York.** But nothing more was ever heard again of Hercules or his whereabouts.
The portrait shown is by Gilbert Stuart and is thought to be of Hercules. It is in the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid. Who commissioned it is a mystery. Would George Washington have wanted a portrait of his cook who was a slave? Could Hercules himself have commissioned it? It has been suggested by James Wemberley that the portrait ought to be in the White House Collection and that Michelle Obama might undertake to acquire it. I like the idea. See Wemberley’s article on a possible exchange.

* Louis-Philippe, Diary of My Travels in America, translation by Stephen Becker (New York: Delacorte Press, 1977), p. 32.
** Martha Washington to Col. Richard Varick, 15 December 1801. “Worthy Partner:” The Papers of Martha Washington, Joseph E. Fields, ed., (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), pp. 398-99.

posted January 25th, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Food,Hercules,Mount Vernon,New York,Philadelphia,Washington, George,Washington, Martha

“the resignation of power over an immense country”

Henrietta Liston was keenly aware of George Washington’s importance as a key figure in America’s history. (See post.) When he voluntarily resigned his office, Mrs. Liston commented on what the reasons underlying that decision might have been.

On the third of March [1797], it being the last day of General Washington’s power as President, he gave a publick dinner to the officers of the State, Foreign Ministers principal Senators, & to their respective Ladies.

I had, as usual, the gratification of being handed to Table & of sitting by the President. Had I never before considered the character of Washington, I should certainly have joined the general voice, & pronounced him greater in this voluntary retreat, & in the resignation of power over an immense country, than when, having by his conduct as a Soldier, been the principal means of rendering his Country independent, he became, by the universal suffrage of the people, its ruler & director. I should have repeated with others—Washington is the first of Men, wise, great, & good, whereas as I now view him, he is in truth & reality, honest, prudent, & fortunate, & wonderful to say, almost without ambition; these words are less dignified but not less strong. . . .

The World gives General Washington more credit for his retirement from publick life than I am disposed to do. He has for eight years sacrificed his natural taste, first habits, & early propensities, I really believe we may truly say, solely to what he thought the good of his Country. But he was become tired of his situation, fretted by the opposition often made to his measures; & his pride revolted against the ingratitude he experienced, and he was also disgusted by the scurrilous abuse lavished upon him by his political enemies.

Later that year, the Listons visited Mount Vernon once again.

Washington still appears more amiable & happy since his retirement from a public life. He has had the good fortune to fill the three first situations in America—at the Head of the Army, during the Rebellion against England, The first Magistrate after the Independence of his Country, &, having voluntarily retired, after filling the office of President to the United States for eight years, He is now the first & most extensive Farmer, perhaps on the Continent. He possesses Lands in several different States, but at Mount Vernon He at present holds four thousand acres, in his own hands.

And, Liston added, “He has five hundred slaves.”

Quotations are from The Travel Journals of Henrietta Marchant Liston: North America and Lower Canada, 1796-1800 (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Press, 2014) pages 17-19. The map is from a drawing made by Washington himself and can be found HERE.

posted February 23rd, 2015 by Louise, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Liston, Henrietta Marchant,Mount Vernon,Slaves/slavery,Washington, George

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