Like children everywhere, the enslaved girls and boys who lived on President George Washington’s Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon, liked to play together. While their parents cleaned Washington’s mansion house or cooked his family’s meals or groomed his horses or toiled in his fields from dawn to dusk, the slave children seem to have looked after themselves. And as children will do, they sometimes played where they had been told not to.
When Washington’s new farm manager, William Pearce, arrived at Mount Vernon in the fall of 1793, he was dismayed to see that the slave children had the run of the grounds. “I thought I saw a great many at your mansion house,” he wrote to his employer.
At the time Washington himself was in Philadelphia, leading the new nation he had helped create. He answered Pearce’s letter promptly, as he usually did with matters concerning Mount Vernon. He had loved it ever since he was a boy. No matter how far away he was from Mount Vernon, it was never far from his thoughts.
He already knew that the children played around his mansion. They had been doing it for years. “There are a great number of Negro children at the quarters belonging to the house people,” he replied to Pearce.
George Washington often called the enslaved human beings he owned his “people.” The “house people” worked as personal servants to the Washington family. They were the maids and butlers and waiters, the seamstresses and grooms. Most of them lived close to t he mansion house, either in their own tiny cabins or above the outbuildings or in a dormitory-style building known as the quarters.
“But,” continued Washington, the children “have always been forbid (except two or three young ones belonging to the cook . . .) from coming within the gates of the enclosures of the yards, gardens, etc.” The cook’s name was Lucy. Her husband, Frank Lee, was a house servant and waiter. Their children—who included Phil, Patty, and Burwell— were the only ones with permission to play near the mansion.
As Washington admitted to Pearce, however, the rest of the children “are often in there notwithstanding.” Something about the area was irresistible. Perhaps it was the long lawn in front of the mansion, compared by a French visitor to “a playground carpeted in green.” The walled gardens on either side of the lawn must have been especially tempting. It’s easy to imagine children racing around the gravel paths, leaping over shrubs and swinging from trees. During the fun a twig might snap or a branch break off and get used as a pretend sword. Careless feet might trample vegetables or flowers. And who could resist picking a juicy apple or pear when the ripe fruit dangled from the trees?
Among the young trespassers might have been Wilson, Rachel, and Jemima. Their mother, Caroline, served as a maid in the mansion house. Timothy and Elvey might have played there too. Their mother, Charlotte, was a seamstress who sometimes worked in the mansion.
Washington told Pearce why the slave children were banned from the area. It was so “they may not be breaking the shrubs, and doing other mischief.” Washington took great pride in Mount Vernon’s gardens. He had designed them himself, and he enjoyed showing them off to guests. He was especially proud of the boxwood shrubs arranged in an elegant shape known as a fleur-de-lis.
But aside from his complaints, Washington seems to have done little to stop the children from playing there. As President, he no doubt had more important things on his mind.
And perhaps he didn’t have the heart to enforce the ban. He knew that the enslaved children would soon be put to work for him, when they were between 11 and 14 years old. About this, he was quite clear: “So soon as they are able to work out I expect to reap the benefit of their labor myself.” In this time, it was not unusual for enslaved children—or free children, for that matter—to start work at such an early age. The difference was that if you were a free child, your parents decided when and where you would be put to work. If you were an enslaved child, your owner decided your fate.
George Washington became a slave owner when he was only a boy himself. When his father, Augustine Washington, died in 1743, he left 11-year-old George ten enslaved workers. George also inherited the family home, a plantation called Ferry Farm near Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Young George took slavery for granted. He had grown up watching his father’s slaves tend the farm animals, clear the fields, and plant, hoe, and harvest the crops. Other slaves cooked, cleaned, and washed clothes for the Washington family. They helped care for the Washington children. George’s neighbors and older half-brothers also owned slaves.
African people were first sold as servants in Virginia in 1619. Over the next two centuries, many thousands more African men, women, and children were captured, shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas, and sold to colonists to be unpaid workers for the rest of their lives. By the time George Washington was born in 1732, slavery was a fact of life in American society. Enslaved black people were considered a “species of property,” just like horses or dogs or tables or chairs. They could be bought, sold, rented, traded, or given away as gifts. They had no rights at all. Today it is difficult for us to understand this attitude, but in the 1700s many people saw things differently. Very few white colonists objected to slavery. And the slaves themselves had no say in the matter.
Excerpted from Master George's People by Marfe Ferguson Delano. Copyright © 2013 by Marfe Ferguson Delano. Excerpted by permission of National Geographic Children's Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.