Return to Home PageThe President's House

In the News index

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: August 28, 2002
Byline: Edward Lawler Jr.

Letter to the Editor: Recognize those who served George Washington in Philly as distinct individuals

Knowing more about the eight slaves who George Washington brought to work in the President's House might help in the discussion of a memorial (Commentary, Aug. 19). The Mount Vernon ledgers generally do not list the births or deaths of slaves, so the ages below are approximate upon arrival in Philadelphia in November 1790.

Moll - 51, single, maid to Martha Washington and probably nanny to her grandchildren.

Hercules - late 30s, widower with three children (two at Mount Vernon), principal cook, reportedly one of the finest chefs in the country.

Richmond - 13, Hercules' son, scullion (kitchen worker).

Austin - early 30s, married with wife and five children at Mount Vernon, probably waiter for the family meals and part-time stable worker.

Oney Judge - 16, single, half-sister to Austin, maid and body servant to Mrs. Washington.

Giles - early 30s, probably single, stable worker.

Paris - 18, single, stable worker.

Christopher Sheels - 15, body servant to Washington, nephew of Billy Lee, Washington's previous body servant.

Washington is credited with freeing his slaves in his will, an action that Virginia law made difficult and expensive, but none of these eight was freed by him. Most of the slaves at Mount Vernon and the Washingtons' other plantations (and in the President's House) were "dower" slaves, owned by the estate of Martha Washington's first husband. She was granted the use of them during her lifetime, but, upon her death in 1802, the dower slaves (about 150) were divided among her grandchildren.

The slaves in the President's House slept in three distinct areas. It is likely that Hercules, Richmond and Christopher slept in a room in the attic of the main house; Moll and Oney slept with Mrs. Washington's grandchildren in two rooms over the kitchen; and Giles, Paris and Austin slept in a room Washington ordered built behind the kitchen, between the smokehouse and the stable.

Within a year, three of the eight had been returned to Mount Vernon: Richmond, because Washington thought him lazy; Paris, because Washington found the rebellious teenager insubordinate; and Giles, because he had been seriously injured, and could no longer ride a horse. Austin died in December 1794, on his way from Philadelphia to Mount Vernon to spend Christmas with his family.

There is documentation of escape attempts by three of the remaining four. Hercules was owned by Washington, and would have been freed in his will, but Hercules' late wife had been a dower slave, and so their children were also dower slaves. Richmond was caught stealing money, for what may have been a planned attempt by the father and son to run away together. Following Washington's presidency, Hercules did escape at the last possible moment, somewhere between Philadelphia and Chester, on the final trip back to Mount Vernon. Oney, a dower slave, escaped and was tracked down in New Hampshire. She attempted to negotiate with Washington to return if she too could be freed in his will. The President haughtily refused. Christopher seems to have known how to read and write. Washington found a note outlining Christopher's plot to escape from Mount Vernon, and foiled it.

Oney Judge is the only one of the eight whose whereabouts can be traced after Mrs. Washington's death. She settled in New Hampshire, had a family and lived a long life, and was interviewed by abolitionist newspapers in the 19th century. Hercules was never found or heard from again. The fate of the rest, of Hercules' children, and of those of the late Austin (all dower slaves) is not known.

A monument was dedicated in 1983 to the hundreds of anonymous slaves buried in unmarked graves at Mount Vernon. If a similar memorial to the slaves who toiled in the President's House is created for Independence Mall, the eight should be defined as distinct individuals, and as more than the possessions of the President of the United States.

-Edward Lawler Jr. Plymouth Meeting
Lawler's research on the President's House was published in the January issue of The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Biographical sketches of the eight slaves can be found at ushistory.org/presidentshouse.

 

Return to Start Page | In the News index

historic documents, declaration, constitution, more