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ON THE PLANTATION

"Disorders... are easier prevented than cured…"

As the owner of Mount Vernon, George Washington was responsible for the health of everyone on the plantation, including his enslaved workers. They numbered over 300 people at the end of his life.

Washington expressed concern that the slaves be given "every necessary care and attention" when unwell and complained that many overseers neglected the slaves when they were too ill to work, "instead of comforting and nursing them when they lye on a sick bed."

Above quote from a letter from George Washington to Richard Varick, September 26, 1785

  • Washington the Planter, etching by Louis Conrad Rosenberg

    Washington the Planter, etching by Louis Conrad Rosenberg, 1933

    Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

    In the foreground of this etching, with color added, the figure of George Washington stands in consultation with his overseer. Both men are wearing wide brimmed hats, Washington with a long blue coat and the overseer with a dark grey or brown coat. Behind Washington is his white horse with saddle, tended to by an enslaved man. To the right of the owner and supervisor, in the near-middle ground, in front of a grove of trees, are eight enslaved workers harvesting a field of hay with a cart generously piled high with bales of hay. Two more workers are in the distance. In the background of the scene, on the crest of a small incline sits George Washington's home with its red roof and white walls. To the left of the building flows the Potomac River.

  • Manuscript list of slaves at Mount Vernon

    George Washington's list of slaves at Mount Vernon, 1799

    Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

    Play audio of transcript

    The records of the estate of Mount Vernon include an inventory titled: "Negros Belonging to George Washington in his own right and by Marriage." The list identifies names, ages, remarks, and trades of black men, women, and children held in slavery at Mount Vernon, and makes note of marital relationships. This page of the inventory is divided into five sections: "G.W.," lists 24 people, "Dower," identifies 28 enslaved individuals acquired through marriage, "Mansion House passed labour," lists 3 names, "Mansion House," identifies 12 people, and "children," identifies a boy and a girl.

    Washington documented both his own slaves, and the "dower slaves" who belonged to the estate of Mrs. Washington's first husband. Basic information was recorded for each person, including medical conditions, such as dwarfism, lameness, and senility.

  • Portrait of Doctor James Craik

    Portrait of Doctor James Craik, a Scottish immigrant who served in the army with Washington and became both the Washingtons' family doctor and the regular physician for Mount Vernon's enslaved community

    Courtesy Alexandria-Washington Lodge No. 22, A.F. & A.M., Alexandria, Virginia
    Photography by Arthur W. Pierson

    Against a dark background, Dr. James Craik is shown as a middle aged man in this half-length painted portrait, his face turned slightly to the left, his blue eyes focused on the spectator, his long brown hair combed straight back. The light illuminates the face of the figure, his white cravat, and the gold buttons on his red vest. Dr Craik is shown wearing a dark blue coat with red collar and gold buttons.

    Trained at the medical school at the University of Edinburgh, Dr. Craik treated both whites and blacks at Mount Vernon. Between August 1797 and June 1799, he bled 39 patients, extracted six teeth, and prescribed a variety of medications. He also made use of home remedies including herbal teas, rice water for dysentery, and honey and vinegar for sore throats.

  • Photo of dental scaler set

    Dental scaler set, 1795–1850; said to have been used to clean the teeth of slaves at Mount Vernon

    Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

    This photograph of a set of dental tools features a handle with a collection of seven interchangeable tips. The handle is made of light-colored ivory. There are metal ends on either end of the handle, one end has a wing nut that could be loosened to allow for changing the tip of the scaler. The ends of the scalers, which are silver in color and made of metal, are pointed, angled, and curved in various degrees.

    Washington routinely visited sick slaves and oversaw numerous health efforts, including dental care.

  • Plan of Mount Vernon by Samuel Vaughan, 1787

    Plan of Mount Vernon by Samuel Vaughan, 1787

    Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

    This sepia tinted, hand drawn illustration of a plan of the Mount Vernon estate shows a symmetrical plan with the main lawn featured in the center of the plan, flanked on either side by arbors and bullet-shaped gardens, divided into gridded planting beds. The top of the plan shows a circular pathway in front of the main house, and smaller outbuildings, with trees on either side. The very top of the plan indicates the Potomac River, sailing vessels and the far shore of the river.

    The highlighted building was initially constructed in the 1770s as a hospital for sick slaves.

  • Plan of Mount Vernon by Samuel Vaughan

    Le General Washington, engraving by Noël Le Mire, after Jean Baptiste Le Paon and Charles Willson Peale, Paris, 1780. Washington's enslaved valet, William Lee, is shown to the right

    Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

    In this black-and-white stylized and symbolic depiction of George Washington, the general is shown wearing his military uniform of dark coat with fringed epaulets, white breeches and black boots, his gun is holstered on the left. Washington is positioned to the left of the image, shown standing amidst documents and papers that defined the new Republic. With his left hand tucked into his vest, he holds in his right hand the Declaration of Independence. Scattered at the feet of the standing general are a Bill to Pardon the Rebels, a bill for Protection to the Rebels, Concillatory Bills and other proclamations. A carpet draped table to Washington's left is stacked high with more documents, and a ledger. Behind Washington, his pavillion-styled, round tent is drawn open, with his horse to the right, its hindquarters facing the viewer. Tending to the horse is, perhaps a represntation of Washington's enslaved valet, William Lee, dressed in a turban. The scene is set beneath a towering tree; in the background are rows of tents of Washington's encamped armies.

    George Washington's long-time valet, William Lee, suffered two serious accidents in the 1780s which dislocated the knee caps of both legs, resulting in permanent disability. Because he could no longer perform his regular duties, Lee became the plantation's shoemaker instead.

  • Engraving of George Washington and William Lee

    The Washington Family, engraving by Edward Savage, ca. 1790–1798.

    Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

    In this black-and-white engraving of a domestic scene featuring George and Martha Washington, her grandson and granddaughter, and an enslaved man, possibly Christopher Sheels, Washington's valet, the family gathers around a draped table looking over a map. The first president and his wife are seated on either side of the table, George on the left, Martha on the right. George is wearing his military uniform of a dark coat, white breeches, and black boots. His hair is grey, curls at the side, a queue [pony tail] in the back. Washington rests his right forearm on the shoulder of the young boy standing by his grandfather. Washington's left hand rests on the table where he rests his sword. The young boy's right hand holds a fabric cover for the nearby pedestal globe. Martha is on the right side of the image, wearing satin and lace, with a gauzy cap embellished with bows. She holds a closed fan, with which she points to the map. Behind the table stands a young woman with long hair and a light- colored dress. She helps hold open the rolled map. The valet is dressed in a high collared coat, with vest, and cravat.

    When cases were beyond the abilities of local physicians, help was sought elsewhere. After his valet, Christopher Sheels (possibly shown on the right in this engraving), was bitten by a family dog in 1797, Washington sent the young man to William Stoy in Pennsylvania, who specialized in rabies. Christopher survived.