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ExhibitionProducing Food / Negotiating Power

The Potomac River was a lucrative source of trade and commerce for planters and slaves who, when possible, used the informal economy to barter and exchange fish for other goods.

George Washington used the Potomac River for an extensive fishing enterprise, and grew food for sustenance and commerce. Washington relied upon the skill, labor, and knowledge of the slaves at Mount Vernon for much of his wealth. Slaves used this position as a negotiating tool to bargain for labor arrangements that provided some degree of autonomy.

  • White man on a horse talking with an African American field worker, house in distance.

    Washington at Mount Vernon, 1797, Nathaniel Currier, 1852

    Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

  • Line woven around a piece of wood.

    Fishing line, 1760–1800

    Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

    Catching dinner

    Slaves at the Mount Vernon plantation, like the elderly “Father” Jack, often were tasked with catching fish, using a simple line and hook, for George Washington’s dinner.

  • Metal hook with small barb on the end.

    Fishing hook, ca. 18th century

    Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

    Catching dinner

    Slaves at the Mount Vernon plantation, like the elderly “Father” Jack, often were tasked with catching fish, using a simple line and hook, for George Washington’s dinner.

  • Color illustration of coffee showing both the beans and leaves.

    “Coffee” plate from A Curious Herbal, ..., Elizabeth Blackwell, 1737

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    Raw coffee beans from the Caribbean

    Merchant ships transported coffee beans from the West Indies to colonial ports. George Washington imported large amounts of beans often exchanging shad or herring caught from the Potomac River for coffee.

  • Open book showing typewritten text.

    A Treatise Concerning the Properties and Effects of Coffee., Benjamin Moseley, 1792

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    Labored roast

    Coffee making was labor intensive. Enslaved cooks used coffee roasters placed in front of the kitchen fire to roast the beans and then ground them in a hand-turned grinder before brewing.