Anyone visiting the estate this summer will have the chance to meet and interact with a new character interpreter — representing an important historical figure from Washington’s time. Christopher Sheels worked as a body servant to George Washington. The term “body servant” in today’s vocabulary sounds more like a body guard, but in the late 18th Century, a body servant was another term for personal assistant or attendant. Sheels was responsible for things like making sure Washington’s clothes were ready in the morning, that his hair was pulled back neatly, helping to deliver messages, and tending to the General’s horse. He became Washington’s sole attendant after his uncle Billy Lee was injured and could no longer fulfill his duties. Sheels was just a teenager when he took over responsibility as the body servant.
Sheels was a “dower” slave brought to the Mount Vernon estate by Martha Custis after her marriage to Washington. He was a trusted man and was taken to the presidential households with Washington in both New York and Philadelphia. He is believed to be one of the few Mount Vernon slaves that could read and write.
As a “dower slave,” Sheels was not included among the 124 slaves whom George Washington owned and freed under the terms of his will upon his death in 1799. In 1802, following Martha Washington’s death he was given back to the Custis estate.
Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States. Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19 that the Union soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. What a momentous day in history.