July 4, 2013
Mount Vernon recently acquired a large collection of family papers from descendants of Martha Washington’s second granddaughter, Martha Parke Custis Peter (1777-1854) and her husband Thomas Peter (1769-1834). As research on the collection continues, Mount Vernon’s Research Historian, Mary V. Thompson, will share the stories emerging from this treasure trove of information including information about the family, as well as topics such as life in the new city of Washington, DC; politics in the early republic; and, as discussed in this post, slavery.
As the owner of Mount Vernon following George Washington’s death, Mrs. Washington had to step into her late husband’s very large shoes in order to keep the plantation operating smoothly. This was not unfamiliar territory for Martha Washington who had taken over the estate of her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, following his death in 1757. Management of an estate such as Mount Vernon required oversight of the farms, the enslaved community, the household expenses, and the animals. In 1801, under Martha Washington’s management, a $72.64 bill was paid to the sheriff of Fairfax County for taxes owed on 138 slaves and 97 horses. Her account with a Dr. Hamilton shows that he made at least 15 visits to slaves on the estate between December 6, 1801 and September 6, 1802, during which he provided medicines and powders for those who were ill, bled several individuals, dressed wounds, assisted with one birth, and pulled one tooth.
Following Martha Washington’s death on May 22, 1802, Thomas Peter, her grandson-in-law, helped to manage her estate as one of the executors of her will.
One of the documents found in the Peter Collection that is most revealing about slavery is a receipt dated January 12, 1803. Written at nearby Woodlawn plantation, the home of Martha Washington’s youngest granddaughter Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis Lewis and her husband Lawrence Lewis, this receipt recorded that the sum of $50 was “received from Mr. Thomas Peter…in full for my Hire as a Smith on Mount Vernon Estate for the year 1802″.
The recipient of the payment was a blacksmith named George who signed his name with a simple cross; an indication that he could not write. Blacksmiths played an important role in plantation life where their skills were needed to shoe horses as well as to make and repair iron tools and equipment. This particular blacksmith, George, is undoubtedly the same blacksmith named George who was a member of the enslaved community at Mount Vernon freed by Martha Washington on January 1, 1801 in accordance with George Washington’s will. He had been hired back as a free person, because he had a skill Mount Vernon needed.
Mary V. Thompson
Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington