Friday, October 09, 2015

The Graves of Washington's Slaves

Memorial at Mount Vernon (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Here descendants of Washington’s slaves gather at the memorial dedicated to their ancestors.  When Washington died, there were some 317 slaves living at Mount Vernon.  Under the terms of Washington’s will, his slaves (not including forty who were rented or the 154 slaves belonging to Martha Washington) were to be freed upon the death of his wife.  The terms of the will created an almost immediate problem for Martha Washington. The only thing standing between 123 slaves and their freedom was her life. According to a contemporary letter, Martha Washington “did not feel as tho her Life was safe in their [slaves] Hands”. Nor was this fear groundless. The records of colonial Virginia document the trial of 180 slaves tried for poisoning. Martha freed Washington’s slaves within a year after his death. She never freed her own slaves.

Near George Washington’s tomb are the unmarked graves of some 150 slaves, including William “Billy” Lee, Washington’s personal servant during the Revolutionary War.  William Lee was freed in Washington’s will for, “his faithful services during the Revolutionary War,” and received a substantial pension and the option of remaining at Mount Vernon.  Lee lived on at Mount Vernon until his death in 1828.  Another slave buried here, West Ford, is claimed by some to be George Washington’s illegitimate son.  According to Linda Allen Bryant, a direct descendant of West Ford, there is an oral tradition in the Ford family indicating that West Ford was the child of George Washington and a slave named Venus. At the present development stage of DNA science, no direct link to George Washington can be established.  The Mount Vernon Ladies Association has pledged its cooperation with testing as DNA science progresses.

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