Hercules Washington

Hercules Washington

One of the enslaved people of Washington was Hercules. He worked as a cook for Washington and was recorded as being good-looking and having amazing culinary ability. Washington thought that Hercules cooking was so good that he allowed him to sell leftovers and keep the money for himself. Hercules did just that and used the money to purchase nice clothes. Washington, who valued keeping up public appearances, approved of Hercules wardrobe choices. Furthermore, the Washingtons usually took him with them whenever they changed location; when Washington became president, he forced Hercules to move with them to Philadelphia. This provided an opportunity for Hercules to escape.[1]

Philadelphia during that time had a law that enslaved people that stayed in the state for 6-months would be declared free. Washington prevented that from happening by moving his slaved back and forth from Virginia to Philadelphia. The enslaved people being transferred back and forth caught on to what Washington was doing and his action to bar them from freedom. Washington’s decision to move people back and forth was an obvious declaration of never allowing any of his captives’ freedom.  Hercules ran away in one of the relocations.[2] Washington pursued Hercules but was never able to find him.

 

Billy Lee

Billy Lee was the body servant and constant companion to Washington. He was so close to Washington that he was included him in a family portrait (Figure 6), and Washington kept details of his character and personality, activities and interests and steps in his career in his diary.  Washington purchased Billy on May 3, 1768 for, 61 pounds and 15 shillings as a teenager. He was trained as a horse rider and went on multiple cross-country journeys with Washington. When the American Revolution broke out, Billy Lee joined Washington in multiple battles such as the Battle of Monmouth and the Battle of Yorktown. Multiple testimonies of Washington declared how Washington was a highly visible figure throughout the war and at his side usually rode an African-American man. After the war, Billy Lee crippled his legs in a couple of accidents, but regardless. Washington took him with him to New York for the presidential inauguration.[3]

WashingtonFamily

Figure 6: The Washington Family (1796), painted by Edward Savage. This photo is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As Billy Lee got older, he was replaced by a younger man and was given the role of a cobbler. When Washington died, he gave Billy the option of freedom or continuing to stay in Mount Vernon. Regardless of the decision, Billy was to be given an annuity of 30 dollars that was independent of the expenses he already had for food and clothes. When Washington died, Billy stayed at Mount Vernon to have familiar surroundings around him as he aged. In all, he should be remembered as a good horseman and companion who came to Washington’s aid throughout the whole Revolution.[4]

 

Ona Judge

Oney “Ona” Judge was another enslaved person of George Washington who escaped from Mount Vernon. She was a seamstress of Marth Washington and in charge of her hair and clothes. Martha viewed their relationship as being intimate and excitedly disclosed to her that she was to be gifted over to her niece. Judge, who had hoped to be freed one day, saw this as a condemnation of her fate. She would never gain freedom by continuing to serve the Washingtons. One night, she packed a bag and left the Washingtons. Martha was surprised when she heard that Ona had ran away, which showed how the Washingtons often mistook obedience as loyalty. Washington went on to relentlessly pursue her. He gained information that she had reappeared in New Hampshire and sent men to bring her back. After multiple attempts of kidnapping, Ona proposed a deal with Washington that if he ensured her freedom later then she would come back. Washington refused. Ona went on to marry a man from New Hampshire and build a family there.  She never returned to the Washingtons.[5],[6]

There are much more narratives of enslaved people who made their home at Mount Vernon that was not touched on. George Washington, in his will, emancipated his slaves which came as a shock to everyone and most especially Martha Washington. [7] This last act may have been the expression of pressure that had built up in Washington over the years as a public figure. The coloring pages below is a picture of Mount Vernon with the names of the enslaved people who made their home at Mount Vernon. This is not an exhaustive list and much more lined at Mount Vernon. The coloring page is intended to invoke the idea that all the lives at Mount Vernon mattered and to say that it was the home of one man would be erasing the narratives of so many people.

Mount Vernon Residents Coloring Page

 

[1] Wiencek, Imperfect God, 283-290.

[2] Ibid., 282-316.

[3] Hirschfeld, George Washington and Slavery, 96-100.

[4] Ibid., 96-111.

[5] Ibid., 112-117.

[6] Wiencek, An Imperfect God, 322-323.

[7] Hirschfeld, George Washington and Slavery, 212.

Hercules Washington picture was made using Autodesk(2017) Sketchbooks (Version 8.4.0) [Application Software]. Based upon a portrait of Hercules by Gilbert Stuart.

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