George Washington is a beloved figure in U.S. history. As general of the Continental army, he led the American colonies to success in the Revolutionary War against Great Britain. This win was followed with his election as the first president of the newly formed United States of America in 1789. When not busy helping to build a nation, George spent most of his time on his sprawling Virginia estate with his wife, Martha. The Washingtons were gracious hosts, welcoming hundreds of visitors to their home each year. Continuing their tradition, it remains open every day of the year, even national holidays. Join me for a tour of George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
Mount Vernon’s two-story back porch, designed by George himself, is now an iconic Virginia architectural style. Fan back chairs line the porch, so you can sit and enjoy the view of the Potomac River, which hasn’t changed much since the Washingtons were in residence.
The 11,000-square-foot mansion has 21 rooms spread over two floors. This is 10 times the size of the average house in Virginia at the time! Many rooms feature bold paint and wallpaper colors, such as emerald green, Prussian blue, and canary yellow. These would have been quite expensive in the 18th century and are a definite sign of wealth.
Some of the furnishings are original to the house, including George’s desk and a unique chair with pedals that operate an attached fan. Though I can’t imagine that fan created enough of a breeze to make a dent on a stifling Virginia summer. Another special item on display is a key to the Bastille, given to George by his friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, a French hero of the Revolutionary War.
Mount Vernon’s gardens were functional as well as ornamental. Martha ensured the kitchen garden produced fruit and vegetables in each season. Even the formal garden, nearest the house, held fruit trees, including pomegranates. A large greenhouse protected aloe vera plants and citrus trees. A formal boxwood parterre in the shape of a fleur-de-lis paid homage to French assistance during the Revolutionary War.
Martha took great pains to feed her many guests high quality meals, which contained a shocking amount of calories by today’s standards. Her famous Christmas cake recipe calls for 40 eggs and four POUNDS of butter! No wonder gout was such a common ailment back then. The kitchen occupied a separate building next to the mansion to reduce the risk of fire damage. There are over a dozen outbuildings on the grounds of Mount Vernon, including a laundry, blacksmith workshop, smokehouse, and slave quarters.
Enslaved Africans performed all the essential functions of running and maintaining the plantation. Over 300 people were enslaved at Mount Vernon when George died in 1799. A handful worked in the house as butlers and maids, and several dozen were trained in specific trades. The rest toiled in the fields, harvesting crops including tobacco, wheat, and corn. The enslaved house workers slept in gender segregated barracks behind the greenhouse, while the field hands had cabins closer to the crops. Life was grim for all.
Mount Vernon was a successful plantation, with the enslaved Africans producing both food and fabric. Hundreds of cows and hogs were needed to sustain daily operations, while the wool from the large flock of sheep was woven and sold. Donkeys were raised to help with heavy farm work and dogs were kept on hand for traditional foxhunts which entertained Washington and his many guests.
George and Martha Washington rest in a red brick tomb at Mount Vernon, in elegant marble sarcophagi. Several members of their extended family are interred in a discreet crypt in the tomb’s back wall.
It’s estimated that between 100-150 enslaved Africans are buried in unmarked graves on a ridge near the Washington family tomb. While there are no records of slave burials, archeologists are surveying the land in an effort to count the remains. A memorial stone and garden have been erected near the slave cemetery to honor those individuals.
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