Monday, February 1, 2021

Geo Washington's (1732-1799) Deer Park at Mount Vernon

Detail 1792 Artist Edward Savage (1761-1817). East Front of Mount Vernon (with Deer.)

The Deer Park at Mount Vernon

Following aristocratic British practice, George Washington fenced off 18 acres on the slope, between the Mansion and the Potomac River, to serve as “a paddock for deer” or deer park. Originating in the Middle Ages, deer parks initially served as large hunting preserves for kings and nobles. While still a clear marker of elite status, Washington’s deer park served a more picturesque function, providing his guests with the delightful spectacle of seemingly wild deer roaming through parkland.

In artist Edward Savage's view of Mount Vernon from the east, the artist captured the short-lived “paddock of deer,” inside the picketed fence in the left foreground. The fence was not visible from the yard, creating the intended illusion that the deer roamed wild.

In August 1785, Washington wrote friends both home and abroad, seeking English deer in addition to the common American variety. The following summer, Benjamin Ogle sent six English fawns captured on his Maryland plantation, providing Washington with an initial stock of English deer. 

In addition, Washington’s old friend and neighbor, George William Fairfax, sent directly from Great Britain a “buck & doe of the best English deer.” Washington commented that the English deer are “very distinguishable by the darkness of their colour, and their horns.” When writing about his deer park, George Washington alluded to its role in allowing him “to be a participator of the tranquility and rural amusements” that he so eagerly sought after the Revolutionary War.

Washington created a deer park to inspire and amuse his family, neighbors, and guests. When Washington redesigned the landscape at Mount Vernon following the Revolutionary War, he planned the deer park to be sited between the Mansion and the river. In October of 1785, he recorded that he “Measured the ground which I intend to inclose for a Paddock, and find it to be 1600 yards.” Next, he needed deer. He planned to stock the paddock with English and native deer and he also received deer from several of his friends...Set in a natural setting the deer park was intended to inspire and renew the Washington family and their guests’ social and psychological well-being.

Although British landscape manuals advised paddock owners not to approach the deer, so that they would remain wild, at least some of Washington’s deer were tame, and even family pets. Tame deer continued to roam the estate as late as 1799, when Washington observed that “the old ones are partly wild, and partly tame.”

Washington's deer park stood below the hill on which the Mansion House stands. The park contained about one hundred acres & was surrounded by a high paling about sixteen hundred yards long. At first he had only Virginia deer, but later acquired some English fallow deer from the park of Governor Ogle of Maryland. Both varieties herded together, but never mixed blood. The deer were continually getting out & in February, 1786, one returned with a broken leg, "supposed to be by a shot." Seven years later an English buck that had broken out weeks before was killed by someone. 

Sadly, George Washington’s deer park declined while he was away serving as president. He replaced its fence with a ha-ha or walled ditch in 1792. Not pleased with its appearance, Washington drew a new course for the ha-ha, following “the natural shape of the hill.”

Jedidiah Morse wrote in his 1789 Geography of the deer at Mount Vernon, Virginia, "A small park on the margin of the river, where the English fallow-deer, and American wild-deer are seen through the thickets."

Isaac Weld also commented in 1794, of the deer park at Mount Vernon, "The ground in the rear of the house is also laid out in a lawn, and the declivity of the Mount, towards the water, in a deer park."

In 1792, when the fenced deer park was removed and a serpentine wall built in its place. That August, he wrote to Richard Chichester, “I have a dozen deer (some of which are of the common sort) which are no longer confined in the Paddock which was made for them, but range in my woods, & often pass my exterior fence.” Washington never hunted deer for his table, nor did he allow deer to be hunted on his property.

The paddock fence was neglected & ultimately the deer ran wild over the estate, but in general stayed in the wooded region surrounding the Mansion House. The gardener frequently complained of damage done by them to shrubs & plants, & Washington said he hardly knew "whether to give up the Shrubs or the Deer!" The spring before his death we find him writing to the brothers Chichesters warning them to cease hunting his deer & he hints that he may come to "the disagreeable necessity of resorting to other means..."

Research plus images & much more are directly available from the MountVernon.org website.