George Washington as Farmer by Junius Brutus Stearns. 1851
"No estate in United America," wrote Washington to Arthur Young in 1793, "is more pleasantly situated than this. It lies in a high, dry, and healthy country, 300 miles by water from the sea, and, as you will see by the plan, on one of the finest rivers in the world. Its margin is washed by more than ten miles of tide water; from the beds of which and the innumerable coves, inlets, and small marshes, with which it abounds, an inexhaustible fund of mud may be drawn as a manure, either to be used separately or in a compost "The soil of the tract of which I am speaking is a good loam, more inclined, however, to clay than sand. From use, and I might add, abuse, it is become more and more consolidated, and of course heavier to work. "This river, which encompasses the land the distance above mentioned, is well supplied with various kinds of fish at all seasons of the year; and, in the spring, with great profusion of shad, herring, bass, carp, perch, sturgeon, etc. Several fisheries appertain to the estate; the whole shore, in short, is 'one entire fishery."
The Mount Vernon estate, amounting in the end to over eight thousand acres, was, with the exception of a few outlying tracts, subdivided into five farms, namely, the Mansion House Farm, the Union Farm, the Dogue Run Farm, Muddy Hole Farm and the River Farm.
On the Mansion House Farm stood the owner's residence, quarters for the negroes and other servants engaged upon that particular estate, and other buildings. The land in general was badly broken and poor in quality; much of it was still in woodland.
The River Farm lay farthest up the Potomac, being separated from the others by the stream known as Little Hunting Creek. Visitors to Mount Vernon to-day, traveling by trolley, cross this farm and stream. It contained more tillable ground than any other, about twelve hundred acres. In 1793 it had an "overlooker's" house of one large and two small rooms below and one or two rooms above, quarters for fifty or sixty negroes, a large barn and stables gone much to decay.
Muddy Hole Farm lay across Little Hunting Creek from the River Farm and back of the Mansion House Farm and had no frontal upon the Potomac. It contained four hundred seventy-six acres of tillable soil and had in 1793 a small overlooker's house, "covering for about 30 negroes, and a tolerable good barn, with stables for the work-horses."
Union Farm lay just below the Mansion House Farm and contained nine hundred twenty-eight acres of arable land and meadow. In 1793 it had, in Washington's words, "a newly erected brick barn, equal, perhaps, to any in America, and for conveniences of all sorts, particularly for sheltering and feeding horses, cattle, &c. scarcely to be exceeded any where." A new house of four rooms was building, and there were quarters for fifty odd negroes. On this farm was the old Posey fishery and ferry to Maryland.
Dogue Run Farm, of six hundred fifty acres, lay back of Union Farm and upon it in 1793 stood the grist mill and later a distillery and the famous sixteen-sided "new circular barn, now finishing on a new construction; well calculated, it is conceived, for
That Washington saw the distinction so clearly is of itself sufficient proof that he pondered long and deeply upon agricultural problems. getting grain out of the straw more expeditiously than the usual mode of threshing." It had a two room overseer's house, covering for forty odd negroes, and sheds sufficient for thirty work horses and oxen. Washington considered it much the best of all his farms. It was this farm that he bequeathed to Nelly Custis and her husband, Lawrence Lewis, and upon it they erected "Woodlawn."
Not long since I rambled on foot over the old estate and had an opportunity to compare the reality, or what remains of it, with Washington's description. I left the Mansion House, often visited before, and strolled down the long winding drive that runs between the stunted evergreens and oaks through the old lodge gate and passed from the domain, kept trim and parklike by the Association, out upon the unkempt and vastly greater part of the old Mount Vernon.
It was early morning, about the hour when in the long past the master of the estate used to ride out on his tour of inspection. The day was one of those delicious days in early autumn when earth and sky and air and all things in nature seem kindly allied to help the heart of man leap up in gladness and to enable him to understand how there came to be a poet called Wordsworth. Meadow-larks were singing in the grass, and once in an old hedgerow overgrown with sweet-smelling wild honeysuckle I saw a covey of young quails. These hedgerows of locust and cedar are broken now, but along the old road to the mill and Pohick Church and between fields the scattered trees and now and then a bordering ditch are evidences of the old owner's handiwork.
Then and later I visited all the farms, the site of the old mill, of which only a few stones remain, the mill stream, the fishery and old ferry landing. I walked across the gullied fields and examined the soil, I noted the scanty crops they bear to-day and gained a clearer idea of what Washington's problem had been than I could have done from a library of books.
Truly the estate is "pleasantly situated," though even to-day it seems out of the world and out of the way. One must go far to find so satisfying a view as that from the old Mansion House porch across the mile of shining water to the Maryland hills crowned with trees glorified by the Midas-touch of frost. The land does lie "high" and "dry," but we must take exception to the word "healthy." In the summer and fall the tidal marshes breed a variety of mosquito capable of biting through armor plate and of infecting the devil himself with malaria. In the General's day, when screens were unknown, a large part of the population, both white and black, suffered every August and September from chills and fever. The master himself was not exempt and once we find him chronicling that he went a-hunting and caught a fox and the ague.
What he says as regards the fisheries is all quite true and in general they seem to have been very productive. Herring and shad were the chief fish caught and when the run came the seine was carried well out into the river in a boat and then hauled up on the shelving beach either by hand or with a windlass operated by horse-power. There were warehouses and vats for curing the fish, a cooper shop and buildings for sheltering the men. The fish were salted down for the use of the family and the slaves, and what surplus remained was sold. Now and then the landing and outfit was rented out for a money consideration, but this usually happened only when the owner was away from home.
At the old Posey fishery on Union Farm the industry is still carried on, though gasoline engines have been substituted for the horse-operated winch used in drawing the seines. Lately the industry has ceased to be very productive, and an old man in charge told me that it is because fishermen down the river and in Chesapeake Bay are so active that comparatively few fish manage to get up so far.
The Mount Vernon estate in the old days lacked only one quality necessary to make it extremely productive, namely, rich soil! Only ignorance of what good land really is, or an owner's blind pride in his own estate, can justify the phrase "a good loam." On most of the estate the soil is thin, varying in color from a light gray to a yellow red, with below a red clay hardpan almost impervious to water. To an observer brought up on a farm of the rich Middle West, Mount Vernon, except for a few scattered fields, seems extremely poor land. For farming purposes most of it would be high at thirty dollars an acre. Much of it is so broken by steep hills and deep ravines as scarcely to be tillable at all. Those tracts which are cultivated are very susceptible to erosion. Deep gullies are quickly worn on the hillsides and slopes. At one time such a gully on Union Farm extended almost completely across a large field and was deep enough to hide a horse, but Washington filled it up with trees, stumps, stones, old rails, brush and dirt, so that scarcely a trace of it was left. In places one comes upon old fields that have been allowed to revert to broom sedge, scrub oak and scrub pine. One is astonished at the amount that has never been cleared at all. Only by the most careful husbandry could such an estate be kept productive. It never could be made to yield bumper crops.
The situation confronting "Farmer Washington" was this: He had a great abundance of land, but most of it on his home estate was mediocre in quality. Some of that lying at a distance was more fertile, but much of it was uncleared and that on the Ohio was hopelessly distant from a market. With the exception of Mount Vernon even those plantations in Virginia east of the Blue Ridge could not be looked after in person. He must either rent them, trust them to a manager, or allow them to lie idle. Even the Mount Vernon land was distant from a good market, and the cost of transportation was so great that he must produce for selling purposes articles of little bulk compared with value. Finally, he had an increasing number of slaves for whom food and clothing must be provided.
His answer to the problem of a money crop was for some years the old Virginia answer—tobacco. His far western lands he left for the most part untenanted. Those plantations in settled regions but remote from his home he generally rented for a share of the crop or for cash. The staple articles that he produced to feed the slaves were pork and corn, eked out by herring from the fishery.
From his accounts we find that in 1759 he made thirty-four thousand one hundred sixty pounds of tobacco; the next year sixty-five thousand thirtyseven pounds; in 1763, eighty-nine thousand seventy-nine pounds, which appears to have been his banner tobacco crop. In 1765 the quantity fell to fortyone thousand seven hundred ninety-nine pounds; in 1771, to twenty-nine thousand nine hundred eightysix pounds, and in 1773 to only about five thousand pounds. Thereafter his crop of the weed was negligible, though we still find occasional references to it even as late as 1794, when he states that he has twenty-five hogsheads in the warehouses of Alexandria, where he has held it for five or six years because of low prices.
He tried to raise a good quality and seems to have concentrated on what he calls the "sweet scented" variety, but for some reason, perhaps because his soil was not capable of producing the best, he obtained lower prices than did some of the other Virginia planters, and grumbled at his agents accordingly.
He early realized the ruinous effects of tobacco on his land and sought to free himself from its clutches by turning to the production of wheat and flour for the West India market. Ultimately he was so prejudiced against the weed that in 1789 we find him in a contract with a tenant named Gray, to whom he leased a tract of land for ten pounds, stipulating that Gray should make no more tobacco uian he needed for "chewing and smoaking in his own family."
Late in life he decided that his land was not congenial to corn, in which he was undoubtedly right, for the average yield was only about fifteen bushels per acre. In the corn country farmers now often produce a hundred. He continued to raise corn only because it was essential for his negroes and hogs. In 1798 he contracted with William A. Washington to supply him with five hundred barrels annually to eke out his own crop. Even this quantity did not prove sufficient, for we find him next year trying to engage one hundred barrels more.
Before this time his main concern had come to be to conserve his soil and he had turned his attention largely to grass and live stock. Of these matters more hereafter.