Monday, September 24, 2018

George Washington: Farmer - Servants & Overseeers

George Washington as Farmer by Junius Brutus Stearns. 1851

George Washington: Farmer  
Paul Leland Haworth (1876-1936) 
Ch 11 Servants & Overseeers

In colonial Virginia, as in most other new countries, one of the greatest problems that confronted the settlers was that of labor. It took human muscle to clear away the forest & tend the crops, & the quantity of human muscle available was small. One solution of the problem was the importation of slaves, & of this solution as it concerned Washington something will be said in a separate chapter. Another solution was the white indentured servant.

Some of these white servants were political offenders, such as the followers of Monmouth, who were punished by transportation for a term of years or for life to the plantations. Others were criminals or unfortunate debtors who were sold in America instead of being sent to jail. Others were persons who had been kidnapped & carried across the sea into servitude. Yet others were men & women who voluntarily bound themselves to work for a term of years in payment of their passage to the colonies. By far the largest number of the white servants in Washington's day belonged to this last-mentioned class, who were often called "redemptioners." Some of these were ambitious, well-meaning people, perhaps skilled artisans, who after working out their time became good citizens & often prospered. A few were even well educated. In favor of the convicts, however, little could be said. In general they were ignorant & immoral & greatly lowered the level of the population in the Southern States, the section to which most of them were sent.

Whether they came to America of their own free will or not such servants were subjected to stringent regulations & were compelled to complete their terms of service. If they ran away, they could be pursued & brought back by force, & the papers of the day were full of advertisements for such absconders. Owing to their color & the ease with which they found sympathizers among the white population, however, the runaways often managed to make good their escape.

...For the most part he bought them in order to obtain skilled workmen. Thus in 1760 we find him writing to a Doctor Ross, of Philadelphia, to purchase for him a joiner, a brick-layer & a gardener, if any ship with servants was in port. As late as 1786 he bought the time of a Dutchman named Overdursh, who was a ditcher & mower, & of his wife, a spinner, washer & milker; also their daughter. The same year he "received from on board the Brig Anna, from Ireland, two servant men for whom I agreed yesterday--viz--Thomas Ryan, a shoemaker, & Cavan Bowen a Tayler Redemptioners for 3 years service by Indenture." These cost him twelve pounds each. The story of his purchase of servants for his western lands is told in another place, as is also that of his plan to import Palatines for the same purpose.

On the day of Lexington & Concord, but before the news of that conflict reached Virginia, two of his indentured servants ran away & he published a lengthy advertisement of them in the Virginia Gazette, offering a reward of forty dollars for the return of both or twenty dollars for the return of either. They were described as follows:  "THOMAS SPEARS, a joiner, born in Bristol, about 20 years of age, 5 feet 6 inches & a half high, slender made. He has light grey or blueish colored eyes, a little pock-marked, & freckled, with sandy colored hair, cut short; his voice is coarse, & somewhat drawling. He took with him a coat, waistcoat, & breeches, of light brown duffil, with black horn buttons, a light colored cloth waistcoat, old leather breeches, check & oznabrig shirts, a pair of old ribbed ditto, new oznabrig trowsers, & a felt hat, not much the worse for wear. WILLIAM WEBSTER, a brick maker, born in Scotland, & talks pretty broad. He is about 5 feet six inches high & well made, rather turned of 30, with light brown hair, & roundish face.... They went off in a small yawl, with turpentine sides & bottom, the inside painted with a mixture of tar & red lead."

In the course of his business career Washington also employed a considerable number of free white men, who likewise were usually skilled workers or overseers. He commonly engaged them for the term of one year & by written contracts, which he drew up himself, a thing he had learned to do when a boy by copying legal forms. Many of these papers still survive & contracts with joiners & gardeners jostle inaugural addresses & opinions of cabinet meetings.

As a rule the hired employees received a house, an allowance of corn, flour, meat & perhaps other articles, the money payment being comparatively small.

Some of the contracts contain peculiar stipulations. That with a certain overseer provided: "And whereas there are a number of whiskey stills very contiguous to the said Plantations, & many idle, drunken & dissolute People continually resorting the same, priding themselves in debauching sober & well-inclined Persons the said Edd. Voilett doth promise as well for his own sake as his employers to avoid them as he ought."

Probably most readers have heard of the famous contract with the gardener Philip Bater, who had a weakness for the output of stills such as those mentioned above. It was executed in 1787 and, in consideration of Bater's agreement "not to be disguised with liquor except on times hereinafter mentioned," provided that he should be given "four dollars at Christmas, with which he may be drunk four days & four nights; two dollars at Easter to effect the same purpose; two dollars at Whitsuntide to be drunk for two days; a dram in the morning, & a drink of grog at dinner at noon."

Washington's most famous white servant was Thomas Bishop...He had been the personal servant of General Braddock, & tradition says that the dying General commended him to Washington. At all events Washington took him into his service at ten pounds per year and, except for a short interval about 1760, Bishop remained one of his retainers until death. It was Bishop & John Alton who accompanied Washington on his trip to New York & Boston in 1756--that trip in the course of which, according to imaginative historians, the young officer became enamored of the heiress Mary Phillipse. Doubtless the men made a brave show along the way, for we know that Washington had ordered for them "2 complete livery suits for servants; with a spare cloak & all other necessary trimmings for two suits more. I would have you choose the livery by our arms, only as the field of arms is white, I think the clothes had better not be quite so, but nearly like the inclosed. The trimmings & facings of scarlet, & a scarlet waist coat. If livery lace is not quite disused, I should be glad to have the cloaks laced. I like that fashion best, & two silver laced hats for the above servants."

When the Revolution came Bishop was too old to take the field & was left at home as the manager of a plantation. He was allowed a house, for he had married & was now the father of a daughter. He lived to a great age, but on fair days, when the Farmer was at home, the old man always made it a point to grasp his cane & walk out to the road to see his master ride by, to salute him & to pass a friendly word. He seems to have thought of leaving Mount Vernon with his daughter in 1794, for the President wrote to Pearce: "Old Bishop must be taken care of whether he goes or stays." He died the following January, while Washington was away in Philadelphia.

Custis tells an amusing story of Bishop's daughter Sally. Following the Revolution two of Washington's aides-de-camp, Colonels Smith & Humphreys, the latter a poet of some pretensions, spent considerable time at Mount Vernon arranging the General's military papers. One afternoon Smith strolled out from the Mansion House for relaxation & came upon Sally, then in her teens & old enough to be interesting to a soldier, milking a cow. When she started for the house with the pail of milk the Colonel gallantly stepped forward & asked to be permitted to carry it. But Sally had heard from her father dire tales of what befell damsels who had anything to do with military men & the fact that Smith was a fine-looking young fellow in no way lessened her sense of peril. In great panic she flung down the pail, splashing the contents over the officer, & ran screaming to the house. Smith followed, intent upon allaying her alarm & ran plump into old Bishop, who at once accused him of attempting to philander with the girl, turned a deaf ear to all the Colonel's explanations, & declared that he would bring word of the offense to his honor the General, nay more, to Mrs. Washington!

In great alarm the Colonel betook himself toward the Mansion House pondering upon some way of getting himself out of the scrape he had fallen into. At last he bethought himself of Billy Lee, the mulatto body servant, & these two old soldiers proceeded to hold a council of war. Smith said: "It's bad enough, Billy, for this story to get to the General's ears, but to those of the lady will never do; & then there's Humphreys, he will be out upon me in a d--d long poem that will spread my misfortunes from Dan to Beersheba!" At last it was decided that Billy should act as special ambassador to Bishop & endeavor to divert him from his purpose. Meanwhile Bishop had got out his old clothes--Cumberland cocked hat & all--of the period of the French War, had dressed with great care and, taking up his staff, had laid his line of march straight to the Mansion House. Billy met him midway upon the road & much skirmishing ensued, Billy taking two lines of attack: first, that Smith was a perfect gentleman, and, second, that Bishop had no business to have such a devilishly pretty daughter. Finally these tactics prevailed, Bishop took the right about, & a guinea dropped into the ambassador's palm completed the episode.

In due time Sally lost her dreadful fear of men & married the plantation carpenter, Thomas Green, with whose shiftless ways, described elsewhere, Washington put up for a long time for the sake of "his family." Ultimately Green quitted Washington's service & seems to have deserted his wife or else died; at all events she & her family were left in distressed circumstances. She wrote a letter to Washington begging assistance & he instructed his manager to aid her to the extent of £20 but to tell her that if she set up a shop in Alexandria, as she thought of doing, she must not buy anything of his negroes. He seems to have allowed her a little wood, flour & meat at killing time & in 1796 instructed Pearce that if she & her family were really in distress, as reported, to afford them some relief, "but in my opinion it had better be in anything than money, for I very strongly suspect that all that has, & perhaps all that will be given to her in that article, is applied more in rigging herself, than in the purchase of real & useful necessaries for her family."

By his will Washington left Sally Green & Ann Walker, daughter of John Alton, each one hundred dollars in "consideration of the attachment of their father[s] to me."

Alton entered Washington's service even before Bishop, accompanying him as a body servant on the Braddock campaign & suffering a serious illness. He subsequently was promoted to the management of a plantation & enjoyed Washington's confidence & esteem. It was with a sad heart that Washington penned in his diary for 1785: "Last night Jno. Alton an Overseer of mine in the Neck--an old & faithful Servant who has lived with me 30 odd years died--and this evening the wife of Thos. Bishop, another old Servant who had lived with me an equal number of years also died."

The adoption of Mrs. Washington's two youngest grandchildren, Nelly Custis & George Washington Custis, made necessary the employment of a tutor. One applicant was Noah Webster, who visited Mount Vernon in 1785, but for some reason did not engage. A certain William Shaw had charge for almost a year & then in 1786 Tobias Lear, a native of New Hampshire & a graduate of Harvard, was employed. It is supposed that some of the lessons were taught in the small circular building in the garden; Washington himself refers to it as "the house in the Upper Garden called the School house."

Lear's duties were by no means all pedagogical & ultimately he became Washington's private secretary. In Philadelphia he & his family lived in the presidential mansion. Washington had for him "a particular friendship," an almost fatherly affection. His interest in Lear's little son Lincoln was almost as great as he would have bestowed upon his own grandson. Apropos of the recovery of the child from a serious illness he wrote in 1793: "It gave Mrs. Washington, myself, & all who knew him sincere pleasure to hear that our little favourite had arrived safe & was in good health at Portsmouth--we sincerely wish him a long continuance of the latter--that he may be always as charming & promising as he now is--that he may live to be a comfort & blessing to you--and an ornament to his Country. As a token of my affection for him I send him a ticket in the lottery that's now drawing in the Federal City; if it should be his fortune to draw the Hotel, it will add to the pleasure I feel in giving it."

...The next May, Washington wrote to Lear, then in Europe on business for the Potomac Navigation Company, of which he had become president: "Often, through the medium of Mr. Langdon, we hear of your son Lincoln, & with pleasure, that he continues to be the healthy & sprightly child he formerly was. He declared if his ticket should turn up a prize, he would go & live in the Federal City. He did not consider, poor little fellow, that some of the prizes would hardly build him a baby house nor foresee that one of these small tickets would be his lot, having drawn no more than ten dollars."

Lear's first wife had died the year before of yellow fever at the President's house in Philadelphia, & for his second he took the widow of George A. Washington--Fanny--who was a niece of Martha Washington, being a daughter of Anna Dandridge Bassett & Colonel Burwell Bassett. This alliance tended to strengthen the friendly relations between Lear & the General. In Washington's last moments Lear held his dying hand & later penned a noble description of the final scene that reveals a man of high & tender sentiments with a true appreciation of his benefactor's greatness. Washington willed him the use of three hundred sixty acres east of Hunting Creek during life. When Fanny Lear died, Lear married Frances Dandridge Henley, another niece of Mrs. Washington. Lear's descendants still own a quilt made by Martha Washington & given to this niece.

During part at least of Washington's absence in the French war his younger brother John Augustine, described in the General's will as "the intimate friend of my ripened age," had charge of his business affairs & resided at Mount Vernon. The relations with this brother were unusually close & Washington took great interest in John's eldest son Bushrod, who studied law & became an associate justice of the Federal Supreme Court. To Bushrod the General gave his papers, library, the Mansion House Farm & other land & a residuary share in the estate.

..,.during 1757-58 John Augustine did not have charge, as Mount Vernon seems to have been under the oversight of a certain Humphrey Knight, who worked the farm on shares. He was evidently a good farmer, for in 1758 William Fairfax, who kept a friendly eye upon his absent neighbor's affairs, wrote: "You have some of the finest Tobacco & Corn I have seen this year," The summer was, however, exceedingly dry & the crop was good in a relative sense only. Knight tried to keep affairs in good running order & the men hard at work, reporting "as to ye Carpentrs I have minded em all I posably could, & has whipt em when I could see a fault." Knight died September 9, 1758, a few months before Washington's marriage.

Washington's general manager during the Revolution was Lund Washington, a distant relative....written soon after his assumption of command at Cambridge, the General speaks disparagingly of some New England officers & says of the troops that they may fight well, but are "dirty fellows." When the British visited Mount Vernon in 1781 Lund conciliated them by furnishing them provisions, thereby drawing down upon himself a rebuke from the owner, who said that he would rather have had his buildings burned down than to have purchased their safety in such a way. Nevertheless the General appreciated Lund's services & the two always remained on friendly terms.

Lund was succeeded by Major George Augustine Washington, son of the General's brother Charles. From his youth George Augustine had attached himself to his uncle's service & fought under him in the Revolution, a part of the time on the staff of Lafayette. The General had a strong affection for him & in 1784 furnished him with money to take a trip to the West Indies for his health. Contrary to expectations, he improved, married Fanny Bassett, & for several years resided at Mount Vernon. But the disease, consumption, returned and, greatly to his uncle's distress, he died in 1792. Washington helped to care for the widow until she became the wife of Tobias Lear.

Two other nephews, Robert Lewis & Howell Lewis, were in turn for short intervals in charge of affairs, but presently the estate was committed to the care of an Englishman named Anthony Whiting, who was already overseer of two of the farms. Like his predecessor he was a victim of consumption & died in June, 1793. Washington showed him great kindness, repeatedly urging him not to overexert, to make use of wines, tea, coffee & other delicacies that had been sent for the use of guests. As Whiting was also troubled with rheumatism, the President dropped affairs of state long enough to write him that "Flannel next the skin [is] the best cure for, & preventative of the Rheumatism I have ever tried." Yet after Whiting's death the employer learned that he had been deceived in the man--that he "drank freely--kept bad company at my house in Alexandria--and was a very debauched person."

William Pearce, who followed Whiting, came from the eastern shore of Maryland, where he owned an estate called "Hopewell." His salary was a hundred guineas a year. A poor speller & grammarian, he was nevertheless practical & one of the best of all the managers. He resigned in 1797 on account of rheumatism, which he thought would prevent him from giving business the attention it deserved. Washington parted from him with much regret & gave him a "certificate" in which he spoke in the most laudatory terms of his "honesty, sobriety industry & skill" & stated that his conduct had given "entire satisfaction." They later corresponded occasionally & exchanged farm & family news in the most friendly way.

The last manager, James Anderson, was described by his employer as "an honest, industrious & judicious Scotchman." His salary was one hundred forty pounds a year. Though born in a country where slaves were unknown, he proved adaptable to Virginia conditions & assisted the overseers "in some chastisements when needful." As his employer retired from the presidency soon after he took charge he had not the responsibility of some who had preceded him, for Washington was unwilling to be reduced to a mere cipher on his own estate. Seeing the great profusion of cheap corn & rye, Anderson, who was a good judge of whisky, engaged the General in a distillery, which stood near the grist mill. The returns for 1798 were £344.12.7-3/4, with 755-1/4 gallons still unsold.

Washington's letters to his managers are filled with exhortations & sapient advice about all manner of things. He constantly urged them to avoid familiarities with the blacks & preached the importance of "example," for, "be it good or bad," it "will be followed by all those who look up to you.--Keep every one in their place, & to their duty; relaxation from, or neglect in small matters, lead to like attempts in matters of greater magnitude."

The absent owner was constantly complaining that his managers failed to inform him about matters concerning which he had inquired. Hardly a report reached him that did not fail to explain something in which he was interested. This was one of the many disadvantages of farming at long range.

In 1793 Washington described his overseers to Pearce, who was just taking charge, in great detail. Stuart is competent, sober & industrious, but talkative & conceited. "If he stirs early & works late ... his talkativeness & vanity may be humored." Crow is active & possessed of good judgment, but overly fond of "visiting & receiving visits." McKoy is a "sickly, slothful & stupid fellow." Butler, the gardener, may mean well, but "he has no more authority over the Negroes he is placed over than an old woman would have." Ultimately he dismissed Butler on this ground, but as the man could find no other job he was forced to give him assistance. The owner's opinions of Davy, the colored overseer at Muddy Hole Farm, & of Thomas Green, the carpenter, are given elsewhere.

In the same letter he exhorted Pearce to see what time the overseers "turn out of a morning--for I have strong suspicions that this, with some of them, is at a late hour, the consequences of which to the Negroes is not difficult to foretell. All these Overseers as you will perceive by their agreements, which I here with send, are on standing wages; & this with men who are not actuated by the principles of honor or honesty, & not very regardful of their characters, leads naturally to indulgences--as their profits whatever may be mine, are the same whether they are at a horse race or on the farm."

From the above it will appear that he did not believe that the overseers were storing up any large treasury of good works. In the Revolution he wrote that one overseer & a confederate, "I believe, divide the profits of my Estate on the York River, tolerably between them, for the devil of anything do I get." Later he approved the course of George A. Washington in depriving an overseer of the privilege of killing four shoats, as this gave him an excuse when caught killing a pig to say that it was one of those to which he was entitled. Even when honest, the overseers were likely to be careless. They often knew little about the stock under their charge & in making their weekly reports would take the number from old reports instead of actually making the count, with the result that many animals could die or disappear long before those in charge became aware of it.

Washington's carpenters were mostly slaves, but he usually hired a white man to oversee & direct them. In 1768, for example, he engaged for this purpose a certain Jonathan Palmer, who was to receive forty pounds a year, four hundred pounds of meat, twenty bushels of corn, a house to live in, a garden, & also the right to keep two cows.

The carpenters were required not only to build houses, mills, barns, sheds & other structures, but also boats...The carpenter whose name we meet oftenest was Thomas Green, who married Sally Bishop. I have seen a contract signed by Green in 1786, by which he was to receive annually forty-five pounds in Virginia currency, five hundredweight of pork, pasture for a cow, & two hundred pounds of common flour. He also had the right to be absent from the plantation half a day in every month. He did not use these vacations to good advantage, for he was a drunken incompetent & tried Washington's patience sorely. Washington frequently threatened to dismiss him & as often relented & Green finally, in 1794, quit of his own accord, though Washington thereafter had to assist his family.

The employment of white day labor at Mount Vernon was not extensive. In harvest time some extra cradlers were employed, as this was a kind of work at which the slaves were not very skilful. Payment was at the rate of about a dollar a day or a dollar for cutting four acres, which was the amount a skilled man could lay down in a day. The men were also given three meals a day & a pint of spirits each. They slept in the barns, with straw & a blanket for a bed. With them worked the overseers, cutting, binding & setting up the sheaves in stools or shocks.

Laziness...In his early career a certain "Young Stephens," son of the miller, seems to have been his greatest trial. "Visited my Plantations," he confides to his diary. "Severely reprimanded young Stephens for his Indolence, & his father for suffering it." "Visited my Quarters & ye Mill according to custom found young Stephens absent." "Visited my Plantations & found to my great surprise Stephens constantly at work." "Rid out to my Plantn. & to my Carpenters. Found Richard Stephens hard at work with an ax--very extraordinary this!"

...when paper currency depreciated to a low figure he, of his own volition, wrote to Lund Washington that he would not hold him to his contract, but would pay his wages by a share in the crops, & this at a time when his own debtors were discharging their indebtedness in the almost worthless paper.

... William M. Roberts, an employee who feared that he was about to get the sack. "In your absence to Richmond," writes anxious William, November 25, 1784, "My Wife & I have had a Most Unhappy falling out Which I Shall not Trouble you with the Praticlers No farther than This. I hapened To Git to Drinking one Night as She thought Two Much. & From one Cros Question to a nother Matters weare Carred to the Langth it has been. Which Mr. Lund Washington will Inform you For My part I am Heartily Sorry in my Sole My Wife appares to be the Same & I am of a pinion that We Shall Live More Happy than We have Don for the fewter."