Thursday, October 29, 2020

Hunting leads to Building a Deer Park at Mount Vernon

 Hunting, Shooting, Dogs & Building a Deer Park at Mount Vernon.

George Washington was decidedly an outdoor man. Being six feet two inches tall, & slender, he was well fitted for athletic sports...
outdoor sports he seems to have enjoyed hunting most. He probably had many unrecorded experiences with hunting deer & shooting turkeys when a surveyor & when in command upon the western border, but one of his journeys filled with wild game was his trip to the Ohio in 1770. Though his party was on the move most of the time & was looking for rich land rather than for wild animals, they nevertheless took some hunts.

On October twenty-second, in descending the stretch of the Ohio near the mouth of Little Beaver Creek & above the Mingo Town, they saw many wild geese & several kinds of duck & "killed five wild turkeys." Three days later they "saw innumerable quantities of turkeys, & many deer watering & browsing on the shore side, some of which we killed." 
He does not say whether they shot this game from the canoe or not, but probably on sighting the game they would put to shore...Their success was probably increased by the fact that they had two Indians with them.

Few are aware of the fact that what is now West Virginia & Ohio then contained many buffaloes. Below the mouth of the Great Hockhocking the voyagers came upon a camp of Indians, the chief of which, an old friend who had accompanied him to warn out the French in 1753, gave Washington "a quarter of very fine buffalo." 
Fourteen miles up the Great Kanawha the travelers took a day off & "went a hunting; killed five buffaloes & wounded some others, three deer, &c. This country abounds in buffaloes & wild game of all kinds; as also in all kinds of wild fowls, there being in the bottoms a great many small grassy ponds, or lakes, which are full of swans, geese, & ducks of different kinds..."

When at home, Washington now & then took a gun & went out after ducks, "hairs," wild turkeys & other game, & occasionally he records fair bags of mallards, teal, bald faces & "blew wings," one of the best being that of February 18, 1768, when he "went a ducking between breakfast & dinner & killed 2 mallards & 5 bald faces." In fact, he much preferred chasing the fox with dogs to hunting with a gun.

Fox hunting...was brought over from England & perhaps its greatest devotee was old Lord Fairfax, with whom Washington hunted when still in his teens. Fairfax, whose seat was at Greenway Court in the Shenandoah Valley, was so passionately fond of it that if foxes were scarce near his home he would go to a locality where they were plentiful, would establish himself at an inn & would keep open house & welcome every person of good character & respectable appearance who cared to join him.

The following are some typical entries from Washington's Where & how my time is Spent: "Jany. 1st. (1768) Fox huntg. in my own Neck with Mr. Robt. Alexander & Mr. Colville--catchd nothing--Captn. Posey with us." There were many similar failures & no successes in the next six weeks, but on February twelfth he records joyfully, "Catchd two foxes," & on the thirteenth "catch 2 more foxes." March 2, 1768, "Hunting again, & catchd a fox with a bobd Tail & cut Ears, after 7 hours chase in wch. most of the dogs were worsted." March twenty-ninth, "Fox Hunting with Jacky Custis & Ld. [Lund] Washington--Catchd a fox after 3 hrs. chase." November twenty-second, "Went a fox huntg. with Lord Fairfax & Colo. Fairfax & my Br. Catchd 2 Foxes." For two weeks thereafter they hunted almost every day with varying success. September 30, 1769, he records: "catchd a Rakoon." 

On January 27, 1770, the dogs ran a deer out of the Neck & some of them did not get home till next day...January 4, 1772, the hunters "found both a Bear & a Fox but got neither..."

In November, 1771, Washington & Jack Custis went to Colonel Mason's at Gunston Hall, a few miles below Mount Vernon, to engage in a grand deer drive in which many men & dogs took part. Mason had an estate of ten thousand acres which was favorably located for such a purpose, being nearly surrounded by water, with peninsulas on which the game could be cornered & forced to take to the river... 

One of Washington's most remarkable hunting experience occurred on the twenty-third of January, 1770, when he records: "Went a hunting after breakfast & found a Fox at Muddy hole & killed her (it being a Bitch) after a chase of better than two hours & after treeing her twice the last of which times she fell dead out of the Tree after being therein sevl. minutes apparently well." 
A hunting day usually ended by all the hunters riding to Mount Vernon, Belvoir, Gunston Hall, or some other mansion for a bountiful dinner...

Being so much interested in fox hunting, Washington proceeded, with his usual painstaking care, to build up a pack of hounds. The year 1768 was probably the period of his greatest interest in the subject & his diary is full of accounts of the animals. Hounds were now, in fact, his hobby, surpassing his horses. Among his dogs in this period were "Mopsey," "Taster," "Tipler," "Cloe," "Lady," "Forester" & "Captain." August 6, 1768, we learn that "Lady" has four puppies, which are to be called "Vulcan," "Searcher," "Rover," & "Sweetlips..."

The Revolution interrupted Washington's sports, but upon his return to Mount Vernon he soon took up the old life. Knowing his bent, Lafayette sent him a pack of French hounds, two dogs & three bitches, & Washington took much interest in them. According to George Washington Custis they were enormous brutes, better built for grappling stags or boars than chasing foxes, & so fierce that a huntsman had to preside at their meals. Their kennel stood a hundred yards south of the old family vault, & Washington visited them every morning & evening...

The biggest of the French hounds, "Vulcan," was so vast that he was often ridden by Master Custis & he seems to have been a rather privileged character. Once when company was expected to dinner Mrs. Washington ordered that a lordly ham should be cooked & served. At dinner she noticed that the ham was not in its place & inquiry developed that "Vulcan" had raided the kitchen & made off with the meat. Thereupon, of course, the mistress scolded & equally, of course, the master smiled & gleefully told the news to the guests.

Billy Lee, the slave  valet who had followed the General through the Revolution, usually acted as huntsman and, mounted on "Chinkling" or some other good steed, with a French horn at his back, strove hard to keep the pack in sight, no easy task among the rough timber-covered hills of Fairfax County.

On a hunting day Washington breakfasted by candlelight, generally upon corn cakes & milk, & at daybreak, with his guests, Billy & the hounds, sallied forth to find a fox...When a fox was started none rode more gallantly or cheered more joyously than did he...Jefferson asserts, he was "the best horseman of his age, & the most magnificent figure that could be seen on horseback..."

The French hounds were, at least at first, rather indifferent hunters. "Went out after Breakfast with my hounds from France, & two which were lent me, yesterday, by Mr. Mason," says Washington the day of the first trial; "found a Fox which was run tolerably well by two of the Frh. Bitches & one of Mason's Dogs--the other French dogs shewed but little disposition to follow--and with the second Dog of Mason's got upon another Fox which was followed slow & indifferently by some & not at all by the rest until the sent became so cold it cd. not be followed at all."  
Two days later the dogs failed again & the next time they ran two foxes & caught neither, but their master thought they performed better than hitherto, December 12th:

"After an early breakfast [my nephew] George Washington, Mr. Shaw & Myself went into the Woods back of the Muddy hole Plantation a hunting & were joined by Mr. Lund Washington & Mr. William Peake. About half after ten O'clock (being first plagued with the Dogs running Hogs) we found a fox near Colo Masons Plantation on little Hunting Creek (West fork) having followed on his Drag more than half a Mile; & run him with Eight Dogs (the other 4 getting, as was supposed after a Second Fox) close & well for an hour. When the Dogs came to a fault & to cold Hunting until 20 minutes after when being joined by the missing Dogs they put him up afresh & in about 50 Minutes killed up in an open field of Colo Mason's every Rider & every Dog being present at the Death."

Washington described one hunt as follows: "Went a Fox hunting with the Gentlemen who came here yesterday with Ferdinando Washington & Mr. Shaw, after a very early breakfast.--found a Fox just back of Muddy hole Plantation & after a Chase for an hour & a quarter with my Dogs, & eight couple of Doctor Smiths (brought by Mr. Phil Alexander) we put him into a hollow tree, in which we fastened him, & in the Pincushion put up another Fox which, in an hour & 13 Minutes was killed--We then after allowing the Fox in the hole half an hour put the Dogs upon his Trail & in half a Mile he took to another hollow tree & was again put out of it but he did not go 600 yards before he had recourse to the same shift--finding therefore that he was a conquered Fox we took the Dogs off, & came home to dinner..."

Another slave was Tom Davis, whose duty was to go shooting to supply the Mansion House with game. With the aid of his old British musket & of his Newfoundland dog "Gunner" he secured many a canvasback & mallard, plus quails, turkeys & other game. 
See George Washington: Farmer (1915) by Paul Leland Haworth (1876-1936) 

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

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Geo Washington's (1732-1799) Fisheries - Feeding People & Fertilizing Gardens & Fields

Businessman Geo Washington's (1732-1799) Three Potomac Fisheries

 From Mount Vernon

"This River…is well supplied with various kinds of fish at all Seasons of the year…the whole shore in short is one entire fishery." George Washington to Arthur Young, December 12, 1793

The three fisheries along the Potomac River reflect Washington’s entrepreneurial spirit. For almost 40 years, these fishing operations brought in food for his enslaved and paid workers, fertilizer for the soil of the gardens & cultivated fields, and selling the surplus, for additional profits. 

Each spring, when fish began running past Mount Vernon's ten-mile shoreline, enslaved workers, overseers, and indentured servants dropped everything and headed to the river to haul in and process more than a million fish, in a matter of weeks.  The fish were sorted, gutted, cleaned and salted before being packed into barrels for storage and shipping. Refuse from the fish were loaded onto wagons and hauled to Washington’s gardens and fields to be worked into the soil as fertilizer. Various domestic activities, including cooking, provided for the needs of enslaved workers housed at the fisheries, as they toiled around the clock while the fish were running.

Washington wrote of Mount Vernon that the ten miles of shoreline at his estate were “one entire fishery.” The Potomac River, he boasted, was “well supplied with various kinds of fish at all seasons of the year; and in the Spring with the greatest profusion of Shad, Herring, Bass, Carp, Perch, Sturgeon &ca.”  Washington, of course, never expected the fishery to be his main source of income – he first intended to make his fortune on tobacco, and then on wheat and other grains when tobacco failed – but the river did become one of the many ways he turned the natural resources of his Mount Vernon estate into profit. Enslaved workers at the plantation caught hundreds of thousands of fish every year, especially herring and shad, which Washington sold both locally and internationally.   

Washington’s development of his Potomac fisheries coincided with the downfall of Virginia’s tobacco market in the mid-eighteenth century. Tobacco required notably more labor than other crops, and Washington’s conversion to wheat in the mid-1760s resulted in a surplus of slave labor. He worked to diversify his sources of income, assigning his enslaved workers new tasks, such as spinning, weaving, blacksmithing, and fishing. The fishing venture in particular built upon Washington’s existing interests; he had grown up on the water and was certainly acquainted with the Potomac’s opportunities. Even in 1760, when Washington was still growing tobacco, he began testing the fishing grounds and wrote in his diary that he “hauled the Sein and got some fish,” seemingly by himself.

Although Washington may have used the fisheries of the Potomac on his own, and certainly enjoyed fishing for sport, large-scale fishing for economic benefit soon became work for his slaves. Washington’s enslaved workers were probably already familiar with the abundance of the Potomac – archeology has shown that they supplemented their rations considerably with wild species, both fish and game. However, their duty for Washington as fishermen was to catch impressive yields of herring and shad, some of which Washington turned around and doled out as rations, but which he also sold as near as Alexandria and as far as the West Indies. 

Commercial fishing was a seasonal job, conducted when the shad and herring ran in spring from April through May. For this reason, no enslaved person at Mount Vernon was a full-time fisherman, but rather labor was drawn from around the plantation. This meant that fishing brought together enslaved workers who did not usually have contact with each other, since they generally worked and were housed with people performing similar tasks. Washington considered fishing to be especially important work, as it was one of the services for which he awarded extra rations of rum or other spirits. 

To conduct commercial fishing, Washington ordered seine nets that were twelve feet in height and several hundred feet wide. Dropped in an arc by two men in a rowboat, the net formed a barrier that could trap thousands of fish, which slaves collected in baskets as teams onshore pulled the net in. 

Polish traveler Julian Niemcewicz, who visited Washington in 1798, “went out with the steward Anderson and some negroes to catch fish,” and noted that while the method of fishing was similar to the one used in Europe, the fish were smaller. (By twenty-first century standards, Washington’s Potomac was filled with enormous fish – six-foot sturgeon, and oysters up to 14”.) Niemcewicz also commented on the racial division of the catch; the gar and one species of catfish, “which is black, is left for the blacks,” while the white catfish, perch, and “tobacco box” fish were considered fit for whites to eat. 

Once the fish were removed from the net, they were brought to tables where the fish heads were removed and the fish were drawn, the innards being removed. Enslaved workers were required for these tasks as well, down to the construction of barrels for fish to be stored in. Fish were rinsed in a brine solution and then packed in barrels, about 800 to a barrel with alternating layers of fish and salt. The fish were packed head to tail, with the backs down and the open stomachs up, rather than flat. This allowed the stomach cavity to be filled with salt.

The combined weight of fish and salt tended to compress the packing and excess water was poured off as it collected on top. Then the barrels were moved to storage. This method of preservation allowed the fish to remain edible for incredibly long periods of time, well in excess of a year. 

Contemporary preservation techniques meant that the fish would be gutted and packed in salt, tightly layered in barrels, head to tail and upside-down so salt filled the interior cavities. 

Herring from the Potomac at Mount Vernon were the common blueback. In Washington's time, they were about 15 to 18 inches in length and about ¾ pound in weight.

One issue to be met before each fish run was obtaining an adequate supply of salt. The best and only really acceptable salt was Lisbon salt. It was made by flooding large land areas with salt water, allowing the sun to evaporate the water and leaving the salt, a slow process. This provided a product that was stable and did not hydrate or draw up moisture rapidly. Thus it did not melt easily in contact with, for example, wet herring. It preserved well, was easily transported, and easily stored.

However, this salt was very difficult to come by, because it had to be imported from Libson, Portugal. By English law, Virginia and the other southern colonies were unable to import Lisbon salt directly. If a Virginia ship took a cargo to Lisbon, traded and bought salt, the ship had to sail to England, clear customs, pay duty on the salt, then sail for the colonies. Many times the salt was required to be delivered first to a northern colony for transshipment to Virginia. This added to the time for delivery and substantially increased the cost.

Salt from Liverpool, England, in contrast, was made by boiling sea water and resulted in a salt not much different from that in use today, although much more crude. This salt was allowed to enter the southern colonies and was preferred for domestic use. However, it was found, by long experience in warm climates, to be too weak to accomplish preservation. The fish or meat preserved or cured with it turned rusty in color and, in six or eight months, was unfit for eating. 

If packed correctly, herring could last up to a year, if not more, making it an ideal ration for enslaved people as well as a promising export. In his young days as master of Mount Vernon, Washington owned two vessels capable of navigating rivers and oceans for trade. One of these, a schooner with no recorded name, was built in 1765 at Mount Vernon by enslaved carpenters trained by John Askew. The schooner carried timber, grain, and other goods along the rivers of Virginia, and brought herring as far as Antigua. Washington also used the vessel for recreational fishing trips. 

In 1774, Washington acquired the brig Fairfax, a vessel that he had originally hired to ship flour from Mount Vernon. The captain, however, had failed to pay Washington, and a court order put the brig up for sale. Washington wrote in that year that he “had no desire of being concerned in Shipping,” having realized that seagoing vessels were too expensive to maintain himself, but nevertheless he bought the brig when no other buyers came forward. Renamed the Farmer, it carried fish and other goods to such destinations as Portugal and Jamaica, before Washington resold it in 1775.

Although Washington managed his own shipping for only a few years, his Potomac fisheries were an important source of revenue for the rest of his life. He held shares in other shipping vessels, and routinely sold his fish to merchants. Washington was also a careful businessman, trying his best to get the highest price. Even while president, he wrote from Philadelphia telling his manager William Pearce that he hoped to sell his surplus to Alexander Smith of Alexandria, but asked Pearce to enquire after better prices before committing to Smith’s, which were “very low.” While he was away he also had his manager help him rent out his “best” landing, modeling his business venture on that of his neighbor George Mason. 

Fish were clearly profitable; as early as 1772, Washington sold surplus herring and shad for 184 pounds and by 1797, sold them for 165. Through his different ventures, fisheries remained an annual source of income from Washington’s earliest years as master of Mount Vernon to the end of his life.

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

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Geo Washington (1732-1799) From Pleasure Garden Fishponds to Sport Fishing

In his biography George Washington: Farmer (1915) by Paul Leland Haworth (1876-1936), he tells us that Washington's fishing was mostly done with a seine as a commercial proposition, but he seems to have had some interest in angling. Occasionally he took trips up & down the Potomac in order to fish, sometimes with a hook & line, at other times with seines & nets. 

Washington fished with his brothers and friends purely for sport, which he sometimes did with nets, but also with tackle and live bait, including blood worms. Washington wrote to a friend that the waters of the Potomac River flowing before Mount Vernon were, "well supplied with various kinds of fish at all seasons of the year; and in the Spring with the greatest profusion of Shad, Herring, Bass, Carp, Perch, Sturgeon &ca."

From his diaries and tackle kits that Mount Vernon possesses, it is clear George Washington also enjoyed fishing for sport with his younger brothers, John Augustine (Jack), Charles, and Samuel. On September 3, 1770, for example, he remarked: "Went in the Evening a fishing with my Brothers Samuel and Charles," or five days later near Mount Vernon, he noted, "Went a fishing towards Sheridine Point. Dined upon the Point."
George Washington's Fishing Tackle  Library of Congress

Washington & Dr James Craik (1727-1814) took fishing tackle with them on both their western tours & made use of it in some of the mountain streams & also in the Ohio.  James Craik was one of Washington’s oldest and closest friends. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, then joined the British Army as an army surgeon in the West Indies until 1751. They met while serving in the Virginia Regiment during the French and Indian War and later Craik served under Washington during the American Revolution. 
After the Revolution, Washington persuaded him to move his practice to Alexandria, Virginia. In both 1770 and 1784 he went on surveying (and fishing) expeditions with Washington, examining military claims in Pennsylvania and what is now West Virginia. In 1781 Dr. Craik was appointed “chief physician and surgeon of the army” by Congress. Both Crail and Washington were active Masons. He was also Washington’s personal physician and one of 3 doctors who attended George Washington on his deathbed in 1799. 

While at the Federal Convention in 1787 Washington & Gouverneur Morris went up to Valley Forge partly perhaps to see the old camp, but ostensibly to fish for trout. They lodged at the home of a widow named Moore. On the trip the Farmer learned the Pennsylvania way of raising buckwheat and wrote down much more about this topic than about trout. 

A few days later, with Gouverneur Morris & Mr. & Mrs. Robert Morris, he went up to Trenton & "in the evening fished," with what success he does not relate. When on his eastern tour of 1789 he went outside the harbor of Portsmouth to fish for cod, but the tide was unfavorable & they caught only two. More fortunate was a trip off Sandy Hook the next year, which was thus described by a newspaper: "Yesterday afternoon the President of the United States returned from Sandy Hook & the fishing banks, where he had been for the benefit of the sea air, & to amuse himself in the delightful recreation of fishing. We are told he has had excellent sport, having himself caught a great number of sea-bass & black fish--the weather proved remarkably fine, which, together with the salubrity of the air & wholesome exercise, rendered this little voyage extremely agreeable."

Paul Haworth tells us that Washington was fond of eating fish & took great pains to have them on his table frequently. At Mount Vernon there was a slave, reputed to be a centenarian & the son of an African King, whose duty it was to keep the household supplied with fish. On many a morning he could be seen out on the river in his skiff, beguiling the toothsome perch, bass or rock-fish. Not infrequently he would fall asleep & then the impatient cook, who had orders to have dinner strictly upon the hour, would be compelled to seek the shore & roar at him. Old Jack would waken & row to shore to deliver the day's fish.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Garden Design - Fishpond

Fishpond shaped like a fish at the base of the falling terraces at the 1760s William Paca house in Annapolis, Maryland.

Ponds in formal gardens have a long history.  Gorgeous hieroglyphics in Egyptian tombs depict water gardening in a fascinating formal fashion. A rectangular formal pond complete with water lilies & fish, with marginal edges adorned with lush aquatic plants was painted by the Egyptians in a Kings Tomb, verifying pond construction & pond designs over 3500 years ago!

More than a thousand years ago the Romans transported water hundreds of miles underground within aqua ducts. Later, Aqua duct style pond designs were eventually emulated in pond construction techniques to create formal water gardens. Canals, fountains & formal water gardens were contrived concepts that were engendered from the necessity to move water from one point to another.

Throughout properties in England built hundreds of years ago, the visitor can see water run across the tops of the walls in an aqua duct style construction fashion. Wherever water was needed on a property, fountains were created to pour out of walls into formal & informal constructed water gardens.

Formal rectangular Reflection Ponds, with other embellishments, came from the Ancient Greeks who engineered all kinds of Romans Water Garden Sculptures like the spectacular Titan Fountain in Rome.

The small, ornamental fish pond appeared in England in the Middle Ages, recorded in the 1250 garden of Henry III. It was designed to be both productive and aesthetic and could be called called a mirror pond if it produced a reflection of the owner's dwelling.  In early America, gentlemen often placed a fishpond in a garden or pleasure grounds near their dwelling. A fishpond was an artificial fresh water reservoir stocked with fish meant to be caught and eaten.

Fishponds did not appear in early American gardens just to supply food for the colonial table. Water was a vital element of formal, geometric, symmetrical 17th & 18th century English gardens.

The American colonial gentry hoped that their gardening efforts would reflect their understanding of an informed, civilized manner of elegant living, especially within the wilderness surrounding them. Fishponds appeared at the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg early. A note in the Virginia Council Journal stated, "The fine gardens Fish Ponds & Are not so much regarded as Formerly," and "the governor to call for what money he pleased out of their Treasury, to be spent about his House, Gardens, Fish ponds, &c." Governor Alexander Spotswood (1676-1740) stated "if the Assembly did not care to be at ye Expence of the Fish-Pond & Falling Gardens, to take them to myself; those improvements hapening to be upon the Town Land ."
English Woodcut

One of England's earliest garden commentators simply could not stand for messy fishponds to be part of his garden plans. Francis Bacon, (1561-1626), English philosopher, statesman, scientist, lawyer, jurist, & author, wrote in his 1625 Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall in the essay entitled Of Gardens. His essay coincided with the new North American settlements along the Atlantic coast. Bacon wrote, "For Fountains, they are a great beauty and refreshment; but Pools mar all, and make the Garden unwholesome, and full of flies and frogs. Fountains I intend to be of two natures; the one that sprinkleth or spouteth water: the other a fair receipt of water, of some thirty or forty foot square, but without fish, or slime, or mud."

But, by the 1650s, fishing was a literate gentry sport, enjoyed by both men and women. Izaak Walton's (1593-1683) widely popular The Compleat Angler was first published in 1653, but Walton continued to add to it for a quarter of a century.

In 1731, in Mercer County, New Jersey, an ad in the Pennsylvania Gazette noted a communal fishpond intended to generate income for its owner, "To be Let, A Plantation Three Miles above Trenton...a share in a Fish-pond either at shares or Rent."

In 1733 Charleston, a house-for-sale ad in the South Carolina Gazette touted, "To be sold...a garden on each side of the House...a fish-pond well stored with pearch, roach, pike, eels, and cat-fish."
Fishpond at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello near Charlottesville, Virginia. Jefferson's small fishpond was just an ornamental holding reservoir. Jefferson's slaves would go fishing in the creeks nearby transplanting the fish they caught to the fishpond, so Jefferson, his family, & guests could enjoy fresh fish regularly.

A similar notice appeared in the June 5, 1736, Charleston's South Carolina Gazette, "To be Sold A Plantation containing 200 Acres...An artificial fish-pond, always supplied by fresh water springs, and well stored with several sorts of fish."

By 1740, Samuel Richardson was writing of the social aspects of the fishpond in his popular novel Pamela, "We then talked of the garden, how large and pleasant it was, and sat down on the tufted slope of a fish-pond, to see the fishes play upon the surface of the water."

Eliza Lucas Pinkney described the amazing fishponds at William Middleton's Crow-Field in 1743 South Carolina, "...a large fish pond with a mount rising out of the middle-- the top of which is level with the dwelling house and upon it is a roman temple. On each side of this are other large fish ponds properly disposed which form a fine prospect of water from the house."
Crim Dell at William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia

Near Philadelphia in the same year, Isaac Norris II of Fairhill noted, "...opening my woods into groves, enlarging my fishponds and beautifying my springs."

In 1745, Charleston's South Carolina Gazette noted, "To be sold at publick Vendue...six Acres of Land, with a Dwelling house, Kitchen, two Summer houses, a large Garden and a Fish Pond."

On Peter Kalm's travels through the colonies during November of 1748, he wrote, "Not only people of rank, but even others that had some possessions, commonly had fish ponds in the country near their houses. They always took care that fresh water might run into their ponds, which is very salutary for the fish; for that purpose the ponds were placed below a spring on a hill."
English Woodcut
In South Carolina, lots for sale were promoted by their potential for adding a fishpond to the property. The January, 1751, South Carolina Gazette touted, To be Sold, a Lot in Ansonburgh...where with little trouble, there might be a very good fishpond.

Alexander Gordon wrote of the property he was trying to sell in July of 1748, in the Charleston South Carolina Gazette, "TO BE SOLD...a beautiful Pond, supplied with Fish at the End of the Garden." Richard Lake placed a similar ad in the same newspaper 6 months later, "To be sold...a very large garden...with a large fish-pond." Several months later, a similar advertisement appeared in the Charleston newspaper, "...a kitchen garden, at the end of which is a canal supplied with fresh springs of water, about 300 feet long, with fish."

In June of 1753, John Murray Esq of Murraywhaithe, Charleston, South Carolina, received this advise to a friend, "By all means mention the fine Improvements of your garden... You'll certainly dig a Fish pond & another for geese & Ducks & one Swan...William Murray."

In 1758, Thomas Hale in his Compleat Body of Husbandry, was recommending commercial fish ponds for farmers. His book was widely owned throughout the colonies. George Washington owned a copy and referred to it. Although his book is aimed at the farmer, he asserts, "We write here to the gentleman as well as to the farmer; and we may name the supply of the table as a great article. All that is saved in the expence is got: and the addition of good fish in plenty is a consideration of great value."
1803 Charles Fraser (1782-1860). Entrance to Ashley Hall near Charleston, South Carolina with fishpond.

Hale's favorite fresh water pond fish was the carp, especially because of its ability to allude poachers. "It will endure frost better than any; it is so shy, that it preserves itself from common enemies. No fish is more dissicult to be taken out by the common methods of stealing. They will not readily bite at the hook when grown to a size, in rich ponds ; and even the casting net rarely surprizes rhem. They plunge to the bottom upon the first notice of any disturbance in the water, and strike their heads into the mud/ The net draws over their tails, without laying hold of them."

By 1759, Laurence Stern was noting the calming effect of just sitting by a fishing pond in his popular novel Tristam Shandy, "When the misfortune...fell so heavily upon my father's head...he walked composedly out with it to the fish-pond. Had my father leaned his head upon his hand, and reasoned an hour which way to have gone,— reason, with all her force, could not have directed him to any thing like it: there is something, sir, in fish-ponds ;—but what it is, I leave to system-builders and fish-pond-diggers betwixt 'em to find out; —but there is something, under the first disorderly transport of the humours, so unaccountably becalming in an orderly and a sober walk towards one of them."

Even Edmund Burke (1729-1797) in discussing his distrust of certain negotiators wrote, "I would not take one of these as my arbitrator in a dispute for so much as a fish-pond— for if he reserved the mud to me, he would be sure to give the water that fed the pool, to my adversary."

Mr. James Reid 's large house only a mile from Charles-Town, was advertised for sale in the South Carolina Gazette on October 22, 1763. "Near to the house is a large garden, wherein is a fishpond , orange and other fruit trees."
The Governor's Palace from Governor Spotswood's Canal at Colonial Williamsburg.

In 1765, the Pennsylvania Gazette advertised property for sale "in Whiteland Township, Chester County...containing about 150 Acres of good being the long and well known Tavern called the White Horse, having a good Stone Stable, a Barn...a good Stone Brew house...two good bearing Orchards...good Garden and Fishpond."

Fishponds were not reserved only for the gardens of the gentry. In the fall of 1768, in Trenton, New Jersey, a woman in the business of curing & selling ocean fish but hoping to return to England, advertised that her business property also supported a fresh water fish pond. "The Subscriber, having for many years, made it her business to cure Sturgeon in North America...takes this method of acquainting the public, that she leave this part of the world, but is desirous and willing to instruct a sober industrious person or family in the whole art, secret and mystery of manufacturing sturgeon in the several branches, consisting of making isinglass, pickling, cavear, glue, and oil...apply to her at Mr. Elijah Bond's fishery near Trenton, where is every thing convenient for carrying on the business, and plenty of fish throughout the whole year furnished by Mr. Bond's fish pond. Margaret Broadfield."

A fishpond was mentioned in an 1769 memoir at Oswego, New York, "A summer house in a tree, a fish-pond, and a gravel-walk were finished before the end of May."  In Annapolis, Maryland, during the 1770s, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his father were improving their property which ran to the rivers edge. There was no need for a fishpond there, but they did build octagonal summerhouses at each end of the 400' walkway along the river. Charles Carroll wrote that between the pavilions, ladies often fished along the walkway.

Fishing in the colonies was a social sport, and the outcome was as unpredictable then as it is nowadays. Mollie Ridout, Director of Horticulture for Historic Annapolis, sent me this poem the Maryland Gazette about preparing a list of items to take on a fishing trip on the Severn River in 1754.
Six bottle of wine, right old, good and clear;
a dozen at least, of English strong Beer:
Six quarts of good Rum, to make Punch and Grogg
(the latter a Drink that’s now much vogue)
some Cyder, if sweet, would not be amiss:
Of Butter Six pounds, we can’t do with less.
A tea Kettle, Tea, and all the Tea Geer,
To treat the Ladies and also small Beer.
Sugar, Lemons, a Strainer, likewise a Spoon;
Two China Bowls to drink out of at Noon:
A large piece of Cheese, a Table Cloth too,
A sauce-pan, two Dishes, and a Corkscrew:
Some Plates, Knives and Forks, Fish Kettle or pot,
And pipes and Tobacco must not be forgot:
A frying pan, Bacon or Lard for to Fry:
a tumbler and Glass to use when we’re dry
A hatchet, some Matches, a Steel and a Flint,
Some touch-wood, or Box with good tinder in’t.
some vinegar, Salt, some Parsley and Bread
or else Loaves of Pone to eat in it’s stead:
and for fear of bad Luck at catching of Fish
Suppose we should carry- A READY DRESSED DISH

English Woodcut

Fishing was a fashionable pastime for the ladies, who did not dress down for the sport. Quite to the contrary, they dressed in their finest to spend an afternoon fishing and hoping to be noticed. One Englishman observed,
Silks of all colors must their aid impart,
And ev'ry fur promote the fisher's art.
So the gay lady, with expensive care,
Borrows the pride of the land, of sea, and air;
Furs, pearls, & plumes, the glittering thing displays
Dazels our eyes, and easy hearts betrays.

c. 1796 Charles Fraser (1782-1860) Detail of The Seat of Joseph Winthrop, Esq. on Goose Creek, South Carolina. Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, South Carolina.

Josiah Quincy, Jr. visited near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the spring of 1773, "Dined with the celebrated Pennsylvania Farmer, John Dickenson Esqr, at his country seat about two and one-half miles from town...his gardens, green-house, bathing-house, grotto, study, fish pond."

In July of 1773, the Virginia Gazette contained an ad for a tract of land, "on James river, in Amherst county...containing about 600 acres of high and low grounds...including the dwellinghouse...a remarkable natural fishpond, and a fishery for white shads."

Colonel George Braxton in 1776-1781, Frederick County, Virginia, wrote, "I agreed wth Alexander Oliver finish my falling Garden wth a...neat Fish Pond."
Another view of Thomas Jefferson's fishpond in his garden.

Adam Smith in his 1776 Wealth of Nations referred to a fishpond in one of his most convincing passages, "When Vedius Pollio, in the presence of Augustus, ordered one of his slaves, who had committed a slight fault, to be cut into pieces, and thrown into his fish pond, in order to feed his fishes, the emperor commanded him, with indignation, to emancipate immediately, not only that slave, but all the others that belonged to him."

In South Carolina, John Champney’s purchased property from William Williamson’s estate in 1786. Williamson’s plantation, known as “The Garden”, was on the Stono River near Wallace’s Ferry. He died in November 1783, and his property was advertised for sale in the State Gazette of South Carolina (Charleston) for February 23, 1786. Twenty acres were set aside as a pleasure garden and seven or eight acres, including three canals of fishponds, were “laid out and improved in a taste no where excelled in this State…. The most curious Botanists may here be entertained…In short, nature and art are happily united: nature is improved but no where violated in this delightful spot. " (A plat was made by Joseph Purcell in 1786 and appears in John McCrudy Plat Book No. 4- p. 48 showing the layout of the garden.)

The image of the civilized fishpond springing from the wild swampland was used in a political essay in the 1787 Pennsylvania Gazette promoting federal sentiments in the new nation, "He leads the murmuring brook in pleasing mazes through the meadow, and sprinkles the borders with lillies of the valley; by lopping and brushing his woods he gets plenty of fuel, and makes them beautiful parks; he drains an ugly, unwholesome swamp, by forming an agreeable fishpond . He makes his little farm the seat of plenty, liberty, domestic bliss."

Jedidiah Morse admired 1789, Elizabethtown, New Jersey, writing, "Its fine situation...the arrangement and variety of forest-trees - the gardens - the artificial a refined and judicious taste."
1800. Charles Fraser (1782-1860). Brabants on French Quarter Creek, The Seat of the Late Bishop Smith. South Carolina. The Carolina Art Association, Charleston, South Carolina.

In French Quarter Creek near Charleston, South Carolina, at the seat of the late Bishop Smith, Brabant, or Brabaks, was described as having a fine garden, shrubbery, and ornamental lake...long known as "the Bishops Fish Pond."
Williamsburg, Virginia

By 1793, John Aikin and his sister Anna Laetitia Aikin Barbauld in London were using a garden setting in their popular juvenile fiction, "There was a garden enclosed with high brick walls, and laid out somewhat in the old fashion. Under the walls were wide beds planted with flowers, garden stuff, and fruit trees. Next to them was a broad gravel walk running round the garden; and the middle was laid out in grass plots, and beds of flowers and shrubs, with a fishpond in the centre."

Thomas Wilson wrote in his Biography of the Principal American Military and Naval Heros that in December of 1799, George Washington was planning improvements for Mount Vernon. "A gentleman, who was present at Mount Vernon, has furnished the following particulars...A little before his death, he had begun several improvements on his farm. Attending to some of these, he probably caught his fatal disease. He had contemplation of a gravel walk on the banks of the Potomack; between the walk and the river there was to be a fish pond. Some trees were to be cut down, and others preserved. On Friday the day before he died, he spent some time by the side of the river marking the former. There came a fall of snow, which did not deter him from his pursuit, and he continued till his neck and hair were quite covered with snow."

In Baltimore's 1800 Federal Gazette, the country seat of Willow Brook was noted to have, "In the garden is...a fish pond well stocked with fish."
c. 1799 Charles Fraser (1782-1860) View of a South Carolina Plantation Barn with probable fishpond before it.

Eliza Clitherall described in 1801, The Hermitage plantation near Wilmington, North Carolina, "The Gardens were large, and laid out in the English style--a Creek wound thro' the largest, upon its banks grew native shrubbery...a fishpond, communicating with the Creek, both producing abundance of fish."

John Beale Bordley in 1803, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, described the possibilities of a fishpond,
Pond Fish.
1. Carp...will not thrive in a cold hungry water, but require a pond with a fat rich soil at bottom...
2. Tench...The pond should have a muddy bottom with weeds
3. a clear and moderately deep water, with a pebbly, gravelly, or a sandy clay bottom...
4. Crucian...brought from Germany...
5. Gold and Silver Fish...possessing a finer flavor...calculated for the table...
6. Pike...pond...should be of good depth, with weeds growing in it...
7. Eels...never breed in perfect standing water...
8. Bream...Roach...Dace...Minnows...kept in ponds with Pike and Perch, as food for them...
Ruff or Pope, which is much like the Perch, but esteemed better eating: and the Gudgeon...equal in goodness to the delicate Smelt...delights in a gravelly bottom...

For Fish...
The sluices for emptying the ponds should have vent holes guarded with boxes, perforated so as water but not fish may pass...Small ponds of standing water should be cleansed once in seven or eight years, and left dry one summer--Large ponds every two or three years, in October, when the bottom may be ploughed and sown with Oats, and the water trees, except...willows, should grow near the pond, as the fallen leaves and rotten wood, are pernicious to the fish; as is water running from hemp, dunghills, stables, and wash houses.

Turtle in Colonial Williamsburg's Governor's Palace Pond

Also in the same year, the popular Domestic Encyclopaedia: Or, A Dictionary of Facts and Useful Knowledge from London, instructed, "FISH-PONDS, are those reservoirs made for the breeding and rearing of fish. They are considered to be no small improvement of watery and boggy, lands, many of which can be appropriated to no other purpose. In making a pond, its head should be at the lowest part of the ground, that the trench of the flood-gate, or sluice, having a good fall, may, when necessary, speedily discharge the water...Ponds should be drained every three or four years, and the fish sorted. In those which are kept for breeding fish, the smaller kind should be taken out, for storing other ponds; but a good stock of females, at least eight or nine years old, ought to remain, as they never breed before that age."

In 1808, Washington Irving wrote in his New York satire Salmagundi, "Another odd notion of the old gentleman, was to blow up a large bed of rocks, for the purpose of having a fish-pond, although the river ran at about one hundred yards distance from the house, and was well stored with fish ;—but there was nothing, he said, like having things to one's-self. So at it he went with all the ardour of a projector, who has just hit upon some splendid and useless whim-wham. As he proceeded, his views enlarged; he would have a summer-house built on the margin of the fishpond ; he would have it surrounded with elms and willows..." In a few years," he observed, " it would be a delightful piece of wood and water, where he might ramble on a summer's noon, smoke his pipe, and enjoy himself in his old days."
Fishing in 18th century North Carolina.

The Boston Repertory, March 24, 1809, promoted a fishpond lottery with a woodcut & a poem. While the lottery itself was a gamble, the poem implies that gentlemen wagered on their fishpond catches, as well.
Fortune's Anglers
In the fish pond of fortune men angle always,
Some angle for titles, some angle for praise,
Some angle for favor, some angle for wives,
And some angle for nought all the days of their lives:
(Chorus) Ye who'd angle for Wealth, and would Fortunes obtain, Get your hooks baited by Kidder, Gilbert & Dean.
Some angle for pleasure, some angle for pain,
Some angle for trifles, some angle for gain,
Some angle for glory, some angle for strife,
Some angle to make themselves happy for life:
(Chorus)Ye who'd angle...

Some angle for wit, and some angle for fame,
Some angle for nonsense, and some e'en for shame,
Some angle for horses, some angle for hounds,
For angling's infinite, it never new bounds:
(Chorus)Ye who'd angle...

Persons at a distance may be assured, that the most punctual and strict attention will be given their orders for tickets, (post paid) enclosing cash or prize tickets, addressed to Gilbert & Dean, 79, State street, or W. & T. Kidder, 9, Market-square, and the earliest information sent them respecting the fate of their numbers.
Jefferson's Home Reflected in His Fishpond.

By the 19th century, some American home owners, famililar with the English movement toward more natural grounds, advocated the addition of artificial lakes instead of smaller fishponds. One of these was Rosalie Stier Calvert (1778–1821) of Riversdale in Prince Georg'e County, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C. In the winter of 1808, she wrote to her brother, "A lake just finished which looks like a large river before the house on the southern side gives a very beautiful effect, and furnishes us at the same time with fish and ice for our ice house." In the new republic, it was a virtue to counterbalance ornament with usefulness.

The ever-practical and commercially-minded English agriculturalist Richard Parkinson had spent three years in the United States farming and visiting the plantations of others, such as George Washington, at the turn of the century. When he returned to London, Parkinson, who was always sure that he knew best, wrote of fishponds in 1810. "Gentlemen often have fish-ponds made on hills, by way of ornament...if a gentleman put more value on his land looking well, and being profitable, than on a mere exhibition of water, he should pay regard to situation in forming his fish-ponds; as making a pond on a hill is like having a leaky cistern at the top of a house, which will infallibly rot or injure some part of the building: thus a fish-pond, if only one acre of water, will often damage, or perhaps half destroy, from ten to twenty acres of land, should care not be taken to cut drains where it first makes its appearance."
Ladies still fishing in 19th-century America & still dressed-up..

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Tho Jefferson's (1743-1824) Monticello Fish Ponds: Decorative & Functional Features

Thomas Jefferson by Tadeusz Andrzej Bonawentura Kosciuszko (1746-1817)

 Monticello Fish Ponds: Decorative and Functional Features

by Bill Bergen (Monticello Guide)

Thomas Jefferson must have tired of presidential life by January 1807, complaining to a friend that his was a life of "unceasing drudgery & daily loss of friends." With two years left to serve, Jefferson found comfort in dreaming of his retirement, and his thoughts turned to Monticello's flower garden and for the means to retain water and keep fish.

Jefferson designed garden beds, developed a planting scheme to keep flowers blooming throughout the growing season, and mapped out winding walks for his West Lawn. He also considered his need for water; Jefferson knew his mountaintop house was problematic because, given the shovel-and-pick technology of the day, it would be difficult to dig a well deep enough to obtain reliable water.

He excavated his first well in 1769; although with a depth of 66 feet, it often "failed" as Jefferson noted in his Memorandum Book. Water then had to be obtained from a spring further down the mountain. During the final stages of house construction, Jefferson addressed this problem by designing a system for catching rainwater on his two terraces that formed the roof over his dependencies. Beneath the boarded walkway, he devised a sophisticated under-roof designed to shunt runoff into four cisterns. But as ingenious as this solution was, it did not fully solve the problem. Even in his final years, Jefferson was looking for ways to waterproof the sides of his cisterns because they, like the well, would run dry in a drought.

Jefferson also planned a pond for the West Lawn. In his earliest notes about Monticello's gardens, Jefferson envisioned a "fish pond to be visible from the house;" while his goal was a water feature to adorn the garden, the pond could also store water. A pond was built near the South Pavilion, a structure better known today as the "Honeymoon Cottage" (where he and his wife Martha first lived on the mountain). With typical precision, Jefferson recorded the pond's dimensions: "the fish pond near the S. pavilion is an Ellipsis 5. Yds. Wide, 10 yds. long = 40 sq. yds." The Garden Club of Virginia restored today's fish pond on the West Lawn in 1940, but whether the pond ever held fish is unknown. Jefferson paid enslaved workers for fish they caught and live fish may have been kept in the pond as it was near the kitchen.

Jefferson even decided to try fish farming. In 1805, he surveyed an area near his brickyard for ponds in which he could grow fish. Completed in 1812, Jefferson began soliciting fish for his ponds from friends, business associates, and his brother Randolph Jefferson. Jefferson's correspondence reflects the difficulty of obtaining the requisite number of fish. Typical of his efforts was a letter sent to his brother: "Supposing the shad season not to be quite over, and that in hauling for them they catch some carp, I send the bearer with a cart and cask to procure for me as many living carp as he can to stock my fishpond." Randolph Jefferson replied that he had no shad "at all" but would check with neighbors. Other problems included a July 1814 rainstorm that caused the pond to overflow, washing away the carp purchased the previous spring. Another time a shipment of fish died when the worker transporting them neglected to change their water overnight.

Other holding ponds were located elsewhere on the plantation and were specifically named for the type of fish they held, such as chub. Among Jefferson's many records is an 1819 notation stating, "the uppermost pond is for eels."  In providing water to the mountaintop, Jefferson demonstrated ingenuity and determination while fulfilling his two design themes of beauty and utility. Attempting to farm fish also reflects his restless ambition to try all things while rendering his plantation more self-sufficient.

See:  The Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia at

Friday, October 23, 2020

From Garden to Table - Geo Washington's (1732-1799) Enslaved Cook & Corn for Hoecakes

 A silhouette of Doll, from Lives Bound Together. Mount Vernon explains that at the time of George Washington’s death, the Mount Vernon estate’s enslaved population consisted of 317 people. These silhouettes are meant to represent people in bondage at Washington's Mount Vernon. The designs were based on physical descriptions (which survive for only a few) & each person’s age, gender, clothing, & work assignment.

Geo Washington's Favorite Food from the Gardens - Corn for Hoecakes

Family members and visitors alike testified that hoecakes were among George Washington’s favorite foods. He invariably ate them at breakfast, covered with butter and honey, along with hot tea—a “temperate repast” enjoyed each morning. Samuel Stearns (1741-1810), was an American doctor, who wrote that Washington "breakfasts about seven o'clock on three small Indian hoe-cakes, and as many dishes of tea." 

Years after Washington’s death, Nelly Custis Lewis described her method for preparing a yeast-risen version of hoecakes in a letter to her close friend Elizabeth Bordley Gibson. “Make it by candlelight,” she wrote, “& let it remain [by a warm hearth] until the next morning.” Describing the baking method, she wrote: “[D]rop [the batter] a spoonful at a time on a hoe or griddle (as we say in the South). When done on one side turn the other—the griddle must be rubbed . . . with a piece of beef suet.”

This recipe is a modern adaptation of the 18th-century original. It was created by culinary historian Nancy Carter Crump for the book Dining with the Washingtons.


1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast

2 1/2 cups white cornmeal, divided

3 to 4 cups lukewarm water

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 large egg, lightly beaten

Melted butter for drizzling and serving

Honey or maple syrup for serving


Mix the yeast and 1 1/4 cups of the cornmeal in a large bowl. Add 1 cup of the lukewarm water, stirring to combine thoroughly. Mix in 1/2 cup more of the water, if needed, to give the mixture the consistency of pancake batter. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 8 hours, or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 200°F.

When ready to finish the hoecakes, begin by adding 1/2 to 1 cup of the remaining water to the batter. Stir in the salt and the egg, blending thoroughly.

Gradually add the remaining 1 1/4 cups of cornmeal, alternating with enough additional lukewarm water to make a mixture that is the consistency of waffle batter. Cover with a towel, and set aside at room temperature for 15 to 20 minutes.

Heat a griddle on medium-high heat, and lightly grease it with lard or vegetable shortening. Preparing 1 hoecake at a time, drop a scant 1/4 cup of the batter onto the griddle and cook on one side for about 5 minutes, or until lightly browned. With a spatula, turn the hoecake over and continue cooking another 4 to 5 minutes, until browned.

Place the hoecake on a platter, and set it in the oven to keep warm while making the rest of the batch. Drizzle each batch with melted butter.

Serve the hoecakes warm, drizzled with melted butter and honey or maple syrup.

Geo Washington's (1732-1799) Enslaved Cook named Doll

Doll was thirty-eight years old when she arrived at Mount Vernon in 1759. She and her children were among the more than 80 enslaved people whom Martha Dandridge Custis brought to her marriage to George Washington, as part of her “dower” or widow’s share of her first husband’s estate. Many of the “dower” slaves remained on Custis properties, but about 20 household workers and craftsmen were taken to Mount Vernon from their previous home in New Kent County, Virginia.1 Doll and the other people forced to move had to adjust to a new life—and a new community—on Washington’s plantation.

As the estate’s cook for many years, Doll worked long hours in the kitchen preparing the hoecakes, smoked hams, and other Washington family favorites. It is likely that Martha Washington installed Doll as cook because she was familiar with the enslaved woman’s skills. Mount Vernon’s steady stream of visitors meant that Doll frequently had to prepare large and elaborate meals. She would have worked closely with Martha to plan each day’s menu and monitor ingredients. Though under her mistress’s supervision, the kitchen was Doll’s domain. She passed on her expertise to her daughter Lucy, who succeeded her mother as one of the estate’s cooks.

By the 1780s, Doll no longer had a formal work assignment.2 Then in her sixties, she likely assisted with knitting and mending, tasks that Washington often assigned to elderly enslaved workers. She continued to use the kitchen to distill garden rose and mint water for medicinal purposes and to dry garden fruits such as cherries.3 She also sold chickens and ducks to George Washington, as did many enslaved people on the estate.

Doll was the matriarch of one of the largest extended families within Mount Vernon’s enslaved community. In 1799 she had five children—George, Doll, Lucy, Peter, and Alce—as well as fourteen grandchildren and at least four great-grandchildren living on the estate. Her daughter Lucy married Frank Lee, the enslaved butler. Her grandson Christopher Sheels became Washington’s personal valet.

Because she was owned by the Custis estate, Doll remained enslaved after Martha Washington’s death. She may have been inherited by Elizabeth (Eliza) Parke Custis Law or George Washington Parke Custis.4 On the list of the division of the enslaved people owned by the Custis estate, both inherited a “Doll” or “Dolly” valued at just $5, a low figure indicating that the women were elderly.5 By 1802 Doll would have been eighty-one years old. 

By Jessie MacLeod, Associate Curator, George Washington's Mount Vernon

Notes:  If not specifically cited, biographical and genealogical information about enslaved people has been drawn from Washington’s 1786 and 1799 slave lists: George Washington, Diary, Feb. 18, 1786, and “Washington’s Slave List,” 1799, Founders Online, National Archives. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel, Edward G. Lengel, et al. (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008)]; the Mount Vernon slavery database, which compiles references to the estate’s enslaved people; and the files of Mary V. Thompson, Mount Vernon’s research historian. 

1.  Memorandum, “List of Artisans and Household Slaves in the Estate” [ca. 1759], Settlement of the Daniel Parke Custis Estate, Schedule III-C, National Archives, Founders Online, [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Digital Edition].

2. In Washington’s 1786 list of enslaved workers, he describes Doll as “almost past service.” Hercules and Nathan are listed as the estate’s cooks. Diary, Feb. 18, 1786, National Archives, Founders Online, [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Digital Edition].

3. George Washington to Anthony Whitting, May 12, 1793, National Archives, Founders Online, [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Digital Edition].; Martha Washington to Fanny Bassett Washington, May 24, 1795, in Joseph E. Fields, Worthy Partner: The Papers of Martha Washington (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), 287–88.

4. Doll was a common name among enslaved women, making it difficult to track her fate.

5.  “Drafts of Negros,” Peter Family Archives, Washington Library.

All this research plus images & much more is directly from the Mount Vernon website - to begin exploring, just click on the highlighted segment titles above. 

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Geo Washington (1732-1799) Plans the Views Out of & into Mount Vernon


Mount Vernon Vistas

The Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington tells us that Washington's vision for the layout of his Mount Vernon estate adopted fashionable ideas in landscape design borrowed from various English sources and wedded them with the natural advantages of the lush Virginia countryside and its breathtaking view of the Potomac River. Over a period of four decades Washington enlarged and embellished his house during two separate major campaigns of building, constructed a new set of outbuildings to complement the expanded dwelling, and completely reorganized the surrounding gardens and grounds to create an appropriate setting for a tasteful country gentleman's seat.

Washington's interests in creating an appropriate landscape setting for his home and for reinventing Mount Vernon as the very model of a modern agricultural enterprise lead him to extend the plan outward to the far boundaries of his 8,000-acre holding. The layout of the road system, the configuration of the farms and the fields, the placement and arrangement of outlying slave quarters and agricultural buildings, the creation of scenic vistas, and even the design of fences and gates all held prominent places within Washington's thinking. These activities and interests all reflected Washington's deeply held belief in the symbolic power of appearance as well as his conviction that the look of one's property—as with a nation's public buildings and internal improvements—were an accurate indication of the owners' character.

One element of the overall design that Washington devoted considerable attention to over the years was the management of access to the mansion. Washington was a firm believer in the lasting importance of first impressions and this concern was translated into a careful consideration of visitors' experiences as they entered his estate. During Washington's lifetime most visitors to Mount Vernon came to the estate overland on horseback or via carriage, using the relatively arduous system of roads in existence at the time. Over the years, Washington carried out a number of improvements to the approach, including cutting vistas to allow travelers to glimpse the Mansion in the distance.

Washington was engaged in establishing vistas beginning as early as 1785, with the intent for the vistas to serve as avenues to view attractive scenes. This was a feature that was encouraged by any number of proponents of the English "naturalistic" school of landscape designers. As might be expected, at Mount Vernon the mansion was the focal point of all of the vistas.

In the eighteenth century the road from Alexandria to Colchester and southwards to Fredericksburg was divided into an inland or "back road" and a "river road," as it passed through the Mount Vernon vicinity. On the south the road forked at a point just north of Pohick Creek, a few miles from Colchester, and reunited at Hunting Creek, a few miles south of Alexandria. Following the line across the smoothest terrain, the inland road followed a mainly north-south running ridge; the river road provided a more convenient link to major waterfront land holdings like Mount Vernon and crossed several streams at the first fording area above its junctions with the Potomac River.

Travelers following the river road to Mount Vernon from the south turned onto a smaller road, or lane near Washington's gristmill that lead to Posey's ferry landing. From that point travelers traversed a second road north to the West Gate entrance to the Mount Vernon estate. When traveling from the north visitors navigated the river road until they reached Gum Springs, the crossing point over Little Hunting Creek, then turning onto the road leading to West Gate. Around 1770 a more direct route for travelers coming from the south was provided by a road (in later years referred to as Mount Vernon "avenue" or "lane") running in a direct line from a point on the river road north of Washington's gristmill to Mount Vernon's West Gate. With only minor modifications, this basic road configuration remained in place until after the Civil War.

 by Dennis J. Pogue, Ph.D.

All this research plus images & much more is directly from the Mount Vernon website - to begin exploring, just click the highlighted acknowledgment above. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

From Garden to Table - Poplar Forest's “Simple Plantation Fare” of Poultry & Vegetables.

Cheney McKnight interpreting Hannah in 2019, the enslaved cook at Poplar Forest

Poplar Forest featured “Simple Plantation Fare”

Poplar Forest researchers tell us that dining at Poplar Forest consisted of “simple plantation fare”  mostly poultry and vegetables. As the years went on and Jefferson began inviting nearby neighbors to dinner, visitors would bring a variety of foods to the dinner table. Ellen Randolph Coolidge noted the various foods given represented “the products of rich farms and an abundant country.” 

Though the family received these gifts, and also purchased a variety of food from the enslaved community, Jefferson continued to utilize the term “simple plantation fare” when describing Poplar Forest cuisine. In July of 1819, Jefferson sought to remedy this by reaching out to a supplier and ordering foods not often found at the Poplar Forest dining room table. Jefferson wrote, “We are here, Ellen, Cornelia, and myself for two months to come, and living on plantation fare this may be considerably improved if you can send us by a Lynchburg boat, addressed to Mr. Archibl. Robertson a keg of tongues and sounds, a small keg of crackers, a small box of raisins, and a good cheese.”

Born in 1770 at Monticello, Hannah and her family were moved to Poplar Forest when she was a teenager. There she met and married Solomon. Like others who married within the plantation community, Hannah established a new household with her husband...The fate of Solomon is unclear, but he was no longer living at Poplar Forest by the mid-1790’s. He left behind his wife and three young children.

By 1810, Hannah married Hall, a plantation blacksmith and hog-keeper. The couple lived together with her five younger children. Hannah’s last child was born in 1812.

Hannah worked in the fields and probably spent some of her time spinning flax...Her mother, Cate, trained girls to spin, and Hannah might have learned that skill at an early age. By 1811, she served as Jefferson’s housekeeper, preparing the house for his visits, cooking and washing for him, and greeting visitors in his absence...a cabin was built for her near Jefferson’s vegetable garden.

Hannah could read and write, skills that she probably shared with other slaves. Archaeologists discovered pieces of a writing slate at a slave quarte...A single surviving letter written in 1818 from Hannah to Jefferson describes the state of the house and sends wishes for his health. Hannah also expressed her Christian faith in the letter, one of the few hints that survive of the spiritual beliefs of people living at Poplar Forest.

While Hannah’s letter points to the importance of Christianity in her life, other Poplar Forest slaves maintained spiritual and healing practices derived from Africa. When Hall became ill in 1819, he believed that only a conjurer could cure him. Hannah’s brother Phill used medicine from a “negroe doctor” provided by a fellow slave. Both men died that year.

Hannah’s life is last recorded in an 1821 provision list. Whether she lived beyond the sale of her son William and the breakup of the community following Jefferson’s death is 1826 is unclear.

The Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia explains that Poplar Forest was Jefferson's retreat plantation in Bedford County, Virginia. William Stith originally patented the land in the mid-eighteenth century & probably chose the name "Poplar Forest." John Wayles, Jefferson’s father-in-law, purchased the property in 1764. When Wayles died in 1773, his daughter & her husband inherited the 4,819-acre tract. Jefferson operated Poplar Forest primarily as a tobacco plantation, managed by overseers & worked by a community of nearly 100 enslaved laborers. 

Working from his own designs, Jefferson began building a residence at Poplar Forest in 1806....Construction was nearing completion when Jefferson's presidency ended in 1809. Throughout his retirement years, Jefferson would make Poplar Forest his personal retreat from the busy, crowded scene at Monticello.

Before 1809, Jefferson managed Poplar Forest from a distance, but that practice changed with retirement. Freed from government service, Jefferson made at least three annual visits to Poplar Forest. He traveled to Bedford at the height of spring, in late summer, & in early winter. He described his retreat as "the best dwelling house in the state, except that of Monticello; perhaps preferable to that, as more proportioned to the faculties of a private citizen."

Though Jefferson enjoyed the privacy of Poplar Forest, he was not entirely alone there. Two of his granddaughters generally accompanied him. His granddaughter Ellen Randolph Coolidge later recalled Jefferson's days in Bedford County. "At Poplar Forest," Ellen wrote, "he found in a pleasant home, rest, leisure, power to carry on his favorite pursuits—to think, to study, to read—whilst the presence of part of his family took away all character of solitude from his retreat. His young grand-daughters were there to enliven it for him, to make his tea, preside over his dinner table, accompany him in his walks, in his occasional drives, & be with him at the time he most enjoyed society, from tea till bed time."

All this research & image & much more is directly from the Poplar Forest website - to begin exploring, just click the highlighted acknowledgment above. 

Monday, October 19, 2020

South Carolina's Magnolia Plantation Gardens - Overtaken by The Sweet Divine

 South Carolina's Magnolia Plantation Gardens

This article deals with the bones of an 18C garden which has been taken over by The Sweet Divine - a  triumph of man's design over-run by Nature's glory.  

Thomas Drayton and his wife Ann arrived from Barbados to the new English colony of Charles Towne and established Magnolia Plantation along the Ashley River in 1676. Thomas and Ann were the first in a direct line of Magnolia family ownership that has lasted more than 300 years and continues to this day.

Magnolia Plantation saw immense wealth and growth through the cultivation of rice during the Colonial era. Later, British and American troops would occupy its grounds during the American Revolution, while the Drayton sons would become both statesmen and soldiers fighting against British rule.  The establishment of the early gardens at Magnolia Plantation in the late 17th century would see an explosion of beauty and expansion throughout the 18th century, but it was not until the early 19th century did the gardens at Magnolia truly begin to expand on a grand scale.

Upon his death in 1825, Thomas Drayton, the great grandson of Magnolia's first Drayton, willed the estate successively to his daughter's sons, Thomas and John Grimké. As he had no male heirs to leave it to, he made the condition in the will that they assume their mother's maiden name of Drayton. Some time later, while in England preparing for the ministry, young John Grimké Drayton received word that his older brother Thomas had died on the steps of the plantation house of a gunshot wound received while riding down the oak avenue during a deer hunt. Thus, having expected to inherit little or nothing as a second son, young John found himself a wealthy plantation owner at the age of 22.

Despite the prestige and wealth inherent in ownership of Magnolia and other plantations, he resolved still to pursue his ministerial career; and in 1838 he entered the Episcopal seminary in New York. While there, he fell in love with, and married, Julia Ewing, daughter of a prominent Philadelphia attorney. Returning to Charleston with his bride, he strove to complete his clerical studies while bearing the burden of managing his large estate. The pressure took its toll, and his fatigue resulted in tuberculosis. His own cure for the illness was working outside in the gardens he loved. He also wanted to create a series of romantic gardens for his wife to make her feel more at home in the South Carolina Lowcountry. A few years later, as though by a miracle, his health returned, allowing him to enter the ministry as rector of nearby Saint Andrews Church, which had served plantation owners since 1706 and still stands just two miles down the highway towards Charleston. But until his death a half-century later, along with his ministry, Rev. Drayton continued to devote himself to the enhancement of the plantation garden, expressing his desire to a fellow minister in Philadelphia, " create an earthly paradise in which my dear Julia may forever forget Philadelphia and her desire to return there."

In tune with the changes he had seen taking place in English gardening away from the very formal design earlier borrowed from the French, John Grimké Drayton moved towards greater emphasis on embellishing the soft natural beauty of the site. More than anyone else he can be credited with the internationally acclaimed informal beauty of the garden today. He introduced the first azaleas to America, and he was among the first to utilize Camellia Japonica in an outdoor setting. A great deal of Magnolia's horticultural fame today is based on the large and varied collection of varieties of these two species–not the abundant and lovely Southern Magnolia for which the plantation just happened to have been named.

The outbreak of the American Civil War would threaten the welfare of the family, the house, and the gardens themselves. But the plantation would recover from the war to see additional growth of the gardens as they became the focus of the plantation over agriculture when the gardens opened to the public for the first time in 1870 and saved the plantation from ruin. 

Please click on the publication website in the title above for more information.