Mount Vernon is the former plantation estate and burial location of George Washington, the American Revolutionary War general and the first President of the United States, his wife Martha and 20 other Washington family members. The current estate—which is open to visitors—includes a mansion, gardens, tombs, a working farm, a functioning distillery and gristmill, plus a museum and education center.
Where Is Mount Vernon?
Mount Vernon is located in Mt. Vernon, Virginia, overlooking the Potomac River about eight miles south of Alexandria.
It’s unclear who designed the original estate home on the site, but George Washington oversaw its many expansions and renovations until it became the iconic structure still standing today.
Little Hunting Creek Plantation
Mount Vernon was originally called Little Hunting Creek Plantation and owned by John Washington. John eventually passed the estate to his son Lawrence who then passed it to his daughter Mildred.
In 1726, Mildred’s brother Augustine, George Washington’s father, purchased the estate and built the main part of the plantation house—an ordinary, one-and-a-half story structure. Augustine passed the estate to his eldest son Lawrence, George’s elder half-brother, in 1740 who renamed it Mount Vernon after the famed English naval officer Admiral Edward Vernon.
Upon the deaths Augustine and his widow, the estate passed to George.
Where Did George Washington Live?
George Washington lived for much of his childhood at Mount Vernon with his half-brother Lawrence, learning the ins and outs of planting and how to be a cultured member of society. In 1753, he began what would become an illustrious military career.
Washington didn’t make Mount Vernon his home until 1759, after he married the widow and mother of two, Martha Dandridge Custis. At the time, Augustine’s widow still owned Mount Vernon, so George Washington leased the estate from her until he inherited it in 1761.
Over the next four decades, Washington renovated Mount Vernon’s main house into a two and a half story, 11,028 square foot stately home with twenty-one rooms. He oversaw almost every detail, always making sure the estate reflected his distinguished status, even as he served in the Revolutionary War and as president of the United States.
The walls of the mansion are made of wood, although they look like stone. To achieve the look, Washington used rustication, a technique where wood boards are cut and beveled to look like stone blocks and then sanded and painted while wet to provide a stone-like texture.
Mount Vernon Gardens
Washington expanded Mount Vernon’s lands to around 8,000 acres. He created four gardens on the estate including:
- The Lower Garden, a kitchen garden for growing fruits and vegetables year-round.
- The Upper Garden, a garden intended for guests to stroll through which included gravel walkways, fruit trees and elaborate planting beds.
- The Greenhouse, a beautiful structure where tropical plants were grown year-round.
- The Botanical Garden, a small garden in the back of the spinning house where George grew plants from all over the world and tested potential crops.
Mount Vernon Tombs
Two tombs stand on Mount Vernon: the original family vault now known as the Old Tomb, and the new vault now known as the New Tomb which became the family’s final resting place.
After realizing the original tomb was deteriorating, Washington instructed in his will that a new resting place be built upon his death and all family members re-interred there. He also provided the financial means to build it. George and Martha were originally buried in the Old Tomb but were later moved to rest permanently in the New Tomb.
Other Mount Vernon outbuildings are:
- blacksmith shop
- spinning room
- sixteen-sided barn
- servant’s quarters
- gardener’s house
- overseer’s quarters
- slave cabins for enslaved families
- men’s slave quarters
- women’s slave quarters
Mount Vernon’s Farms
Mount Vernon’s acreage was divided into five farms. Mansion House Farm included the mansion house and its surrounding area. Large-scale crops weren’t grow there, but the farm contained gardens, woods, tree groves and meadows.
The four agricultural farms on Mount Vernon farmed over 3,000 acres and were called River, Muddy Hole, Dogue and Union. Washington originally cultivated tobacco, Virginia’s prime crop, but later made wheat his main harvest.
He also produced other grains and foods which allowed him to successfully rotate his crops and experiment with various farming methods. Washington was intimately involved in the goings-on of Mount Vernon, agricultural and otherwise. Even as he led his country, he also led the activities of Mount Vernon.
Slave Life at Mount Vernon
Over 300 slaves labored at the Mount Vernon plantation. Fewer than half were owned by George Washington: 153 were part of the bridal dowry of Martha Washington and the rest were rented out by other plantation owners.
Most of the slaves worked and lived on the estate’s farms. Many who worked at Mansion House Farm were craftsmen such as blacksmiths and carpenters. Others were weavers and cooks. Almost half of Mount Vernon’s slaves were too young, too old or too weak to work daily.
Mount Vernon’s slaves led a dismal life. They toiled from sunup to sundown every day but Sunday. In addition to taking care of Mount Vernon, they also handled their own daily chores such as caring for livestock, planting and harvesting gardens and cooking and preserving food. Their quarters were once described as “wretched.”
Free time for slaves was rare and usually spent visiting other slaves or playing games. Days off were also rare, although they were usually given for Christmas, Easter and other religious holidays. Most of Mount Vernon’s slaves were Christian but some practiced African voodoo or Islam.
Washington was, at times, a brutal slave master. Although some reports state he treated his slaves well, documentation shows he worked them relentlessly, employed harsh punishment and sold them at will, often separating families.
Some of Mount Vernon’s slaves fought back against their unfair fate by attempting escape. At least two were successful—George Washington’s personal cook, Hercules, and Martha Washington’s personal maid, Oney Judge.
Other slaves chose more passive ways of protest such as underperformance, theft and sabotage. Martha Washington went to great lengths to capture Oney Judge but she eluded her grasp.
Mount Vernon’s Slaves Are Freed
Washington’s will stipulated his slaves be emancipated upon Martha’s death, but she freed them in 1801, the year before she died. She could not legally free her dower slaves, however, and they were returned to the Custis estate and ownership passed to her grandchildren.
Martha may not have freed Mount Vernon’s slaves early out of the goodness of her heart since, according to Abigail Adams in a letter to her sister, the slaves knew they were to be freed upon her death and Martha feared they might kill her to hasten their freedom.
Abigail wrote, “[Martha] did not feel as [though] her life was safe in their hands, many of whom would be told that it was their interest to get rid of her–she therefore was advised to set them all free at the close of the year.”
Mount Vernon Ladies Association
The Mount Vernon Ladies Association owns and maintains Mount Vernon. Ann Pamela Cunningham founded the Association in 1853. The Association purchased Mount Vernon from George Washington’s heirs in 1858 for $200,000 with the goal of saving the estate and preserving its history.
It was a daunting task. But the Association—with the help of countless American citizens—worked tirelessly to save Mount Vernon and 500 of its acres. Over the years, many prominent people contributed to the cause such as Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.
The estate faced potential destruction during the Civil War but was declared neutral ground and remained open to the public and intact. The Association continues to work to safeguard the integrity of Mount Vernon and its stories.
Mount Vernon Tours
The Museum and Education Center has 23 galleries and theaters featuring interactive exhibits and short historic films. It also houses more than 700 objects and artifacts related to Mount Vernon and its famous residents.
Pets are welcome in many areas of the estate. Special tours and activities are available including period reenactments and demonstrations. Some events are included with admission, others cost a nominal fee.