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it was his home, as it had been practically even in his brother's life.

Twice Washington materially enlarged the house at Mount Vernon, the first
time in 1760 and the second in 1785, and a visitor reports, what his host
must have told him, that "its a pity he did not build a new one at
once, for it has cost him nearly as much to repair his old one." These
alterations consisted in the addition of a banquet-hall at one end (by far
the finest room in the house), and a library and dining-room at the other,
with the addition of an entire story to the whole.

The grounds, too, were very much improved. A fine approach, or bowling
green, was laid out, a "botanical garden," a "shrubbery," and greenhouses
were added, and in every way possible the place was improved. A deer
paddock was laid out and stocked, gifts of Chinese pheasants and geese,
French partridges, and guinea-pigs were sent him, and were gratefully
acknowledged, and from all the world over came curious, useful, or
beautiful plants.

The original tract did not satisfy the ambition of the farmer, and from
the time he came into the possession of Mount Vernon he was a persistent
purchaser of lands adjoining the property. In 1760 he bargained with one
Clifton for "a tract called Brents," of eighteen hundred and six acres,
but after the agreement was closed the seller, "under pretence of his wife
not consenting to acknowledge her right of dower wanted to disengage
himself ... and by his shuffling behavior convinced me of his being the
trifling body represented." Presently Washington heard that Clifton had
sold his lands to another for twelve hundred pounds, which "fully
unravelled his conduct ... and convinced me that he was nothing less than
a thorough pac'd rascall." Meeting the "rascall" at a court, "much
discourse," Washington states, "happened between him and I concerning his
ungenerous treatment of me, the whole turning to little account, 'tis not
worth reciting." After much more friction, the land was finally sold at
public auction, and "I bought it for £1210 Sterling, [and] under many
threats and disadvantages paid the money."


In 1778, when some other land was offered, Washington wrote to his agent,
"I have premised these things to shew my inability, not my unwillingness
to purchase the Lands in my own Neck at (almost) any price - & this I am
very desirous of doing if it could be accomplished by any means in my
power, in ye way of Barter for other Land - for Negroes ... or in short - for
any thing else ... but for money I cannot, I want the means." Again, in
1782, he wrote, "Inform Mr. Dulany,... that I look upon £2000 to be a
great price for his land; that my wishes to obtain it do not proceed from
its intrinsic value, but from the motives I have candidly assigned in my
other letter. That to indulge this fancy, (for in truth there is more
fancy than judgment in it) I have submitted, or am willing to submit, to
the disadvantage of borrowing as large a sum as I think this Land is
worth, in order to come at it"

By thus purchasing whenever an opportunity occurred, the property was
increased from the twenty-five hundred acres which had come into
Washington's possession by inheritance to an estate exceeding eight
thousand acres, of which over thirty-two hundred were actually under
cultivation during the latter part of its owner's life.

To manage so vast a tract, the property was subdivided into several
tracts, called "Mansion House Farm," "River Farm," "Union Farm," "Muddy
Hole Farm," and "Dogue Run Farm," each having an overseer to manage it,
and each being operated as a separate plantation, though a general
overseer controlled the whole, and each farm derived common benefit from
the property as a whole. "On Saturday in the afternoon, every week,
reports are made by all his overseers, and registered in books kept for
the purpose," and these accounts were so schemed as to show how every
negro's and laborer's time had been employed during the whole week, what
crops had been planted or gathered, what increase or loss of stock had
occurred, and every other detail of farm-work. During Washington's
absences from Mount Vernon his chief overseer sent him these reports, as
well as wrote himself, and weekly the manager received in return long
letters of instruction, sometimes to the length of sixteen pages, which
showed most wonderful familiarity with every acre of the estate and the
character of every laborer, and are little short of marvellous when
account is taken of the pressure of public affairs that rested upon their
writer as he framed them.

When Washington became a farmer, but one system of agriculture, so far as
Virginia was concerned, existed, which he described long after as follows:

"A piece of land is cut down, and kept under constant cultivation, first
in tobacco, and then in Indian corn (two very exhausting plants), until it
will yield scarcely any thing; a second piece is cleared, and treated in
the same manner; then a third and so on, until probably there is but
little more to clear. When this happens, the owner finds himself reduced
to the choice of one of three things - either to recover the land which he
has ruined, to accomplish which, he has perhaps neither the skill, the
industry, nor the means; or to retire beyond the mountains; or to
substitute quantity for quality, in order to raise something. The latter
has been generally adopted, and, with the assistance of horses, he
scratches over much ground, and seeds it, to very little purpose."

Knowing no better, Washington adopted this one-crop system, even to the
extent of buying corn and hogs to feed his hands. Though following in the
beaten track, he experimented in different kinds of tobacco, so that, "by
comparing then the loss of the one with the extra price of the other, I
shall be able to determine which is the best to pursue." The largest crop
he ever seems to have produced, "being all sweet-scented and neatly
managed," was one hundred and fifteen hogsheads, which averaged in sale
twelve pounds each.

From a very early time Washington had been a careful student of such books
on agriculture as he could obtain, even preparing lengthy abstracts of
them, and the knowledge he thus obtained, combined with his own practical
experience, soon convinced him that the Virginian system was wrong. "I
never ride on my plantations," he wrote, "without seeing something which
makes me regret having continued so long in the ruinous mode of farming,
which we are in," and he soon "discontinued the growth of tobacco myself;
[and] except at a plantation or two upon York River, I make no more of
that article than barely serves to furnish me with goods."

From this time (1765) "the whole of my force [was] in a manner confined to
the growth of wheat and manufacturing of it into flour," and before long
he boasted that "the wheat from some of my plantations, by one pair of
steelyards, will weigh upwards of sixty pounds,... and better wheat than
I now have I do not expect to make." After the Revolution he claimed that
"no wheat that has ever yet fallen under my observation exceeds the wheat
which some years ago I cultivated extensively but which, from inattention
during my absence of almost nine years from home, has got so mixed or
degenerated as scarcely to retain any of its original characteristics
properly." In 1768 he was able to sell over nineteen hundred bushels, and
how greatly his product was increased after this is shown by the fact that
in this same year he sowed four hundred and ninety bushels.

Still further study and experimentation led him to conclude that "my
countrymen are too much used to corn blades and corn shucks; and have too
little knowledge of the profit of grass lands," and after his final
home-coming to Mount Vernon, he said, "I have had it in contemplation ever
since I returned home to turn my farms to grazing principally, as fast as
I can cover the fields sufficiently with grass. Labor and of course
expence will be considerably diminished by this change, the nett profit as
great and my attention less divided, whilst the fields will be improving."
That this was only an abandonment of a "one crop" system is shown by the
fact that in 1792 he grew over five thousand bushels of wheat, valued at
four shillings the bushel, and in 1799 he said, "as a farmer, wheat and
flour are my principal concerns." And though, in abandoning the growth of
tobacco, Washington also tried "to grow as little Indian corn as may be,"
yet in 1795 his crop was over sixteen hundred barrels, and the quantity
needed for his own negroes and stock is shown in a year when his crop
failed, which "obliged me to purchase upwards of eight hundred barrels of

In connection with this change of system, Washington became an early
convert to the rotation of crops, and drew up elaborate tables sometimes
covering periods of five years, so that the quantity of each crop should
not vary, yet by which his fields should have constant change. This system
naturally very much diversified the product of his estate, and flax, hay,
clover, buckwheat, turnips, and potatoes became large crops. The scale on
which this was done is shown by the facts that in one year he sowed
twenty-seven bushels of flaxseed and planted over three hundred bushels of

Early and late Washington preached to his overseers the value of
fertilization; in one case, when looking for a new overseer, he said the
man must be, "above all, Midas like, one who can convert everything he
touches into manure, as the first transmutation towards gold; - in a word
one who can bring worn out and gullied Lands into good tilth in the
shortest time." Equally emphatic was his urging of constant ploughing and
grubbing, and he even invented a deep soil plough, which he used till he
found a better one in the English Rotheran plough, which he promptly
imported, as he did all other improved farming tools and machinery of
which he could learn. To save his woodlands, and for appearance's sake, he
insisted on live fences, though he had to acknowledge that "no hedge,
alone, will, I am persuaded, do for an outer inclosure, where _two_ or
four footed hogs find it convenient to open passage." In all things he was
an experimentalist, carefully trying different kinds of tobacco and wheat,
various kinds of plants for hedges, and various kinds of manure for
fertilizers; he had tests made to see whether he could sell his wheat to
best advantage in the grain or when made into flour, and he bred from
selected horses, cattle, and sheep. "In short I shall begrudge no
reasonable expence that will contribute to the improvement and neatness of
my Farms; - for nothing pleases me better than to see them in good order,
and everything trim, handsome, and thriving about them."

The magnitude of the charge of such an estate can be better understood
when the condition of a Virginia plantation is realized. Before the
Revolution practically everything the plantation could not produce was
ordered yearly from Great Britain, and after the annual delivery
of the invoices the estate could look for little outside help. Nor did
this change rapidly after the Revolution, and during the period of
Washington's management almost everything was bought in yearly supplies.
This system compelled each plantation to be a little world unto itself;
indeed, the three hundred souls on the Mount Vernon estate went far to
make it a distinct and self-supporting community, and one of Washington's
standing orders to his overseers was to "buy nothing you can make within
yourselves." Thus the planting and gathering of the crops were but a small
part of the work to be done.

A corps of workmen - some negroes, some indentured servants, and some hired
laborers - were kept on the estate. A blacksmith-shop occupied some, doing
not merely the work of the plantation, but whatever business was brought
to them from outside; and a wood-burner kept them and the mansion-house
supplied with charcoal. A gang of carpenters were kept busy, and their
spare time was utilized in framing houses to be put up in Alexandria, or
in the "Federal city," as Washington was called before the death of its
namesake. A brick-maker, too, was kept constantly employed, and masons
utilized the product of his labor. The gardener's gang had charge of the
kitchen-garden, and set out thousands of grape-vines, fruit-trees, and

A water-mill, with its staff, not merely ground meal for the hands, but
produced a fine flour that commanded extra price in the market In 1786
Washington asserted that his flour was "equal, I believe, in quality to
any made in this country," and the Mount Vernon brand was of such value
that some money was made by buying outside wheat and grinding it into
flour. The coopers of the estate made the barrels in which it was packed,
and Washington's schooner carried it to market.

The estate had its own shoemaker, and in time a staff of weavers was
trained. Before this was obtained, in 1760, though with only a modicum of
the force he presently had, Washington ordered from London "450 ells of
Osnabrig, 4 pieces of Brown Wools, 350 yards of Kendall Cotton, and 100
yards of Dutch blanket." By 1768 he was manufacturing the chief part of
his requirements, for in that year his weavers produced eight hundred and
fifteen and three-quarter yards of linen, three hundred and sixty-five and
one-quarter yards of woollen, one hundred and forty-four yards of linsey,
and forty yards of cotton, or a total of thirteen hundred and sixty-five
and one-half yards, one man and five negro girls having been employed.
When once the looms were well organized an infinite variety of cloths was
produced, the accounts mentioning "striped woollen, woolen plaided, cotton
striped, linen, wool-birdseye, cotton filled with wool, linsey, M.'s &
O.'s, cotton-India dimity, cotton jump stripe, linen filled with tow,
cotton striped with silk, Roman M., Janes twilled, huccabac, broadcloth,
counterpain, birdseye diaper, Kirsey wool, barragon, fustian, bed-ticking,
herring-box, and shalloon."

One of the most important features of the estate was its fishery, for the
catch, salted down, largely served in place of meat for the negroes' food.
Of this advantage Washington wrote, "This river,... is well supplied with
various kinds of fish at all seasons of the year; and, in the spring, with
the greatest profusion of shad, herrings, bass, carp, perch, sturgeon, &c.
Several valuable fisheries appertain to the estate; the whole shore, in
short, is one entire fishery." Whenever there was a run of fish, the seine
was drawn, chiefly for herring and shad, and in good years this not merely
amply supplied the home requirements, but allowed of sales; four or five
shillings the thousand for herring and ten shillings the hundred for shad
were the average prices, and sales of as high as eighty-five thousand
herring were made in a single year.

In 1795, when the United States passed an excise law, distilling became
particularly profitable, and a still was set up on the plantation. In
this whiskey was made from "Rye chiefly and Indian corn in a certain
proportion," and this not merely used much of the estate's product of
those two grains, but quantities were purchased from elsewhere. In 1798
the profit from the distillery was three hundred and forty-four pounds
twelve shillings and seven and three-quarter pence, with a stock carried
over of seven hundred and fifty-five and one-quarter gallons; but this was
the most successful year. Cider, too, was made in large quantities.

A stud stable was from an early time maintained, and the Virginia papers
regularly advertised that the stud horse "Samson," "Magnolia," "Leonidas,"
"Traveller," or whatever the reigning stallion of the moment might be,
would "cover" mares at Mount Vernon, with pasturage and a guarantee of
foal, if their owners so elected. During the Revolution Washington bought
twenty-seven of the army mares that had been "worn-down so as to render it
beneficial to the public to have them sold," not even objecting to those
"low in flesh or even crippled," because "I have many large Farms and am
improving a good deal of Land into Meadow and Pasture, which cannot fail
of being profited by a number of Brood Mares." In addition to the stud,
there were, in 1793, fifty-four draught horses on the estate.

A unique feature of this stud was the possession of two jackasses, of
which the history was curious. At that time there was a law in Spain
(where the best breed was to be found) which forbade the exportation of
asses, but the king, hearing of Washington's wish to possess a jack,
sent him one of the finest obtainable as a present, which was promptly
christened "Royal Gift." The sea-voyage and the change of climate,
however, so affected him that for a time he proved of little value
to his owner, except as a source of amusement, for Washington wrote
Lafayette, "The Jack I have already received from Spain in appearance is
fine, but his late Royal master, tho' past his grand climacteric cannot be
less moved by female allurements than he is; or when prompted, can proceed
with more deliberation and majestic solemnity to the work of procreation."
This reluctance to play his part Washington concluded was a sign of
aristocracy, and he wrote a nephew, "If Royal Gift will administer, he
shall be at the service of your Mares, but at present he seems too full of
Royalty, to have anything to do with a plebeian Race," and to Fitzhugh he
said, "particular attention shall be paid to the mares which your servant
brought, and when my Jack is in the humor, they shall derive all the
benefit of his labor, for labor it appears to be. At present tho' young,
he follows what may be supposed to be the example of his late Royal
Master, who can not, tho' past his grand climacteric, perform seldomer or
with more majestic solemnity than he does. However I am not without hope
that when he becomes a little better acquainted with republican enjoyment,
he will amend his manners, and fall into a better and more expeditious
mode of doing business." This fortunately proved to be the case, and his
master not merely secured such mules as he needed for his own use, but
gained from him considerable profit by covering mares in the neighborhood.
He even sent him on a tour through the South, and Royal Gift passed a
whole winter in Charleston, South Carolina, with a resulting profit of six
hundred and seventy-eight dollars to his owner. In 1799 there were on the
estate "2 Covering Jacks & 3 young ones, 10 she asses, 42 working mules
and 15 younger ones."

Of cattle there were in 1793 a total of three hundred and seventeen head,
including "a sufficiency of oxen broke to the yoke," and a dairy was
operated separate from the farms, and some butter was made, but Washington
had occasion to say, "It is hoped, and will be expected, that more
effectual measures will be pursued to make butter another year; for it is
almost beyond belief, that from 101 cows actually reported on a late
enumeration of the cattle, that I am obliged to _buy butter_ for the use
of my family."

Sheep were an unusual adjunct of a Virginia plantation, and of his flock
Washington wrote, "From the beginning of the year 1784 when I returned
from the army, until shearing time of 1788, I improved the breed of my
sheep so much by buying and selecting the best formed and most promising
Rams, and putting them to my best ewes, by keeping them always well culled
and clean, and by other attentions, that they averaged me ... rather over
than under five pounds of washed wool each." In another letter he said,
"I ... was proud in being able to produce perhaps the largest mutton and
the greatest quantity of wool from my sheep that could be produced. But I
was not satisfied with this; and contemplated further improvements both in
the flesh and wool by the introduction of other breeds, which I should by
this time have carried into effect, had I been permitted to pursue my
favorite occupation." In 1789, however, "I was again called from home, and
have not had it in my power since to pay any attention to my farms. The
consequence of which is, that my sheep at the last shearing, yielded me not
more than 2-1/2" pounds. In 1793 he had six hundred and thirty-four in his
flock, from which he obtained fourteen hundred and-fifty-seven pounds of
fleece. Of hogs he had "many," but "as these run pretty much at large in
the woodland, the number is uncertain." In 1799 his manager valued his
entire live-stock at seven thousand pounds.

A separate account was kept of each farm, and of many of these separate
departments, and whenever there was a surplus of any product an account
was opened to cover it. Thus in various years there are accounts raised
dealing with cattle, hay, flour, flax, cord-wood, shoats, fish, whiskey,
pork, etc., and his secretary, Shaw, told a visitor that the "books were
as regular as any merchant whatever." It is proper to note, however, that
sometimes they would not balance, and twice at least Washington could only
force one, by entering "By cash supposed to be paid away & not credited
_£_17.6.2," and "By cash lost, stolen or paid away without charging
_£_143.15.2." All these accounts were tabulated at the end of the year
and the net results obtained. Those for a single year are here given:


_Dr. gained._

Dogue Run Farm. 397.11.02
Union Farm ..... 529.10.11-1/2
River Farm ..... 234. 4.11
Smith's Shop.... 34.12.09 1/2
Distillery ..... 83.13.01
Jacks .......... 56.01
Traveller (studhorse) 9.17
Shoemaker....... 28.17.01
Fishery ........ 165.12.0-3/4
Dairy .......... 30.12.03

_Cr. lost._

Mansion House... 466.18.02-1/2
Muddy Hole Farm 60.01.03-1/2
Spinning ....... 51.02.0
Hire of head
overseer .... 140.00.0

By Clear gain on
the Estate. _£_898.16.4-1/4

A pretty poor showing for an estate and negroes which had certainly cost
him over fifty thousand dollars, and on which there was livestock which at
the lowest estimation was worth fifteen thousand dollars more. It is not
strange that in 1793 Washington attempted to find tenants for all but the
Mansion farm. This he reserved for my "own residence, occupation and
amusement," as Washington held that "idleness is disreputable," and in
1798 he told his chief overseer he did not choose to "discontinue my rides
or become a cipher on my own estate."

When at Mount Vernon, as this indicated, Washington rode daily about his
estate, and he has left a pleasant description of his life immediately
after retiring from the Presidency: "I begin my diurnal course with the
sun;... if my hirelings are not in their places at that time I send them
messages expressive of my sorrow for their indisposition;... having put
these wheels in motion, I examine the state of things further; and the
more they are probed, the deeper I find the wounds are which my buildings
have sustained by my absence and neglect of eight years; by the time
I have accomplished these matters, breakfast (a little after seven
o'clock)... is ready;... this being over, I mount my horse and ride round
my farms, which employs me until it is time to dress for dinner." A
visitor at this time is authority for the statement that the master "often
works with his men himself - strips off his coat and labors like a common
man. The General has a great turn for mechanics. It's astonishing with
what niceness he directs everything in the building way, condescending
even to measure the things himself, that all may be perfectly uniform."

This personal attention Washington was able to give only with very serious
interruptions. From 1754 till 1759 he was most of the time on the
frontier; for nearly nine years his Revolutionary service separated him
absolutely from his property; and during the two terms of his Presidency
he had only brief and infrequent visits. Just one-half of his forty-six
years' occupancy of Mount Vernon was given to public service.

The result was that in 1757 he wrote, "I am so little acquainted with the
business relative to my private affairs that I can scarce give you any
information concerning it," and this was hardly less true of the whole
period of his absences. In 1775 he engaged overseers to manage his various
estates in his absence "upon shares," but during the whole war the
plantations barely supported themselves, even with depletion of stock and
fertility, and he was able to draw nothing from them. One overseer, and a

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Online LibraryPaul Leicester FordThe True George Washington [10th Ed.] → online text (page 8 of 21)