Mount Vernon – Washington As A Planter

WASHINGTON’S ambitions when he settled in retirement at Mount Vernon with his “agreeable Consort” did not extend beyond a desire “to pursue the arts of agriculture, increase his fortune, cultivate the social virtues, fulfill his duties as a citizen, and sustain in its elevated dignity the character of a country gentleman.”

But so thorough was he in all he undertook, that of his pursuit of but one item of this program, the science of farming, he made a career less notable only than his public services to his country. He found “much more delightful to an undebauched mind the task of making improvements on the earth, than all the vain glory that can be acquired by ravaging it by the most unin­terrupted career of conquests.” He expressed the be-lief that “the life of the husbandman of all others is the most delectable. . . To see plants rise from the earth and flourish by the superior skill of the laborer fills a contemplative mind with ideas which are more easy to be conceived than expressed.”

When he was settled his first thought was to extend the boundaries of his estate. Washington seemed to have possessed a passion for land, though he treated his purchases lightly and declared there was “in truth more fancy than judgment” in them. His eagerness to add to his home lands may for all that have been based on his foresight. He had seen about him overmuch of the habit of farming which planted one or at most two crops in repetition until it exhausted the ground and compelled the planter to turn to a virgin field for new production. Spreading acres gave the Virginian colonist more than a sense of domain. An abundance of new land eased his situation when repeated tobacco or wheat and corn crops destroyed the fertility of the overworked ground.

His first addition to Mount Vernon was the Clifton tract across the original Little Hunting Creek boundary, thus extending his river-front to the east. From Thomas Hanson Marshall, of Marshall Hall across the Potomac but in sight of Mount Vernon, and from his kindly but unfortunate neighbor, Captain John Posey, and from others he added land to the west-ward which in a measure completed the original Spencer-Washington tract bounded by Little Hunting Creek and Dogue Creek. Other lands were acquired which carried the estate northwestward over the hills at the head of the latter inlet. This gave him ferry landing a mile west of the Mansion, where he often crossed to the Maryland side and cut across country to Port Tobacco and thence ferried to the Virginia side only a short distance from his brother Augustine’s in Westmoreland, where he sometimes visited on his way to the dower lands in New Kent and to Williamsburg. The purchase likewise added to his possession at the same point one of the notable “fishing shores” of the upper Potomac. In a few years the ferry proved unable to support the boats. On Washington’s petition to the Assembly it was closed by law, but the fishing shore retains its ancient prestige today.

Washington was from the first a scientific farmer. He had all the respectable authorities he could obtain in his library. He organized and prosecuted the work with that masterly executive faculty which he displayed later in mustering and manipulating the raw colonial troops.

He divided Mount Vernon into five farms: the Mansion House Farm on which stood the big house and the village of surrounding buildings; the River Farm which lay across Little Hunting Creek to the east; Muddy Hole Farm on the low meadows to the north; Union Farm next west of Mansion House Farm along the river and Dogue Creek; and Dogue Run Farm which extended up the valley of the north branch of the run feeding Dogue Creek. About half of all Mount Vernon estate was in woodland.

Each farm was a separate establishment with its own overseer, hands, quarters for the slaves, farm buildings, and stock. Over all the farms was a general steward or overseer, who was responsible directly and only to Washington. He called this man his manager. Once a week, on Saturday, reports were made to the manager. These were set in order and passed on to the master. Washington transcribed the data in these reports with scrupulous exactness into note-books, diaries, and account books, as those which survive attest in his own handwriting. They recited in detail the work undertaken and accomplished; the labor performed by each hand; the place, time, and conditions of sowing, harvest, and sales. Though each farm was run separately Washington directed them all on an interdependent system.

He has described the mode of farming which prevailed in Virginia: “There is, perhaps, scarcely any part of America where farming has been less attended to than in this State. The cultivation of tobacco has been almost the sole object with men of landed property, and consequently a regular course of crops have never been in view. The general custom has been, first to raise a crop of Indian corn (maise) which, according to the mode of cultivation, is a good preparation for wheat; then a crop of wheat; after which the ground is respited (except from weeds, and every trash that can contribute to its foulness) for about eighteen months; and so on, alternately, without any dressing, till the land is exhausted; when it is turned out, without being sown with grass-seeds, or any method taken to restore it; and another piece is ruined in the same manner. No more cattle is raised than can be sup-ported by lowland meadows, swamps, &c., and the tops and blades of Indian corn; as very few persons have attended to sewing grasses, and connecting cattle with their crops. The Indian corn is the chief support of the laborers and horses. Our lands, . . . were originally very good; but use, and abuse, have made them quite otherwise.”

For the prevailing conditions he gradually studied out a substitute on the basis of stimulating and resting instead of taxing and exhausting the land. He finally drew up for his manager this rotation table, covering six years, as best for Mount Vernon farms:

“1st. . . Indian Corn, with intermediate rows of Potatoes, or any root more certain or useful (if such there be) that will not impede the plough, hoe or har­row in the cultivation of the Corn.

2d… Wheat, Rye or Winter Barley at the option of the Tenant—sown as usual when the Corn receives its last working.

3d.. Buckwheat, Peas or Pulse; or Vegetables of any sort, or partly of all; or anything else, except grain (that is corn crops)—for which this is preparatory.

4th…. Oats, or Summer barley, at the discretion of the Tenant, with Clover, if and when the ground is in condition to bear it.

5. . To remain in Clover, for cutting, for feeding, or for bothor if Clover should not be sown—or if sown should not succeed; then and in that case the field may be filled with any kind of Vetch, pulse or Vegetables.

6…. To lie uncultivated in pasture, and for the purpose of manuring, for the same round of crops again.”

From the time that he settled at Mount Vernon Washington conducted experiments in combinations of soil, fertilizers, and seeds. None is more interesting than one of his earliest set out in his diary, “Where, how, and with whom ray time is Spent,” for April 14,1760; an example in theory and practice:

“Mix’d my compost in a box with ten apartments, in the following manner, viz:–in No 1. is three pecks of the earth brought from below the hill out of the 46 acre field without any mixture;—in No. 2d–is two pecks of the same earth and one of marie taken out of the said field, which marie seem’d a little inclinable to sand.

“3 Has—2 Pecks of said earth, and 1 of river side sand.

“4 Has a peck of horse dung.

“5 Has mud taken out of the creek.

‘6 Has cow dung.

“7 Marie from the gulleys on the Hill side which seem’d to be purer than the other.

“8 Sheep Dung.

“9 Black mould taken out of the Pocoson on the creek side.

“10 Clay got just below the garden.

“All mix’d with the same quantity and sort of earth in the most effectual manner by reducing the whole to a tolerable degree of fineness and jabling them well together in a Cloth.

“In each of these divisions were planted three grains of wheat, 3 of oats, and as many of barley—all at equal distance in rows, and of equal depth (done by a machine made for the purpose).

“The wheat rows are next the number’d side, the oats in the middle, and the barley on that side next the upper part of the garden.

“Two or three hours after sowing in this manner, and about an hour before Sunset I water’d them all equally alike with water that had been standing in a tub about two hours exposed to the Sun.”

Later he made this proposal for the feeding of cattle:

“I think it would be no unsatisfactory experiment to fat one bullock altogether with Potatoes;—another, altogether with Indian meal; and a third with a mix­ture of both: keeping an exact account of the time they are fatting, and what is eaten of each, and of hay, by the different steers; that a judgement may be formed of the best, and least expensive mode of stall feeding beef for market, or for my own use.”

Another kind of experiment which was always going forward was the testing of foreign seeds in Mount Vernon’s soil. Washington’s fame as a farmer after some years spread to England and a lively correspond­ence grew up with English farming enthusiasts and experts. Mount Vernon became a kind of experi­mental station for the growth of the sample grains and seeds which they continually sent him.

Thorough in everything, he said: “I had rather hear it [grain] was delayed than that it should be sown before everything was in perfect order for it; for it is a fixed principle with me, that whatever is done should be well done.”

Indeed his thoroughness must have been the despair of his managers and farmers. His study in detail extended to the count of the number of honey locust seeds in a quart, and he found : “a (large) quart contains 4,000 seed; this, allowing ten Seed to a foot, would sow, or plant, four rows of 100 feet each.”

His experiments were not all to circumvent the perversity of soil and seed. He had to contend with much perverse human nature. In plain terms the overseers of the various farms stole and sold the seed allotted to them to plant. To prevent this his manager was directed to “mix in a bushel of well dried earth as many pints of seed as you allow to an acre, and let it be sown in this manner. Two valuable purposes are answered thereby—1st in this State, the seed is rendered unsaleable; 2dly a person not skilled in sowing small seeds, will do it more regularly when thus mixed.”

Tobacco was the purchase crop of the colony, in a sense the legal tender, and as such every planter was obliged to raise it. Washington began his farming at Mount Vernon with large acreages of the leaf, but he very soon discontinued it, and said: “I make no more of that article than barely serves to furnish me with goods.” Eventually the estate raised large crops of wheat, corn, oats, hay, flax, buckwheat, potatoes, clover, hemp, saintfoin, and barley.

His attention to the advisability of growing other crops was, perhaps, not wholly on account of the vital tax tobacco laid upon the land. It may have been in discouragement as well with the parasites which de­stroyed his plants, for he wrote a friend that this crop “is assailed by every villainous worm that has had an existence since the days of Noah (how unkind it was of Noah, now that I have mentioned his name, to suffer such a brood of Vermin to get a birth in the Ark) but perhaps you may be as well of as we are—that is, have no Tobacco for them to eat, and there I think we nicked the Dogs.”

In addition to selected breeds of plough and draft horses, Samson, Magnolia, Leonidas, Traveller, and other stallions “covered” mares on the place “with pastureage and a guarantee of foal.” The roads on and about Mount Vernon were familiar with the leisurely progress of yoked oxen which were driven until their eighth year, when they were fattened for the market. The meadows took a decorative effect from the flocks of sheep and from the grazing beef cattle which were branded on the right shoulder with their owner’s initials “G. W.”

Washington kept before himself and his overseers always the intrinsic and permanent improvement of his property rather than the temporary gain from a transient crop: “Hedging, ditching, and putting my Meadows in prime order, would be infinitely more agreeable to me, and ultimately more profitable, than an at-tempt to encrease my crops of grain.”

Coupled with his broad outlook on the scientific side of farming was a liberal policy of expenditure. “I shall begrudge no reasonable expence that will contribute to the improvement and neatness of my Farms,” he told an overseer about to begin his stewardship; “for nothing pleases me better than to see them in good order, and everything trim, handsome and thriving about them;—nor nothing hurts me more than to find them otherwise.”

Mount Vernon maintained a small army of men, women, and children, black and white. The farm work was done by native labor, for the most part slaves, but the more finished work like gardening and building was done almost entirely by imported and frequently in­dentured workmen. To support them all and to bring the land up taxed Washington’s science and skill in economy to the utmost. Every resource of the place was utilized, for he knew how to squeeze out the by-products. The great work which went forward on the place was farming, but there were many affiliated establishments.

The old mill, which Augustine Washington built, was improved and turned out a quality of flour so well approved that the Mount Vernon label on the barrel was sufficient for the English officials to exempt it from examination as to grade. His diary (April 8, 1760) tells of word coming to the big house that, as a result of a heavy night rain, the mill was ” in great danger of blowing.” He hurried off with all hands and got there “just in time to give her a reprieve for this time by wheeling dirt into the place which the water had wash’d.” A thunder-shower held him at the mill and he experimented on “what time the mill requir’d to grind a bushel of corn, and to my Surprize found she was within 5 minutes of an hour about this. Old Anthony at­tributed to the low head of water, but whether it was so or not I can’t say—her works [being] all decayed and out of Order, which I rather take to be the cause.

” This bushel of corn when ground measurd near a peck more Meal.”

He rebuilt the mill in 1770 and reconstructed the mill race in 1795. Time and neglect have since destroyed both, and the creek has so filled since that ships can no longer come within hundreds of yards of the old landing. During the last century the ruin was, known as Jack’s Mill from the name of the last miller Washington established there. Like Gray, who gave his name to Gray’s Hill on the heights on the west, he was one of Washington’s legion, a recommendation which never failed to reach the heart and interest of the commander.

A distillery was set up on the place and furnished liquor for the hands at harvest time or when malaria gripped them. When a deposit of stone was found it was quarried and supplemented the brick-kilns in furnishing foundations for the buildings. Another in­stitution was a huge oven, although this may have been at his other mill above Mount Vernon on Four Mile Run. When the price of wheat and flour was down they were turned into biscuit. One of the old contracts survives, signed by Washington, and provides for his delivery “at his mill on Potomack one thousand Barrels of fine barr flour & barrels of good well baked biscuit for a long Voyage. It is agreed by Geo : Washington to lend his Boat to assist in getting the Flour from the Mill door to the Ship at the Mouth of the Creek.”

Second only to the productiveness of the soil was the yield of the waters of the Potomac. The diaries often refer to the fishing shore, his seins and his schooner built on the place in 1765. One entry reads: “The white fish ran plentifully at my Sein landing having catch’d abt. 300 in one Hawl.” At another time “the Herrings run in great abundance.” Herring was the staple fish, but the Potomac has always been rich in a large variety of salt water fish, especially sturgeon, shad, cat, perch, and rock. The herring brought “five shillings per thou-sand” and the shad “twelve shillings per hundred.” When the herring were abundant they were salted down in barrels for use on the place or for winter market at an advanced price. “A sufficiency of fish for the use of my own people” was secured from “the first that comes.” There were repeated orders to the managers to send presents of fish from Mount Vernon to friends inland and at Alexandria, and of the generosity in both fish and corn which went forth from the place, Peake, a manager, gives this testimony:

“I had orders from Gen. Washington to fill a corn house every year, for the sole use of the poor in my neighborhood, to whom it was a most seasonable and precious relief, saving numbers of poor women and children from extreme want, and blessing them with plenty. He owned several fishing stations on the Potomac, at which excellent herring were caught, and which, when salted, proved an important article of food to the poor. For their accomodation he appropriated a station—one of the best he had—and furnished it with all the necessary apparatus for taking herring. Here the honest poor might fish free of expense, at any time, by only an application to the over-seer; and if at any time unequal to the labor of hauling the seine, assistance was rendered by order of the General.”

Writing of his affairs four years after his marriage, Washington gave this somewhat pessimistic review: “I doubt not but you will be surprized at the badness of their condition unless you will consider under what terrible management and disadvantages I found my estate when l retired from the public service of this Colony; and that besides some purchases of Lands and Negroes I was necessitated to make adjoining me (in order to support the expenses of a large family), I had Provisions of all kinds to buy for the first two or three years; and my Plantation to stock in short with every thing;—buildings to make and other matters which swallowed up before I well knew where I was, all the money I got by marriage, nay more, brought me in debt, and I believe I may appeal to your own knowledge of my circumstances before.”

Mount Vernon was eventually brought to high productiveness, but the scale of life there was such that rarely did the farms show a balance wholly on the right side of the ledger. Washington had to look to his estate for other assets than appeared in the physical valuation of its produce. He found its true and largest asset in the fulfilled ideal of private life; in solving the interesting problems of the planter; in mental health and physical strength; and in the enjoyment of the easy and graceful social life of the colonial country gentle-man, of which Mount Vernon became a veritable example.