Skilled artisans and servants lived in the House for Families

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Skilled artisans and servants lived in the House for Families

March 7, 1996 
by Pamela Cressey

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An archaeological cross-section depicting the soil strata discovered at the Mount Vernon "House for Families" slave quarter cellar by Dennis Pogue and Esther White. Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.
Slavery/Freedom. The words are antonyms, abstract concepts which may evoke strong emotions. Yet, we are confronted with the historic reality that slavery of some people coexisted with the freedom of others in Alexandria and Virginia during and after America’s birth.

Was this situation not a paradox for slave owners leading the Revolution and fighting for freedom from British political and economic domination? Were black slave and white free peoples divided by separate quarters, lifestyles, beliefs and perpetually in a subordinate/dominant relationship? Did slaves have any autonomy?

Historical archaeologists have been studying slavery for more than three decades. Excavating slave cabins, cellars, kitchens and great houses on plantations throughout the South and the Caribbean, archaeologists have been able to link findings in the ground to historical research, oral history and contemporary life. The studies conducted close to us at Mount Vernon are enlightening and provide glimpses into black/white, slave/free variations which coexisted on the 800-acre Washington plantation in the latter decades of the 18th century.

Dennis Pogue and Esther White have written a report on the excavations of a cellar once associated with the "House for Families" slave quarters near the Mansion House. Most of the 67 slaves living on the Mansion House Farm were housed there until 1792-93, when the structure was demolished. Unlike the fieldhands on the other four Washington farms comprising the plantation, these people worked as servants in the Mansion or were skilled artisans (carpenters, blacksmiths and weavers).

Excavations of the cellar were conducted in 1984-85 and again in 1988-89. The structure measured about 6 feet square and had three surviving walls. Excavations continued down approximately 6 feet. The upper stratum contained bricks and mortar which probably fell into the cellar during demolition. Under the rubble, the archaeologists excavated several strata of debris from the nearby blacksmith shop, which operated until cat 1799.

The archaeologists then encountered a series of very thin soil strata for the remaining 3 feet. The way that the sandy loam strata are deposited in the cellar indicates that each was a discrete episode. Thousands of large domestic artifacts, architectural materials and food remains were excavated from these strata. The lowest strata have far older ceramics, such as white saltglazed stoneware, while later English creamware and pearlware occur at higher soil levels. By looking at the artifacts from these this strata, we are able to see the past of the slave who lived the closest to the Washingtons from approximately 1760 to 1793. Next week I will discuss the artifacts and animals in the slave quarter excavation, many of which are on exhibit at Mount Vernon.