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Lot 0268


Washington George
George Washington slave content 1p ALS as President. Washington shows respect for his longtime slave and overseer of Mt. Vernon Davy "he knows where and how…"

Amazing one page ALS, 6.75" x 8.75", written while Washington was President but still had concerns about Mount Vernon and its crops. No date but records indicate April 8, 1791. Beautifully presented matted, framed and glazed with a portrait engraving of Washington, to a completed framed size of 24.5" x 20.5". The letter is written to his nephew George Augustine Washington and reads in full:

"Dumfries, Friday, 10 Oclock, [April 8, 1791] Dear George: I am just setting out from this place, having arrived safe at it an hour ago. Since I spoke to Cornelias this morning I have thought it best that the gable ends of the Green house should be carried up as if intended (as they are begun) for Chimneys hereafter, the unfavourable appearance will not add much to what is already seen of the design; and the convenience, if it shall hereafter be found necessary to add to the building, will be very great.

I have also determined, on reflection, to sow only Timothy Seed on the rye in the Neck. So soon therefore as the quantity necessary for that field which is now sowing at Morris's, can be ascertained, all the residue may be sent to Davy; and the sooner the better, before the ground gets hard again. He knows where and how it is to be sown. In front of the House I shall put Red Clover and Orchard grass mixed; and if seed enough about 10 lbs of the first and half a bushel of the latter to the Acr3e. My love to all at home. I have heard nothing more yet from Fredg. Yrs. Affectly. G. Washington"

The day before this letter was written, Washington witnessed a disaster at the ferry at Colchester where horses and people nearly died. In his diary he notes that after this incident he proceeded to Dumfries and dined and drank tea with his niece Mrs. Thomas Lee (a relation of Declaration Signer Richard Henry Lee and future Confederate General Robert E. Lee).

Most remarkable about this letter is that Washington conveyed his tremendous trust in his slave, Davy. Davy Gray was about sixteen years old when he first came to Mount Vernon in 1759 as part of Martha Washington's dower share of enslaved workers from the Custis estate. It is unknown whether anyone in his family accompanied him. The young man became a field-worker on several of Washington's farms. As early as 1778 he was supervising other enslaved workers. By 1799 then-fifty-six-year-old Gray was overseer at Muddy Hole Farm, where he lived with his wife, Molly. At various times, Washington also assigned him to oversee the fields of River and Dogue Run Farms. Gray was described as "mulatto," meaning he was mixed race. The origin of his last name is unknown.

Most of Washington's overseers were hired whites from the local region, but a handful of enslaved men rose to this position of authority. For a brief time in the 1780s, three of Mount Vernon's five farms had enslaved overseers. Reporting to Washington's overall plantation manager, the overseers were responsible for supervising day-to-day operations of their fields, ensuring that the enslaved workers performed assigned duties thoroughly and attentively. For those who did not, overseers were also tasked with administering punishment. To his frustration, Washington found that hired workers who met his standards were rare indeed. He chided many overseers for drinking too much, sleeping too late, and neglecting their duties in favor of entertaining friends. By contrast, Gray's work ethic and calm demeanor seem to have met with Washington's approval. In 1793 Washington noted that "Davy at Muddy hole carries on his business as well as the white Overseers, and with more quietness than any of them. With proper directions he will do very well."

As overseer, Gray received certain privileges, such as leather breeches (enslaved field-workers were usually issued clothing of coarse linen), occasional cash gifts, and extra quantities of pork after hogs were slaughtered. He and his wife lived in a house with a brick chimney, sturdier than the standard log cabins with wooden chimneys in which most enslaved field-workers resided. Being an overseer also gave Gray the power to advocate for his fellow workers. In 1793 Washington heard complaints from his slaves that his new method of distributing cornmeal was leaving them with less to eat. Initially skeptical, he changed his mind when Gray assured him "that what his people received was not sufficient, and that . . . several of them would often be without a mouthful for a day, and sometimes . . . two days."

After Washington died in 1799, Gray was among the hired and enslaved workers who were outfitted with mourning clothes for the funeral. Because they were owned by the Custis estate, neither Gray nor his wife was freed by the emancipation provision in Washington's will. On January 12, 1801—just eleven days after the Washington slaves were emancipated—Gray was paid $9.75 for his proportion of 32 turkeys, 20 ducks, and 42 chickens raised for Martha Washington. Gray signed the receipt for this payment with an "X" in place of his name, indicating that despite his position as overseer, he could not write. After Martha Washington's death in 1802, Gray may have been inherited by Nelly Parke Custis Lewis and her husband, Lawrence, who lived at nearby Woodlawn plantation. The fate of Molly, Gray's wife, is unknown.

Major US Army George Augustine Washington was the Son of Colonel Charles Washington by his wife & 1st cousin once removed Mildred Thornton daughter of Colonel Francis Thornton of Fall Hill, Spotsylvania County, Virginia, by his wife Frances, daughter and co-heiress of Roger Gregory, by his wife Mildred Washington, and first husband of Frances Bassett Washington Lear and nephew of President George Washington.

We show no record of this piece ever having been at auction.

This item comes with a Certificate from John Reznikoff, a premier authenticator for both major 3rd party authentication services, PSA and JSA (James Spence Authentications), as well as numerous auction houses.


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G. Washington Slave Content 1p ALS as President

Estimate $15,000 - $20,000Jan 16, 2020
Starting Bid $5,000
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Westport , CT, USA
Auction Curated By:
John Reznikoff