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OMEKA Part 2: Feeding the Enslaved at Guston Hall and Mount Vernon

Owning slaves as a labor source left plantation owners with the question of how to sustain them with preferably as little food as possible. This required slaves to supplement their diets Enslaved people who lived at Gunston Hall and Mount Vernon ate similar diets.

The diet of the enslaved included rations of pork, beef, fish, and cornmeal. George Washington described the diet of his slaves in a letter to Arthur Young which included bread made with Indian Corn, Buttermilk, fish which included pickled herrings, and sometimes meat. A rough estimate of what each working enslaved adult would have received at Mount Vernon is eight quarts of cornmeal and thirty-six ounces of fish per week which in daily rations would be about 2 pounds of cornmeal and 8 ¼ ounces of fish with ½ pound of meat each week added on.1 Slaves in Mount Vernon were known to have small gardens that they used to grow vegetables in order to supplement their diet.2 Slaves at Gunston Hall had small plots as well. Slaves operated fisheries on the plantations and some of the output was used to feed them.3,4 Slaves at Mount Vernon raised chickens, specifically dung-hill fowls.5 Many bird bones and eggshells were found by archaeologists at Gunston Hall leading to the same conclusion.6

Lead shot was found in both Mount Vernon and Gunston Hall. It is known that gun parts have been found in other sites occupied by slaves so the natural conclusion is that slaves hunted for themselves after providing for the landowners. They could have trapped animals or fished as well.7,8 Besides having all these options, slaves were still required to supplement their meager diets which may be the reason for all of the options available to them. In addition to this, Gunston Hall’s land abounded with wild fowl and the deer and other game lived in the woods.9 George Mason kept native deer in a fenced area where slaves could harvest deer when they became to populous.10

Studying the ceramics slaves possessed shows that they used a higher proportion of bowls than the landowners’ households. The prevalence of finely chopped animal bones leads to the conclusion that slaves were often given poor cuts of meat which lends itself to the hypothesis of slaves eating many one-pot meals.11

At Mount Vernon, enslaved artisans were given a predetermined ration of rum. Pints also went to enslaved overseers and could also be a reward or incentive for working hard. It was also given to sick slaves or mothers who were giving birth. It is unknown whether George Mason gave rum to his slaves as a reward or ration to skilled workers or artisans, but it is reasonable to assume that it would have been provided to those sick or going through childbirth since other landowners saw rum as a necessity for the health of people doing hard work. Slaves at Mount Vernon may have also made beer using hops that they grew in their gardens.12


1 Mary V. Thompson, The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret (University of Virginia Press, 2019), 221.

2 Dennis J. Pogue, “Slave Lifeways at Mount Vernon: An Archeological Perspective,” (Mount Vernon Ladies Association 1995), 10.

3 Ibid., 12.

4 Pamela Copeland and Richard K. MacMaster, “Colonel George Mason III” in The Five George Masons (University of Virginia Press 2016), 67.

5 Thompson, The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret, 229-230.

6 David Shonyo, “Archaeological Investigations at Gunston Hall Plantation: Report on 2013 Activities,” (Gunston Hall Plantation 2014), 25

7 Pogue, “Slave Lifeways at Mount Vernon: An Archeological Perspective,” 11-12.

8 Shonyo, “Archaeological Investigations at Gunston Hall Plantation: Report on 2013 Activities.” 25.

9 George Mason, “Gunston for Sale,” (Alexandria Gazette 1818), 3.

10 Kate Rowland Mason, The Life of George Mason, (G.P. Putman’s Sons 1892), 100.

11 Dennis J. Pogue, “Interpreting the Dimensions of Daily Life for the Slaves Living at the President’s House and at Mount Vernon,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 120, no. 4 (2005): 441-442.

12 Thompson, The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret, 232-233.

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