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OMEKA Part 6: Health and Wellness of Enslaved People

Slaveowners were responsible for caring for the health of enslaved people in addition to food and shelter if they hoped to continue to use their major source of labor for decades to come. This explains the care George Washington and George Mason showed in response to disease and injury afflicting their slaves. This attention does not equal care however if the vast majority of their slaves were to die, the economic cost would be impossible to recover from. This explains their attention to smallpox. George Mason himself introduced a bill in 1778 to regulate the inoculation and spread of smallpox.1 He also inoculated his own slaves in 1792.2

George Washington was also concerned with the health of his slaves. He warned overseers not to overwork them in bad weather.3 As he had smallpox as a child, he went to slave quarters to witness the spread firsthand after which he arranged for new patients to be isolated and have a nurse take care of him. He also planned to use an outbuilding in the courtyard by his mansion as a hospital for sick slaves. Washington inoculated all of his slaves against smallpox as well.4

Overseers often reported at Mount Vernon that the slaves were sick with fevers and agues which could be symptoms of malaria.5 These symptoms could also be attributed to typhus or yellow fever.6 Washington employed doctors to look over slaves when necessary and advised the overseers to be attentive to them when they became sick.7 Slaves also suffered from other diseases including dysentery and fever. Washington advised that the agues and fevers be treated by making them vomit and found it effective enough to not warrant the use of other medication. It is suggested that more than half of the slaves in Virginia before the Civil War had worms during their lifetime. Slaves suffering from this ailment may have been treated with Martha Washington’s remedy that would paralyze worms and act as a laxative.8

Washington generally allowed those who were sick or injured to be relieved from work. Though Washington had his doubts at times that his slaves were sick instead of faking to get out of work, but this was difficult to determine. Although some who were injured may have been put on other assignments that they were capable of doing with their injury. Mothers were also allowed to leave work and nurse their sick children which is the case of a slave named Delia who was given a week off to care for her sick son. Slave children often died more often than white children of the same age. 18th-century plantation records show that a quarter of all enslaved babies died before turning a year old. This is only a slightly larger number than enslaved children who died before turning fifteen.9


1 George Mason, “A Bill to Regulate Smallpox Inoculations” The Papers of George Mason (University of North Carolina Press 1970), 411-413.

2 George Mason. “Letter from George Mason IV to John Mason 1792” (Gunston Hall Library and Archives)

3 Joseph J. Ellis, “The Strenuous Squire”in His Excellency: George Washington (Alfred A. Knopf 2004), 46.

4 Mary V. Thompson, The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret (University of Virginia Press, 2019), 185.

5 Robert F. Dalzell, and Lee Baldwin Dalzell, “Slaves and Overseers” in George Washington’s Mount Vernon: At Home in Revolutionary America (Oxford University Press USA-OSO 2000), 143.

6 Thompson, The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret, 186.

7 Dalzell and Dalzell, “Slaves and Overseers” 145.

8 Thompson, The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret, 186.

9 Dalzell and Dalzell, “Slaves and Overseers” 145.

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