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When he married Martha, Washington more than doubled the number of slaves under his control through “dower slaves” that she brought to the marriage. In 1759, there were about 40 slaves living at Mount Vernon. Although Washington had control over the dower slaves as a result of his marriage, they were not his property; instead they belonged to the estate of Martha’s first husband.
Washington’s enslaved manservant, Billy Lee, entered the war at Washington’s side and stayed with him throughout the revolution. Like his owner, Billy Lee was widely known as a courageous and expert horseman.
As Washington prepared his will, he drew up a list of the Mount Vernon slaves who belonged to either the Custis estate or to him. He found that altogether there were 316 enslaved men, women, and children living at Mount Vernon. Some of these individuals worked in the fields, while others were employed as house servants or as craftsmen in more than a dozen specialties ranging from blacksmithing, to spinning, to bricklaying, weaving, and cooking, to name just a few. At the time of the 1799 census, nearly half of Mount Vernon’s enslaved population was either too old or too young to work.
Washington made provisions in his will to free all of his own slaves but could not free those (or the descendants of those) whom Martha had brought to the marriage. By Virginia law, her grandchildren would inherit her “dower slaves.” Because the two groups had intermarried, emancipation of Washington’s slaves proved bittersweet.
By freeing his slaves, George Washington tried to set an example for others to follow. He was the only slaveholder among the founding fathers to free his slaves.