Slaves in the President’s House – Austin, Driver and Stablehand

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The President's House in 1830

Austin was one of nine enslaved Africans who labored at the President’s House during the presidency of George Washington.

The mansion was located in Philadelphia, the capital of the United States from 1790 to 1800. Washington, the first president of the United States of America, moved into it in November 1790. It was his official home from then until the end of his presidency in March 1797. Then it was home to John Adams until he moved into the newly completed White House in Washington in November 1800.

Slave, Free and Indentured Labor in Washington’s Household

In addition to enslaved Africans, free men and woman, hired day workers and indentured servants worked at the President’s House during Washington’s time there. Indentured servants usually worked for three years without pay while getting housing, meals and learning new job skills. At the end of their indenture, they were free to pursue life as free individuals.

One of the slaves Washington brought from Mount Vernon was named Austin.

Austin’s Parents

Betty, a seamstress owned by the president’s wife Martha, was his mother. He was born in the late 1750s. Although his father is unnamed, it is possible that he was white. Betty and Austin were Martha Washington’s slaves because they were part of her first husband’s estate.

Martha Custis was a widow who married Washington in January 1759. Betty and Austin were dower slaves. A dower is that part of an estate that a widow (in early America) inherited from her husband and from which she derived income during her lifetime. Upon the death of Daniel Parke Custis, her first husband, Martha Washington began reaping benefits from one – third of his estate, including about 80 of the 285 slaves he owned at his death. Her husband also left 17,500 acres of land of which she was entitled to the use of about 2880 acres in King William County. Martha Washington was perhaps the wealthiest American woman of her generation.

Austin’s Jobs

Betty and her young son Austin moved from the Custis plantation in colonial Virginia to Mount Vernon in the same colony when George and Martha wed. While in his teens, Austin worked as a waiter at Mount Vernon. He was also probably a footman for Washington’s carriage. During the Revolutionary War he might have gone with Martha Washington when she visited her husband – who was commander of the Continental Army – in the field.

From Mount Vernon, Washington brought 14 horses to Philadelphia. He also brought three carriages and one wagon for carrying baggage. In 1790 Austin was one three slaves who worked in the stables of the President’s House. Arthur Dunn was a white servant who worked in the stables too. By 1791 it seems that Austin was the only person of African descent working in the stables. The other two enslaved Africans who had been working in the stables were back at Mount Vernon by then.

Beginning in March 1792, new laborers in the stables seem to have been white indentured servants, most if not all of them German. One reason for the disappearance of the slaves might have been that the white and black abolitionists in Philadelphia thought the presence of enslaved individuals at the President’s House was a disturbing contradiction in a nation that had recently won its freedom from Great Britain.

His Death and the Family He Left Behind

At Mount Vernon, Austin had married another slave who was a seamstress. Her name was Charlotte. In December 1794 he was given twenty dollars to go visit his family in Virginia. On December 20 while trying to cross a river on horseback near Hartford, Maryland he fell from his horse.

He was pulled from the water in serious condition. He had either hit his head after falling from the horse or had had a stroke, which caused him to fall. Within four hours, Austin was dead. He was about 36 years old. He was buried the next day in Virginia.

The family he left included his widow and five children. His son Billy had been born about 1782. His son Timothy had been born in 1785. His three daughters Elvey, Jenny and Eliza had been born between 1786 and 1795. Austin was the half – brother of Oney Judge later known as Ona Judge Staines. She was Martha Washington’s personal servant. She ran away in 1796.

Sources:

  1. Lawler, Jr., Edward. “The President’s House in Philadelphia: The Rediscovery of a Lost Landmark.”Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. January 2002.
  2. Lawler, Jr., Edward “The President’s House in Philadelphia – Austin.” USHistory.org.
  3. Lawler, Jr., Edward “The President’s House in Philadelphia: Minority Report From Roundtable” Contained Within “Consensus Document From the President’s House Roundtable.” by Doris Devine Fanelli. USHistory.org
  4. “The President’s House in Philadelphia – The House and the People Who Lived In It.” USHistory.org.
  5. Thompson, Mary V. “Different People, Different Stories: The Life Stories of Individual Slaves from Mount Vernon and Their Relationships with George and Martha Washington.” Mount Vernon, Virginia. Talk at Symposium on November 3, 2001. George Washington & Slavery
  6. Fields, Joseph E. compiler.” Worthy Partner:” The Papers of Martha Washington. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.