Slaves in the President’s House – Biographies of Giles and Joe

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The President's House in 1830

Giles and Joe were footmen who also labored at other tasks at the President’s House. As many as nine African slaves worked there as did white servants.

The President’s House was the mansion that served as the official residence of the president of the United States of America from 1790 to 1800 when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital. George Washington and John Adams were the two presidents who lived there.

The Privileged Occupants of the Main House

Washington went to live in the President’s House in November 1790 and remained until the end of his two – term presidency in March 1787. During Washington’s administration, the house was surely a bustling place. There was socializing with family and friends, official meetings and entertainments for government officials, heads of state of other countries, and formal state dinners. On a day – to – day basis, about 30 individuals lived in the main house and in the structures on its grounds. Slaves, about 15 white indentured servants and hired day workers served the needs of the following individuals:

  • George Washington
  • Martha Washington
  • Martha Washington’s young grandchildren Eleanor Parke Custis and her brother George Washington Parke Custis
  • Tobias Lear, Washington’s chief secretary, and his wife the former Mary “Polly” Long, who died in 1793. Together they had a son Benjamin. Later he married Fanny Washington. After she died he married Frances Dandridge Henley, a niece of Martha Washington.
  • Bartholomew Dandridge Jr., Maj. William Jackson and Robert Lewis, male secretaries

Mary Lawrence Masters, a wealthy widow, had built the house in the late 1760s. After the house sustained major fire damage in January 1780, Robert Morris decided to buy and rebuild it. Morris was the chief financier for the Americans during the Revolutionary War, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a member of the Constitutional Convention. He also established the Bank of North America or the Bank of the United States, the first federal bank in the United States.

Robert Morris Enlarges the House

When Morris was through with his rebuilding, the main house looked very much like the original. However, he did add a second story to the kitchen, a two– story bathhouse so occupants of the main house could have warm and cold water for bathing and an onsite icehouse. The bathhouse and icehouse were definitely luxuries. Morris’s updated house had about six rooms for sleeping and four rooms for servants. At the time Morris moved in, he had six children. A seventh came later.

In 1790 Morris let the federal government use his home as the official president’s residence. George Washington expanded the size of the house to accommodate the many individuals who servedhis household. Early in his presidency, the number of enslaved Africans was nine. In later years, it was about four. Following are the biographies of two of these human beings who were held in bondage.

Giles

Giles was a dower slave. Before Philadelphia, he was a footman for Washington’s carriage at his private home at Mount Vernon in Virginia. He was probably born in the late 1750s. Giles was with Washington on his extended trip to the Constitutional Convention which was held in Philadelphia from late May 1787 to mid – September 1787. Washington’s black body servant William “Bill” Lee was also on that trip.

When Washington visited the South from March to July 1791, Giles drive the baggage wagon. During this tour Giles sustained an unknown injury that left him unable to ride a horse. He was sent back to Mount Vernon. His name does not appear in the census of Washington’s slaves that was taken in June 1799. The conclusion is that Giles died in the intervening years.

Joe (Richardson)

Joe came to work at the President’s House in Ooctober 1795 as a footman for Washington’s carriage. He also worked in the stables because Washington had brought 14 horses with him from Mount Vernon. Joe’s wife Sall was a seamstress at Mount Vernon and had been born about 1769. Joe’s birth year is unknown. By the fall of 1795 Joe and Sall had three sons: Henry, 7, Elijah, 3 and Dennis, 1.

George Washington owned Sall and the three boys. Washington died on December 14, 1799 and by the terms of his will, the 125 slaves owned solely by him were to be freed upon his wife’s death. So, Sall and the children were among the slaves who became free after Martha Washington’s death on May 22, 1802.

But instead of getting his freedom, Joe as a dower slave was inherited by one of Martha Washington’s four grandchildren. Likewise, the other 152 dower slaves were divided among the grandchildren. Despite this complicated family situation, Joe and Sall remained a couple. Joe took the last name Richardson. He and Sall had at least five children. In 1835, records show that Joe Jr. and Levi, two of their children, worked at Mount Vernon. All their children were free.

Sources:

  1. Lawler, Edward Jr. “The President’s House in Philadelphia – Giles” USHistory.org
  2. “The President’s House in Philadelphia – Joe (Richardson).” USHistory.org.