Slaves in the President’s House – Later Life of Hercules, a Chef

Hercules – also known as "Herculas" or "Uncle Harkless" – was a slave who worked at Mount Vernon, George Washington's Virginia plantation on the Potomac River.

George Washington brought Hercules to the President’s House in November 1790 as his chef. In 1796 everything changed for Hercules. He ran away in 1797.

Knowing that he was to work at the President’s House in Philadelphia, Hercules asked Washington if he could bring his son Richmond, who was about 14, to work there too. In Philadelphia Richmond worked doing back – breaking work in the kitchen and also as a chimney sweep at the house. Hercules, Richmond and another black slave named Chrsitopher Sheels probably lived in a room on the fourth floor of the main house. The room was divided, one part for Hercules and Richmond and the other for Sheels.

Hercules’s Enslavement Against the Law

In 1780, Pennsylvania had enacted the Gradual Abolition Law. Although there were exceptions, the gist of the law was that slaveholders who were not residents of Pennsylvania could keep slaves in the state for no more than six months. After that time, the slaves became free. Washington was legally a resident of Virginia so to avoid the consequences of this law, he usually sent his slaves at the President’s House out of the state before six months had passed.

In the summer of 1791, Hercules was in Philadelphia at the President House, the official residence of the president of the United States, for more than six months. He did not take advantage of the law to gain his freedom, however. One possible explanation is that he did not want to vanish forever from his young family in Mount Vernon. Under the Gradual Abolition Law, slaves who became free under it lost their freedom if they left the state. Periodically, Hercules was able to visit his family in Mount Vernon.

Hercules Escapes

But by 1797 Hercules saw the time as right for escaping. His three children by his deceased first wife Lame Alice were then between 11 and 20 years old, and the daugher he had with another woman at Mount Vernon was about six years old. According to Mary V. Thompson, a contemporary researcher of life at Mount Vernon, Hercules fled Washington’s plantation on February 22, 1797, Washington’s sixty – fifth birthday.

But why was Hercules at Mount Vernon and not Philadelphia? Well, in November 1796 Richmond had been caught stealing money from the saddlebags of another employee. It was assumed by Washington and the overseer that Richmond and Hercules wanted the money for an escape.

From Chef to Field Slave

Because of this attempted thief, Hercules was sent back to Mount Vernon not to work as a chef but as a field slave. Now instead of working indoors in the kitchen he was exposed to all the elements as he cleared land, spread dung, crushed stones to make the sand that would be put on the exterior of the structures on the plantation and dug clay to be used to make bricks.

In June 1799, George Washington took a census of the slaves at Mount Vernon. Between them George and Martha had 317 slaves. Of these, 153 were dower slaves of Martha Washington. The number of dower slaves had grown to that number from about 85, the number of slaves she gained control of after the death of her first husband in 1757. George Washington let it be known that he wanted Hercules back.However, the former chef was never recaptured. So far, researchers have not been able to determine where he went or what he did after fleeing Mount Vernon.

Washington died on December 14, 1799, and his will stated that his slaves were to be freed upon Martha’s death. However, on January 1, 1801 she decided to free all of her husband’s slaves. She did this in part because many of the slaves were becoming restless in anticipation of their freedom and there had been some fires set on the plantation. Therefore, when 1801 arrived, Hercules was no longer a fugitive slave. Martha died on May 22, 1802.


  1. Lawler, Jr., Edward. “The President’s House Revisited.”
  2. Lawler, Jr. Edward. “The president’s House in Philadelphia – Hercules.”
  3. “The Will of George Washington – Slave Lists.”
  4. LeBan, Craig. “A Birthday Shock From Washington’s Chef.” Philadelphia Inquirer.