Slaves in the President’s House – Son of Hercules and C. Sheels

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The President's House in 1830

Christopher Sheels, George Washington’s personal servant, and Richmond, son of noted chef Hercules, were two slaves who labored in the President’s House.

Richmond, who had been born in 1776, was a teen when he went to the President’s House in Philadelphia from George Washington’s plantation Mount Vernon in Virginia. Richmond”s father was Hercules, the man George Washington chose to be his principal chef during most of his presidency. Richmond and his father arrived at the President’s House in November 1790.

Christopher Sheels, a dower slave, was President Washington’s body servant or principal attendant. Before him, his uncle Will Lee or Billy Lee, had served Washington in the same capacity during the Revolutionary War. When President Washington lived briefly in 1789 in New York, then nation’s capital, Sheels had helped his uncle. But diminished physical capabilities sent Lee back to Mt. Vernon, Washington’s plantation in Virginia.

So by the time Washington moved to Philadelphia in November 1790 Sheels was his manservant or personal attendant. Philadelphia would be the nation’s capital for 10 years beginning in 1790.

Richmond’s Work

It is likely that Hercules, Richmond and Sheels had a room on the fourth floor (attic) of the President’s House. It was sectioned off so Richmond and Hercules lived on one side and Sheels in the other.

Richmond was at the President’s House until about the spring of 1791, when he returned to Mount Vernon. At the President’s House, he worked as a chimney sweep and also did drudge work in the kitchen where his father worked. Preparing meals there was hard work. The iron pots were so heavy that they had to be suspended on cranes.

Richmond In Trouble at Mount Vernon

Richmond was caught trying to steal money at Mount Vernon in November 1796. It was assumed by the managers of Mount Vernon that he wanted the money for an escape attempt with his father. Both were sent back to Mount Vernon to toilet at tasks requiring strength. Hercules escaped from Mount Vernon in 1797 A census of Washington’s slaves in June 1799 showed that Richmond still worked there.

Richmond’s mother was dead. George Washington’s slaves were freed by Martha Washington in early 1801. She did not wait until her death to do so, as her husband’s will had stated. However, since Richmond’s mother had been a dower slave he and his two sisters were dower slaves too. They were not among the slaves freed by Martha Washington. Mrs. Washington had inherited the use of them from her late husband’s estate. When she died, the use of these slaves passed to her heirs.

Sheels, Lafayette’s Son and a Marriage Prospect

When George Washington Lafayette, the teen son of the Marquis de Lafayette, visited the President’s House for an extended stay beginning in April 1796, he and Sheels seem to have gotten along well. Sheels was about 21 years old.

In September 1799 Sheels asked Washington’s permission to marry a literate slave from a local plantation. But shortly after this request, a note indicating that the two planned to run away was discovered. They were not able to flee then. Washington does not seem to have punished Sheels for planning to escape.

Sheels At Bedside of Dying President

Sheels was in Washington’s bedroom when the president died on December 14, 1799 at Mount Vernon. Sheels was 24 years old and had been standing in Washington’s room throughout many hours of the last day of his life. After noon that day, Washington gestured to Sheels to take a seat beside his bed. Lee was seated there when Washington died. Also in the room were his wife Martha Washington, Dr. James Craik, a physician, and Tobias Lear, his former secretary. And standing at the doorway of his room were the black slaves Caroline, Charlotte and Molly.

It is likely that Sheels washed and prepared Washington’s body for the funeral on December 18. Sheels is recorded as working for the Washington household in June 1792. Howevver, beginning in 1793 there is no record of his working at Mount Vernon.

Sources:

  1. Lawler, Jr., Edward. “The President’s House Revisited.”
  2. Lawler, Jr. Edward. “The President’s House in Philadelphia – Richmond.”
  3. Lawler, Jr. Edward. “The President’s House in Philadelphia – Christopher Sheels.”
  4. LeBan, Craig. “A Birthday Shock From Washington’s Chef.” Philadelphia Inquirer
  5. Morgan, Philip D. “‘To Get Quit of Negroes:’ George Washington and Slavery.” Journal of American Studies