This is a guest post by Joseph Mitchell, who participated in the fall 2021 Archives, History, and Heritage Advanced Internship in the Manuscript Division. Joseph received a Bachelor of Arts in history from Catholic University in 2021.
On Wednesday, August 27, 1794, a teenaged girl named Jenny died in childbirth. She was attended by a doctor for two days and one night, but it seemed that whatever he could do for her was not enough. How do we in the twenty-first century know this? Because Jenny was enslaved on George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.
George Washington insisted his farm manager inform him of all the happenings on his estate. When away from home, such as in Philadelphia during his presidency, Washington stayed in contact with his manager by letter. He required the manager to send him a farm report each week. Between 1786 and his death in 1799, Washington had five people serve as his farm manager, with the responsibility of supervising the five farms that made up Mount Vernon. These farm reports are the main way the manager showed the results of the week’s labor to Washington, and they’re a key resource for anyone who wants to learn more about the lives of the enslaved workforce of our first president. They describe the work being done across the estate, farming, spinning, carpentry, and other industries, and they also include references to who was not working and why. These reports were recently transcribed by volunteers through the Library of Congress’s crowdsourcing initiative, By the People, and the transcriptions will eventually be added to the George Washington Papers online.
Ever the taskmaster, Washington expected his enslaved laborers to “work from day-breaking until it is dusk in the evening.” He insisted on having the week’s reports structured so that he could easily calculate if his workers had done their quota of work. His managers likewise had the duty of recording where all the work was being done and how long it took. To keep track of his workers’ productivity, which Washington frequently criticized, absences from work were just as important to record as completed work. The reports track who wasn’t contributing and for how many days. Occasionally, extra details or reasons are offered for the lost labor, such as in this July 30, 1791, report stating that Charles cut his hand with a scythe and hadn’t worked that week, and that Boatswain was out “6 days with a Boil under his arm.”
The letters that accompanied these reports offer some additional detail regarding sickness and the general status of the estate. In the farm report for the week of August 30, 1794, George Washington’s farm manager William Pearce recorded the name and type of illness for more than fifteen enslaved individuals across Mount Vernon. In his accompanying letter, he mentions that the people were “Sickly with the Ague and Fever,” ague being an older name for malaria. Pearce’s letter also reports on Jenny who “died Last Wednesday Evening in Labour.”  This is confirmed in the farm report where her name, spelled here “Jinney,” is listed in the section for those sick at Dogue Run Farm (one of the five that made up Mount Vernon). The last record of her life was her absence of 3 days “By Sickness” before she “died in child Bed.”
As odd as it may sound in the midst of a pandemic, in the eighteenth century, the threat of disease was far more embedded in daily life than it is today. From Washington’s point of view though, disease was not only a potential source of personal loss, but one of economic loss as well. The loss of days of work or of workers themselves would hurt his prospects as one of the new nation’s foremost planters. Because of this, Washington’s personal physician Dr. James Craik was often called upon to attend to the enslaved people at Mount Vernon, including Jenny in her last days.
The inefficiency of slavery was a sticking point for Washington. He felt as though the system of labor was not providing its supposed benefits to his own plantation and often griped about the impracticality of his large enslaved workforce. The ubiquitous nature of disease in a world without modern medicine meant further delays in getting work done. From the point of view of the enslaved workers, it also provided a means of passive resistance; feigning illness was a way to exert control over their lives.
While Washington may have been a reluctant enslaver at times, the intense level of scrutiny that he desired from his manager and overseers showed how strongly he invested his energy into the practice. A letter to William Pearce from February 1795 indicated the president’s disappointment at how the work ethic of his enslaved laborers didn’t meet his standards. Washington, irritated at the slow rate of progress from his carpentry team, wrote, “I require no more of them than others do; but this I must have by fair means, or by coercion, the first would be vastly more agreeable to me.” He conceived of the issue not one of unjust labor practices, but of poor habits and lack of cooperation from his enslaved workers. Of one of his enslaved spinners, he wrote in the same letter, “for every day Betty Davis works she is laid up two. If she is indulged in this idleness she will grow worse & worse, for she has a disposition to be one of the most idle creatures upon earth; and is, besides, one of the most deceitful.”
George Washington’s drive for agricultural development and experimentation at Mount Vernon made him a role model for many in his field and social class. This sort of cutting-edge agriculture came about under the constant supervision of the estate’s workforce by Washington’s unique method of tracking the productivity of his enslaved laborers. And while he may not have expressed sorrow at the death of Jenny or the sickness of his workers, he only knew of these details, much as we do today, “By the Reports.”
Do you want more stories like this? Then subscribe to Unfolding History – it’s free!
 Project link: “By the People Farm Reports, 1789-1798.”
 “From George Washington to Anthony Whitting, 6 January 1793,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed November 10, 2021, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-11-02-0379.
 Anthony Whiting, July 30, 1791, Farm Work and Weather Report, Series 4, General Correspondence, George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, accessed November 10, 2021, //www.loc.gov/resource/mgw4.100_1012_1013/?sp=2.
 William Pearce to George Washington, 31 August 1794, Series 4, General Correspondence, George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, accessed November 10, 2021, //www.loc.gov/resource/mgw4.106_0269_0271/?sp=1; see also transcription on Founders Online, National Archives, accessed November 10, 2021, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-16-02-0433.
 William Pearce, August 30, 1794, Plantation Records: Work and Weather Reports, Series 4, General Correspondence, George Washington Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, accessed November 10, 2021, //www.loc.gov/resource/mgw4.106_0266_0268/?sp=2.
 Mary V. Thompson, “Slave Resistance,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon, accessed November 10, 2021, https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/slave-resistance/.
 “From George Washington to William Pearce, 15 February 1795,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed November 10, 2021, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-17-02-0353.
These reports are a uniquely important window into the lives of the majority of the people who lived at Mt. Vernon and its neighboring parcels of Washington’s land. The historian Bruce Ragsdale has made excellent use of these documents in his important new book “Washington at the Plow: The Founding Farmer and Question of Slavery.” Manuscript Division Early American History specialist Julie Miller recently interviewed Ragsdale for an online discussion that is available– or soon will be?– on the Library’s website. Thanks for highlighting these materials here.
For those interested in the recent discussion with Bruce Ragsdale, it can be viewed at this link.