The British Monarchy did not have enough money to organize settlement activity in North America. Instead, they assigned that role to independent companies that raised money from merchants to accomplish this goal. King James gave the charter to settle the area around Virginia Company of London
On December 20th 1606, 105 settlers set sail to the New World to establish a colony for the London Virginia company. The group included 35 gentlemen, a minister, a doctor, 40 soldiers and a mixture of artisans and laborers. They arrived off the coast of Virginia in late April 1607. Captain Newport, who commanded the expeditions, was given instructions to find a site that was safe from Spanish attack, but gave access to the sea. Newport sailed up the James River. He found a site 50 miles up the river that was joined to the mainland by a small natural passageway, and thus defensible. He decided on that site and claimed it for James I. He called the new settlement “Jamestown”.
The settlers began by clearing the land and building a fortified settlement. They built small one and two room timber cottages and cleared additional land for planting crops. Initially, they found the Native Americans friendly and willing to trade, but relations with the native Indians remained uneven. Soon some of the negatives of the location of became apparent, as settlers began to die of disease– some from diseases they had brought from England and others from diseases they encountered in the mosquito infested swamp that they found initially in Jamestown. By winter, it was clear that not enough crops had been grown to survive the winter, a winter that turned out to be devastating. Despite trading with the Natives, by the end of the winter only 30 of the original settlers survived.
In the spring of 1608, Captain John Smith, who was a natural leader, took control of the settlement. Smith overcame one of the major problems of the settlement, the unwillingness of many of the noblemen to work. He made a simple rule: no work … no food.
One of George Washington’s masterful farming innovations was a 16-sided barn designed for treading wheat—his most important cash crop. Traditionally, wheat was threshed by hand, a slow and arduous process of beating the wheat to break the grain out of the straw. Sometimes horses treaded wheat by trampling it on the ground, but that practice was unsanitary and exposed the grain to weather. Washington decided to move the threshing process indoors and in 1793 built a barn for this purpose. It was completed two years later. Horses trotted in a circle on the second floor, treading on grain that then fell to the first floor through narrow gaps in the flooring. Although Washington was in Philadelphia serving as president while the barn was under construction, he supervised the work from afar. He even calculated (correctly) that the number of bricks needed to complete the first floor would be 30,820.
The barn at the Farm site is an exact replica of the original, based on careful examination of Washington’s drawings and plans from the 1790s as well as on a mid-19th-century photograph showing the barn in a semi-ruined state.
After George Washington’s return to Mount Vernon at the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, the Study became his retreat from ever-present family and visitors; a place where he could quietly and privately tend to business. Reportedly, no one was allowed in this room without Washington’s invitation. From here, he directed the management of his Estate, receiving reports from overseers, making daily diary entries, and posting his accounts.
The Study was also where Washington bathed, dressed, and kept his clothes. Each morning, he rose between 4 and 5 am and went to the study, using the private staircase that led down from the bedchamber. According to the recollections of his step-grandson George Washington (Washy) Parke Custis, he lit his own fire and dressed himself. Washington used this quiet time to write letters or review reports until breakfast at 7 am, after which he usually rode out to his farms. In the evening, unless he had a social obligation or lingered talking to visitors after dinner, he returned here to read or confer with his secretary until around 9 pm, when he went to bed.
In this room you will find a fan chair similar to Washington’s, which helped him to stay cool on hot summer’s days; Washington’s chair that he used as President, a portrait of Lawrence Washington, bookcases, a secretary, and other artifacts from Washington’s life.
The two-story piazza is the Mansion’s most distinctive architectural feature. Extending the full length of the back of the house, it also has a practical function—catching the river breezes on a hot and humid Virginia day. The Washingtons treated the piazza as an outdoor room, serving afternoon tea here to visitors and family members seated in simple Windsor chairs.
From the piazza, visitors observe a thickly wooded area which was an 18-acre deer park, a common feature on large estates of that time. Washington stocked his with tame deer from nearby and from England for the delight of family and visitors. The trees between the Mansion and the river were carefully pruned to emphasize the view of the Potomac, creating a so-called “hanging wood.”
The Kitchen was used to prepare all meals served to George and Martha Washington and their many guests. Cooking in Mount Vernon’s kitchen was hot, smoky, demanding, and skilled work. Enslaved cooks like Doll, Hercules, Nathan, and Lucy, arose at four each morning to light the fire in the oven and prepare for the meals to be served in the Mansion. Their duties could continue well into the evening. The Washingtons placed great trust in their cooks, whose talent was evident in visitors’ descriptions of sumptuous meals.
Under Martha Washington’s supervision, cooks planned menus and selected ingredients for each day’s meals. Enslaved laborers on the estate grew and harvested most of the Washingtons’ food: wheat and corn from the fields, fresh vegetables from the garden, fruit from the orchards, fish caught in the Potomac, and smoked ham from hogs raised on site. Imported luxuries like tea, coffee, chocolate, olives, oranges, and wine supplemented homegrown ingredients.
Their role in the kitchen allowed enslaved cooks to shape the tastes of the household—and the region. Many iconic southern dishes bear the influence of West African cuisine, from stews like gumbo to ingredients like okra, sweet potatoes, peanuts, and collard greens.
The placement of the kitchen at Mount Vernon was dictated by a series of functional, social, and environmental factors. The concern for safety from potential fires, the desire to avoid kitchen heat, and the need to avoid the smell of food cooking in the household were of significant importance. In addition, there was a desire to separate domestic functions from the main house in order to reinforce the segregation of enslaved workers’ activities from those of the planter family.
Music played an important role in the Mount Vernon household, as it did in other genteel Virginia homes of the period. Music masters traveled from plantation to plantation, instructing the young, and their presence often inspired lively social gatherings filled with music and dancing. George Washington loved to dance, and he is reported on one occasion during the Revolutionary War to have done so for three hours.
When Washington returned home from the presidency, he decided to convert what had been a first-floor bedchamber into a music and family room, thus allowing more space for informal entertaining.
Though by Washington’s own account he could neither sing nor “raise a single note on any instrument,” he helped ensure that his stepchildren and step-grandchildren were instructed in music. Early in his marriage, he ordered a spinet for Martha’s daughter, Martha (Patsy) Parke Custis, and a violin and German flute for Martha’s son, John (Jacky) Parke Custis.
In this room, you will find a harpsichord which was purchased by Washington in 1793 for his step-granddaughter Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis.
Through fine architectural features, artwork, and furnishings, the room was a means by which the Washingtons reinforced their elevated social status as a couple, as well as George Washington’s prominence in the social and political landscape.
Nearly every important politician and dignitary who visited the Washingtons was entertained in this space, from the Marquis de Lafayette to Thomas Jefferson. The space was primarily identified with the lady of the house, and here Martha Washington presided over the tea table and showed off her family through the many portraits that she had commissioned and had hung on the walls.
The Dining Room is part of the original house, built in 1734. Over the years, the room underwent a series of renovations. While George Washington was away commanding the Continental Army in 1775, the room was updated under the supervision of his cousin Lund Washington. In 1785, the striking verdigris-green paint was added. Washington believed the color to be “grateful to the eye” and less likely than other colors to fade; an overcoat of glaze further intensified the color.
In 1775 Washington decided to install an elaborately decorated plaster ceiling and add plaster ornaments above the fireplace. He hired an expert plasterer, identified simply as the “Stucco Man,” who spent five months completing the hand-tooled ceiling. A renovation in 2001 uncovered some of his original pencil drawings on the ceiling laying out the design.
George Washington created a formal courtyard on the west side of the Mansion. At its center is a large ellipse, its precise layout reflective of his surveying skill. By circling the ellipse, carriages could bring visitors directly to the door, and then easily continue around towards the stable. At one point this broad circle was paved in cobblestones.
Sitting to the north of the circle is the Servants’ Hall and to the south the Kitchen. The buildings form an open forecourt that frames the house. In the middle of the Mansion Circle sits a sundial. This was the most accurate timepiece available to 18th-century Americans. Mounted atop a white painted wood post, the sundial was a visual reminder of the hour to all who passed it.
The building began as a one and one-half story house built in 1734 by George Washington’s father, Augustine Washington, and received its well-known name from his half-brother Lawrence Washington.
George Washington began running Mount Vernon in 1754, and over the next 45 years slowly enlarged the dwelling to create the 21-room residence we see today. Washington oversaw each renovation, advising on design, construction, and decoration, despite being away much of the time. Conscious that the world was watching, Washington selected architectural features that expressed his growing status as a Virginia gentleman and ultimately as the leader of a new nation.