1845 Mount Vernon’s Master “Slave Overseer” Joseph McFarland’s Autograph Letter to Great-Grand-Nephew of President George Washington ... John A. Washington (III)
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November 18, 1845 Dated, Autograph Letter to “Mr. John A. (Augustine) Washington (III) (1821-1861) - Mount Vernon - near Alexandria”, from Washington’s Mount Vernon’s “Slave Overseer” and Signed, “Joseph McFarland”, stating “I write this lying in (sick)bed” with Integral Postal Cover, Choice Very Fine.
This original George Washington extended family at Mount Vernon related historical Autograph Letter is Signed, “Joseph McFarland”, who was the Master “Slave Overseer” at the Mount Vernon estate. This Letter is 1 page, measuring 8” x 10”, Arcola, Loudon County, Virginia, with Integral Postal Cover, boldly addressed and written to John Augustine Washington, at Mount Vernon. Joseph McFarland was the Slave Overseer at Mt. Vernon from 1841-45, working for John A.(ugustine) Washington III, great-grand-nephew of George Washington and proprietor of the Mount Vernon estate.
John Augustine Washington III the last private owner of Mount Vernon. The fourth of five children, he was born on May 3, 1821 to John Augustine Washington II and Jane Charlotte Blackburn Washington. When Virginia seceded from the Union, John A. Washington volunteered to defend Virginia in the oncoming Civil War conflict. He served as Aide-de-C amp of his relative Confederate Commanding General Robert E. Lee in the military Campaign of Western Virginia. John was commissioned as a CSA Lieutenant Colonel on this campaign. This letter has a small marginal archival repair, its original red wax seal is mostly present. It is well written in rich brown ink on clean wove period paper, together with its Integral Postal Cover with Handwritten “Paid 5” postage. This Washington estate at Mount Vernon, Black History and Slavery related letter from Joseph McFarland reads, in full:
“Mr. Washington - Dear Sir -- It is now a longer time than I told you when I would write. I have been sick ever since I came home and was not able to write sooner. I have been confined to my bed ever since. I am getting a little better I think the doctor is attending me he says my liver is effected. - I write this lying in bed -- your humble servant (Signed) Joseph McFarland”
When the 22 year-old John A. Washington III, great-grand-nephew of George Washington, became proprietor of the Mount Vernon estate in 1841, he sought a competent “Overseer” for the large plantation and its Slaves. A friend had recommended Joseph McFarland, a young man who demanded top wages. Washington, who often lived far off at Blakeley, his mother’s plantation in western Virginia, was apparently satisfied with McFarland until 1845 when the overseer came into conflict over potential abuses by McFarland with Gabriel Johnson, a 25 year-old favored Slave who had come to Mount Vernon from Blakeley, the son of Washington’s mother’s trusted housekeeper.
When Washington (no Slavery enthusiast), did return to the plantation, he may have had Gabriel whipped as a deterrent to other Slaves - but he fired McFarland. Slave Gabriel remained at Mount Vernon for many years, helping manage the estate during the Civil War after his “Emancipation” by the Union Army. He would later be one of the first African-Americans to Vote in Alexandria during Reconstruction. Joseph McFarland, on the other hand, was entirely forgotten. This Letter penned from McFarland’s sickbed and appears to be his last contact with Washington’s Mount Vernon. A historical Black History record of the ongoing, yet concluding use of Slaves at Mount Vernon. When 22 year-old John A. Washington III, great-grand-nephew of George Washington, became proprietor of the Mount Vernon estate in 1841, he sought a competent “Overseer” for the large plantation and its Slaves.
A friend had recommended Joseph McFarland, a young man who demanded top wages. Washington, who often lived far off at Blakeley, his mother’s plantation in western Virginia, was apparently satisfied with McFarland until 1845 when the overseer came into conflict with Gabriel Johnson, a 25 year-old favored slave who had come to Mount Vernon from Blakeley, the son of Washington’s mother’s trusted housekeeper.
McFarland was having “a great deal of difficulty” with the proud and defiant Gabriel. A confrontation ensued when McFarland found Gabriel, ordered to transport a wagon load of corn, stopped on the road, “cursing” the horses and beating them with a whip. He refused to obey McFarland’s order to stop, and as the overseer wrote Washington, “turned to abusing me”.
McFarland grabbed the whip, trying to tie up the slave and flog him, but Gabriel ran away. McFarland, with a band of white friends, pursued and captured him and had him locked up in a notorious slave jail in Alexandria, only dissuaded from beating the slave because it might “injure” his future sale. While McFarland was writing his account to Washington, Gabriel, jailed but not easily cowed, dictated a letter to a Washington, giving his side of the story.
In that letter - which sold at auction for more than $20,000 - Gabriel acknowledged his defiance, having told McFarland that “he could not whip me as I did not think any person but my master ought to do it.” He implored Washington to personally “come down and see about the matter and hope that you will be satisfied that... I am not the only one to blame. I love you and your family and hope that you will believe me that I have the utmost sort of feelings for you and would not by any means offend you if I could avoid it”, given the “painful uncertainty of my situation.”
When Washington, (no slavery enthusiast), did return to the plantation, he may have had Gabriel whipped as a deterrent to other slaves - but he fired McFarland.
Gabriel remained at Mount Vernon for many years, helping manage the estate during the Civil War after Emancipation by the Union Army. He would later be one of the first African-Americans to Vote in Alexandria during Reconstruction. McFarland, on the other hand, was entirely forgotten. This letter from a sickbed seems to be his last contact with Washington’s Mount Vernon.
As the son of a wealthy Virginia planter, John Augustine enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle at Mount Vernon, developing interests in politics, hunting, and agriculture. After John Augustine II passed away in June 1832, the estate was left to his widow Jane Charlotte, who vowed to maintain the estate to the best of her ability without involving her children’s inheritances. While John Augustine Washington III preferred his more aristocratic pastimes, Jane insisted that he attend college after his father’s death. He graduated from the University of Virginia in 1840, returning to Mount Vernon in September 1841 with a proposition to manage the plantation for his mother. She agreed, loaning him twenty-two Slaves and contracting his employment for five hundred dollars per year for seven years.
As the oldest living male heir, John Augustine Washington III positioned himself to take possession of Mount Vernon from his mother. While she did not pass away until 1855, she gave John Augustine the proverbial keys to the kingdom, granting him full autonomy to run the plantation as he saw fit.
However, John Augustine quickly realized that the deteriorating Mount Vernon estate was a far cry from the profitable plantation that his great-great uncle George Washington once presided over. His primary means of income came from wheat and potato production, woodcutting, selling slaves and outsourcing Slave labor, collecting land rents, and his herring operation on the Potomac River. However soil degradation, poor harvests, temperamental weather, and the devastation of crops by insects and pests limited his agricultural returns.
While he managed to slow Mount Vernon’s financial decline, these endeavors were not enough to stop the downward spiral. In addition to facing these hardships, John Augustine Washington also experienced constant interruptions by sightseers, many of whom wanted to meet the living descendent of General and first President George Washington, see the mansion, and ask questions about Washington’s life.
These visitors were considered a nuisance to John Augustine’s family, and their presence slowed plantation work for slaves, overseers, and hired farm laborers. Initially John Augustine followed the precedential policies of his mother, father, and uncle Bushrod, publishing trespassing notices around the property, requesting letters of introduction to enter the mansion, and denying the landing of steamboats on the Potomac River. But with his lands yielding such little profit, John Augustine decided to embrace this historical tourism, implementing business strategies to extract money from the thousands of visitors who journeyed to the home of George Washington.
In order to bring more people to the estate, he entered into a contract with the proprietors of the Thomas Collyer to permit their steamboat to dock directly at Mount Vernon. He also promoted and invested in the construction of the Alexandria, Mount Vernon and Accotink Turnpike Road, which was designed to make travel easier to Mount Vernon over land.
As more visitors descended upon the grounds, he instructed Slaves and laborers to sell bouquets of flowers, fruit, milk, and hand-carved canes to tourists. Beyond the property boundaries, he went into business with James Crutchett, who purchased timber from the estate and manufactured wooden Washington trinkets near the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad depot in the nation’s capital.
While John Augustine Washington capitalized on the American fascination with George Washington, these sales were not substantial enough to convince him to retain Mount Vernon. He attempted to sell the property to both the federal government and the state of Virginia, but both bodies were deeply mired in sectional and political partisanship. Convinced that neither would meet his terms, he agreed to sell 200 acres of the Mount Vernon estate, which included the mansion, outlying buildings, and the family tomb to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA) in 1858 for $200,000.
John Augustine and his family vacated Mount Vernon for their new home Waveland plantation in February 1860. About a year later the state of Virginia called for a convention to debate the issue of secession, and in April 1861, Virginia delegates responded to the firing on Fort Sumter by voting in favor of leaving the Union. John Augustine joined the Confederate States of America Army as a Lieutenant Colonel, and he served as Aide-de-Camp to his relative by marriage, General Robert E. Lee.
In September 1861, John Augustine was killed during a reconnaissance mission at the Battle of Cheat Mountain by a Union bushwhacker. In a letter to John’s teenage daughter Louisa, Lee painfully informed her that her father “fell in the cause to which he had devoted all his energies, and which his noble heart was earnestly enlisted.”