Jason Boroughs, Ph.D., is Mount Vernon’s research archaeologist. He has more than 25 years of field experience excavating historical sites throughout the United States and the Caribbean, and his publications focus on plantation communities in the Chesapeake Bay region.

Not far from Washington’s Tomb is another sacred ground, the cemetery of Mount Vernon’s enslaved community

On a wooded ridge perched high above the Potomac River, near the spot George Washington chose for the construction of his own family tomb, lies another sacred ground. A visitor to Mount Vernon in 1833 noted that “near [General Washington’s] tomb, you see the burying place of his slaves, containing 150 graves,” an intriguing account of an expansive cemetery that had likely been in active use for decades by that point. The graves were visible—meaning they were marked—yet no grave markers have survived to our time.

Today, two memorials placed by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association commemorate the burial ground used by members of the estate’s enslaved community and some of their descendants. In 2014, Mount Vernon archaeologists inaugurated a long-term research project to determine the cemetery’s extent and locate as many graves as possible, leaving human remains undisturbed. Mount Vernon’s team of archaeologists work side by side with volunteers, and they are collaborating with the descendants of those enslaved at Mount Vernon, who are helping bring to light the lost graves of their own ancestors. To date, the excavations have progressed across nearly half the ridge. Researchers have so far identified 86 graves.

Five Farms, One Community
By 1786, George Washington had expanded Mount Vernon into an 8,000-acre agricultural enterprise encompassing five adjacent farms—Mansion House, Dogue Run, Muddy Hole, Union, and River Farms. A census of enslaved residents completed by Washington a few months before his death in 1799 indicates that 317 enslaved men, women, and children lived in quarters across the five farms. This census also indicates that two-thirds of the enslaved adults at Mount Vernon were married. Although Virginia law disenfranchised enslaved persons of the civil rights of marriage, both the enslaved community and Washington recognized marriages between enslaved women and men. In 1785, Washington wrote that marriage was “the most interesting event in one’s life, the foundation of happiness or misery.” Enslaved adults were housed on the farm where they worked, regardless of where a spouse resided. Roughly one-third of married adults at Mount Vernon lived together; the remaining two-thirds did not. In these divided-residence families, spouses lived on another of Mount Vernon’s farms or off plantation. Children remained with their mothers. It was common for enslaved persons to walk several miles to visit spouses, children, and other family and friends in other quarters in the nighttime hours, on Sundays (the weekly day off), and holidays such as Christmas and Easter. Washington observed, “It is no uncommon thing for them to be running from one house to another in cold windy nights with sparks of fire flying and dropping as they go along.”

The cemetery at Mansion House Farm represents family ties across the five farms. A 1798 entry in Mount Vernon’s farm book describes a crew of enslaved carpenters “making a Coffin for one of the children, which came from [Union] Farm.” It suggests that the child lived on Union Farm and was buried in the cemetery on the ridge. Three women at Union Farm had husbands who resided at Mansion House Farm. Of this group, two have entries in the farm book for births prior to 1798 with ages of children listed on the 1799 census that do not match the farm book records. Therefore, either Fanny, married to Simms the carpenter, or Daphne, married to Charles, a ditcher, may have lost a child the year before the 1799 census—a child whose remains might rest in the cemetery. Each of the individuals interred within the cemetery likely had similar family connections.


An 1855 lithograph of Mount Vernon produced for popular consumption is the earliest known visual depiction of the cemetery (outlined for clarity).

Honoring Ancestors
Archaeologists typically identify human burials as fairly rectangular patches of discolored soil with distinct edges that stand out from the naturally pale yellow-brown clay subsoils of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. When the graves were initially dug, deep orange-yellow waxy clays were brought to the surface, becoming mixed with lighter-colored soils in the process, and then returned to the grave shaft following an individual’s interment. Removing six to eight inches of soil exposes the tops of the grave shafts, at which point Mount Vernon archaeologists take photographs and use digital surveying equipment to record the precise size, shape, and location of each individual interment.

The team has documented 86 graves in this manner, roughly 40 percent of which are interments of children or adolescents, based on the relative sizes of the graves. The graves are aligned in neat rows on an east-west axis and in clusters that may indicate family groupings. An 1846 account of a visit to Mount Vernon, initially published in the Cincinnati Enquirer, includes this intriguing description of the cemetery:

Observing some servants busy in a little grove, in front of the new tomb, we went thither.

They were enclosing with a paling [fence] a grave very neatly sodded, and some sweet briar was still clinging to its native turf upon it. It was the grave of a favorite servant, an aged colored woman, whose good and amiable character had won respect and regard.—‘When did she die?’ we enquired. ‘She parted from us last Sunday,’ was the reply.

There are many graves in the grove, and one of the servants pointed out that of Washington’s favorite servant, who was with him in his campaigns, fulfilling his simple duties faithfully and affectionately. The spot is not forgotten, though the tramp of passing years has leveled the little mound.

Though leveled “through the tramp of passing years,” the “little mound” that adorned the presumed grave of William Lee—Washington’s personal valet, who followed him to war—was representative of a tradition of grave dressing with roots that spanned the Atlantic Ocean, broadcast across the New World among communities of African descent. An 1855 lithograph of Mount Vernon produced for popular consumption is the earliest known depiction of the cemetery. It illustrates, at least stylistically, the “little mounds” that likely adorned the burial ground. The outlines of 12 linear mounds, the size and shape of individual adult graves, are organized in two rows of six, enclosed by a fence in the forested area adjacent to Washington’s Tomb. In reality there were some 100 to 150 graves, according to multiple eyewitness accounts from the 1830s.

Archaeologists have not discovered a common usage of stone markers, apart from a single field stone found near one grave that could have served as a head- or footstone. Wooden markers may have been used, and they would not have survived the region’s climate beyond a few decades. The archaeology does consistently demonstrate that the most commonly employed style of grave dressing was mounding. Despite years of erosion, and although tree roots and animal burrowing have impacted the cemetery ridge, the remains of eroded mounds are clearly visible in soil profiles above the graves. When individuals were interred, community members carefully used clay from the initial excavation to construct semi-rounded mounds of 6 to 12 inches in height that spanned the length and width of each burial, in the form, size, and shape depicted on the 1855 lithograph.

As grave markers, mounds are a community investment. Intended to foster generational ties to ancestors and communal ties to place, mounds require periodic maintenance by kin and other community members. Grave mounds are the metaphorical abode of the dead, and respect to ancestors demands they be kept in pristine order. That only two of the 86 discovered interments overlap or intrude upon other graves suggests that the rows of grave mounds were visible while the cemetery was an active burial ground. Had the mounds eroded significantly, archaeologists would have discovered later graves cutting into earlier ones. The orderly rows suggest that the mounds were in good repair for generations. The 1846 visitor account recorded that wooden fencing may have enclosed family or extended family plots and indicates that at least some of the mounds were “very neatly sodded” with sweet briar “still clinging to its native turf upon it,” implying that sod may have been cut elsewhere and transplanted. These are labor-intensive tasks that illustrate the degree of care and respect extended by other members of the community.

To date, researchers have identified 86 graves on the cemetery ridge (below). Excavation of an adult grave, done without disturbing the human remains, show weathering and erosion of the grave mound (opposite)

“The archaeology of the cemetery suggests it was a place where family connections were cherished, ancestors honored, and roots maintained”

Washington included a provision for emancipation of his enslaved people in his will. They were freed in 1801. Martha Washington died the following year. With lines of ownership tied to the estate of her first husband, those who remained were split among Martha’s heirs and relocated to other estates. Several months later, a new group of enslaved persons arrived at Mount Vernon with Bushrod Washington, George Washington’s principal heir. Each group likely buried their dead in the cemetery and contributed to the ongoing maintenance of the burial ground.

After emancipation, free African Americans with roots at Mount Vernon may have assumed care of the cemetery. Members of the Gum Springs community, adjacent to River Farm, were one such group. West Ford—who was brought to Mount Vernon in his youth by Bushrod Washington, was emancipated at the age of 21, and later founded the settlement of Gum Springs—is believed to have been the last known interment in the cemetery in 1863.

There’s a dictum in archaeology that the dead don’t bury themselves—connections in death tend to mirror those in life. The archaeology of the cemetery suggests it was a place where family connections were cherished, ancestors honored, and roots maintained. It’s a process that continues today among descendants and others. A memorial designed by Howard University architecture students in 1983 stands at the heart of the cemetery, a permanent and continuing tribute to those who lie at rest on the ridge. On it are inscribed the virtues that sustained the community: “Faith,” “Hope,” and “Love.” 

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Flower bouquets rest on newly identified graves marked with temporary outlines for a memorial ceremony. Following archaeological excavation and research, the soil had been put back in place.