To William Pearce
Philadelphia 18th Decemr 1793.
The paper enclosed with this letter will give you my ideas, generally, of the course of Crops I wish to pursue.1 I am sensible more might be made from the farms for a year or two—but my object is to recover the fields from the exhausted state into which they have fallen, by oppressive crops, and to restore them (if possible by any means in my power) to health & vigour. But two ways will enable me to accomplish this. The first is to cover them with as much manure as possible (winter & summer). The 2d a judicious succession of Crops.
Manure cannot be had in the abundance the fields require; for this reason, and to open the land which is hard bound by frequent cultivation and want of proper dressings, I have introduced Buck Wheat in the plentiful manner you will perceive by the Table, both as a manure, and as a substitute for Indian Corn for horses &ca; it being a great ameliorater of the Soil. How far the insufferable conduct of my Overseers, or the difficulty of getting Buck Wheat & Oats for Seed, will enable me to carry my plan into effect, I am unable at this moment to decide. You, possibly, will be better able to inform me sometime hence. Colo. Ball of Leesburgh has promised to use his endeavours to procure & send the first to Mount Vernon;2 but where to get as much of the latter as will answer my purposes (unless I send them from this City) I know not; but before I can decide on the quantity it may be necessary for me to purchase, it is essential I should know the quantity grown on my own estate; and which after I went to Virginia in September last I directed should no longer be fed away. The common Oats which are brought from the Eastern shore to Alexandria for sale, I would not sow—first, because they are not of a good quality—and 2dly because they are rarely, if ever, free from Garlick & wild Onions; with which, unfortunately, many of my fields are already but too plentifully stocked from the source already mentioned; and that too before I was aware of the evil.
I have already said that the insufferable conduct of my Overseers may be one mean of frustrating my plan for the next year—I will now explain myself. You will readily perceive by the rotation of Crops I have adopted, that a great deal of Fall plowing is indispensible. Of this I informed every one of them, and pointed out the fields which were to be plowed at this season. So anxious was I, that this work should be set about early, that I made an attempt soon after you were at Mount Vernon in September, to begin it; and at several times afterwards repeated the operation in different fields at Dogue run farm; but the ground being excessively hard & dry, I found that to persevere would only destroy my horses without effecting the object, in the manner it ought to be, & therefore I quit it; but left positive directions that it should recommence at every farm as soon as ever there should come rain to moysten the earth—& to stick constantly at it, except when the horses were employed in treading out Wheat (which was a work I also desired might be accomplished as soon as possible). Instead of doing either of these, as I ordered, I find by the reports, that McKoy has, now & then, plowed a few days only as if it were for amusement. That Stuart has but just begun to do it. and that neither Crow, nor Davy at Muddy hole, had put a plow into the ground so late as the 7th of this month. Can it be expected then, that frosts, Snow & Rain will permit me to do much of this kind of work before March or April? When Corn planting, Oats sowing, and Buck Wht for manure, ought to be going into the grd, in a well prepared state, instead of having it to flush up at that Season—and when a good deal of Wheat is to be got out with the same horses. Crow having got out none of his that was stacked in the field, nor Stuart & McKoy much of theirs, which is in the same predicament; the excuse being, as far as it is communicated to me, that their whole time & force since the month of October has been employed in securing their Corn—When God knows little enough of that article will be made.
I am the more particular on this head for two reasons—first to let you see how little dependence there is on such men when left to themselves (for under Mr Lewis it was very little better)—and 2dly to shew you the necessity of keeping these Overseers strictly to their duty—that is—to keep them from running about, and to oblige them to remain constantly with their people; and moreover, to see at what time they turn out of a morning—for I have strong suspicions that this, with some of them, is at a late hour, the consequence of which to the negroes is not difficult to foretell. All these Overseers as you will perceive by their agreements, which I herewith send are on standing wages;3 and this with men who are not actuated by the principles of honor or honesty, and not very regardful of their characters, leads naturally to endulgences—as their profits, whatever may be mine, are the same whether they are at a horse race or on the farm—whether they are entertaining company (which I believe is too much the case) in their own houses, or are in the field with the Negroes.
Having given you these ideas, I shall now add, that if you find any one of them inattentive to the duties which by the articles of agreement they are bound to perform, or such others as may reasonably be enjoined, Admonish them in a calm, but firm manner of the consequences. If this proves ineffectual, discharge them, at any season of the year without scruple or hesitation, & do not pay them a copper; putting the non-compliance with their agreemt in bar.
To treat them civilly is no more than what all men are entitled to, but my advice to you is, to keep them at a proper distance; for they will grow upon familiarity, in proportion as you will sink in authority, if you do not. Pass by no faults or neglects (especially at first)—for overlooking one only serves to generate another, and it is more than probable that some of them (one in particular) will try, at first, what lengths he may go. A steady & firm conduct, with an inquisitive inspection into and a proper arrangement of every thing on your part, will, though it may give more trouble at first, save a great deal in the end—and you may rest assured that in every thing which is just, and proper to be done on your part, shall meet with the fullest support on mine. Nothing will contribute more to effect these desirable purposes than a good example—unhappily this was not set (from what I have learnt lately) by Mr Whiting, who, it is said, drank freely—kept bad company at my house and in Alexandria—& was a very debauched person—where ever this is the case it is not easy for a man to throw the first stone for fear of having it returned to him: and this I take to be the true cause why Mr Whiting did not look more scrupulously into the conduct of the Overseers, & more minutely into the smaller matters belonging to the Farms—which, though individually may be trifling, are not found so in the agregate, for there is no addage more true than an old Scotch one, that “many mickles make a muckle.”
I have had but little opportunity of forming a correct opinion of my white Overseers, but such observations as I have made I will give.
Stuart appears to me to understand the business of a farm very well, and seems attentive to it. He is I believe a sober man, & according to his own account a very honest one. As I never found him (at the hours I usually visited the farm) absent from some part or another of his people I presume he is industrious, & seldom from home. He is talkative, has a high opinion of his own skill & management—and seems to live in peace & harmony with the Negroes who are confided to his care. He speaks extremely well of them, and I have never heard any complaint of him—His work however, has been behind hand all the year, owing, he says, and as I believe, to his having too much plowing to do—and the last omission, of not plowing when he knew my motives for wishing it, has been extremely reprehensible—But upon the whole, if he stirs early, & works late, I have no other fault to find than the one I have just mentioned—His talkativeness & vanity may be humoured.
Crow is an active man, & not deficient in judgment. If kept strictly to his duty would, in many respects, make a good Overseer. But I am much mistaken in his character if he is not fond of visiting, & receiving visits. This, of course, withdraws his attention from his business, and leaves his people too much to themselves; which produces idleness, or slight work on one side, & flogging on the other—the last of which besides the dissatisfaction which it creates, has, in one or two instances been productive of serious consequences—I am not clear either, that he gives that due attention to his Plow horses & other stock which is necessary, although he is very fond of riding the former—not only to Alexandria &ca but about the farm, which I did not forbid as his house was very inconvenient to the scene of his business.
McKoy appears to me to be a sickly, slothful and stupid fellow. He had many more hands than were necessary merely for his Crop, & though not 70 acres of Corn to cultivate, did nothing else. In short to level a little dirt that was taken out of the Meadow ditch below his house seems to have composed the principal part of his Fall work; altho’ no finer season could have happened for preparing the Second lot of the Mill Swamp for the purpose of laying it to grass. If more exertion does not appear in him when he gets into better health he will be found an unfit person to overlook so important a farm, especially as I have my doubts also of his care & attention to the horses &ca.
As to Butler, you will soon be a judge whether he will be of use to you or not. He may mean well, and for ought I know to the contrary may, in something have judgment; but I am persuaded he has no more authority over the Negroes he is placed, than an old woman would have; and is as unable to get a proper days Work done by them as she would, unless led to it by their own inclination wch I know is not the case.
Davy at Muddy hole carries on his business as well as the white Overseers, and with more quietness than any of them. With proper directions he will do very well, & probably give you less trouble than any of them, except in attending to his care of the stock, of which I fear he is negligent; as there are deaths too frequent among them.
Thomas Green (Overlooker of the Carpenters) will, I am persuaded, require your closest attention, without which I believe it will be impossible to get any work done by my Negro Carpenters—in the first place, because, it has not been in my power, when I am away from home, to keep either him, or them to any settled work; but they will be flying from one trifling thing to another, with no other design, I believe, than to have the better opportunity to be idle, or to be employed on their own business—and in the next place, because—although authority is given to him—he is too much upon a level with the Negroes to exert it; from which cause, if no other every one works, or not, as they please, & carve out such jobs as they like. I had no doubt when I left home the 28th of Oct. but that the house intended for Crow wd have been nearly finished by this time, as in order to facilitate the execution I bought Scantling, Plank & Shingles for the building, instead of this I do not perceive by his weekly report that a tool has yet been employed in it—nor can I find out by the said report that the Barn at Dogue run is in much greater forwardness than when I left it.
To correct the abuses which have crept into all parts of my business—to arrange it properly, & to reduce things to system; will require, I am sensible, a good deal of time and your utmost exertions; of the last, from the character you bear, I entertain no doubt; The other, I am willing to allow, because I had rather you should probe things to the bottom, whatever time it may require to do it, than to decide hastily upon the first view of them; as to establish good rules, and a regular system, is the life, and the Soul of every kind of business.
These ⟨are general thoughts—In my next letter (which, if possible shall be by the next Post) I will go more into detail upon some particular matters. In the mean while I remain Your friend & Servant
AL[S] (fragment), ViMtvL; ALS (letterpress copy), DLC:GW. The last page is missing from the AL[S]. The text in angle brackets is taken from the letterpress copy.
1. The enclosure may have been a version of the document below.
3. The enclosed copies of overseer agreements have not been identified. An undated DS fragment of an agreement with Hiland Crow, probably that sent here, is at ViHi: Mary Custis Lee Papers. The surviving pieces suggest that the agreement was similar to that made with Crow by George Augustine Washington on 15 Sept. 1790 and renewed in 1791 (DLC:GW). Henry McCoy was working under an agreement made with Anthony Whitting, 17 Dec. 1792 (DLC:GW).
Fig. 3. Washington’s drawing of his farms at Mount Vernon, 1793. (Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.)
Higher resolution map (1530 x 1133 pixel, 621 KB)