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All men are created equal except …George Washington and Hannah Till

By Candy Willis | Posted January 31, 2024


February is both Black History Month and the birth month of George Washington, the first president of the United States. 


You may not realize it but Washington was an enslaver for 56 years (he inherited 10 slaves when he was only 11 years old) and, at the time of his death in 1799, there were 317 enslaved people working at his 8,000-acre Mount Vernon estate in Virginia. 


Leslie C. Bramlett, historical interpreter

Leslie C. Bramlett, historical interpreter, as Hannah Till.


Washington’s position on slavery changed over time. In his later years, he privately supported gradual abolition but, publicly, he refrained from sharing his views. According to his will, he wanted to emancipate his slaves upon the death of his wife, Martha Custis Washington (1731-1802). However, less than half the enslaved were ultimately freed because, according to existing dower laws, the slaves Martha brought to Mount Vernon legally belonged to Custis descendants upon her death - she had use of them only during her lifetime. 


Both Washington and slavery were active in Montgomery in the 18th century.  Washington was appointed commander in chief of the Continental Army in 1775 and he traveled through various areas of Montgomery during the eight-year Revolutionary War.  He spent time at various local estates, including Rockingham (he resided there for two and one-half months in 1783 as he wrote his farewell to the “Armies of the United States.”)


And enslaved Black people? They had been firmly entrenched on the large plantations in Montgomery since time of settlement. Generations of enslaved people were passed along through generations of local families such as the Crusers, Hoaglands, Terhunes, Beekmans, Hagemans, Van Hornes, Ten Broecks, etc.  


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However, since slaves were human chattels, considered a commodity over which one’s owner had total control (mind, body, and soul), 18th century records of this peculiar and unfortunate institution are generally non-existent and incomplete, at best. The 1804 New Jersey Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, while not actually abolishing slavery, did improve record-keeping for the 19th century, thus making research easier.  


In some instances, glimpses into the lives of enslaved people have been recorded almost by accident – gleaned from bills of sale, diaries, letters, tax ratables, receipts, etc.  Such is the case with Hannah Till (1721-1826).   Hannah was born in Delaware.  She was sold three times (when she was 15, again when she was 25, and yet again when she was 35) and then, around 1777, she was ‘leased’ to General George Washington to be his personal cook.  She served seven wartime years for Washington (except for six months when she was loaned to the Marquis de Lafayette).  It is likely that she was present at all the celebrated battles of the Revolutionary War – making it also likely that she traveled through this area several times.  Hannah was not enslaved the entire seven years – she was able to purchase her freedom in 1778 so, from then until the end of the war, she served Washington as a salaried cook.


In order to recall the hypocrisy of slavery and to commemorate our first president’s birthday, the Van Harlingen Historical Society is proud to host Leslie C. Bramlett, a historical interpreter, who will give a first-person account of Hannah Till’s life during a program titled Commissary Notes: A Glimpse into General Washington’s Camp as Told by Hannah Till.  


Please join us on February 22 at 6 pm at the Montgomery Library (our co-sponsor.)  The program is free and open to the public and there will be refreshments. Please direct questions to library@vanharlingen.org or call 908.359.8304.


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