George Washington’s Mount Vernon

The Great Tours: Washington, D.C.—Lecture Nine GUIDE

No visit to Washington, D.C. would be complete without a stop at Mount Vernon and nearby Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. President George Washington had an affinity for this area and believed placing the capital here would be good for the new nation’s growth. See why President George Washington believed this area was so special.

In this guide, we will discuss:
• Visiting Mount Vernon
• Exterior sites at Mount Vernon
• Other attractions near Mount Vernon
• Old Town Alexandria

Background on Mount Vernon

George Washington was a Virginian by birth. In fact, he was born just a mile from the Potomac River, about 75 miles south of D.C., at Pope’s Creek Plantation in Westmoreland County, on February 22, 1732. Throughout his early years, the Washington family moved around quite a bit, back and forth between a place called Ferry Farm, near Fredericksburg, and Little Hunting Creek Plantation—the original name of Mount Vernon.

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Washington’s father passed away in 1743, leaving Mount Vernon to George’s older half-brother, Lawrence, and Ferry Farm to 11-year-old George. By 1754, Lawrence Washington had passed away, and George Washington became the proprietor of Mount Vernon.

At that time, the estate consisted of about 2,500 acres of land. It also consisted of people—about a dozen enslaved African Americans who were considered part of the estate’s holdings. Over the years at Mount Vernon, Washington engaged in the purchase or trade of about 500 people.

At the time of his death, there were 317 slaves on the plantation, 123 of which Washington himself owned outright. The others belonged to his wife Martha, or they were rented from other plantations. Notably, in his will, Washington freed those people he held outright, but he had no authority to free those enslaved by his wife or the rest of her family.

Visiting Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon slave quarters
The current Mt. Vernon slave quarters building is a replica; the original, which was built in 1787, was destroyed by fire in the 19th century.

When entering the Mount Vernon property today, one of the first areas you walk through is an area where many of those slaves lived and worked. The original building on this site was the mansion’s greenhouse, constructed in 1787; in the early 1790s, two wings were added as slave quarters, designed to sleep about 30 people each. At the time of Washington’s death, 90 people were housed here—including children.

This building is a replica; the original, which was built in 1787, was destroyed by fire in the 19th century. It does offer an accurate glimpse into the way the estate’s enslaved people lived.

As you continue along the path to the mansion, you will find a number of small outbuildings, including a blacksmith’s shop. This shop is still in operation and offers regular demonstrations of colonial smithing techniques. You will also see the spinning house, where slaves produced cloth from wool and from cotton grown on the estate. Cloth was one of the estate’s largest sources of income.

Next, you will come to the mansion itself. The mansion as it stands today has been restored as closely as possible, in appearance and furnishings, to the year of Washington’s death, 1799. Over the years, it underwent expansion, ending up at around 11,000 square feet.

The last room to be added to the house is the so-called New Room. This is the largest and grandest space in the house. During Washington’s lifetime, it served several different purposes. This room is where the Washingtons received their visitors, and it is also where Washington hung his paintings.

Out through the back of the New Room and a few steps along the piazza is the riverside, or east-side, entrance to the house, added by Washington. This area leads to the Central Passage and the four rooms connected to it—the original core of the house.

Upstairs are six bedrooms. The largest bedroom is the one where George and Martha Washington slept, and it also served as Martha Washington’s office. This is the room where, on December 14, 1799, Washington died of a throat infection.

Exterior Sites at Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon Old Vault, George Washingtons old family tomb
Washington’s body was first placed in this old family tomb.

Washington’s body was first placed in the old family tomb, down the hill to the south of the mansion. A new tomb was built to replace this crumbling structure to the west, below the fruit gardens. The remains of both George and Martha, who had passed away in 1802, were placed there in 1831.

From the Washington’s tomb, you can continue downhill toward the Potomac River. There, you will find a memorial to the people whom the Washingtons enslaved, near the plantation’s original slave cemetery.

Leaving the cemetery and continuing downhill, you will reach the wharf. This is the spot where many of Mount Vernon’s visitors arrived in Washington’s day. In current times, from April to October, visitors can pick up a sightseeing cruise here and learn more about the history of the Potomac River. You can also catch a ferry here to Southwest D.C.; Old Town Alexandria; or National Harbor, Maryland.

Finally, near the wharf, you will find the Pioneer Farm, where you can catch a glimpse of working life on the plantation in Washington’s day. The exhibit includes heritage breed animals and the unique, 16-sided treading barn designed by Washington himself for grain processing and storage.

Other Attractions Near Mount Vernon

Donald W. Reynolds museum building
The Donald W. Reynolds Museum houses artifacts from George Washington’s life.

After touring the Mount Vernon mansion and the grounds, you should also spend some time in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center. It is home to both temporary exhibitions and a permanent collection of artifacts related to life on the estate, from the dress sword that Washington wore at his inauguration to his famous set of dentures.

About 2.5 miles down the road from the main entrance to Mount Vernon, you will find Washington’s distillery and gristmill. It was originally built in the early 1770s and restored in 1932. The mill was not only used for grinding wheat and corn grown on the estate, but Washington also rented time on the mill to other farmers in the area.

The distillery was built much later than the gristmill—in 1797, when Washington retired to Mount Vernon after his presidency. Housing five stills and producing up to 11,000 gallons of whiskey a year, it was one of the biggest distilleries in the United States at the time. Both the gristmill and the distillery are in operation today and are open for tours from April to October.

Old Town Alexandria

Market Square and City Hall at night, in Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia.
The area known today as Old Town Alexandria has its roots in Native American settlements.

Selling all of that flour and whiskey required infrastructure. It requires markets to sell goods and a reliable mode of transportation to get them there. Washington had both, about nine miles upriver at Alexandria.

The area known today as Old Town Alexandria has its roots in Native American settlements. Archaeologists estimate that there were humans living there maybe 13,000 years ago. The area seems to have been continuously occupied by Native Americans from that time until the late 17th century. Colonists, by and large, pushed out the natives.

Washington left his mark on Alexandria in several ways. For example, at the age of 17, he was hired as the assistant to official county surveyor John West.

Two of the original plots surveyed by Washington in Alexandria— numbers 41 and 42 on North Fairfax Street, across from Market Square—were purchased by a man named John Carlyle. He constructed a magnificent Georgian mansion, known as Carlyle House, on those lots. The house was finished in August 1753.

Then, almost exactly two years later, General Edward Braddock, commander-in-chief of British forces in North America, chose the house as his headquarters at the outset of the French and Indian War. Among Braddock’s staff at the mansion was George Washington.

Later, the house was returned to the Carlyle family, and later still, it became a Union Army hospital during the Civil War. Throughout the house’s existence, it has been at the center of life in Alexandria, and now it serves as a museum.

On the other side of Market Square from Carlyle House, on the corner of North Royal and Cameron Streets, is Gadsby’s Tavern. Built in 1785 and owned by John Gadsby from 1796 until 1808, it was at the heart of Alexandria’s social and political life for many decades. There is still a working restaurant there today, as well as a museum dedicated to the history, arts, and food of colonial America. Lectures, performances, and other educational events are featured there.

A few blocks west of Gadsby’s, at the corner of Cameron and Washington Streets, you will find another building that was central to life in colonial Alexandria, and to George Washington: the 18th-century episcopal house of worship called Christ Church.

There are many other fascinating sites to see in Old Town Alexandria. If you come to visit, stop by the Alexandria Visitor Center, on the corner of Fairfax Street and King Street. There, you can find out more about Alexandria’s many museums, historic sites, attractions, and events.

Use these online resources to help plan your trip.
Visit Mount Vernon
Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center
Visit Washington’s Distillery & Gristmill
Alexandria Visitor Center