The True George Washington: Farmer and Proprietor: Livestock

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff


A stud stable was from an early time maintained, and the Virginia papers regularly advertised that the stud horse "Samson," "Magnolia," "Leonidas," "Traveller," or whatever the reigning stallion of the moment might be, would "cover" mares at Mount Vernon, with pasturage and a guarantee of foal, if their owners so elected. During the Revolution Washington bought twenty-seven of the army mares that had been "worn-down so as to render it beneficial to the public to have them sold," not even objecting to those "low in flesh or even crippled," because "I have many large Farms and am improving a good deal of Land into Meadow and Pasture, which cannot fail of being profited by a number of Brood Mares." In addition to the stud, there were, in 1793, fifty-four draught horses on the estate.

A unique feature of this stud was the possession of two jackasses, of which the history was curious. At that time there was a law in Spain (where the best breed was to be found) which forbade the exportation of asses, but the king, hearing of Washington's wish to possess a jack, sent him one of the finest obtainable as a present, which was promptly christened "Royal Gift." The sea-voyage and the change of climate, however, so affected him that for a time he proved of little value to his owner, except as a source of amusement, for Washington wrote Lafayette, "The Jack I have already received from Spain in appearance is fine, but his late Royal master, tho' past his grand climacteric cannot be less moved by female allurements than he is; or when prompted, can proceed with more deliberation and majestic solemnity to the work of procreation." This reluctance to play his part Washington concluded was a sign of aristocracy, and he wrote a nephew, "If Royal Gift will administer, he shall be at the service of your Mares, but at present he seems too full of Royalty, to have anything to do with a plebeian Race," and to Fitzhugh he said, "particular attention shall be paid to the mares which your servant brought, and when my Jack is in the humor, they shall derive all the benefit of his labor, for labor it appears to be. At present tho' young, he follows what may be supposed to be the example of his late Royal Master, who can not, tho' past his grand climacteric, perform seldomer or with more majestic solemnity than he does. However I am not without hope that when he becomes a little better acquainted with republican enjoyment, he will amend his manners, and fall into a better and more expeditious mode of doing business." This fortunately proved to be the case, and his master not merely secured such mules as he needed for his own use, but gained from him considerable profit by covering mares in the neighborhood. He even sent him on a tour through the South, and Royal Gift passed a whole winter in Charleston, South Carolina, with a resulting profit of six hundred and seventy-eight dollars to his owner. In 1799 there were on the estate "2 Covering Jacks & 3 young ones, 10 she asses, 42 working mules and 15 younger ones."

Of cattle there were in 1793 a total of three hundred and seventeen head, including "a sufficiency of oxen broke to the yoke," and a dairy was operated separate from the farms, and some butter was made, but Washington had occasion to say, "It is hoped, and will be expected, that more effectual measures will be pursued to make butter another year; for it is almost beyond belief, that from 101 cows actually reported on a late enumeration of the cattle, that I am obliged to buy butter for the use of my family."

Sheep were an unusual adjunct of a Virginia plantation, and of his flock Washington wrote, "From the beginning of the year 1784 when I returned from the army, until shearing time of 1788, I improved the breed of my sheep so much by buying and selecting the best formed and most promising Rams, and putting them to my best ewes, by keeping them always well culled and clean, and by other attentions, that they averaged me ... rather over than under five pounds of washed wool each." In another letter he said, "I ... was proud in being able to produce perhaps the largest mutton and the greatest quantity of wool from my sheep that could be produced. But I was not satisfied with this; and contemplated further improvements both in the flesh and wool by the introduction of other breeds, which I should by this time have carried into effect, had I been permitted to pursue my favorite occupation." In 1789, however, "I was again called from home, and have not had it in my power since to pay any attention to my farms. The consequence of which is, that my sheep at the last shearing, yielded me not more than 2-1/2" pounds. In 1793 he had six hundred and thirty-four in his flock, from which he obtained fourteen hundred and-fifty-seven pounds of fleece. Of hogs he had "many," but "as these run pretty much at large in the woodland, the number is uncertain." In 1799 his manager valued his entire live-stock at seven thousand pounds.

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