Master George’s People

Master George's People: George Washington, His Slaves, and His Revolutionary Transformation

Master George’s People: George Washington, His Slaves, and His Revolutionary Transformation
National Geographic Children’s Books, January 2013
ISBN 978-1426307591
Click here for a teacher’s guide keyed to the Common Core State Standards.
Click here for an audio of Marfé introducing and sharing some of the backstory for the book.

From the jacket copy:
As the first President of the United States of America and the Commander in Chief who led a rebel army to victory in the Revolutionary War, George Washington was a legendary leader of men. He had high expectations of his soldiers, employees, and associates. At his Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon, his expectations of his workers were no different: “I expect such labor as they ought to render,” he wrote.

Except there was a big difference. The workers who kept Mount Vernon operating were enslaved. And although Washington called them “my people,” by law they were his property. The Founders birthed a document celebrating “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” as unalienable rights at the same time people were being bought and sold. But the people of Mount Vernon were so much more, and they each have compelling stories to tell.

In the pages of Master George’s People, Marfé Ferguson Delano gives us fascinating portraits of cooks, overseers, valets, farm hands, and more—essential people nearly lost in the shadows of the past—interwoven with an extraordinary examination of the conscience of the Father of Our Country.

Reviews and recognition

  • Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People 2014—NCSS
  • New York Public Library 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing
  • Booklist’s Top 10 Black History Books for Youth list
  • 100 Magnificent Children’s Books of 2013— Fuse #8

"well-researched and clearly presented information on the topic makes this a valuable addition to American history collections for young people…"—Booklist, starred review

"Delano does an excellent job of presenting context for the prevailing attitudes and economic realities of the 18th century. Using primary sources, including Washington’s letters and his will, she details how his attitudes toward slavery evolved over his years as a young landowner, military leader, and president. Vignettes about enslaved individuals are interspersed with information about Washington. The combined history puts the focus on all of the people involved rather than just the famous names. The book reflects extensive research, with a detailed bibliography and directly sourced quotations."—School Library Journal

"A revealing portrait of the father of our country as a slave owner….A thoughtful new insight into an iconic American life."—Kirkus Reviews

Listen to an interview I did with Neil Haley of the Total Education Hour about the book.

Behind the Scenes

I had one of the most exciting experiences in my writing career in May 2012 when I joined a team from National Geographic at Mount Vernon–our first president’s Virginia estate–for an after-hours photo shoot for Master George’s People: George Washington, His Slaves, and His Revolutionary Transformation.

Photo of Mount Vernon by Lori Epstein

Photo of Mount Vernon by Lori Epstein.

I got the idea for this book nearly 6 years ago, when Mount Vernon unveiled a new exhibit, a 16-by-14-foot log cabin modeled on those that housed the slaves who toiled in the fields on George Washington’s outlying farms. In 1798 a Polish visitor to Mount Vernon named Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz described “the huts of the Blacks, for one cannot call them by the name of houses” as “wretched” and “more miserable than the most miserable of the cottages of our peasants.” I knew Washington owned African American slaves, of course, but I had never really thought about what their lives had been like. Now I started to wonder about these enslaved men, women, and children, and to ponder the irony of the fact that the man who led the American struggle for “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” held hundreds of people in bondage.

I kept going back to Mount Vernon (I can bike there from my house) and visiting the reconstructed slave cabin as well as the greenhouse slave quarters, where the enslaved house servants and artisans lived. I learned the names of individual slaves and some of their stories. I toured the mansion again and again and thought of the servants who cleaned and cooked and waited on the Washington family, of Caroline and Lucy and Frank Lee and Christopher Sheels. I explored the outbuildings along the lanes, and I walked through the gardens and orchards and imagined the children who once played there. I spoke with costumed interpreters–trained role players who portray Washington’s family, friends, and slaves–and was blown away by the complexity of their character portrayal, by their creativity and breadth of knowledge. I kept thinking of a remark Dennis Pogue made in an interview. At the time he was Associate Director for Preservation at Mount Vernon. He said that slavery wasn’t “the brightest spot in Washington’s record. But it’s part of his story and America’s story and one that needs to be told.”

Photographer Lori Epstein, art director Jim Hiscott, and historic interpreter Jonathan Douglass, who portrays an enslaved man named Christopher Sheels

Photographer Lori Epstein, art director Jim Hiscott, and historic interpreter Jonathan Douglass, who portrays an enslaved man named Christopher Sheels.

I decided I wanted to tell that story for children. When I first proposed the book to my editor, I envisioned it illustrated with archival images and documents. She suggested instead that we explore the possibility of illustrating it in part with reenactment photography, in cooperation with Mount Vernon’s character interpretation program. I warmed to the idea after looking at 1776: A New Look at Revolutionary Williamsburg and other children’s books National Geographic has illustrated with reenactment photography. Based on meticulous research, the medium brings history vividly to life, in a way that I think can really resonate with readers. Seeing people from the past represented by real human beings, people who except for their clothing look like us or a family member or a neighbor or a classmate or teacher, can create a very powerful connection between then and now. Belief in that is what took me and my editor and a very talented photographer and art director to Mount Vernon. Below are some more scenes from our photo shoots.

Lori photographs young interpreters playing with clay marbles in front of the reconstructed slave cabin, while I look on.

Lori photographs young interpreters playing with clay marbles in front of the reconstructed slave cabin, while I look on.


Lori photographs a sewing scene with two young interpreters and Mary Wiseman, who portrays Martha Washington. The real Martha Washington taught young slave girls to sew the clothing that was worn by other slaves at Mount Vernon.

Lori photographs a sewing scene with two young interpreters and Mary Wiseman, who portrays Martha Washington. The real Martha Washington taught young slave girls to sew the clothing that was worn by other slaves at Mount Vernon.

Left to right: Jennifer Emmett (my editor), me, Jim Hiscott (art director and designer) and Hillary Moloney (illustrations assistant) at Mount Vernon. Missing is photographer Lori Epstein. She's behind the lens!

Left to right: Jennifer Emmett (my editor), me, Jim Hiscott (art director and designer) and Hillary Moloney (illustrations assistant) at Mount Vernon. Missing is photographer Lori Epstein. She’s behind the lens!