A notable visitor to Dumbarton House was Paul Jennings who was enslaved and worked as a hand servant to James Madison in the White House. He assisted Dolly Madison in saving George Washington’s painting and other valuables before her retreat to the Dumbarton House before the British burnt the White House down during the War of 1812. Jennings wrote the first White House staff memoirs. He repaid Daniel Webster for his freedom in 1847 upon being purchased from Dolly Madison who refused to free him upon President Madison’s death. He helped plot the ill-fated 1848 escape of 77 enslaved on The Pearl during stints at Dumbarton House where he met the Edmonson Sisters and others. The Marshall family, long-time residents of Georgetown, claim to be direct descendants from Jennings.
Enslaved Africans worked on the Dumbarton House farm and in the household. Some were also hired out to work in the surrounding areas. Some lived on the property in cabins, though enslaved domestic workers may also have slept on mats on the floor of the hallway or above the kitchen. Life in the city provided more opportunities for these enslaved men and women to know people outside of their household, including many in Georgetown’s free African American community.
Census records and the museum archives show that Joseph Nourse had both enslaved and “free colored males and females” working within his household from at least 1785-1840, including the time period the Nourse family lived at Dumbarton House (1804-1813). In researching the lives of the indentured and enslaved people at Dumbarton House, we know very little about their lives outside of the Nourses’ perspective. Dinah, Bacchus, Jane and Juba are just four of about 10-13 enslaved and indentured workers who are part of Dumbarton House’s rich history.
Profiles of Some Enslaved / Indentured Individuals in the Nourse Household
According to the Nourse family letters, Dinah was part of the Nourse household for at least 25 years. She was with the family in Philadelphia and made the trip with them to Washington when it became the nation’s capital. Most of the letters refer to her cooking and preparing meals, attesting to her role in the household. Letters state that, “Richard came down yesterday with a bag of apples which Dinah is pairing to be dined” and “Dinah [is making] fried bacon, an apple dumpling or a rice pudding.” (Letters from Maria Nourse to her son, Charles and husband, Joseph, 1803 and 1804 respectively).
Bacchus was an enslaved man in the Nourse household from 1785-1809. He is first mentioned in an 1785 letter, when the Nourses were living in Philadelphia. This letter suggests the Nourses sent him out on numerous trips: “I am anxious about so much as a Servant, they are so difficult to be had, that I wish Dinah may be sent along with…Bacchus.”
In a telling letter to Maria Nourse from Sarah, who is believed to be Maria’s sister, they discuss Bacchus and the institutionalized racism of slavery:
“Bacchus behaves as well as any Negro can. I am surprised at the folly of those who expect to see the same virtues give equal luster to their conduct with ours, when they are deprived of the most powerful stimulus to good conduct (with respect to this world) character and the acquirement of property. Who among us would be industrious if convinced he should always remain poor, who cherish the social virtues convinced of the impossibility of calling them into action or attaining by their means respectability in life?” (Letter, 1797.)
These letters give us a glimpse into the feelings and emotions Sarah had regarding slavery in relation to Bacchus.
Jane was in charge of many different household duties: cooking, sewing, and handling some of the household financial accounts. In family letters between Joseph, Charles, and Maria we encounter phrases such as “please give Jane half a pack of young small French green beans to pickle before you come away…”And that “Jane counted her cash on hand today, and debts outstanding for butter etc. this week, and it stands at about 19 pounds of butter.” Lastly, Maria states, “I purchased 10 yards of linen…which Jane has amused herself with making a covering for Dinah’s back and Juba and Frank’s legs.” (These three letters date from 1796 through 1805.)
Juba’s duties, for the most part, occurred outside of the home. He is mentioned working in the garden, as well as escorting Maria Nourse and her daughter on at least one trip. In letters between Maria and Joseph, Maria states, “Juba can bring Jane a pint worth of milk every morning from market…” And Charles writes to his mother “I have determined to send you this by your trusty servant Juba…” and “[they] are going to do wonders in the garden—and Juba[‘s] work will astonish you.” These letters are from circa 1804.
(Source: Dumbarton House)