Friday, February 02, 2018

Black History Month: Was Huntsman/Slave William Lee the Black Smith in George Washington's Forge?

"American Cincinnatus" by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris depicts George Washington at work at the anvil. But who is the smiling black man in the background?  The artist likely added Washington's slave valet, Will Lee, who rarely left the President's side.

Black History Month on The Hoof Blog begins with the father of our country, George Washington. As most readers already know, Washington owned more than 100 slaves. Sadly, many are only names on paper but several are well-documented and one who stood out.

Today we will meet William Lee. He probably wasn't a farrier or a blacksmith, but he was never far from Washington's side, and if Washington was working in the forge, Will would have been there, too. 

In the painting known as American Cincinnatus by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930), the slave is hard to miss. He has a big grin on his face and a gaudy red bandanna wrapped around his head. The artist wanted to make sure that people did not miss him.

(To call someone a Cincinnatus is to praise their prowess as a leader who is also a model citizen, harking back to the Roman statesman/hero/farmer, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus.)

The art of perspective and creating a focal point are well-practiced by painters; in this case, the viewer's eye is deliberately and skillfully drawn to the very center of the artwork, where a black slave leans casually on the bellows arm.

Detail of slave in Washington's 
forge at Mount Vernon from the
20th century painting, American 
Cincinnatus by Ferris.
The fact that Washington owned slaves was never hidden from public information, but it wasn't printed in textbooks or widely publicized, either, until relatively recently. Yet history painters made subtle statements in their work, and William Lee--sometimes called Will or Billy--is a well-documented example of that.

Technically, William Lee served as a combination personal valet for Washington and had some responsibility for Washington's horses, whether at home or at war. Born in 1750 under the ownership of Colonel John Lee of Virginia, Will took his master's last name.

After Lee's death, he was sold to George Washington on May 20, 1768; Washington's records list his purchase as "Mulatto Will". Washington paid sixty-one pounds and fifteen shillings to add Will Lee to his slave holdings.

William Lee may have had previous experience with horses; Washington put him to work as his huntsman, responsible for both hounds and horses. Slaves may have not had many privileges, but a huntsman has an important job and is part of the hunt.

George Washington out hunting with Lord Fairfax. Notice the slave at left; this may be a depiction of William Lee in his role as huntsman. However, approaching in the background is what appears to be a huntsman, whip in hand. This figure may also be a depiction of William Lee's role in the hunt field at Mount Vernon. An illustration from Life of George Washington by Washington Irving, courtesy of The New York Public Library.

Washington's grandson later described seeing William Lee mounted in the hunt field:

"Will, the huntsman, rode a horse called Chinkling, a surprising leaper, and made very much like its rider, low, but sturdy, and of great bone and muscle. Will had but one order, which was to keep with the hounds; and, mounted on Chinkling... this fearless horseman would rush, at full speed, through brake or tangled wood, in a style at which modern huntsmen would stand aghast."

Embed from Getty Images

In the painting above, William Lee is shown with Washington and his family in his role as Washington's personal servant. Lee often appears in paintings of Washington.

Washington must have been impressed with William's handling of horses and hounds; soon, Will was his personal valet as well as his horseman. Lee accompanied Washington everywhere for two decades, including throughout the seven years of the Revolutionary War and the cold winter encampment at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. During battle, William always stood by with the general's spyglass, while holding the reins of a fresh horse; in the camp, he acted as a personal assistant and kept the general's papers organized.

Can you spot William Lee in these paintings? From left: Washington's portrait by Trumbull, painted in 1780, includes a glimpse of William Lee off to the side, wearing a red turban; it's interesting that the President allowed Will to be included in his portrait. The center portrait, Washington at Princeton by Charles Willson Peale, depicts his horse-holding attendant wearing a less exotic hat. The third image, a 1780 French engraving, shows the general and his slave. Apparently, Trumbull's painting set a precedent for future artists to include William Lee somewhere in their canvas.

There's a bump in the road of William Lee's story. When Washington was preparing for his inauguration as the first president, William was injured in both his knees. He was determined to get to New York for the swearing-in, but he had to abandon the trip in Philadelphia, since he was unable to walk. Braces were made for his legs but he was never able to properly serve in the capacity that a personal servant to the president of a nation would require.

William returned to Mount Vernon and made shoes in the cobbler shop on the huge estate until his death.
The blacksmith shop at Mount Vernon, Washington's farm estate in Virginia, has recently been recreated. George Washington ordered a long list of tools and equipment to set up the forge. (Tim Evanson photo via

Historians suggest that Washington's relationship with his longtime right-hand manservant may have helped his attitude toward slavery evolve. In his will, Washington not only set William Lee free, but also provided a stipend of $30 a year for the former slave's needs.

The Marquis de Lafayette, the famous French general who assisted the cause of the American Revolution, is credited with influencing Washington to rethink slavery in the new nation.

Sadly, Lee was the only one of Washington's slaves freed in his will.

In this video, actors at Mount Vernon portray William Lee and George Washington:

There's no way to know whether the black man in the forge painting is the artist's overt tribute to William Lee or not, but it is a continuation of the tradition that artists started long ago of including him somewhere on the canvas, as if to insure that he will never be forgotten. And that is the goal of this latest tribute to a horseman/huntsman/servant named William Lee.

Bottom line: history assures us that the workers in the Mount Vernon forge were definitely black smiths. And if George Washington was pounding the anvil, chances are that William Lee was pumping the bellows.

To learn more:

Do you love the painting, American Cincinnatus? Click here to order a framed print from Gina Keesling at 

In 2012, a children's book, Colonel Washington and Me, by Jeffrey Finneran, was published. It depicts the deep friendship between William Lee and the first president.

Visit the website for George Washington's Mount Vernon has a page with more details about William Lee. 

Order, read or listen to the book George Washington and Slavery: A Documentary Portrayal by Fritz Hirschfeld (University of Missouri Press, 1997) and other books on the dichotomy between Washington's treatment of his slaves and his political attitude towards slavery as an institution.

The recent three-year AMC television series "Turn: George Washington's Spies" included William Lee in the cast; he was played by actor Gentry White. In Season 2, the "Valley Forge" segment features the relationship between Washington and Lee. 

• • • • • 

Welcome to Black History Month on The Hoof Blog. Chronicling the role of African-Americans in the history of hoofcare has been one of the most difficult challenges ever undertaken here. Suffice to say, progress has been slow, uncertain, and it may be inaccurate, but it's the best information collected to date.

And how can better information surface if we don't put something out, so at the least people can get in touch and offer better sources?

--Fran Jurga

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