Joe: A Slave at King's College

Joe, a slave owned by George Washington's stepson John Parke Custis, resided at King's College prior to the Revolution. There were other slaves at the College during this time period, but Joe is the only slave whose name has been preserved in the historical record.

John Parke Custis, George Washington’s stepson, acquired Joe as a personal servant in 1769 while he was away at school. At this time, Custis was fifteen years old. Jonathan Boucher, Custis’s teacher, indicated that he considered Joe “infinitely fitter” for Custis than his previous slave, Julius. Joe frequently traveled between Custis’s school in Caroline County, Virginia, and Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon, a distance of about seventy-five miles, toting books, letters, medicines, and other items. In effect, Joe often served as a private messenger between Custis and his guardian.

In late 1770, Boucher’s school moved to Annapolis, Maryland, and both Custis and Joe moved with it. Joe continued to act as the family’s messenger, but he now had to cross the Potomac River to reach Mount Vernon. On one occasion, the river was “so much choked with Ice” that Joe was unable to deliver a parcel of books to Custis. By this point, Custis relied on having Joe by his side. In April 1771, he specially requested that Joe accompany him to Baltimore, where both of them were successfully inoculated against smallpox. 

George Washington's estate, Mount Vernon
George Washington's estate, Mount Vernon

Custis’s lack of self-discipline when it came to his schoolwork was a constant source of frustration for Washington. Things came to a head in 1773, when the nineteen-year-old Custis announced his engagement to Eleanor “Nelly” Calvert, the fifteen-year-old daughter of Maryland gentry. Hoping to separate the couple and to encourage Custis to concentrate on his studies, George Washington enrolled Custis at King’s College in May 1773.

John Parke Custis
John Parke Custis

Joe accompanied Custis to King’s, where he lived in Custis’s suite of rooms in the college. Joe prepared breakfast each morning, while in the evening, Custis dined with the faculty. In a letter to his mother, Martha Washington, Custis described his living situation at King’s: “I have a large parlour with two Studyes or closets, each large enough to contain a bed, trunk and couple of chairs, one I sleep in, & the other Joe calls his, my chamber and parlour are paper’d with a cheap tho very pretty Paper, the other is painted… I generally get up about Six or a little after, dress myself & go to chappel, by the time that Prayers are over Joe has me a little Breakfast to which I sit down very contented….”

Though he painted a comfortable scene of his daily routine, Custis only lived at King’s for four months. In September 1773, he returned home to Virginia to marry Nelly Calvert, with his stepfather’s grudging acquiescence. A letter from Custis to Washington in 1774 indicates that Joe accompanied him and continued to serve as a family messenger. After 1774, however Joe disappears from the historical record, so it remains unknown if he ever gained his freedom.

Mary V. Thompson, “John Parke Custis,” The Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington, http://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/john-parke-custis/#.

Mary V. Thompson, “Excerpt from Information on Mount Vernon Slaves Who Died, Were Sold, or Escaped Prior to the Summer of 1799 and the Compilation of George Washington’s Final Slave List,” 2 September 2005-4 February 2016.