Main Content

On June 14, 1801, John Tayloe III wrote to his architect: “my object is to be done with the Building as quickly as I can—with the least Trouble & Vexation—for the Expence of it already alarms me to Death whenever I think about it”.1 Tayloe, a wealthy planter from Virginia, was anxiously awaiting the completion of his winter residence in the young city of Washington. His agent, William H. Dorsey, meticulously chronicled the process by way of line by line expenditures in his account book. There are frequent entries for brick, plank from Alexandria, and nails, along with notes like “paid Lundsies for your man,” “cash paid labourer,” and “paid T. Beall hire of mason”.2

The national capital, Washington, D.C. sketched from nature by Adolph Sachse, 1883-1884. Octagon House is featured in the upper right hand corner.

The Library of Congress

Looking closely at the line items of that book, the language signals the practice of hiring out—common in cities where slave owners contracted with others to hire enslaved laborers or where enslaved people could arrange for short or fixed-term work, sometimes pocketing a portion or all of the wages.3 In 1809, Tayloe placed an advertisement in the National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser for the sale of a twenty-two-year-old enslaved man who ran away and “hired himself to do housework and take care of horses.” 4 While undiscovered and likely working for a household in or near Washington, the young man would have been able to keep the entirety of the wages he earned. In the advertisement, Tayloe goes on to describe that the man is “well accustomed to all sorts of plantation work and handy at any.”5

This story highlights the heartbreaking reality that freedom was fleeting for the young man and that enslaved labor was a source of income for Tayloe. In 1791, when he took possession of his father’s estate, it included thirteen plantations in Maryland and Virginia and over 500 people who were enslaved and living on those properties.6 From Tayloe’s 1828 will, we know that there were “tradesmen, & mechanics of every description, such as smiths, carpenters, joiners, wheelwrights, ship-carpenters, masons, shoe makers” whose skills were a great asset to the Tayloe family.7 It is likely that some of those skilled tradespeople living and working on Tayloe’s plantations helped construct his town house in the District from 1798-1801, along with local workers as Dorsey’s account book suggests. While short and incomplete, those passages found in account books, newspapers, and wills are the beginning of the story of the enslaved people who lived and worked at the corner of New York Avenue just past the President’s House—people like Archy Nash, Winney Jackson, Harry Jackson, and Billy.

HABS DC, WASH,8- (sheet 9 of 12)- Octagon House, 1799 (1741) New York Avenue, Northwest, Washington, District of Columbia, DC.

The Library of Congress

The house itself, which would come to be known as the Octagon, has another part of the story to tell. Not only was the house the stage upon which these peoples’ lives played out, but the very structure is coded and designed in a way that reinforced social boundaries. The raised basement was the service level of the house and contained a kitchen, wine cellar, housekeeper’s room, servants’ hall, and central passage leading into the yard. In the yard was “a two Story House for the Laundry & Servants room,” along with a stable, smokehouse, icehouse, and cowshed.8 The location of the service spaces emphasized the hierarchy of the house, with the Tayloe family and guests on top and the enslaved servants and staff below. There was an enclosed service staircase that led from the basement all the way to the third floor and was the means of access to the main rooms of the house for enslaved staff. Specially designed spaces on the first floor, where the most public and formal rooms of the house were located, included hidden waiting areas where enslaved people could wait and concealed doors for them to seamlessly enter the public rooms when needed.9 The strategically built service rooms and spaces reinforced the social boundaries of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that aimed to control enslaved workers by minimizing their interactions with guests and visitors.

Archy Nash was John Tayloe’s enslaved manservant and probably witnessed much of the construction and planning for the Octagon. In fact, Archy was likely familiar with the extensive network of Tayloe properties spread across Virginia, Maryland, and even further west into Kentucky. Archy most certainly made the journey from Mount Airy, the primary Tayloe residence on the Rappahannock River, to Washington several times a year. There was a permanent staff of ten people who lived at the Octagon year-round; however, other household members traveled north with the family for winter, bringing the full household staff to about eighteen to twenty enslaved people.10

This photograph shows a folded mattress on the kitchen floor at the Octagon. Enslaved people often slept on mattresses like this in the spaces that they worked. The cook would have simply rolled out the mattress at the end of a long day and slept right in the kitchen. Mattresses were also placed outside of bedrooms so enslaved people could wait upon their owners at all hours of the day and night.

Octagon Museum

Winney Jackson and Betty were enslaved chambermaids who worked for Ann Ogle Tayloe, the wife of John Tayloe, and Billy was a cook.11 Harry Jackson, Gowen, and Henry Jackson worked with Tayloe’s prized horses as coachmen and stable workers.12 The Octagon boasted its own stable complex, located in the rear of the house on the west side of the lot, with stalls for carriage horses on one side and saddle horses on the other.13 The Tayloe’s also relied on enslaved domestic servants like Lizza, Peter, and John, who were butlers.14 All of these people navigated the concealed service spaces as part of their day-to-day work.

There is documentary as well as archaeological evidence that the Tayloe’s employed a service bell system— during an archaeological investigation of the basement at the Octagon, a piece of iron thought to be part of the intricate bell system was recovered.15 People like Winney, Betty, Archy, and Lizza would have had to trek up and down the narrow service stairs countless times a day, at the beck and call of the bell, giving the impression that meals and service appeared almost by magic. These systems were utilized by many wealthy slave owners, including Thomas Jefferson, who engineered a pulley system within his fireplace mantle to deliver bottles of wine from the cellar to the dining room at Monticello. At night they would retire to the servants’ hall or outbuildings in the yard; personal attendants to the Tayloe’s like Archy, Winney, and Betty probably slept close to the family rooms in case they were needed during the night, sometimes on mattresses placed just outside the family’s bedroom doors. Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of President Thomas Jefferson.

The Tayloe family and their enslaved workers were not the only people to occupy the Octagon. President James Madison and First Lady Dolley Madison occupied the Octagon for about six months after the White House was burned in August 1814. In a letter to her friend Hannah Nicholson Gallatin, Dolley Madison wrote: “We shall remove in March to the 7 buildings, where we shall be better accomodated, in a more healthy region. Mr. M has not been well since we came to this house, & our servants are constantly sick, oweing to the damp cellar in which they are confined.”16 Dolley’s lamentations about the servants’ quarters indicates that enslaved people worked, lived, and slept in the basement. Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of President James Madison.

This photograph shows dark marks that appear along the handrail of a staircase at the Octagon. The Octagon interprets these marks as the result of running a rope with a bucket over the rail to lift water, coal, or other unwieldy items up the multiple flights.

Octagon Museum

Some of the enduring testaments to the uncompensated work that took place at the Octagon are the burn marks that appear along the handrail of the service stair. The Octagon interprets bands of wear streaking the tops of the banisters in the service stair as the result of running a rope with a bucket over the rail to lift water, coal, or other unwieldy items up the multiple flights. A movement diagram illustrates the Octagon House in section and shows the rope and bucket at the basement level. These marks could be evidence that enslaved people circumvented the structure forced upon them. It is also important to consider that if in fact the marks are remnants of a system for transporting items from the basement to the upper levels of the house, it could have been a system imposed on the enslaved staff by the Tayloes. However, regardless the marks remain as a tangible illustration of the hard labor that the people like Archy, Winney, Harry, Billy, and more carried out each day. Although the conclusion of many of these people’s stories is not known, we do know from John Tayloe’s will that Archy Nash was ultimately a free man:

“I will that my body servant Archy may be liberated and may be allowed one hundred dollars per annum during his life. My motive for liberating him is his long tried fidelity, especially since I have been in bad health, & upon one occasion, he was the means under the direction of providence, of saving my life.”17

The Octagon in Winter ca. 1927.

The Library of Congress

Much more remains to be told about the people who lived and worked at the Octagon but the documentary, architectural, and archaeological records offer a window into their realities.

Thank you to Margaret Phalen, manager of the Octagon Museum, for her contributions to this article.

This article was originally published January 15, 2020

Footnotes & Resources

  1. Tayloe, John (1801, June 14). [Letter to William Lovering]. Tayloe family of Richmond County, Va., papers, 1650–1970. 27,925 items. Mss1T2118d. Microfilm reels C163–213.Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, VA. Photostatic copy accessed March 20, 2017, College of William and Mary Special Collections Research Center.
  2. “Appendix A: William H. Dorsey Account Book,” in Ridout, Orlando, Building the Octagon: Octagon Museum, August 1, 1989-September 30, 1989, (Washington, D.C.: American Institute of Architects Press, 1989), 143-154.
  3. Wade, Richard, Slavery in the Cities: The South 1820-1860, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 38-39.
  4. The national intelligencer and Washington advertiser. [volume] (Washington City [D.C.]), 25 Jan. 1809. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
  5. The national intelligencer and Washington advertiser.25 Jan. 1809.
  6. Kamoie, Laura Croghan, Irons in the fire: the business history of the Tayloe family and Virginia’s gentry, 1700-1860, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007), 95.
  7. John Tayloe Will, 1828, District of Columbia Archives.
  8. Dickey, J.D., Empire of Mud: The Secret History of Washington, DC. (Guilford: Lyons Press, 2014), 74. And, Ridout, Orlando, Building the Octagon: Octagon Museum, August 1, 1989-September 30, 1989, (Washington, D.C.: American Institute of Architects Press, 1989), 116.
  9. Ridout, Building the Octagon, 110.
  10. Dunn, Richard S., “Winney Grimshaw, A Virginia Slave, and Her Family.” Early American Studies, 9.3(2011):495.
  11. Dunn, “Winney Grimshaw”, 496-497.
  12. Dunn, “Winney Grimshaw”, 496-497.
  13. Ridout, Building the Octagon, 70,116.
  14. Dunn, “Winney Grimshaw”, 497,504.
  15. Theobald, Carol, “The Octagon Archaeological Project Final Report- August 1991. Prepared for the American Architectural Foundation, Washington, D.C.”,1991, D.C. SHPO Archaeological Report # 018.
  16. Dolley Payne Todd Madison to Hannah Nicholson Gallatin, [29 December 1814], in The Dolley Madison Digital Edition, ed. Holly C. Shulman. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2004. http://rotunda.upress.virginia... (accessed 2017-03-31).
  17. John Tayloe Will, 1828, District of Columbia Archives.

You Might Also Like