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April-November 2003InteractiveDig Mount Vernon


A twentieth-century drawing of Washington and Anderson on matches advertising Mount Vernon Rye Whiskey, a modern whiskey unrelated to Washington's distillery

Photos courtesy Historic Mount Vernon. Click on images for larger versions.
by Esther White

James Anderson, Washington's Plantation Manager

We talk so much about George Washington's distillery that we sometimes forget the idea for the operation came from James Anderson, his plantation manager. Anderson began duties at Mount Vernon on January 1, 1797, and he immediately thought the plantation--with the abundance of grain grown--would be a superb spot for a distillery. With Washington's consent, Anderson began distilling that February. He was so successful that Washington agreed to expand the distillery into the stone building we're uncovering. As we excavate this building, revealing the series of drains and other features, I often find myself thinking about James Anderson and his role in the distillery.

Washington was clear that the distillery was Mr. Anderson's idea: "Mr. Anderson has engaged me in a distillery (sic), on a small scale, and is very desirous of encreasing (sic) it: assuring me from his own experience in this country, and in Europe..." (George Washington to John Fitzgerald, June 12, 1797). (See other letters.)

This letter informs us that Anderson was an experienced distiller. Anderson provided biographical information in two letters written to Washington on August 28 and September 11, 1796, while "interviewing" for the plantation manager position. (Unless otherwise stated, the quotes below are from the September 11 letter.)

Anderson was born in 1745 and grew up on his father's farm, 40 miles north of Edinburgh, near the village of Inverkeithing, Scotland. At the age of 21, he began an apprenticeship "upon the English border...with a Gentleman, Famous in Farming," and at the end of the second year began to manage the estate of this gentleman's uncle. Anderson held this post for three more years, then for the next 19 years "farmed on my own account, 18 of which I was also largely in the Grain line, And had several manufacturing Mills. But by the failure of a Sett (sic) of Distillers in 1788 I nearly lost all."

In February 1774, during the period of farming on his own, he married Helen Gordon, a native of Inverkeithing. They had seven children--John (1776), Elizabeth (1777), Jean (1779), Helen (1781), James (1783), Alexander (1785), and Margaret (1787). The Andersons left Scotland, landing in Norfolk, Virginia, in late 1790 or early 1791.

The family initially rented a farm near Mount Vernon, and Anderson worked as a manager for a smaller plantation. They moved south near Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1795 to manage Salvington, the Selden family plantation. Anderson described Salvington as 1,700 acres with 25 slaves and a distillery "which I also conduct." This seems to have been his first opportunity to run a distillery. In Scotland, it seems he grew and processed grain for large distilleries.

Little is known about Salvington's distillery. At this time in Virginia, distilleries generally had two or three stills and were about 1,000 square feet in size. Mount Vernon's distillery had five stills and was more than 2,000 square feet, making it considerably larger. In fact, the distillery that Anderson convinced Washington to build was one of the largest distilleries of the time. Perhaps Anderson used larger distilleries in Scotland as a model for the Mount Vernon operation.

Anderson and Washington held each other in high esteem, yet they maintained a prickly working relationship. Washington paid Anderson his highest compliment on June 11, 1798, when he wrote "I believe you are a man of strict integrity; sobriety; industry & zeal." However, Washington also thought Anderson promised too freely and failed to complete tasks as quickly as he wanted. Probably because of this tension in their working relationship, Anderson thought about working for a neighboring planter in the spring of 1798. Washington and Anderson patched up their differences, and Anderson continued to work at Mount Vernon until after Martha Washington's death in 1802. In late 1803 or early 1804, the Andersons moved south to manage White House Plantation for George Washington Parke Custis, Martha's grandson. James died on March 12, 1807, Helen on November 30, 1809. They are buried near the White House Plantation.


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