This Day in History

Feb. 18, 1797: Hercules Escapes from Enslavement by George Washington

Time Periods: 18th Century, Revolution & Constitution: 1765 - 1799
Themes: African American, Racism & Racial Identity, Slavery and Resistance

“Freedom might be too great a temptation” Marker in Philadelphia. Click to learn more and find exact location.

In early 1797 (possibly Feb. 18), Hercules, the head cook at George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation, escaped to freedom.

Hercules was married and had three children, Richmond (born 1777), Evey (born 1782), and Delia (born 1785) — all born into slavery on the Mount Vernon plantation.

Hercules became one of only a few people to successfully escape from George Washington to secure freedom. (He was preceded by the infamous Ona Judge who the Washingtons pursued but was never caught.)

This description is adapted from Blackpast.

In an interview on C-SPAN about The Black History of the White House, author Clarence Lusane noted:

Hercules was Washington’s cook. And Hercules also escaped. Now Hercules’s story is interesting because he was considered one of the most famous cooks in the country at the time. He had been trained in Europe, I believe. And just was well known across the country as a great cook [and] as being extremely loyal to George Washington.

Now it’s my sense that Hercules was probably in touch with the brother of Sally Hemmings, who were two individuals who were enslaved by Thomas Jefferson. Her brother was a very talented cook as well. And they were both in Philadelphia at the same time.

So Hercules was in touch with him. And I believe probably was influenced by the fact that not only did he buy his freedom, but Ona had escaped. And so you know there was a way in which there was a buildup of freedom. And reaching for freedom on the part of people who were enslaved to George Washington.

For further reading, we recommed The Black History of the White Houseby Clarence Lusane and Never Caught, the Story of Ona Judge by historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar.

In 2016, a Scholastic children’s book about Hercules that made light of his enslavement was recalled after a campaign by librarians, early childhood teachers, and many others—including team members at the Zinn Education Project. Read Under Pressure, Scholastic Recalls Racist Children’s Book.