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The President's House in Philadelphia

Christopher Sheels

By Edward Lawler, Jr.

Christopher (born ca. 1774), a dower slave, was the nephew of Will, also known as Billy Lee, who had been Washington's body servant throughout the Revolutionary War. In the post-war years, Will was injured in two serious falls and became incapacitated. Will accompanied Washington to New York City in 1789, and young Christopher was brought along to help. When the capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790, Will was retired to Mount Vernon and Christopher became the President's sole attendant. The teen-ager probably lived on the fourth floor of the main house in a room with Hercules and Richmond.

Christopher seems to have been one of the few Mount Vernon slaves who could read and write. He may have been taught by Will, who reportedly was an evangelical Christian, and possibly a minister.

George Washington Lafayette, the teen-aged son of the Marquis de Lafayette, lived with the Washingtons for more than a year, beginning in April 1796. Christopher was close in age to the young Frenchman, and the two seem to have become friends. Soon after Washington's retirement, Christopher was bitten by a dog which was feared to have been rabid, and Lafayette wrote to Washington inquiring about his health.

In September 1799, Christopher requested Washington's permission to marry a slave from another plantation, one who also seems to have been able to read and write. A few days later, Washington intercepted a note sent between them, outlining an escape plan. Washington foiled the plan, but Christopher does not seem to have been punished. Three months later, Christopher attended to Washington on his deathbed.

(This biographical sketch is partially based upon the unpublished work of Mary V. Thompson, Research Specialist, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.)

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Copyright ©1999- by the Independence Hall Association, a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, founded in 1942. Publishing electronically as On the Internet since July 4, 1995.