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“To Cash paid the Revrd. John Mason for Servant Hannah’s wages …” Hannah Till, General Washington’s Wartime Cook

John U. Rees

Gen. George Washington’s wartime military household had a retinue of cooks and other servants, white and black, free and enslaved, with several supervisors to oversee the whole. Few are known at all beyond mention in the household accounts. The best-known is William “Billy” Lee, the commander-in-chief’s body slave; his biography is included in Douglas R. Egerton’s, Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), pages 3-14. Hannah Till’s story, while not comprehensive, is nonetheless fascinating, as much by what was set down on paper as for what can be read between those lines.

“1825 – Died at Philadelphia, Mrs. Hannah Till, a black women, who had been cook to General Washington and General La Fayette, in all their campaigns during the war of Independence. The latter at my instance went to see her, at No. 182 South Fourth street, when he was here in 1825, and made her a present to be remembered.” (John F. Watson, Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, in the Olden Time, two volumes (Philadelphia: Published by Whiting and Thomas, 1856), vol. I, 601.)

two volumes (Philadelphia: Published by Whiting and Thomas, 1856), vol. I, 601.) (Photo courtesy of Cheyney

(Photo courtesy of Cheyney McKnight)

Hannah Till was married to Isaac Till. They are recorded to have had seven children: Andrew Till, born circa 1761; John Till, born circa 1765; Sarah Till, born circa 1771; Daniel Till, born between 1775-1795; Philip Till, born 1775-1795; Isaac Worley Till, born 1778, and William Till, born 1780-1790. One son was born during the Valley Forge winter: Isaac Worley Till son to Hannah a free Nigroe woman in full Communion with the Church was born in Gen: Washingtons Camp Valey forge nineteen months ago and baptized in this 4th Sabbath of Augt. 1779” (Isaac Worley Till baptismal record, 2nd Presbyterian Church, Arch and 3rd Streets, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.) (Source: C.R. Cole (with Charles L Blockson), Hannah Till Mother of Isaac Woorley Till,(Daughters of the American Revolution, commemorative marker research, 2015))

Her life was documented as follows:

“Hannah Till This is the name of a black woman whom I saw in March, 1824, in her 102d year of age a pious woman, possessing a sound mind and memory, and fruitful of anecdote of the Revolutionary war, in which she had served her seven years of service to General Washington and La Fayette, as cook, &c. I saw her in her own small frame house, No. 182, south Fourth street, a little below Pine street. Her original name was Long Point a name given her father for his successful conflict with a buck at that place near Smyrna. She was born in Kent county, Delaware. Her master, John Brinkly, Esq. sold her at the age of 15 years, when she was brought to Pennsylvania. At 25 years of age she was sold to Parson Henderson, and went with hi m to Northumberland. At 35 years of age she was sold to Parson Mason, of New York, with whom she dwelt there until the war of the Revolution; she then bought her freedom, and with her husband was hired into General Washington’s military family as cooks – serving with him in all his campaigns for six and a half years, and for half a year she was lent into the service of General La Fayette. With one or the other of these she was present in all the celebrated battles in which they were engaged. She could speak, in a good strong voice, of all the things she saw in her long life, with better recollection and readier utterance than any other narrator with whom I have had occasion so to converse. I inquired regarding the domestic habits of Washington and others: she said he was very positive in requiring compliance with his orders; but was a moderate and indulgent master. He was sometimes familiar among his equals and guests, and would indulge a moderate laugh. He always had his lady with him in the winter campaigns, and on such occasions, was pleased when freed from mixed company and to be alone in his family. He was moderate in eating and drinking. I asked if she knew that he prayed. She answered that she expected he did, but she did not know that he practiced it. I was the more particular in this, because I had heard directly from Isaac Potts, the public Friend at Valley Forge, that he actually saw him, by chance, at prayer in the bushes at or near his place. I asked her if he ever swore; she answered, that ideas about religion were not very strict, and that she thought that he did not strictly guard against it in times of high excitements, and that she well remembered that on one provocation with her, he called her cd [colored] fool. General La Fayette she praised greatly said he was very handsome, tall, slender, and genteel, having a fair white and red face, with reddish hair that he spoke English plain enough was always very kind. Her words were very emphatic: - `Truly he was a gentleman to meet and to follow!’ As I was interested in the narratives of this old black woman, I thought she might afford some gratification to Gen. La Fayette himself again to see her; I made him therefore acquainted with the leading facts. As I never saw either of the parties afterwards, I may add from the communications of my sister who knew her and visited her occasionally, especially in her 104th year. She says she received from her questions, such answers as these – ‘I well remember the arrival of the specie to pay the French army, for the house was so crowded that day that my pastry room was used to lodge the specie in, even while she still used the room. She continued with Washington till after Andre the spy was hung. On that day she

saw many tears shed by our officers.’ General La Fayette called on her with Messrs. [Tench] Tilghman and Biddle [likely Clement or Nicholas]. To his question, Where was you when General Washington left Morristown? she answered, I remained more than six months with you, Sir, in the same house. He left her, promising to send her money by his son. The sequel was, that her house was embarrassed for arrear groundrents, and she was soon after informed to make herself easy, for La Fayette had cleared it off! and ‘the pious old soul blesses you and him for the interference.’ More was said, but it might savour of gossip to say more in this article. She has since gone to her reward.” John F. Watson, Annals of Philadelphia, being a collection of memoirs, anecdotes, & incidents of the city and its inhabitants (Philadelphia: For Sale by Uriah Hunt, 1830), 352-353.

July 1825 July 14 - Lafayette attends a banquet held in his honor at Sansay House in Morristown, New Jersey. July 15 - Lafayette attends a reception at Waverly House in then Bottle Hill, now Madison, New Jersey, on his way to Springfield.

July 20 Lafayette visits Germantown and Chestnut Hill, near Philadelphia. He specifically visited Wyck Historic House and Cliveden. July 25 Lafayette again visits Wilmington, Delaware. “Visit of the Marquis de Lafayette to the United States”


There are several references to Mrs. Till in Washington’s wartime household records:

“Cash Paid to Servants Belonging to Genll. Washington’s Family”


July: 15 Negro Hannah; 25 Sailor Jack, Negro Hannah October: 7 “Servant Girl – Dismiss by Mr. Thompson”; 15 Negro Hannah, Negro Isaac – servant”


February: 17 Servant Jenny, Negro Hannah [Till] , Servant Isaac [Till] April: 20 “To Cash Mr. Thompson paid Isaac [Till]”; 23 “To Cash paid Mr. Thompson for his services,” “To Cash paid Servant Jane for Balance of Acct.,” “To Cash paid Sailor Jack on balance for wages” June: 3 “To Servant Isaac [Till] & Hannah [Till] pay up to this day paid”; 8 “To Cash paid Servant John as hostler for 2 months”


December: 19 “To Cash paid the Revrd. John Mason for Servant Hannah’s wages in full as pr.

receipt” (Caleb Gibbs and Mary Smith and Elizabeth Thompson (housekeepers), 1776 to 1780, Revolutionary War Household Expenses, Financial Papers, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress, Image 3.)

To place Hannah Tills' service in context an excerpt from my draft article on a monograph on Revolutionary general officers' servants (including General Washngton's household):

The number of people employed by the American commander-in-chief at any one time is uncertain; it is known that in 1775 there was a cook, kitchen-woman, washerwoman, plus three men and two women, at least two of whom were black, in addition to William “Billy” Lee, Washington's black body-servant. Staff and servants seem to have changed considerably and numbers varied during the war. 9 Washington needed supervisors for his large household. Mrs. Mary Smith served as housekeeper from mid-April to late June 1776; Mrs. Elizabeth Thompson succeeded her in July 1776, serving as housekeeper until the end of the war. Caleb Gibbs, captain of the Commander- in-Chief’s Guard, supervised household activities and expenses from 1776 until he left the Guard in 1781. William Colfax succeeded Gibbs as commander of the Guard, but seems not to have taken over his household responsibility. 10 Likely due to Gibbs’ departure, in summer 1781 the commander-in-chief was trying to find, “a trusty person” to serve as his steward, and asked the Board of War for assistance, stipulating, “A Man who has served with reputation as Butler to a Gentleman[‘s] family, or as principal Waiter and Caterer to a genteel Tavern would answer better than one unused to such offices, as setting out a table ought to be part of his business as well as providing for it.” (Patrick McGuire had served as steward from May 1776 to March 1778.) On August 9, while the allied armies were preparing to march south to Yorktown, the Board replied that it had appointed “Mr. [John] Loveday for Steward." 11 As for servants, modern annotations to George Washington’s expense account (he recorded all his service-related expenditures and was reimbursed after the war), provide names gleaned from those records. Having been given command of the New England army investing Boston, George Washington reached Cambridge on July 2, 1775. A note to the August 5, 1775 account entry states, “A complete list of the names of the servants at Headquarters in 1775 is difficult to give. Those we know were Edward Hunt, a cook; Mrs. Morrison, kitchen-woman; Mary Kettel, washerwoman; Eliza Chapman, Timothy Austin, James Munro, Dinah, a negro woman, and Peter, a negro man; William Lee, Washington's body-servant and generally known as ‘Billy,’ was there, of course.” Besides William Lee, the new army commander may have brought some of the other named servants from his Virginia home. A supporting annotation to the September 1 1776 entry is even more expansive, providing some insights into a relatively large retinue:

The record of servants at Headquarters for the year 1776, while probably not entirely complete, furnishes us with the following names in addition to those mentioned in the preceding year:

Patrick McGuire, who came from Philadelphia to act as steward and served from May, 1776, until March, 1778; Hannah [Till], the negro servant of Rev. John Mason; she was to receive 40s. a month which were to be left in the hands of Captain Gibbs until £58 had accumulated, after which she was to receive her wages herself to be applied to the purchase of her freedom; Servant Jack and Sailor Jack [these two appear to be different individuals]; Margaret Thomas, who did sewing in February, 1776, and washing from October, 1776, to February, 1778; Negro James; Stephen Sims; Negroes Lydia, Jenny, Cato, and Isaac, the latter a servant of Captain John Johnson, of Bergen county, New Jersey. He was to receive 40s. a month of his wages of £7; he also cooked for Washington from June, 1777, to June, 1780; John and Frank, hostlers; a Mrs. Lake and Peggy. John Whitehead also served at Headquarters from April, 1776, for one year at a wage of $5 per month.

The difficulties in running such a large household may be imagined, but Washington provides a few inklings. In one missive to James Mease on April 17, 1778 concerning apparel for the army, he writes, “I hear, by report, of great quantities of Cloathing purchased on continental account in every quarter. But where are they? I cannot get as much cloth as will make Cloaths for my Servants, notwithstanding one of them, that attends my person and Table, is indecently, and most shamefully naked, and my frequent applications to Mr. Kemper [assistant clothier general] (which he says he has as often transmitted to you) in the course of the last two Months.” And during his residence at the Ford house in Morristown, New Jersey the commander-in-chief complained to Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene on January 22, “I have been at my prest. quarters since the 1st. day of Decr. and have not a Kitchen to Cook a Dinner in, altho' the Logs have been put together some considerable time by my own Guard; nor is there a place at this moment in which a servant can lodge with the smallest degree of comfort. Eighteen belonging to my family and all Mrs. Fords are crouded together in her Kitchen and scarce one of them able to speak for the colds they have caught. I have repeatedly taken notice of this inconveniency to Majr. Gibbs, and have as often been told, that boards were not to be had. I acquiesced, and believe you will do me the justice to acknowledge that it never has been my practice to involve the public in any expence I could possibly avoid, or derive benefits which would be inconvenient or prejudicial to others.” He goes on to acknowledge the problems involved, given that his army was building huts to live in at the same time. Eventually, a separate kitchen was constructed for the general’s staff to use.

For part one of officers’ servants in the War of the Revolution see, “’Was not in the battles being a Waiter.’ Enlisted Men and Civilians as Officers’ Servants during the War for

American Independence” - Part 1. “Our boys bring down something to eat Field and Company Officers’ Servants

: Overview:

See also, John U. Rees, World of the Common Soldier

(Master List of Articles and Monographs)

Emmanuel Dabney in Washington's servants' livery. (Courtesy of Neal Hurst and Colonial Williamsburg)

Emmanuel Dabney in Washington's servants' livery. (Courtesy of Neal Hurst and Colonial Williamsburg)