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Every Picture Tells a Story

George Washington’s Cook (traditionally identified as Hercules) poses for a portrait by Gilbert Stuart










“You know, the White House is really modeled after a plantation big house.” Walter Scheib, White House executive chef.

Not Just an Ordinary Picture

In the mid 1700s, you had to be a pretty big wig to have your likeness recorded on canvas by the most heralded portrait painter of the Revolutionary war period, for Stuart Gilbert usually reserved his artistic efforts, for aristocrats. So how this black man, dressed in cook’s attire rate such an honor?

Turns out the man in the picture is  a cook, called Hercules, so named because of his large size at birth. Hercules Posey was born a slave in Virginia and when purchased by George Washington in 1767 at age 14, Hercules was first employed as a ferryman.

Hercules Is Promoted

As George Washington’s newly acquired slave, it did not take long the young man to advance to position of head cook on the Mt. Vernon plantation. In Colonial times, a cook was a demanding position, for the worker had to be adept at cooking over an open fire and maneuvering large pots of boiling water, as well as handling large carcasses of meat. Hercules large size and superior strength made him the best qualified person for the job.

the first president of the United States lived in this modest Philadelphia home






The Washingtons Move to Philadelphia

When George Washington was elected first president of the United States in 1787, Philadelphia was the nation’s capitol, as Washington had not even been built yet. At first, President Washington tried employing several white chefs to work a very demanding job that required feeding the numerous guests that frequently gathered at the presidential residence.

Hercules took to the task with ease and with his superb culinary skills, the talented cook soon became the talk of the town. George W. was so pleased with his new chef that he allowed Hercules to roam the town, when not busy in the president’s kitchen and he was even allowed to sell leftover fixings on the street. Hercules was so successful in this endeavor that soon he became one of the best-dressed men in the city of brotherly love, eventually having his likeness preserved in oils by Stuart Gilbert.

Not the End of the Story

When the Washington family, returned to their Potomac home, Hercules also went there too, after all he was still a slave. According to modern-day historians, Hercules did not take well to his return to Ole Virginia. As punishment, Hercules was forced to work in the fields instead of the plantation kitchen, where he had risen to celebrity status. Finally, after improving his behavior, Hercules was placed back in the kitchen as chef. But then on February 22, 1797 during the midst of George’s birthday party, Hercules ran away from the Mt. Vernon estate and despite the best efforts of George and Martha he never returned.

“a blue coat with a velvet collar, a pair of fancy knee-breeches, and shoes with extravagant silver buckles. Thus attired, with a cocked hat upon his head and a gold-headed cane in his hand, he strutted up and down among the beaux and belles until the stroke of the clock reminded him that he must hurry off to the kitchen and prepare the evening meal.”   Frances Hodgson Burnett

P.S. For info on George Washington and his Runaway Slaves check out my article on Owlcation.

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