Sambo Anderson was born in Africa, possibly about 1760, and brought as a child on a slave ship to the American colonies, where he was purchased by George Washington. Later descriptions of Anderson’s facial tattoos and gold earrings attest to his African origins. The name Sambo may be a variant of a West African name; later accounts sometimes refer to him with the anglicized “Samuel.” The surname Anderson first appears in nineteenth-century records, though it is unknown when he began using the name.
The details of when and where Washington purchased Anderson are not known. Many details of Anderson’s life come from a series of recollections published in the Alexandria Gazette on January 18 and 22, 1876, by a white male author who had grown up in the local area and spent time with Anderson. That author recalled Anderson saying that he had arrived in the American colonies “five years before Braddock’s defeat,” referring to the British general Edward Braddock‘s failed attempt, in 1755, to take Fort Duquesne during the French and Indian War (1754–1763). Other evidence suggests that Anderson arrived later than 1750. An article in the Alexandria Gazette and Virginia Advertiser, published on September 26, 1854, described another enslaved man, Simon, whom George Washington identified in 1785 as Anderson’s “shipmate,” as arriving from Africa between 1760 and 1770.
This later arrival also squares with Mount Vernon records, where in 1774 and 1776, Sambo is described as a “boy.” He does not appear on Washington’s 1774 tithable list, suggesting that he was under the age of sixteen at that time. Sambo was among five enslaved people sent to work on a tract of land owned by Washington in the Kanawha River Valley. His presence there is mentioned in a March 7, 1776, letter to George Washington from his cousin Lund Washington, who managed Mount Vernon during the Revolution. Sometime before early 1781, Anderson was sent back to Mount Vernon.
In April 1781, Anderson was among seventeen enslaved people who escaped from Mount Vernon when the British warship HMS Savage anchored nearby in the Potomac River. The escapees were hoping to take advantage of Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, the 1775 edict from Virginia’s royal governor offering freedom to slaves who escaped to fight for the Crown. On the list that Lund Washington made of the fugitives, Sambo is described as “a man about 20 years old, Stout & Healthy.” A notation at the bottom of this list notes that Sambo and six others were recaptured after the Battle of Yorktown.
Anderson was first described as a carpenter in an October 16, 1785, letter from George Washington to the surveyor Thomas Freeman, though he may have been performing that work for a decade by that point. According to the 1876 Alexandria Gazette article, Anderson received training from English craftsman William Bernard Sears, who carved the wooden mantelpiece in the Mount Vernon dining room in the autumn and early winter of 1775. The article’s author recounted that Sears “laid out the work there, and Sambo, with his force, did the manual labor.” There are no known contemporary records that confirm this arrangement.
Mount Vernon reports from the 1780s and 1790s record the vast array of carpentry work that Anderson performed with other enslaved carpenters across the plantation. He constructed barns and sheds, made plows, repaired carts and wheels, sawed timber, made sheep troughs, dressed shingles, and made a fishing boat, along with many other tasks. In early summer, Anderson was often among the tradesmen reassigned to assist with the plantation’s grain harvest.
Sometime after the Revolutionary War, Anderson married Agnes, a field worker on Mount Vernon’s River Farm. Their eldest son, Heuky, was born in July 1784. By 1799, they had five additional children, Cecelia (14), Anderson (11), Ralph (9), Charity (2), and Charles (1). Another child, Sambo, was likely born between 1799 and 1802.
Agnes and the children lived on River Farm, while Sambo Anderson was assigned to the Mansion House Farm, the center of carpentry operations. He likely lived in the greenhouse slave quarter, a barracks-style dwelling that housed many men who were similarly parted from wives and children. He could see his family on Sundays, or possibly at night during the week (though Washington frowned on such visits). River Farm was separated from Mansion House Farm by Little Hunting Creek. The 1876 Alexandria Gazette article recounted that Anderson had “a small boat or skiff to cross over the creek in,” likely facilitating visits to his family.
When time allowed, Anderson found ways to earn small amounts of money that he may have used to buy supplies or food for himself or his family. In October 1792 the Washingtons purchased five dozen birds from Anderson some enslaved men at Mount Vernon were permitted to keep firearms for hunting wild game. Anderson also kept bees, selling at least 15 gallons of honey and 4 pounds of beeswax to the Washingtons between 1789 and 1797. Anderson’s carpentry skills may have facilitated beekeeping operations, which involved constructing small sheds, or boxes, for the insects.
Mount Vernon records indicate that Anderson endured bouts of injury and illness late in the 1790s. Weekly reports from 1797 and 1798 note that he was unable to work on several occasions due to “a pain in his back,” and later, “a boil under his arm.” In 1799, Anderson received treatment from Dr. James Craik—Washington’s personal physician who was hired to treat the enslaved population—that included a cathartic and bloodletting.
Sambo Anderson was freed on January 1, 1801, when Martha Washington enacted the provision in her late husband’s will that manumitted all the enslaved people owned directly by George Washington. Anderson’s wife and children remained enslaved, however, because they were the property of the estate of Martha Washington’s first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. After Martha Washington’s death in 1802, Agnes, Heuky, Cecelia, Ralph, Charity, Charles, and Sambo were all inherited by her granddaughter, Martha Parke Custis Peter, and her husband, Thomas Peter. The Peters ultimately established their primary residence at Tudor Place in Georgetown, but many of their enslaved laborers were assigned to work on outlying properties. In April 1803, Thomas Peter recorded a list of enslaved laborers sent to his Oakland plantation in Seneca, Maryland. The list likely included four of the children: Heuky (written as “Hugo”), Cecelia (“Celia”), Anderson (“Andrew”), and Ralph.
Separated from his family, Sambo Anderson was able to continue living on Mount Vernon land even after the property was transferred to George Washington’s nephew Bushrod Washington. He made a living by hunting and selling the wild game to local landowners and hotels. Because of his business dealings and his connection to George Washington, Anderson was a well-known local figure. Anderson’s good reputation proved advantageous when in March 1832, after Nat Turner’s Revolt, the General Assembly prohibited free blacks from owning or possessing firearms. The author of the Gazette article notes that he (the author) had personally led the patrol that confiscated guns in Fairfax County, but he assured Anderson that he would “use his influence to return his gun to him,” which he did.
Anderson and his family made efforts to reunite with each other. In May 1810, twenty-one-year-old Ralph Anderson fled from the Peters’ Oakland plantation in Maryland. In a newspaper advertisement offering $20 for the young man’s return, Thomas Peter noted, “A free negro man by name Sambo, living on Judge Washington’s estate, Mount Vernon, is his father, and it is very probable he is thereabout or in Alexandria.” Ralph Anderson’s fate is unknown.
Sambo Anderson was also able to purchase and then free several of his family members, including his daughter Charity in 1818, and his grandchildren William and Eliza, as well as Eliza’s three children, in 1842. In the autumn of 1835, Anderson and his grandson William were among twelve enslaved and formerly enslaved people who returned to Mount Vernon to assist with landscaping around George Washington’s new tomb.
Sambo Anderson died on February 20, 1845. A death notice appeared in the Alexandria Gazette two days later. He may have been buried at Mount Vernon’s African American burial ground, which continued to be used well into the nineteenth century.