Christopher Sheels (born ca. 1774), was a "dower" slave at George Washington's Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon, brought by the widow Martha Custis after her marriage to Washington. As an adult, he worked as the President's personal or "body servant." He was a trusted man, taken with Washington to the presidential household, first in New York, and in 1790 to Philadelphia, the new temporary capital.
To evade the gradual abolition law in the free state, Washington rotated his slaves out of Philadelphia before a 6-month residency deadline.
Sheels and other dower slaves were legally owned by the estate of Martha's first husband, Daniel Parke Custis. As widow, Martha had the lifetime use of more than 100 Custis slaves (including Sheels); after her death they would revert to the estate for distribution to heirs.
He was among the seven slaves — Oney Judge, Austin, Giles, Paris, Moll, Christopher Sheels, William Lee — taken to New York City in 1789 to work in the first presidential residence of Washington. Following the transfer of the national capital to Philadelphia in 1790, he was among the nine slaves — Oney Judge, Austin, Giles, Paris, Moll, Hercules, Richmond, Christopher Sheels, "Postilion" Joe (Richardson) — to work in the President's House. He took the place of his uncle, William Lee, as the President's "body servant."
Pennsylvania had begun the gradual abolition of slavery under a new law in 1780; it prohibited non-residents from holding slaves in the state longer than 6 months. If held beyond that period, slaves could free themselves under the Gradual Abolition Act. Washington argued (privately) that his presence in Pennsylvania was solely a consequence of Philadelphia's being the temporary seat of the federal government, and that the state law should not apply to him. On the advice of his attorney general, Edmund Randolph, he systematically rotated the President's House slaves in and out of the state to prevent their establishing a 6-month continuous residency. This rotation was a violation of Pennsylvania law, but no one challenged the President's actions, nor similar ones by other slaveholders in the executive and judicial branches of the government. The state exempted Congressmen from this provision of the law.
Sheels was permanently returned to Mount Vernon by January 1792, where he worked as a waiter, serving the family meals. Washington returned to Virginia permanently in March 1797, following his second term as President.
In September 1799, Washington discovered a note at Mount Vernon outlining an escape plan for Sheels and his fiancee. (The note proves that Sheels could read.) Washington foiled the escape. Three months later, Sheels was at his bedside when Washington died on December 14, 1799.
As a "dower slave," Sheels was not included among the 124 slaves whom George Washington owned and freed under the terms of his will. Following Martha Washington's 1802 death, he was one of the 153 "dower" slaves inherited by her four grandchildren, but there is no documentation as to which slave went to which heir.
- Samuel Osgood House (New York City) — First Presidential Mansion.
- Alexander Macomb House (New York City) — Second Presidential Mansion.
- President's House (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) — Third Presidential Mansion.
- "Slavery By the Numbers", President's House, US History.org
- Joe's wife Sarah took the surname Richardson after she was freed by Washington's will. Joe was a "dower" slave and was not freed.
- The President's House in Philadelphia
- Pennsylvania's Gradual Abolition Act (1780)
- Enslaved minors were required to work as indentured servants until age 28, when they would be free.
- By strict legal interpretation, a slave's residency could be terminated by spending one day outside the state. Slaveholders had exploited this loophole until Pennsylvania eliminated it through a 1788 amendment to the Gradual Abolition Act. See President Washington's dilemma.
- Gen. Philemon Dickinson House
- Tobias Lear letter to George Washington, May 15, 1791. Quote: "On tuesday Mrs Washington proposes going over to Jersey for a few days—she makes her visit to Mrs Dickinson. Mrs Washington takes the children with her & Christopher & Oney."
- "Christopher Sheels", President's House website, US History.org
- "Slaves at the President's House", Obit magazine