Ornamental Separator

The Enslaved People and Servants of the Governor’s Palace

The story of the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg is the story of the enslaved people and white servants who lived and worked there. At any given time, up to thirty people served the governor and his family at the Palace. Together, they made up Williamsburg’s largest household and its most visible example of the inequality within wealthy eighteenth-century homes.

The Palace’s servants and enslaved people maintained it as a glittering symbol of wealth and power. They served the governor and his family, feeding them, dressing them, and driving them around town. They managed the household’s economic relationship with the rest of early Williamsburg. They also hosted the diplomatic and social events that were central to the colony’s political life. Through their skill and labor, the Palace’s servants and enslaved people helped to present the face of royal authority to Virginia.

Enslaved Workers

The Royal Governor’s carriage stops at the capitol. The Governor descends with the assistance of a footman.

Virginia’s eighteenth-century governors all relied on enslaved labor. Governors Spotswood and Fauquier each enslaved seventeen people (including children) in the Palace. Botetourt enslaved at least eight people. 1

We know frustratingly little about the enslaved people who inhabited the Governor’s Palace, other than some of their names. We do not know, for example, where exactly they slept and ate. While estate inventories taken after governors’ deaths identify some white servants’ furnishings and personal effects, they reveal little about the enslaved peoples’ material lives. 2

In 1775, an enslaved man named Robin escaped the Palace and was apprehended in York County. Virginia Gazette (Purdie), Sept. 1, 1775. Click on image to see it in context.

We know more about the work that enslaved people performed. It took an immense amount of labor to maintain the household. Enslaved people prepared and served food, cleaned, laundered clothes, maintained the stables and coach house, cared for the grounds, and more.

A few governors, coming from England, expressed discomfort with slavery. Governor Francis Fauquier, for example, wrote in his will, “It is now expedient that I should dispose of my slaves, a part of my estate in its nature disagreeable to me, but which my situation made necessary for me.” It was difficult to meet expectations as governor of Virginia, he implied, without relying on enslaved labor. Virginia law prevented Fauquier from emancipating the seventeen people he enslaved, though we don’t know if he would have considered doing so. Instead, seeking to be remembered as a “merciful Master,” Fauquier’s will specified that these people would be allowed to “choose their own Masters.” Anyone designated as an enslaved person’s preferred owner would be given the chance to purchase them at a twenty-five percent discount. Fauquier’s “last dying Wish” was that these enslaved peoples’ future owners would continue to show them “kind Treatment.” 3

One enslaved woman, named Hannah, took up this offer. She chose the incoming governor, the baron de Botetourt, as her new enslaver. Hannah continued to live in the Palace and serve Botetourt. Governor Botetourt had arrived from England in 1768 with twelve white servants. But after a “short trial,” the governor had “found it convenient & necessary to purchase & hire Negroes to assist in the business of his Family, and do the Drudgery without Doors.”4

In addition to Hannah, Botetourt purchased at least seven other enslaved people, named Cesar, Dan, Matt Piper, Doll, Phillis, Sally, and Billy (who was Sally’s child). They might have hoped for whatever “kind Treatment” Fauquier offered. But records indicate that after a year in Virginia, Botetourt’s household began to regularly flog these enslaved workers as punishment.5

When necessary, the Palace also hired enslaved people from the community. This included seasonal work, such as gardening. It also included odd jobs, such as when five Black men were paid for “aiding to catch the racoon” that had apparently crept into the Palace.6 During a social event like a ball, the Palace hired enslaved waiters, porters, and musicians.

One such musician was a Black fiddler named Sy Gilliat. Many years later, a white Virginian named Samuel Mordecai remembered that Gilliat was the “leading violinist” at the governor’s balls. A colorful character, Gilliat claimed that the clothes he performed in, including an “embroidered silk coat and vest of faded lilac,” had once belonged to Botetourt. Later, when he was accused of drinking a church’s wine “without the other ceremonies of the sacrament,” Gilliat supposedly retorted that he “had drunk Lord Botetourt’s best wine long before his accusers knew the difference between Malaga and Malmsey” (which were dessert wines popular in the eighteenth century).7

White Servants

Lady Dunmore dresses in the Governor’s Palace. Here, she is helped by her servant, who ties on her hoop over her petticoat and pocket.

Though often compared to the grand homes of the Virginia gentry, the Palace was unusual for employing a substantial number of white servants alongside its enslaved workforce. During the eighteenth century, wealthy Virginia households employed relatively few white servants. But Virginia’s governors often brought white servants with them from England. Governor Botetourt, for example, had arrived with twelve white male servants.8

Governor Dunmore also arrived in Virginia with twelve white servants. But these were described as “indented servants, mostly tradesmen.” These men had signed indenture contracts, agreeing to exchange their labor for a payment or loan. While it is possible that other governors employed indentured servants, the practice was in decline in the eighteenth century. Other than Dunmore’s twelve servants, no other white servants in the Palace are known to have been indentured.9

A few senior servants, such as the butler, land steward, and cook, supervised the other workers, including the enslaved people. Botetourt’s butler William Marshman, for example, recalled “I had always everything under my care” at the Palace. These “upper” servants took orders from the governor and oversaw their implementation. Marshman was close to Botetourt, having followed him to Virginia. Before Botetourt died, Marshman remembered the governor sharing some “tender and affectionate” words with him. In his will, Botetourt left Marshman his collection of clothing. Other servants were not so lucky. Botetourt’s will provided only a “parcel of old glass” for the under butler Thomas Fuller.10

Main House

The main Palace building was Virginia’s showpiece, a structure that displayed the colony’s wealth. High standards were expected for its upkeep. Housemaids scrubbed the floors, cleaned the rooms, and changed the linens. The footmen set the table, served food and drinks, attended to guests, and cleaned and polished the building’s vast collection of glass, silver, and china. The butler took orders, supervised the household staff, and answered visitors including guests, deliveries, and beggars.11

The footman, underfootman, coachman, and the groom and postilion would have dressed in highly decorative livery uniforms. The livery worn by some of Botetourt’s male servants, for example, was made of crimson and green cloth, with velvet collars, and heavy velvet pants.12 These clothes were meant to impress visitors, another sign of the wealth of both governor and colony.

After Governor Botetourt’s death in 1770, the Virginia Gazette noted that William Knight, the governor’s footman, had died on the same day. It published a poem “On the death of a Footman” that celebrated his loyalty to Botetourt. Virginia Gazette (Purdie), Oct. 18, 1770, supplement, p. 1.

The household staff managed the governor’s economic relationship with the Williamsburg community. Botetourt’s butler William Marshman kept careful household accounts. He recorded regular payments to beggars. He paid visiting workers for their services and tipped them at Christmas. During ball nights, he hired musicians to entertain the guests, porters and sentinels to guard doors, boys to light candles, and extra waiters to attend to guests.13 The Palace’s hallways would have hummed almost constantly with the movements of the staff, visitors, and outside workers.


An interpreter roasts coffee beans over fire in the Governor's Palace Scullery.

The kitchen staff purchased, prepared, and cooked food. They worked in the kitchens, scullery, larder, smokehouse, salt house, and elsewhere. Cooking for the governor’s family and dozens of staff every day was an unending task. It was even more challenging because governors were rarely without company. Shortly after he arrived in Virginia, Governor Botetourt complained that “my servants could not keep up with me,” causing him to dine with the “principal Gentlemen” in town.14 But over time, they adjusted. The next year, when Botetourt hosted a reception for Cherokee diplomats, he wrote “52 dined with me yesterday, and I expect at least that number today.”15

Feeding so many mouths was expensive. The cook was responsible for planning and managing the budget. The right cook could control costs. In his will, Governor Francis Fauquier praised the frugality, kindness, and honesty of his cook Anne Ayscough. Leaving her a substantial bequest of £250, he praised her “great Oeconomy” in the kitchen, when “it was in her power to have defrauded me of several hundred pounds.”16

But not all cooks were so thrifty. When Botetourt hired William Sparrow as cook (taking over for the aptly named James Cooke) food costs doubled. Spending seventy pounds a month, Sparrow’s kitchen was on track to cost the governor two-fifths of his annual salary. After an extravagantly expensive Christmas celebration, Sparrow disappeared from the Palace’s account books. He may have been fired.17

Grounds and Gardens

The Palace’s grounds were enormous. In addition to the main house and kitchen outbuildings, there were stables, a coach house, laundry, pasture, dairy, farm, park, and extensive gardens.

In 1759, gardener Christopher Ayscough (husband of the cook Anne Ayscough) advertised seeds for sale at the Palace. Virginia Gazette, Nov. 30, 1759, p. 3. Click the image to view it in context.
November 30, 1759. Just imported in the Good-Intent, Capt. Reddick, and to be sold Cheap, for ready Money, by the Subscriber, living at the Palace, in Williamsburg; where Gentlemen may depend on being well served, with the following Garden-Seeds, by Their humble Servant, Christopher Ayscoug

The Palace grounds produced much of the food prepared by the kitchens. Enslaved workers were likely responsible for the care of livestock, including pigs, cows, and chickens. The gardener and enslaved gardener’s assistants managed both the ornamental gardens and the kitchen gardens, which produced many of the vegetables, fruits, and herbs that ended up in the Palace dining room. One enslaved gardener named James worked in the Palace gardens for three successive governors. Hired at a high price from a nearby plantation, he was likely a highly skilled horticulturist.18

Wealthy people in the eighteenth century, like wealthy people today, showed off with expensive vehicles. During his time in Williamsburg, Governor Botetourt had the best ride in town. He imported a luxurious state coach with ornately carved panels, gilded wheels, a crimson velvet interior with silk lace, and gold-varnished nails. A team of six matching gray horses pulled this coach through the streets of Williamsburg, turning heads wherever it went. The coachmen and carters, who would have been enslaved men, maintained and drove this coach. They were also responsible for the essential work of transporting supplies into the Palace and hauling away refuse.19

The Workers' Palace

Surviving inventories of the Palace household tell us a great deal about its workers’ lives. Colonial Williamsburg’s reconstruction of the Governor’s Palace is based largely on the meticulously detailed estate inventory taken after Governor Botetourt’s death. For that reason, you can learn a great deal about the people who labored at the Palace by taking a tour of the reconstructed building. Visit the Governor’s Palace in Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area or take a virtual tour.

Learn More

Governor's Palace

Dunmore’s Flight and the Seizure of the Governor’s Palace


  1. Graham Hood, The Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg: A Cultural Study (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1991), 231.
  2. Patricia Gibbs, “The Governor’s Household and Its Operations,” Colonial Williamsburg Digital Library, 28.
  3. “The Governor's Palace: Historical Notes,” Colonial Williamsburg Digital Library, 15; Hood, Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, 228.
  4. Hood, Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, 230, 243.
  5. Hood, Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, 244.
  6. Hood, Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, 243.
  7. Samuel Mordecai, Virginia, especially Richmond, in By-Gone Days; With a Glance at the Present: Being Reminiscences and Last Words of An Old Citizen (Richmond: West & Johnston, 1860), 352–53. Link.\
  8. Hood, Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, 236, 257; Jane Carson, “Plantation Housekeeping in Colonial Virginia,” Colonial Williamsburg Digital Library, 6–7.
  9. Hood, Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, 236, 231.
  10. Hood, Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, 238, 244.
  11. On the daily activities of the household staff, see Gibbs, “Governor’s Household and Its Operations,” Colonial Williamsburg Digital Library, 39–47.
  12. Linda Baumgarten, “Costumes at the Governor’s Palace,” (1981), Colonial Williamsburg Digital Library.
  13. Hood, Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, 241–43.
  14. “The Governor's Palace: Historical Notes,” Colonial Williamsburg Digital Library, 172.
  15. A. Lawrence Kocher, “Architectural Report: Palace of the Governors of Virginia Block 20 Building 3,” Colonial Williamsburg Digital Library, 58.
  16. Hood, Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, 246–49.
  17. Hood, Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, 248.
  18. Hood, Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, 231.
  19. Hood, Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, 250–53.