April 24, 2019

The Idea for Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington’s Mount Vernon

By Carla Killough McClafferty

People ask me where I get ideas for my books.  Ideas come from everywhere.  Sometimes they sort of creep up on me slowly like a cat sneaking up on a mouse.  Other times book ideas pounce on me all at once.  For my new book, Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, it was a little of both. 

A few years ago, I was at Mount Vernon doing research on Martha Washington.  I thought I’d write about her as a follow-up for my book The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon.   That week I met with Mount Vernon’s archaeologists, Dr. Esther White and Dr. Eleanor Breen, to ask them what sort of projects they were working on.

They told me about a brand new project they were planning: an archaeological dig in the Slave Cemetery.  They would not disturb any human remains.  Their goals were to determine the number of graves, discover how the graves were situated on the site, and learn where the boundaries of the burial site were.  I was fascinated. 

I’d visited Mount Vernon’s Slave Cemetery several times before.  It was a quiet and beautiful section of woods not far from the tomb of George and Martha Washington.  There are no grave markers and never had been.  If the large memorial weren’t there, no one would guess it was a burial ground. 

I asked the archaeologists lots of questions about the upcoming project.  As they talked, more and more questions about the enslaved community bubbled up inside me and began spinning around my mind.  Who is buried there?  What sort of jobs had they done at Mount Vernon?  Had they died young?  

Right then and there the idea for Buried Lives was born.  I wanted to write biographies of real people who lived their lives knowing someone owned them—and that someone was the President of the United States of America. 

Then the next phase of the book’s idea came slower as I wondered if there was enough primary source documentation available to write the book I wanted to write.  I knew that if there weren’t enough information, the book wouldn’t work. 

I found out that even though the enslaved people themselves did not leave a written record of their lives (they had not been taught to read or write), their lives were documented in many other primary source documents. George Washington was a meticulous record keeper and letter writer.  In addition to Washington’s records, many visitors to Mount Vernon wrote about the enslaved people. 

I knitted together thousands of pieces of information to write about accurately about six, specific enslaved people who lived and worked at Mount Vernon: William Lee, Christopher Sheels, Caroline Branham, Peter Hardiman, Oney Judge, and Hercules. 

The idea for Buried Lives sprang from one conversation with archaeologists.  Ideas are everywhere.  When you are searching for your next book idea, everything you hear, read, and see could be the catalyst for a great story of fiction or nonfiction.
Carla Killough McClafferty was born in Arkansas and grew up in a tiny, rural community called Tomberlin.  Her parents were rice and soybean farmers. Although neither her elementary school nor her hometown had a library, she always loved to read.  McClafferty shares her award winning books with audiences of all ages.  She provides live author visits with students, professional development workshops with teachers, and interactive videoconferences for both students and teachers on a wide variety of topics.  She has been the speaker at national and international venues including ALA, ASLA, NCTE, NSTA, Mount Vernon, Colonial Williamsburg, The US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the U.S. Consulate in Marseilles, France. McClafferty has been invited by Mount Vernon to do a presentation at the Ford Book Talk Series on April 11, 2019  about her newest book, Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington’s Mount Vernon (Holiday House, 2018).  Also at Mount Vernon she will present a program for teachers.   She will also lead at two hour writing workshop for teachers at Mount Vernon, as well as speak to the Mount Vernon staff.  While in the area, McClafferty will present a program at Woodlawn Plantation, at Laurel Grove School Museum (one room schoolhouse built by former enslaved people) and at Hooray for Books.  McClafferty’s book The Many Faces of George Washington; Remaking a Presidential Icon resulted in an invitation to present a program for CSpan 2 Book TV. Some text within McClafferty’s book Fourth Down and Inches: Concussions and Football’s Make-or-Break Moment was used in a documentary film on concussions titled Bell Ringer: The Invisible Brain Injury. Read how Carla Killough McClafferty combines fascinating nuggets of information, science, history, art, and medical imaging in her books:  Fourth Down and Inches: Concussions and Football’s Make-or-Break Moment, The Many Faces of George Washington: Remaking a Presidential Icon, In Defiance of Hitler: The Secret Mission of Varian Fry, Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium, A Short Biography of George Washington, Forgiving God, and a Bible Study workbook titled The Life of David Through His Psalms: Comfort from the Shepherd. 

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