The Ash Grove Historic Site located in Vienna, Va. is the historic core of a property that was owned and inhabited by prominent members of the Fairfax family in the 18th and 19th century. The brick kitchen at Ash Grove is one of the few examples of a slave dwelling (a building formerly inhabited by enslaved Africans or African Americans) that remains in Fairfax County.
Today we think of kitchens as spaces for chopping, boiling, baking, roasting and frying. While these same activities have taken place in American kitchens for centuries, historic kitchens like the one at Ash Grove were often more than just workspaces for preparing meals and storing food; they were homes to the enslaved workers who kept them running.
It was very common on 18th and 19th-century plantations for enslaved laborers to live in the same building where they worked. This was especially true of kitchens, where duties such as tending the hearth and preparing multiple meals a day required attention around the clock. For enslaved cooks, this meant that the kitchen where they labored from early morning until late in the evening was the same space where they slept at night, stored their belongings, and spent time with their families. The Ash Grove kitchen features a one-room half-story with a fireplace above the main working area where an enslaved cook, and perhaps their family, rested and spent what little down time they were allowed.
Enslaved cooks played a critical role in the plantation community, supplying food for the plantation owners, their guests, and often some portion of the enslaved community. Among Virginia’s gentry, food was an important status symbol. Status was displayed and reflected in the types of food and dishes hosts could offer their guests. Highly skilled enslaved cooks were a much sought-after commodity and their talents were well documented, some even gaining national and international recognition.
While the documentary record concerning the identity and experiences of the enslaved at Ash Grove is sparse and fragmentary, it does provide some clues about the former inhabitants of the Ash Grove kitchen. A deed of trust entered into the Fairfax County records in 1834 reveals that a cook named John, his wife Charlotte, and their seven-month-old daughter, Rebecca, were among the enslaved held in bondage on the property by the Fairfax family. It is likely that John, and possibly his family lived in the single-room half-story above the Ash Grove kitchen. Unfortunately, researchers have not found further mention of John in the written record.
Fairfax County archaeologists hope to learn more about the kitchen at Ash Grove and its former residents through archaeological research. Analysis of artifacts recovered from recent excavations at Ash Grove is currently underway. These artifacts could provide further information about the everyday lives and experiences of the enslaved African Americans who lived and labored at the Ash Grove kitchen.
Ash Grove Historic Site is located at 8881 Ashgrove House Lane in Vienna, Va.