Enslaved Labor built the Patowmack Canal
The upriver portions of the canal system were constructed first and were built with mixed workforces of mainly unskilled laborers, indentured servants, and minimal enslaved laborers. That would change in 1792, one year after work began at Little Falls, there were over 100 men digging the canal bypass; among them still only 10 listed as enslaved labors. At the November 05, 1792 meeting, the Patowmack Company board authorized the renting up to 200 enslaved laborers at a cost of $60/year. However, by January 1794 they had only been able to rent 60 enslaved laborers for the coming year.
Additionally, it is well documented that by the time construction had begun at Great Falls and Little Falls the Patowmack Company was facing constant financial problems. Indentured servants would regularly flee work sites before their indenture-mortgages were paid; this compounded the losses to the company. For this reason the Patowmack Company’s board members continued authorizing supervisors to rent many numbers of enslaved laborers from neighboring plantations to complete the construction of the downstream canals closest to the new capital city.
Indeed, it was a mostly a force of enslaved laborers that accomplished what remains of the grandest Civil Engineering feat of the 18th century. In fact, as early as 1794 slavery had already become integral to the development of the growing capital not far from the construction at Great Falls and Little Falls. In that same year, there were already as many as forty-six slaves working on the construction of public buildings in the city when commissioners made a decision to hire one hundred more. Slave labor was used to construct the majority of our oldest and most important federal buildings, including the White House, U.S. capitol Building, and even the Washington Monument.
It was still a common practice during the late 1800s for slave owners in, then, Washington County, MD and Alexandria County, VA to rent out their workers; especially during off seasons for agriculture. The Patowmack Company Board members, who oftentimes held meetings in Georgetown taverns, were utilizing common labor practices when they authorized the hiring of hundreds of enslaved laborers to meet their construction and operational demands.
Last updated: September 1, 2019