Short biography of Sambo Anderson

Excerpt from Washington Was a Friend of Muslims in the Huffington Post – Religion

The most interesting story regarding Washington’s slaves is that of Sambo Anderson. Mary Thompson suggests that Sambo, whose name was common in modern northwestern Nigeria and southern Niger during the 18th century, was likely a descendent of the West African Hausa people, who, she writes, “bore a strong Islamic influence” that had come to them from Mali, perhaps as early as the 14th century. The Art and Life in Africa Project at the University of Iowa also provides a link to Sambo’s Islamic background. On its website, the project states that early Islam in Hausaland “proceed peacefully … In many cases, the ruling elite were the first to convert to Islam.” Thompson also found that Sambo spoke about being of royal lineage. He had facial cuts, which denoted tribal affiliations and had tattoos and gold rings around his ears, which marked him as royalty.

Another piece of evidence concerning Sambo’s Muslim background is Washington’s will, which stated that Sambo fathered six children with two different women, both of whom lived at the River Farm area of Mount Vernon. Thompson writes: “[g]iven the likelihood that Sambo was a Hausa, most of whom were Muslim, his polygamy, if any, was probably a reflection of an Islamic background.” Sambo, as Thompson concludes, may have been practicing the marriage pattern he was familiar with in Hausaland.

In an article entitled “Mount Vernon Reminiscence” that was published in the Alexandria Gazette on Jan. 18, 1876, “an old citizen of Fairfax County” contends that Washington and Sambo had a close friendship. The “Reminiscence” stated that Sambo was a “great favorite of the master [Washington]; by whom he was given a piece of land to build a house on.” The old citizen of Fairfax also revealed how Washington allowed Sambo to keep a small boat or skiff to “cross over the creek in, and for other purposes,” a rare privilege for a slave in colonial America. Washington would sometimes use Sambo’s boat, “but he never was the man to take it without asking [Sambo] if he could use it.” Washington’s behavior shows respect for Sambo’s property, and thus, for Sambo.

One Washington biographer, Professor Peter Henriques, suggests that Sambo was also an excellent hunter and was given permission by Washington to own a gun and ammunition, which were also rare privileges for a slaveowner to bestow up a slave. Washington seemed to have been close to Sambo to the extent that, according to notes recovered from Washington’s ledger, he used to visit Sambo to buy duck meat and honey. Washington and Sambo’s interactions highlight a rare connection between a slaveowner and slave. Washington did not seem overly concerned with Sambo’s religious preferences, rather he appeared to be more concerned with the man’s trustworthy and upright demeanor.

Another article from the Alexandria Gazette, dated Nov. 14, 1835, tells a meaningful story about the experience of a journalist, who had gone to pay respect to Washington’s burial place. While at Washington’s tomb, the correspondent wrote that he saw ‘[e]leven colored men … industriously employed in leveling the earth and turfing around the sepulcher.” He continues: “There was an earnest expression of feeling about them that encouraged me to inquire if they belong[ed] to the respected lady of the mansion. They stated that they were a few of the many salves freed by George Washington, and they had offered their services upon this last melancholy occasion.” The conduct of the “colored men” was so impressive that the correspondent inquired about their names, one of which was “Sambo Anderson.” Sambo’s behavior at Washington’s tomb was that of a man paying respect to his or her deceased friend. Washington must have left a positive impression on Sambo if he returned to his friend’s tomb in this manner.

While we should by no means dismiss the severity of Washington’s legacy as a slave owner, it is worth noting that, in a 1786 letter to his friend Robert Morris he wrote: “[t]here is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of [slavery].” In another one of his letters, Washington criticized other Virginian slave owners “who are not always as kind and as attentive to their [slaves’] wants and usage as they ought to be.” Later in his life, Washington expressed remorse for his identity as a slave owner, stating that the “unfortunate condition of the persons whose labor in part I employed has been the only unavoidable subject of regret.” From these words, it is clear that Washington was remorseful for his shortcomings as a slave owner.



2 thoughts on “Short biography of Sambo Anderson

  1. I have done some geneaology research and this man has turned up as my 5th great grandfather. There are a few questions that still linger about his children with Sall and the grand children, but nevertheless…the link is there.


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