George Washington’s Slave Child?
Mr. Pompeian is an HNN intern.
“Volumes tell how he fathered a nation. Only iUniverse let me tell how he fathered a slave,” proclaimed a two-page advertisement that appeared in the New York Times Book Review, on Sunday, February 20. The advertisement promoted Linda Allen Bryant’s I Cannot Tell A Lie. Published in 2004, Bryant’s book tells the story of how George Washington, the nation’s first president, fathered his one and only child through a slave. The headline was certainly eye-catching, as intended. But was the claim off the wall?
According to Linda Allen Bryant, Washington initiated a sexual relationship with a female slave named Venus around 1784. Her claim is based on her family’s two hundred year old oral history and on conspicuous evidence showing that the Washington family afforded special treatment to West Ford. Bryant, a direct descendent of West Ford, points to correspondence between George and his brother, John Augustine, to argue that George Washington visited his brother’s plantation in 1784, and that a gap in Washington’s personal diary that year could account for a sexual liaison during this visit.
As the advertisement attests, iUniverse took a chance when the company decided to publish a book with such a controversial subject. Bryant’s claim, however, is not new. The paternity of West Ford has been the subject of discussion for decades. As far back as the 1940s the story found its way into print. Today, encouraged by the emergence of new historical revelations, the story of West Ford continues to excite debate.
In 1977, a local historian in Fairfax County, Virginia, discovered a freed slave register that proved that West Ford had been the slave of Hannah Washington, George Washington’s sister-in-law.1 The register itself, however, did not shed light on speculation that Ford had been the illegitimate child of George Washington.
The New York Times interviewed Judith Saunders Burton, a great-great-great granddaughter of West Ford in 1985. At the time, Burton was working on her dissertation, which explored West Ford and Gum Springs, the freed slave community he founded. Dr. Burton explained that the myth surrounding George Washington’s paternity of West Ford was “interesting,” but could not be confirmed.2
In 1998, however, DNA testing showed that a male in the Jefferson line fathered a child with the slave Sally Hemmings; historian Joseph Ellis proclaimed that the evidence was strong enough to prove that Jefferson himself fathered at least one of Hemmings's children. Inspired by the use of science to verify historical paternity claims, the Bryant's family began a public campaign in 1999 to demand a similar DNA test to determine whether West Ford was indeed the son of George Washington.
The Mount Vernon Ladies Association, caretakers of the Washington estate, refused to allow DNA testing of hair samples believed to be those of George Washington, however. Lacking a hair sample, West Ford’s descendants could not prove the legitimacy of their family’s claim.
Without a scientific link or conclusive historical evidence, Linda Allen Byrant’s book, like her family’s claim, relies upon oral history. In An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America, Henry Wiencek writes extensively about the case of West Ford, but does not come to a decisive conclusion. As he admits,"Oral history is difficult to interpret."3 In the end, Wiencek concludes that “the possibility still remains that George Washington could have been West Ford’s father.”4
The Yale historian, Edmund Morgan, essentially agrees, as he informed HNN. Morgan is not familiar with Bryant’s book, and in his own words, “I know of no evidence that would support Ms. Bryant's claim that Washington fathered a child by a slave.” Yet, according to Morgan, “It does not follow that the claim is untrue. But in the absence of direct evidence, I would not accept such an assertion.”
While the Mount Vernon Ladies Association has not cooperated with DNA requests, the group has supplied Ford family researchers with access to archival documents and resources. Most of the factual information contained in Bryant’s book was found in the Association's collections of the papers of George Washington and was provided by the Mount Vernon Library staff.
Yet in the end, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association continues to maintain that oral history cannot prove that George Washington was the father of West Ford.
“We at Mount Vernon,” Dennis Pogue, Associate Director for Preservation told HNN, “believe that there is no evidence other than the Ford family oral history to support the claim that GW was the father of West Ford. To the contrary, we believe that when all of the evidence is examined carefully, there is considerable circumstantial evidence to contradict the claim.”
In all likelihood, the Association argues, West Ford was indeed a son of a Washington, but not of George Washington. “There is some pretty strong evidence suggesting that West Ford may have been the son of another member of the Washington family,” says Dennis Pogue. “But Ms. Bryant and her family don't seem to want any part of that conclusion.”
Historians may never be able to separate the fact from the fiction in the West Ford story or in Linda Allen Bryant’s book. Regardless, I Cannot Tell a Lie is an important reminder of the sexual, ethical, and racial double standards found in American slavery. Whether true or false, Bryant’s book is another addition to the canon of slave history that highlight the dark realities of the plantation culture.
For the time being, we are left to ponder the legitimacy of oral history as historical evidence--and to reflect on the fact that some of America’s most prominent families did indeed countenance the sacrifice, pain, and sexual exploitation of African slaves.
Yet as Linda Allen Bryant points out, her book is also testimony to a former slave who rose above the ravages of slavery. “It is time for all Americans," she writes, "to view afresh the historic role of their black counterparts and the contributions they have made in the fields of science, music, literature and art.” As she notes, “African American’s contributions to the making of this great country are more than a shameful entry in the book of America’s slavery past. ”
1. What types of stories do cases like yours tell about America's founding fathers, about Colonial American culture, and about the contributions of African American slaves to American culture (both in the 18th and 19th centuries and today)?
West Ford's story is just one of many unknown truths in American history. My family's legacy and others of a similar vein, furnishes a preface to racial understanding by unfolding a dramatic story of the mores of the times during the antebellum era of slavery. Such a study necessarily involves an effort to penetrate the true characters of the real giants of the day - Washington and Jefferson. Both owned slaves and both were willing to compromise on issues of slavery in the interests of strengthening the nation. Only a few men of 1776 considered the "peculiar" institution of slavery permanently necessary. Many others assumed that slavery would gradually end within the next century as the institution was simply a vehicle of economic need. Still, all the signs suggested that slavery was a terminal institution in the nation at the time of the ratification of the U. S. Constitution in 1789. It appears that the founding fathers could not square the principles of the Declaration with the perpetuation of human bondage.
In their accommodation to slavery, the founding fathers created a Constitution of aristocratic privilege for whites while accepting black enslavement. They carefully withheld any indication of moral approval while building a new nation under God with liberty and justice for all. Although the core principles of the Constitution are considered today as the greatest instrument to human liberty in erecting a government, the founding father's love of country outweighed their love of justice. I believe that the curse of slavery is a scar on their moral record. These great men missed the opportunity to put slavery on the road to ultimate extinction.
The most important thing to be said about slavery from the perspective of the enslaved is that millions of blacks endured the institution by making a world for themselves. Their story is a combination of the tragic and the heroic, of denial and affirmations. Yet, in the midst of their bondage, a viable African-American culture emerged. It is time for all Americans to view afresh the historic role of their black counterparts and the contributions they have made in the fields of science, music, literature and art. African American's contributions to the making of this great country are more than a shameful entry in the book of America's slavery past.
2. If it was proven that Washington was indeed the father of West Ford, how would this change American history?
If it is proven via DNA that Washington fathered West Ford, I believe it would offer African Americans a sense of connection with the founding of this country besides one of slavery. I would hope that revealing the truth about George Washington fathering a slave son would also serve as a catalyst toward greater racial reconciliation amongst all Americans.
George Washington fathering West Ford would also lend some creditability to oral history, which is the starting point in genealogy. Oral traditions often provide the core foundations of family histories, particularly in the case of African Americans.
3. Conversely, if your claim was proven to be false, how would this affect your family's efforts?
My family and I are confident about our claim of George Washington planting our family tree. Conversely, if proven that another Washington was the father of West Ford, we would accept that totally.
4. In the iUniverse promotion that appears in the Times Book Review, the ad reads, "not one publisher wanted to touch it. Too controversial, was the feedback we received from publisher after publisher." Why, in your view, has your work been labeled so controversial? If it is so controversial, why did iUniverse choose to publish it?
My family's claim of the Ford/Washington connection challenges two centuries of documented national history that records George Washington as a childless man. Many of the top publishing houses shied away from the story because of its explosive nature. The nation's first president had enjoyed a spotless reputation until our family's heritage was revealed. West Ford's story is just one of many unknown truths in American history and that in itself makes for the controversy.
After a thorough review of I Cannot Tell A Lie, iUniverse felt that my family's heritage should be revealed and agreed to publish my book.
5. Is it fallacious to claim, lacking conclusive evidence, that you are a direct descendent of George Washington, as your ad does?
No, I don't believe our claim to the Washington bloodline is a fallacious one. The facts about our family lineage in I Cannot Tell A Lie can be documented. No living person can testify to the act that conceived West Ford, but the testimony of Venus, the woman who contributed one half of his genes, is available to the public for the first time in my book. Venus revealed the identity of the father to the son, who in turn told his son. Thus, the Ford family origins were preserved in oral document that has endured for over two centuries. For those wanting more "proof" they can read I Cannot Tell A Lie's reference section.
6. Can you point to any mainstream historians who back your claim?
An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, by Henry Wiencek, reference much of the data in my book, I Cannot Tell A Lie. The book description states: "Wiencek's revelatory narrative, based on a meticulous examination of private papers, court records, and the voluminous Washington archives, documents for the first time the moral transformation culminating in Washington's determination to emancipate his slaves. He acted too late to keep the new republic from perpetuating slavery, but his repentance was genuine. And it was perhaps related to the possibility -- as the oral history of Mount Vernon's slave descendants has long asserted -- that a slave named West Ford was the son of George and a woman named Venus; Wiencek has new evidence that this could indeed have been true."
7. How do you feel the American public and scholars should respond to oral histories like the one that has been passed on through your family?
I would hope that my family's story creates some excitement in the fact that there are living descendants of the first president of the United States. My family sees our heritage as symbolic of the nation's shared history. I can state that the initial public response to our story has been very positive.
To scholars I would say that most people record the memories of their lives and the lives of their family members and relations through oral history. Unfortunately, genealogical documentation for African Americans during the era of slavery was virtually nonexistent. This is in part because many slaves could not provide written information as to their origins. Instead, family histories were preserved through memory and relayed through story telling. I believe oral history recorded from slaves and ex-slaves is a viable source of information and a good starting point to begin one's genealogical research.
In our particular oral history, West Ford told his grandson, George Ford, that the ole general (George Washington) was his father. George Ford in turn relayed the information to his grand-daughter, Elise Ford Allen, my mother. Anyone can discern that this is a very close connection in time for passing on the paternity of West Ford.
8. What historical evidence suggests that Washington visited the Bushrod Plantation in 1784 or at anytime between 1783-1787?
Washington's diary entries show that his brother John was at Mount Vernon a number of times in the years between 1760 and 1786. There is also correspondence available that reports that John Augustine visited his brother in June of 1784, (Letter from George Washington to John Augustine, June 30, 1784). Other recorded dates the brothers were in each other's company are June, 1785, October, 1785, and October, 1786. (The Washingtons and Their Homes, by John W. Wayland).
One date proposed for George and Venus' initial liaison was after the death of Washington's nephew, Augustine, in 1784. In a letter dated April 4, 1784, from John Augustine to George Washington, he states: "Should Bushrod return shortly, as soon as he has spent some days with his Mama and recovered from the fatigue of his Journey, he and Corbin and my Self will do ourselves the pleasure of waiting on you, unless I should hear that you are gone to the northward."
One particular reference in Wayland's book includes an excerpt taken from a letter to George Washington from John Augustine, dated July 17, 1785, that read: "Previous to my setting off to Mt. Vernon and Alexandria the last time I was up, a great Coat of yours that you had been kind enough to lend my son Corbin when he was last at your House, and a book that my Wife's maid the time before the last that she was there had put up supposing it to be her Mistresses, as she had one in the Chariott to read on the road, but I forgot both and brought them back…" Venus, being a house servant in a maid's capacity for John Augustine's wife, would have accompanied her mistress to Mount Vernon.
Philip D. Morgan's "Slave Counterpoint-Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeak & Lowcountry" 1998, The University of North Carolina Press, on page 356 mentions George Washington and Venus: "George Washington estimated that his servants stole two glasses of wine to every one he consumed. Venus did "everything in her power to provoke" her master to remove her from the household and send her to an outlying quarter, and eventually won her wish." These two sentences in his text occur one after the other, suggesting Venus and George knew of each other.
9. How do you respond to critics who claim the evidence for such a meeting is inconclusive?
I contend that what historians think they know about Washington's daily schedule through his diaries, does not preclude his having had a sexual liaison with a slave. James Thomas Flexner, an early biographer of George Washington, stated in his book titled, George Washington-The Forge of Experience that: "George Washington's earlier diaries never contained those personal soliloquies in which a man speaks freely to his most intelligent, beloved, and understanding friend-himself." Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Washington would record his dalliances with Venus or their son, West Ford.
Lastly, I am fully aware that my family's claim to the Washington bloodline has many Washington supporters rushing to defend his honor. Let me state that my family in no way wishes to denigrate George Washington, but merely want the validation of who we are in American history for our children and our children's children.
10. Why did you choose to publish a narrative account of this incident that relies on fiction techniques?
I wrote I Cannot Tell A Lie as narrative nonfiction for a variety of reasons. This format allowed me to relay my heritage in the way it was passed down to me at annual family reunions. The book was written in a style that allows the reader the full glimpses into the workings of the minds of my ancestors with all the nuances of their character and the events that shaped the lives of their descendants. It is an accessible format through which the Ford family history might be considered, while offering a compelling exposure to the many sociopolitical issues surrounding the claim to the Washington bloodline.
The text is heavily supported and enhanced by actual historical accounts, placing Ford family members with prominent figures such as General George Custer, W.E.B. Dubois and another American President, Teddy Roosevelt. I have also added an extensive reference section that will be of great interest to anyone wanting documentation of my family's claim to the Washington family tree. This and other authentic letters and excerpts from last wills and testaments, land grants, journals, newspaper articles, tax records, and national archives are peppered throughout I Cannot Tell A Lie and add to the depth of our intriguing story. This original material was presented to the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association at a historic 2000 meeting as documentation of my family's heritage.
11. How would you respond to critics who argue that your book, with a very explosive premise and a very controversial claim, unjustifiably fudges the lines between truth and falsity?
I am aware that the story of George Washington fathering a slave son is a controversial one and I expect to draw a variety of responses. But I believe the free flow of opinions is a positive thing. History must be recounted, challenged and kept accessible. I also contend that the disclosure of the Washington/Ford connection requires a review and reassessment of how history has perceived the first president and his "supposedly" childless state.
12. Why do you believe the Mount Vernon Ladies Association is reticent to provide a DNA sample for genetic comparison?
You'll need to ask them that question.
1 Thomas Grubisich, “Register of Freed Slaves Bares Fairfax County 'Roots': A Slave Gets His Freedom,” Washington Post (Feb 8, 1977), p. Metro B1.
2 Francis X. Clines, “ A Place in Virginia Called Gum Springs,” New York Times (Nov 7, 1985), p. A26.
3 Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America ( Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: New York, 2003), p. 12.
4 Wiencek, An Imperfect God, p. 309.
comments powered by Disqus
Vonee Williams - 10/25/2010
I'm sure this paternity matter could have been proven a long time ago had the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association allowed the DNA testing. It seems to me that they are refusing this major process because of what the results will show.
V Baysden - 6/10/2009
I have no doubts. I always felt the "Father of Our Country" was based on another source and not on the founding of the country. After all he travelled a lot. I felt his travels were the reason he and Martha had no children. Seems like there was another woman (married to a friend/acquaintance) and economics played some part in the marriage to Martha.
carla butler - 2/2/2007
if the ladys of mount vernon want to put this to rest...give up the dna
james william shaw - 7/10/2005
Washington as a young man had a severe case of smallpox. this accounts for his severly pock-marked face and his insistense that his men be immunized to prevent this disease from breaking out in his army.I have assumed,as aphysician,since there no record of his fathering a child with Martha or any other woman(he was known to be fond of the ladies,and them of him)that he was sterile. After all he was a dashing,robust,6'3"war hero!
Doreen Ann Hauge - 5/3/2005
George Washington’s Slave Child?
By Ed Pompeian said and I quote from the article "The Mount Vernon Ladies Association, caretakers of the Washington estate, refused to allow DNA testing of hair samples believed to be those of George Washington, however. Lacking a hair sample, West Ford’s descendants could not prove the legitimacy of their family’s claim."
But at the site American History "The American Presidency"http://americanhistory.si.edu/presidency/home.html they have this posted with a picture of a Presidential hair case with this caption:
"Today the idea of collecting hair may seem morbid, or at least bizarre. But in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was an acceptable way to mourn and to remember.
This display came to the Smithsonian Institution from the U.S. Patent Office in 1883. It contains hair from Presidents Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, and Pierce. It was assembled to honor the presidents and to keep them visible for future generations".
Could this not be used? I'm just a casual history buff but perhaps this could help stir the pot about Ford's lineage, thanks for listening Doreen
Robert Lee Keener - 4/1/2005
Ms. Bryant's comments demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of the value of DNA evidence. While such evidence might indicate that West Ford's father was a Washington, it could not prove that it was George Washington.
This is, fundamentally, a genealogical problem. (Heresy, I know, for a history group!) None the less, it is.
Personally, I was skeptical about the Jefferson-Hemings question, to the extent that I thought of it at all. However, those interested should see Helen F. M. Leary's extensive investigation -- "Sally Heming's Children: A Genealogical Analysis of the Evidence" -- in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly Vol 89, #3, September 2001. Most of the issue is devoted to this controversy with review essays on the Scholars Commission, the question of Jefferson's "Character Defense," and a bibliography "of efforts to Genealogicall Document Children of Master-Slave Relationships" in addition to Leary's article.
Leary proves to my satisfaction that Jefferson was, indeed, the father of all of Sally's children. She also uses DNA evidence to dispute the claims of the Woodson and Carr families to Jeffersonian parentage.
Nathaniel Brian Bates - 3/23/2005
"generaiton" should have been spelled as "generation". In addition, the sentence is not structured all that well. Yet, I hope the point was made.
Nathaniel Brian Bates - 3/23/2005
I tend to discount this story, given that Washington was presumably unable to have children. Generally, in cases of "who is infertile", it is the man not the woman.
Yet, the broader issue is really the underlying issue here. America has a Declaration of Independence stating that we are all created equal. However, we have had our "exceptions"; African-Americans, Native Americans, the "unfit", Japanese-Americans, and Terry Schiavo. I guess the last one might fit under the third listing, yet you get my point. The Declaration will be a living testimony against this Nation at the time of her Judgment.
Even so, I believe that Washington was a decent man, a G-d fearing man. I believe that if this story *IS* true, it represents him in the context of his time. I believe that he underwent a personal evolution, just as many others of his generaiton did on the question of slavery.
It is our fault for not living up to his expectations as the earthly father of our Nation, not the other way around. We failed to stand up on key moral issues when it counted, and we have no one to blame, not Bush, not the Government, not the Corporate Oligarchy, and certainly not the Founding Fathers; no one save ourselves.
John R. Maass - 3/22/2005
If you have not done so already you may want to read AN IMPERFECT GOD, which explains the connection between the Ford family and our first president.
Kenneth T. Tellis - 3/21/2005
I wonder why no one in the Mount Vernon Ladies Association is willing to take a chance on a DNA test? A former British actress Adrienne Corri in doing a thesis for a degree went into the life of King George III, and discovered that he had a half sister. Apparently his father had been fooling around with a palace cleaning lady and a girl child was born. Both King George III and his half sister suffered poryphia. If George Washington's enemy King George III's background could be exposed, why not King George Washington himself?
James Stanley Kabala - 3/21/2005
What about the belief that Washington was unable to father children? Martha had children by her first husband, so unless she became sterile at some point between her marriages, it seems likely that George was the one with the problem. (I don't know much about medicine; it is common for a fertile woman to suddenly become sterile?)