What is the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association's opinion regarding the claims
that George Washington fathered West Ford?|
After conducting extensive research on this subject the Mount Vernon Ladies'
Association has found no documentation to corroborate the family's oral
tradition. Although we respect the West Ford family's beliefs we need to look
at all available information, both oral and written.
Why do Ms. Allen and Ms. Bryant believe George Washington fathered West
Ms. Allen and Ms. Bryant (sisters) base their belief on traditions passed down
orally in their family.
Is this a new claim?
No. Stories about West Ford and questions about his paternity have been around
for many years. Ms. Allen and Ms. Bryant initially contacted the Mount Vernon
Ladies' Association in 1996 and Mount Vernon's research staff shared the
results of their investigations with the sisters at that time. Since that time,
the staff has conducted additional research and has shared those results as
Did George Washington know West Ford, or his mother, Venus?
There is no documentary evidence that George Washington ever met Venus, the
mother of West Ford, who was a slave belonging to his brother John Augustine
Washington of Bushfield Plantation, nor any that supports that George
Washington ever met West Ford. No records indicate that George Washington
visited his brother's plantation at all from the time he returned to Mount
Vernon on December 24, 1783 at the end of the Revolution, until John Augustine
Washington's death in early January of 1787. While there is documentation that
male members of the Bushfield family visited Mount Vernon several times during
this period, no evidence exists that Venus accompanied them. In accord with
18th-century custom, they would have brought male servants with them. The only
known visit of John Augustine's wife, Hannah Bushrod Washington, to Mount
Vernon during this period was in October of 1785. This trip would have been the
only possible time that Venus could have been at Mount Vernon.
Why do researchers think that it was unlikely that a liaison occurred
between George Washington and Venus?
Historians studied primary documents including diaries, letters, journals,
newspaper accounts, financial papers, invoices, etc. to piece together the
day-to-day activities of George Washington. The facts gathered indicate that it
is unlikely that George Washington would have been able to father a child with
Venus. It is reported that West Ford was born in early 1784 or possibly as late
as November 1785. The liaison therefore would have had to occur between mid
1783, and the first quarter of 1785.
George Washington's whereabouts during this period were well documented. Having
brought victory to the colonies, George Washington was America's most famous
citizen. He returned to Mount Vernon on December 24, 1783 after an eight-year
absence due to the Revolutionary War. Early in 1784, regional accounts from
numerous sources indicate that the weather was unusually treacherous for
several months, with icy and snowy conditions making travel difficult. Over the
next few years,
George Washington was extremely busy with both public duties and rebuilding his
estate. In addition, a variety of sources record that visitors to Mount Vernon
were numerous, keeping him at home and occupying much of his available time.
According to our research, there are very few times when his whereabouts cannot
be documented for this period.
The Bushfield Plantation was located in Westmoreland County, approximately 95
miles southeast of Mount Vernon. According to Washington's writings he
routinely traveled five miles per hour. Riding for eight hours per day, it
would take him more than two days to get to his brother's home.
Were there any contemporary accounts reporting any relationship between
George Washington and Venus and/or West Ford?
There is no documentation from the period reporting any extramarital affairs.
No contemporaries of George Washington reported this "relationship" during
George Washington's lifetime. It is important to note that Washington's second
term was acrimonious. Although he was frequently under attack in the press,
there were no allegations of infidelity. This is another source that historians
would check for evidence of such a relationship. There is no documentary
evidence of George Washington frequently taking a slave child to Christ Church.
This occurrence is one that would have been particularly noteworthy and would
likely have been recorded.
Did West Ford live at Mount Vernon?
Yes, but not during George Washington's lifetime. West Ford moved to Mount
Vernon in 1802, three years after George Washington died. In George
Washington's will, he left the Mount Vernon estate to Bushrod Washington.
Bushrod was the eldest son of George Washington's brother, John Augustine.
Bushrod moved to Mount Vernon and brought West Ford with him. West Ford,
according to the will of Hannah Bushrod Washington, the mother of Bushrod, was
freed at the age of 21. Evidence indicates that West Ford was employed by
Bushrod until Bushrod's death in 1829. He continued to work for members of the
Washington family (Bushrod's nephew, and then his great nephew) for many years.
Bushrod Washington bequeathed land in 1829 to West Ford, giving him 119 acres
of land on Hunting Creek, and in the same document requested that West Ford
continue in his present job. According to records, West Ford was in a
managerial position while working for the family.
Did George Washington bestow special privileges upon West Ford?
No. Documentary sources indicate however that West Ford, a slave of the
Bushfield plantation, received special treatment by other members of the
Washington family which is documented in the last will and testaments of Hannah
Bushrod Washington and her son, Bushrod Washington as well as in family
correspondence from the Bushfield family. Hannah bequeathed West Ford's mother
Venus, his grandmother Jenny, and his younger sister Bettey to her grandson,
Richard Henry Lee Washington. She requested that Ford "may be as soon as
possible inoculated for the small pox, after which to be bound to a good
tradesman until the age of twenty one years, after which he is to be free the
rest of his life." West Ford was freed, according to Hannah Bushrod's will in
1805. At this time he was living at Mount Vernon with the then owner, Bushrod
Washington. In his will, Bushrod Washington gave West Ford 119 acres of land on
Hunting Creek and asked that West Ford continue in his present job.
Why would West Ford, an elderly black man, have been brought to Mount
Vernon during his final illness in 1863?
Several factors probably influenced the decision of Sarah Tracy, the secretary
of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, to bring West Ford to the estate, when
he was dying in the summer of 1863. First, the local community seems to have
been quite unstable during 1863. The former Mount Vernon estate property was
located between the Union and Confederate lines, and while the 200 acres
acquired by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association was recognized as neutral
ground during the Civil War, other parts of George Washington's beloved farm
had previously been sold to private individuals and remained vulnerable to
raiding parties from both sides. Many African-Americans in the community
migrated to other towns and cities looking for work. Some tried to earn money
from farming and cutting wood for sale in the local area. Those who stayed,
including two men named Joe and West Ford (presumably younger relatives of the
West Ford in question), were run off their land by the sheriff in February of
1863. By June of that year, the family patriarch, West Ford, then in his late
70s, became ill. There may have been no one left to take care for him at home,
or those left may have been too burdened trying to support themselves to care
for a dying senior citizen.
Second, both John Augustine Washington (III), the last private owner of Mount
Vernon, and his wife had died by this time, leaving six young children.
Therefore, the white family most likely to have aided former African-American
workers from the estate was could not help West Ford. Miss Tracy, a native of
New York, probably felt that she could offer West Ford a more stable
environment and brought him to Mount Vernon as a practical move that would also
satisfy her feelings of responsibility to the African-Americans who had worked
on the plantation.
Why would the Alexandria newspaper have taken notice of the death of an
elderly black man like West Ford in 1863?
After he was freed at the age of 21, West Ford continued to work for the
Washington family at Mount Vernon, until the last private owner, John Augustine
Washington (III) and his family moved out in February of 1860. Ford seems to
have supervised the slaves, taken care of errands for the family, and escorted
many thousands of visitors around the estate each year. Among those visitors
were journalists, several of whose articles later mentioned West Ford. Thus,
after almost sixty years on the estate, he had become a well-known individual,
both in the Mount Vernon/Alexandria area and throughout the country. He had
also become the second wealthiest free black person in Fairfax County. He was
not only well-known, but held a prominent place in the local community,
respected by whites and blacks alike. It would make sense that the local
newspaper would want to note the passing of such an individual. This was not
the first time that the death of an African-American associated with Mount
Vernon was recorded in the Alexandria newspaper. When Francis ("Frank") Lee,
George Washington's former butler, died in the summer of 1821, the
Alexandria Gazette included an obituary for him.
Was West Ford's body entombed in the old family vault at Mount Vernon, and
has it been removed?
There is no evidence that West Ford's body was interred in either the old
vault, or in the new tomb built in 1831. Instead, there is a strong tradition
dating from the 1 9th century that West Ford, along with his wife, was buried
in a cemetery set aside as the final resting place for current and former Mount
Vernon slaves. Several other former slaves were buried there up until the
1880s. George and Martha Washington's bodies (along with the bodies of 20 other
Washington family members) were removed from the old vault in 1831 and
reinterred in the New Tomb. Mount Vernon records indicate that the New Tomb has
not been opened since the last recorded Washington burial there in 1855. The
old vault has stood empty since 1831, and underwent a major restoration in
1938. Photographs taken at that time indicate that the vault was empty and in
What about performing DNA testing to establish West Ford' paternity?
According to the experts we have consulted, it is impossible to determine
conclusively that George Washington was the father of West Ford.
What technology is necessary to test for paternity?
According to a report in Nature Magazine, the Y chromosome is passed unchanged
from father to son. Apart from occasional mutations, DNA analysis of the Y
chromosome can reveal whether or not individuals are likely to be male-line
relatives. This process was used in the widely publicized testing of male
descendants of Thomas Jefferson, in order to try to prove the paternity of
descendants of Sally Hemings (Nature Magazine, November 1998). If the same
format were followed, the West Ford family and the Washington family will need
to produce several direct male descendants to be tested. The results of the
test are limited in that they can only determine if there is a match to the
Washington male line, not to a specific individual, and therefore could not
prove George Washington's paternity.
Would it be possible to disinter the body of West Ford from the
African-American burial ground to perform DNA testing?
If West Ford is buried there his grave is unmarked. Therefore, it would require
excavating up to 50 skeletons that are believed to be located there, and
comparing the DNA results with samples taken from a male descendant of West
Ford. Consultations with experts indicate that there is a very slim possibility
that nuclear DNA could be detected if the body were exhumed. This substance is
necessary to determine paternity. Skeletal remains, particularly remains that
have been in the ground for over 200 years, will likely only reveal X
Could locks of George Washington's hair be used to prove paternity?
No. Hair samples carry the X chromosome. George Washington and West Ford had
different mothers therefore they would have different mitochondrial DNA from
their mothers. The Y chromosome is necessary for DNA paternity analysis. In
other words, a hair test could not be used to determine paternity.
Did the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association have hair tested by the Federal
Bureau Investigation? What were the results?
Yes. In 1994, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association and the DAR museum had locks
of hair tested by the FBI to determine if all or any were from George
Washington. The FBI reported that "very little, if any DNA was detected in the
hair purported to be from George Washington. Based on the current
state-of-the-art DNA sequence technology, low levels of DNA in the submitted
hairs would not allow for conclusive DNA sequence analysis." Mount Vernon's
hair samples are deteriorated and fragmented, making them poor candidates for
any DNA testing. Although the 1994 test was not conducted to determine any
paternity issues, it is clear from the report and follow up conversations, that
hair cannot be used to determine paternity.
What is Mount Vernon's position regarding paternity DNA testing of living
Washington and Ford family members?
It is not up to us. It is important to note however that DNA testing will not
determine that George Washington was the father of West Ford. This test can
only determine that the West Ford descendant who is tested is related to the
Will the Association provide a sample of George Washington's hair for a DNA
testing in the future if technology changes?
The Association is committed to providing samples of Washington's hair for DNA
analysis, when science concludes that these hair samples can resolve the issue
of West Ford's paternity. The Association is committed to historical
Was George Washington sterile?
George and Martha Washington together did not have any children. Historians
have inferred from documentation that it is possible that George Washington was
physically incapable of fathering children.
Martha Washington was a widow when she married George in 1759; both were then
in their mid- to-late 20s. Martha and her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis,
had four children in the seven years they were married. We know that George and
Martha Washington shared the same bed over the forty years of their marriage
and we have to assume that they had a normal sexual relationship. There are
many reasons why a couple might not be able to conceive children, but in
roughly 40% of the cases, the problem is with the husband.
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