Famous Families

The Fairfaxes and George Washington

Mt. Vernon

Despite the importance of the Fairfaxes to George Washington's formative years as a young man, the question of the Negro blood of those in this family who were closest to Washington has never been fully explored. True, a small number of the first President's biographers have broached the topic, but even these have treated it as nothing more than an interesting rumor. Of any number of scholars whose attitudes on race might have contributed to this omission, the most obvious culprit is Edward D. Neill. And it is his edition of the Fairfax papers published in 1868 which provides us with a smoking gun. Among the letters he transcribed was one which, if it had been printed in its entirety, would have prevented any doubt about the ethnic mix of this particular side of the Fairfax family.

In a letter to his mother, Col. William Fairfax (the representative and agent for his uncle Lord Thomas, Proprietor of the Great Necks region of Virginia) warily hints for her help in having his son educated in England. He wrote,

Col. Gale has indeed kindly offered to take the care of safe conducting my eldest son George, upwards of seven years old but I judged it too forward to send him before I had your's or some one of his Uncles' or Aunts' invitation, altho' I have no reason to doubt any of their indulgences to a poor West India boy *****.

Since "West Indian" had the same meaning as "Creole" which the French and Spanish used to indicate colonial born, the term could mean anything. However, a copy of the original letter surfaced recently and I was finally able to fill in the missing words after those five asterisks. They read,

especially as he has the marks in his visage that will always testify his parentage.
Who knows, perhaps in the longer run, such a blatant cover up worked out for the best. For had this racial fact been known, would historians have examined Washington's relationship to this family so carefully? Would Wilson Cary, for example, have written his biographical sketch of his 18th century relative Sally (married to a mixed-race Fairfax)? Wilson Carey had hoped that Sally's romantic association with the young George Washington might insure a place for his family's name in the nation's history. Would Cary have dared to include the letter of Sally's (from which the following excerpt is taken) in which she refers to her mother-in-law's blackness?
At her decease [the estate] went in fee to her eldest son Henry Fairfax, who would have left it to your uncle William Henry Fairfax, but from an impression that my husband's mother was a black woman, if my Fairfax had not come over to see his uncle and convinced him that he was not a negroe's son.
No doubt this explanation by Sally to a nephew of hers concerning why George Fairfax had returned to England and her reference to the allegations as a
strange claim
had only served to convince Wilson Cary that it was unfounded. To someone of Wilson Cary's social background and from a time when such family skeleton's had been buried too deeply to haunt any of their descendants, the very idea of such a possibility must have seemed absolutely preposterous. We can now presume that although George Fairfax was able to prove to his uncle "that he was not a negroe's son," it certainly did not disprove that he'd been born to either a mulatto or quadroon woman. Probably all that his uncle wanted to ascertain was that having not seen him since he was a child, his African features had not become too pronounced in manhood to cause the family any more embarrassment than his brother's marriage must have already been.

In another of Col. Williams Fairfax's letters to his mother while visiting England on leave from his colonial post as Governor of the Bahamas, it is quite clear that she had not offered his wife the hospitality he is so obviously and pathetically hinting at in the following:

Tho' I expect to be a little while separated from my wife, yet I trust in God, she will not want any thing to comfort her sorrows. She is indeed a stranger in England, known to few but my friends, and as I know she deserves a better fate than to be left almost disconsolate, yet I hope shall hear of the good intentions of some friends, that have been ready to acknowledge their zeal to serve her.
Until we are able to do a more systematic study of the Fairfax archives, all that is known of this woman - Fairfax's wife - is that her name is Sarah, and that she was the daughter of a Captain Thomas Walker who at one time had been Chief Justice of the Bahamas. From the preliminary research I have been able to carry out on this clan, they seem to have been fairly prominent in the government affairs of Barbados. It seems all too apparent that despite the social prestige Sarah's father might have enjoyed as a British colonial official, her mother's identity as slave or daughter of a slave made the possibility of Sarah's introduction to her noble in-laws - the Fairfaxes - a virtual impossibility.

And an aside --- as tempting as it would be to do so, we cannot yet assume a relationship between Sarah's mother and Read Elding who served as Governor of the Bahamas from 1699 to 1701. Since Captain Walker was his avowed enemy and at one point had even been jailed by this reformed pirate, the only reason I have for flagging this possibility is that he too was a mulatto. On the other hand, however, it was under this particular governor that Captain Walker had begun his career. As in Sarah Walker's case, Elding had also been married into one of the most influential families in British North America, the Pembertons of Boston.

Whatever the case, Sarah did not long survive her husband's transfer to Massachusetts where he had been appointed Chief Customs Officer at Marblehead. She died January 21st, 1731 and is buried in Salem. Interestingly enough, we now have enough evidence to suspect that the entry of a

William, negro child of William Fairfax Esq., baptized February 26, 1729
in the vital records for Marblehead is a reference to none other than (George) William Fairfax. If this is indeed so, then the question arises as to whether the 19th century transcriber simply and understandably misunderstood the entry and relegated it to that section in the back of these volumes reserved for people of color who were invariably servants. Or, is it possible that after his wife's death,William Fairfax Esq. had tried to avoid embarrassing questions by passing off this five year-old son, George William, as a slave?

But even more than Fairfax's racial background, what has long fascinated historians is young George Washington's relationship with him. Because of Wilson Cary's book, biographers of the first President had become intrigued by his infatuation with Sally, George William's very attractive and scintillating wife. For decades now, scholars have sifted through his personal letters and other archival material and though there is still no proof of any sexual misconduct, it is quite obvious that Washington had, indeed, been quite besotted by Sally who, like her husband, was at least seven years older than himself. From a black perspective, this difference in age between Washington and George Fairfax is interesting for two reasons. Not only must George Fairfax's English education and his highly cultivated lifestyle have been a major contribution to his role as the younger man's mentor, but as the agent of the Lord Proprietor by whom Washington was now employed as a land surveyor, Fairfax was both his teacher and his supervisor. Ironically, therefore, George Washington's first boss was a black man!

Of the few remaining letters George Washington wrote to Sally Fairfax, the one which is the most intriguing was the one dated September 25th, 1758. In it he declares:

I should think our time more agreeably spent, believe me, in playing a part in Cato with the Company you mention, and myself doubly happy in being the Juba to such a Marcia as you must make.
The "Cato" to which he refers, was the tragedy by the dramatist, Joseph Addison. Because of how astutely it represented the political issues of the day, this play had by then become one of the longest-running hits on the British stage. Juba was the African King of Mauritania, a contemporary of Julius Caesar's and a hero in the struggle against Roman imperial policy. Although by no means racist, the parallel the young Washington draws between himself and this character can only be interpreted as an ethnic allusion to his friend, Fairfax, who is, in point of fact, already Sally's Juba.

But what has added so much fuel to the speculative fires about this period of the first President's life is that he continued to make declarations like the following to Sally, even after his engagement to Martha Custis had been announced.

Tis true I profess myself a votary to Love. I acknowledge that a Lady is in the case; and, further, I confess that this lady is known to you. Yes, Madam, as well as she is to one who is too sensible of her Charms to deny the Power whose influence he feels and must ever submit to....You have drawn me, my dear Madam, or rather I have drawn myself, into an honest confession of a Simple Fact. Misconstrue not my meaning, 'tis obvious; doubt it not or expose it. The world has no business to know the object of my love, declared in this manner to - you, when I want to conceal it. One thing above all things, in this World I wish to know, and only one person of your acquaintance can solve me that or guess my meaning - but adieu to this till happier times, if ever I shall see them.
How or whether George Washington ever came to terms with this dilemma is not known. Perhaps, as some have suggested, the answer is in a previous line taken from the above letter in which Washington expresses higher obligations, rhetorically asking Sally --
should not my own Honour and Country's welfare be the excitement?
Perhaps too, the fact that the Washingtons and the Fairfaxes had become such a tightly interwoven family might have helped to assuage the more sexual aspect of Washington's infatuation for Sally. Washington's brother Laurence, for example, was married to George Fairfax's sister, Anne. And George Washington's cousin, Warner Washington, was married to another sister of George Fairfax.

The fact, however, that his friend George Fairfax's marriage was a childless one offers another possible explanation of what might have doused the fires of George's great passion for Sally. And precisely because I'll never be able to prove it, this theory will have to be consigned to that catch-all for this kind of scholarly speculation - historical fiction. What follows therefore, is my take on what many historians have long suspected was the first of the nation's presidential scandals. Despite the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction, the elements of the story I'd like to tackle one day as either a novel or screenplay are each so viable that the shear power of whatever I am able to construct with them could force it back to the historical side of the equation.

Starting with the first element, this would be the racist myth, widely accepted at the time, that mulattos like the animal cross from which the rather disparaging term is derived, could not reproduce - at least, not without difficulty. We can only wonder, for instance, at the developing embarrassment the Honourable George Fairfax must have felt as each year went by without being able to bring his Sally to childbed. At the very pinnacle of the social order in Virginia and the host of the most brilliant occasions at his palatial Belvoir estate, he was accorded the deference someone of his station was due. The bows with which he was acknowledged by other men from such families as the Lees, the Carys, the Carters would have been executed with just that more flourish and the curtseys of their ladies just a beat or two more drawn out and choreographed than the salutations with which they greeted one another at such affairs. But despite ample proof of the genuine love and affection for both himself and the two other sisters who we now know to have visibly shared his African heritage, his barrenness by the year of Washington's wedding would undoubtedly have become a problem of major racial proportions for him - if not for his friends and acquaintances, as well.

What could only have added credence to this mulatto myth was that, like her brother's, the marriage of Anne Fairfax to Lawrence Washington, the future president's elder brother had, for all intents and purposes, been barren, as well. Anne actually bore Lawrence four children but all died while they were still infants. Although she finally produced 'an heir and a spare' for her second husband, Colonel George Lee, a scion of the Virginia Lees, her eleven previous years as a wife sans puer plus her brother's ten years as a husband with the same annotation in the vital records, added up to some pretty alarming arithmetic between the two of them. True, the other sister, Sarah, named after her West Indian mother, would also present her husband, Major John Carlyle, with two children but this particular marriage did not take place until 1754, six years after her brother's. Furthermore, the babes were both girls. Given the sexism of the times, this would not have helped very much in alleviating the reservation with which George William and his sisters were probably being regarded as a result.

To make matters that more urgent, it now appeared that it was only a matter of time before George William would become the 7th Lord Fairfax. Of his great uncle's two sons, one was unmarried and the other's only heir had died prematurely. George William's inability to leave descent could, therefore, become an issue with which any other male in the family line up might be able to challenge his succession. Worse still, it was at this time that his father's cousin in England began threatening to disinherit him on the grounds that his mother had been a black woman compelling George William to make the trip already mentioned by Sally.

Because of all the pressures being brought to bear on the Fairfaxes reproductive capabilities, who is to say that the possibility of tricking a young Washington into servicing Sally had not occurred to them? I don't think popular imagination, no matter how patriotic, would find such an idea objectionable especially since it is the President who would be the victim of this desperate but duplicitous scheme. Besides insuring that one of her own sons would one day sit in the House of Lords, we could argue that Sally had an even more personal and immediate stake in the competition for the baronial title slowly but surely taking shape in the family. In 1761, for instance, Sally's younger sister, Elizabeth would wed Bryan Fairfax, her husband's all-white half brother. Since their union soon proved fruitful, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that should Sally not produce a male child, she would inevitably be forced to give precedence to this sister as the wife of the next Lord Fairfax.

There is something else scholars have pointed to which makes me think I might well have stumbled on a reasonable facsimile of the truth underlying the historical situation we are examining here. It is the lack of any evidence at all, that George William Fairfax, despite his knowledge of it, had ever taken offense at his young friend's interest in his wife. Indeed, Washington's letters to her were openly addressed either to Belvoir or to the family seat at Leeds Castle when she and her husband were in England.

Because there are any number of alternatives possible, how Washington discovers Sally's designs on him is entirely open ended. Whether it is a wildly climactic scene in which Sally tries to seduce him and rebuffed, breaks down, confessing the truth of the racial predicament that has forced her to this extreme or, perhaps, something even more psychologically complex. Maybe he has fallen in love with Sally for precisely the reasons suggested. But it is he who, knowing how he could help his friend, uses this as an excuse with which to justify his own sexual desires for Sally. Relying on biblical exegesis, he might even try to persuade her that since she bears the name of Sarah, the Old Testament heroine who used her slave to insure Abraham the descendants God had promised him, she, in like wise, is also obliged to use him to provide her black husband with an heir. At the other end of the emotional spectrum possible, perhaps nothing so dramatic need happen at all. Maybe once it starts to become evident that the Washingtons will be childless as well, Sally's interest in George begins waning accordingly.

Although George William Fairfax would never know anything of the brutality of slavery itself, not even he was safe from the brunt of racism despite the comparatively privileged and protected life he continued to lead. In the end, the succession went to Robert Fairfax, a cousin,who, because of his indulgent lifestyle, had surprised everyone by surviving his father, Lord Thomas who died at 92. To everyone's surprise, as well, it was soon revealed that George William Fairfax had been completely written out of Lord Thomas's will. Devastated by such a shocking omission, he charged racism and complained bitterly at being the only member of the family

not being even named with a ring.
What must have stung his wife Sally, whether or not she had, indeed, felt threatened by her sister Elizabeth's place in the dynastic hierarchy of the Fairfaxes, is that everyone of Elizabeth's children were provided for. But none of her husband's sisters, neither Anne Fairfax Washington Lee* or Sarah Fairfax Carlyle** - were left anything at all. Not even in this exalted family circle where the rules of race had, until now, been so carelessly flaunted, could anyone be protected from the reach of their iron fisted grasp. It must have appalled everyone assembled for the probate hearing that Lord Thomas had waited until the very end of his life to reveal his true feelings. Obviously, the results of the pseudo-scientific experiment in genetics at Belvoir had, for him, been too overwhelming to ignore. But what must have frightened the Fairfax clan even more, however, is that he had deliberately chosen to express these sentiments in what could not be construed as anything other than a deathbed curse. Because Anne Lee had been his brother's wife, Washington too must have shuddered at this racial epithet from beyond the grave.

But, as the African American saying goes,

God don't like ugly!
On the death of Robert Fairfax, 7th Lord Fairfax in 1793, Sally's sister Elizabeth's husband- Bryan Fairfax - succeeded to the baronial title. However, since both Elizabeth was dead as was Sally's own husband, George Fairfax, Sally must have been pleased that one day her nephew, Thomas, would become the 9th Lord Fairfax.

Interestingly enough, this Thomas took to wife none other than Margaret Herbert, the grandaughter of Sarah Fairfax Carlyle. I'd like to think that this decision to marry a colored relative came from some sense of moral indignation over the scandalous treatment that his black cousins had been given eleven years earlier. Perhaps, too, he felt that his spiritual obligation, as head of the family, was to insure a haven of racial harmony, at least within the increasingly larger circles of its extended membership. He was certainly aware of what he was doing. The letter of Sally's discussing her husband's trip to prove to his Uncle in England that

he was not a Negroe's son
had, in point of fact, been written to him. I would also like to believe, therefore, that God was pleased to accept this act or, preferably, this sacrament of racial reconciliation, for he blessed it and made it fruitful. Today, the 14th Lord Fairfax and a great many of the country's historical Southern names are descended from either this marriage or from those of other Carlyle, Herbert and Whiting members of the bride's family.


* As the great niece of the only English Lord resident in Virginia, George William's sister, Anne, despite her bi-racial background, must have been quite a catch for Lawrence Washington, George's older brother. Although distantly related, his surname was nowhere as distinguished as hers. On their marriage in 1743, he built Mount Vernon - the estate his brother George inherited almost a decade later. Although Martha Custis Washington will forever be considered the mistress of Mount Vernon, it should now be pointed out that the first was Anne Fairfax, a woman of color and either the daughter or granddaughter of an African slave. At the death of her husband, it was she who, in fact, inherited Mount Vernon. When she later remarried Colonel George Lee in 1752, George Washington took occupancy of the estate and was required, under the terms of his brother's will, to pay his sister-in-law a yearly rent of L82 which he did until her own death in 1761.

** Like Mount Vernon, another site - Carlyle House - is relevant to our story and today it's one of the more popular tourist attractions in Virginia. When Maj. John Carlyle built this stone edifice in 1753 for his bride, Sarah Fairfax, Anne and George William's sister, it was not only the first of its kind in Alexandria, it was one of the grandest residences for miles around. What makes Carlyle House so historically important, however, is that it was the setting for General Braddock's meeting with five Colonial governors which he had organized to map the Colony's strategy in the French and Indian War. This was the first such conference ever convened in the nation. As Maj. Carlyle proudly boasted about the affair his wife had hosted,

...the grandest Congress... ever known on this continent...
Carved into the door frame of the imposing entrance, the initials, J S C, can still be seen. The S stands for Sarah Fairfax, the woman of color for whom this beautiful and historically important architectural monument was erected.

Copyright Mario Valdes 1998

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