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George Washington, the “Father of the Nation,” had no biological children of his own. But during his 40-year marriage to Martha, the Revolutionary War hero and first president presided over a Mount Vernon estate filled with her children and grandchildren, and by their accounts was a beloved father figure.
Why did George and Martha have no children of their own? There’s almost nothing in the historical record that conclusively answers what was then (and now) a private question, but that hasn’t stopped people from guessing. Modern theories range from tuberculosis-induced sterility to, in Martha’s case, a severe bout of measles.
George and Martha were both in their late twenties when they married and fully expected to have children together. In Washington’s day, it was common to blame the woman for fertility issues, but Mary V. Thompson, research historian at Mount Vernon, says that Martha had four children with her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, and “there’s no evidence that there was a problem.”
If Washington’s lack of biological children bothered him, he left no record of it. Historians point to one letter to his nephew in which a 54-year-old Washington discusses the remote possibility of future heirs. If he were to die before Martha, Washington insists that there’s a “moral certainty” that no illegitimate heirs will come out of the woodwork. And if he were to outlive Martha and remarry, there still wouldn’t be any kids.
“[S]hould I be the longest liver, the matter in my opinion, is hardly less certain,” wrote Washington, “for while I retain the faculty of reasoning, I shall never marry a girl; & it is not probable that I should have children by a woman of an age suitable to my own, should I be disposed to enter into a second marriage.”
READ MORE: George Washington: Timeline of His Life
George Washington Was a Father to Martha's Two Younger Children
But the lack of his own biological children didn’t mean that Washington was childless. Martha’s two oldest children had already died by the time she remarried, but Washington became the legal guardian of her two younger children: four-year-old John Parke Custis (known as Jacky) and two-year-old Martha Parke Custis (known as Patsy).
From his letters, we get a clear picture of Washington as a somewhat stern and formal parent, but also a loving father who only wanted the best for his children and eventually his grandchildren.
“It seems like [Washington] was a good father figure to the kids,” says Kathryn Gehred, research editor with The Washington Papers at the University of Virginia. “He’s always writing letters to Martha’s children and to the grandchildren they take in after both of those children die. He’s always giving people advice—very rarely listened to—but you can tell that he took on a big role.”
READ MORE: Why Martha Washington Was the Ultimate Military Spouse
Washington Emphasized Education, Especially Among His Boys
Washington placed great importance on education, especially for the male children and grandchildren in his family. Because Washington’s own father died young, he never received a formal education beyond grammar school.
Washington was sorely disappointed when boys in his family seemed to lack interest in school and preferred the relaxed life of country gentlemen. In a letter to Jacky’s schoolmaster, Washington complains that Jacky is returning from a summer break, “His Mind a good deal relaxed from Study, & more than ever turnd to Dogs Horses & Guns.”
Washington asks the schoolmaster to make sure that Jacky doesn’t sneak out and get into trouble, “rambling about at Nights in Company with those, who do not care how debauchd and vicious his Conduct may be.” A worried father, Washington insists that “I have his welbeing much at Heart, & shoud be sorry to see him fall into any vice, or evil course, which there is a possibility of restraining him from.”
Washington’s relationship with his girls was less strained, but also tinged with tragedy. He fell in love with little Patsy and was the only father she ever knew. Sadly, she was plagued by epileptic fits starting in her early teens and died suddenly at 17 with a weeping Washington by her bedside.
“He was very upset,” says Thompson. “Apparently, she had been doing better, and he and Martha were both terribly surprised that it happened and just devastated.”
The day Patsy was buried at Mount Vernon, Washington penned a letter to his brother-in-law relating the sudden loss of his “Sweet Innocent Girl” and its debilitating effect on Martha, which had "almost reduced my poor Wife to the lowest ebb of Misery."
George and Martha Become Parents to Their Grandchildren
Eight years after Patsy’s death, Washington had a second act as the de facto father of two of his grandchildren. When Jacky died in 1781, George and Martha took in his two youngest children, two-year-old Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis (known as Nelly) and infant George Washington Parke Custis (affectionately called Washy).
When the Marquis de Lafayette visited Mount Vernon in 1784, he wrote of the warm relationship between the towering war hero and his three-year-old grandson. He described “a very little gentleman with a feather in his hat, holding fast to one finger of the good General’s remarkable hand, which (so large that hand!) was all the tiny fellow could manage.”
As Washy grew up, he inherited his father’s distaste for school. In a letter to the president of Princeton, where Washy was about to flunk out, Washington vents his frustration.
"From [Washy’s] infancy, I have discovered an almost unconquerable disposition to indolence in every thing that did not tend to his amusements,” wrote Washington, “and have exhorted him in the most parental and friendly manner, often, to devote his time to more useful pursuits…”
When Washy eventually dropped out of Princeton and came home to Mount Vernon to “study,” Washington wrote him with classic fatherly advice—“Rise early, that by habit it may become familiar, agreeable—healthy—and profitable”—and some good old-fashioned nagging.
“[T]he hours allotted for study, if really applied to it, instead of running up & down stairs, & wasted in conversation with any one who will talk with you, will enable you to make considerable progress in whatsoever line is marked out for you: and that you may do it, is my sincere wish.”
READ MORE: Did Washington Believe in God?
Washington Offered Advice on 'Cloying' Love
The stoic Washington we know from portraits was surprisingly keen on offering love and marriage advice to his granddaughters and nieces. When his 18-year-old granddaughter, Elizabeth Parke Custis Law, was discouraged that her younger sister had beaten her to the altar, Washington warned her of marrying only for love.
"Love is a mighty pretty thing; but like all other delicious things, it is cloying,” Washington wrote Elizabeth, “and when the first transports of the passion begins to subside, which it assuredly will do, and yield, oftentimes too late, to more sober reflections, it serves to evince, that love is too dainty a food to live upon alone, and ought not to be considered farther than as a necessary ingredient for that matrimonial happiness which results from a combination of causes."
Washington’s fatherly advice was routinely ignored. In a later letter to Elizabeth, Washington warns her about marrying an older man: “[F]or youth and old age, no more than winter & Summer, can be assimilated—the frigidity of the latter, cannot be kept in unison with the warmth of the former: and besides the habits of the two, are widely dissimilar.”
Two months later, Gehred says, Elizabeth became engaged to a man “twice her age.” Fifteen years after their marriage, the union ended in divorce.
Washington never formally adopted any of Martha’s children or grandchildren, but that didn’t make him any less of a father in their eyes. In 1776, a year into the Revolutionary War, a now-married Jacky was moved to write a heartfelt letter to Washington expressing what he had never been able to say in person.
"It pleased the Almighty to deprive me at a very early Period of Life of my Father, but I can not sufficiently adore His Goodness in sending Me so good a Guardian as you Sir,” wrote Jacky. “Few have experience'd such Care and Attention from real Parents as I have done. He best deserves the Name of Father who acts the Part of one."
READ MORE: 5 Myths About George Washington, Debunked
George Washington’s family legacy includes children born from slaves
Craig Syphax and Donna Kunkel portrayed their ancestors at a June reenactment of the 1821 wedding of slaves Charles Syphax and Maria Carter at Arlington House. Matthew Barakat/Associated Press
ARLINGTON, Va. — George Washington’s adopted son was a bit of a ne’er-do-well by most accounts, including those of Washington himself, who wrote about his frustrations with the boy they called ‘‘Wash.’’
‘‘From his infancy, I have discovered an almost unconquerable disposition to indolence in everything that did not tend to his amusements,’’ the founding father wrote.
At the time, George Washington Parke Custis was 16 and attending Princeton, one of several schools he bounced in and out of. Before long, he was back home at Mount Vernon, where he would be accused of fathering children with slaves.
Two centuries later, the National Park Service and the nonprofit that runs Washington’s Mount Vernon estate are concluding that the rumors were true: In separate exhibits, they show that the first family’s family tree has been biracial from its earliest branches.
‘‘There is no more pushing this history to the side,’’ said Matthew Penrod, a National Park Service ranger and programs manager at Arlington House, where the lives of the Washingtons, their slaves, and Confederate General Robert E. Lee all converged.
President George Washington had no direct descendants, and his wife Martha Custis was a widow when they married, but he adopted Martha’s grandchildren — ‘‘Wash’’ and his sister ‘‘Nellie’’ — and raised them on his Mount Vernon estate.
Parke Custis married Mary Fitzhugh in 1804, and they had one daughter who survived into adulthood, Mary Anna Randolph Custis. In 1831, she married her third cousin — Lee, who then served as a US Army lieutenant.
Outside the marriage, Parke Custis likely fathered children with two of his stepfather’s slaves: Arianna Carter and Caroline Branham, according to the exhibits at Arlington House and Mount Vernon.
The first official acknowledgment came in June when the Park Service reenacted the 1821 wedding of Maria Carter to Charles Syphax at Arlington House, the hilltop mansion overlooking the capital that Custis built (and that Lee later managed) as a shrine to his adoptive stepfather. A new family tree, unveiled at the reenactment, lists the bride’s parents as Parke Custis and Arianna Carter.
‘‘We fully recognize that the first family of this country was much more than what it appeared on the surface,’’ Penrod said at the ceremony.
The privately run Mount Vernon estate explores this slave history in ‘‘Lives Bound Together,’’ an exhibition opening this year that acknowledges that Parke Custis also likely fathered a girl named Lucy with slave Caroline Branham.
Tour guides were hardly this frank when Penrod started at Arlington House 26 years ago. Staffers were told to describe slave dwellings as ‘‘servants’ quarters,’’ and ‘‘the focus was on Lee, to honor him and show him in the most positive light,’’ Penrod said.
He said no new, definitive evidence has surfaced to prove Parke Custis fathered girls with slaves rather, the recognition reflects a growing sense that African-American history cannot be disregarded and that Arlington House represents more than Lee’s legacy, he said.
Scientific proof would require matching the DNA of Carter and Branham descendants to the progeny of his daughter and the Confederate general, because the Parke Custis line runs exclusively through the offspring of his daughter and Robert E. Lee.
Stephen Hammond of Reston, a Syphax descendant, has researched his family tree extensively. He said the Park Service’s recognition of the Custis’ paternity is gratifying. ‘‘It’s become a passion of mine, figuring out where we fit in American history,’’ Hammond said.
Hammond said he and his cousins have yet to approach the Lee descendants to gauge their interest in genetic tests, and it’s not clear how they feel about the official recognition — several didn’t respond to Associated Press requests for comment.
Some family records are kept at Robert E. Lee’s birthplace, Stratford Hall, but research director Judy Hynson said she knows of none that acknowledge Parke Custis fathered slaves.
‘‘That’s not something you would write down in your family Bible,’’ Hynson said.
The circumstantial evidence includes the Carter-Syphax wedding in Arlington House — an unusual honor for slaves — and the fact that Parke Custis not only freed Maria Syphax and her sons before the Civil War, but set aside 17 acres on the estate for her.
Indeed, after Mount Vernon was seized by Union forces, an act of Congress ensured that land was returned to Maria Syphax’s family. New York Senator Ira Harris said then that Washington’s adopted son had a special interest in her — ‘‘something perhaps akin to a paternal instinct.’’
Oral histories also argue for shared bloodlines.
Maria Carter’s descendants know, for example, that her name was pronounced ‘‘Ma-RYE-eh,’’ not ‘‘Ma-REE-uh,’’ said Donna Kunkel of Los Angeles, who portrayed her ancestor at the reenactment.
‘‘As a kid I would always tell people I was related to George Washington, but no one would believe me,’’ she said.
Branham descendants include ZSun-nee Miller-Matema of Hagerstown, Md., who said ‘‘my aunt old me that if the truth of our family was known, it would topple the first families of Virginia.’’
She said she discovered her truth by happenstance in the 1990s, when she spotted a portrait with a family resemblance while researching at the Alexandria Black History Museum for a stage production. A museum staffer soon sat her down with records. Eventually, she traced her ancestry to Caroline Branham, who appears in documents written in the first president’s own hand.
‘‘I just couldn’t believe it,’’ she said. ‘‘General Washington was taking notes on my Caroline?’’
As slaves, the women could not consent to the sexual advances of the plantation owner’s adopted son, but Kunkel said she tries not to think of the acts as rape.
‘‘I try to focus on the outcome. He treated Maria with respect after the fact,’’ she said.
Incorporating these family histories into the nation’s shared story is particularly important at a time of renewed racial tension, Miller-Matema said.
‘‘We’re all so much a part of each other,’’ she said. ‘‘It just makes no sense any more to be a house divided.’’
George Washington had no biological children of his own, and it took many years for Washington to come to grips with the fact that he was not going to father his own children. 1 Despite this difficulty, the Washingtons' home at Mount Vernon was filled with children for nearly all forty years of their marriage. For most of these children, George Washington stood in the role of father or grandfather.
The first of these children were the two surviving children of Martha Washington's first marriage to Daniel Parke Custis. John Parke Custis (known as Jacky when younger, and Jack as he got older) was around four years old when his mother married George Washington. Martha Parke Custis, known as Patsy, was about two years old at the time of the wedding.
Jacky and Patsy were not, however, the only children who viewed George Washington as a surrogate father. The death of Martha's son during the Yorktown campaign in 1781 left his three daughters&mdashEliza, Martha, and Eleanor&mdashas well as his infant son George Washington Parke Custis in the care of their sick and grieving twenty-three-year-old mother. Washington tried to convince his brother-in-law, Bartholomew Dandridge, to oversee their upbringing and their estate. 2
Dandridge eventually agreed to oversee the Custis family estate for the children, while George and Martha Washington took the two youngest children, Nelly and George Washington Parke Custis (called Washy) into their own home to be raised as their children. 3 In addition to Martha Washington's children and grandchildren, George Washington also found himself in the role of surrogate father to several nieces and nephews. Foremost among them were the children of his younger brother, Samuel who died in 1781.
Three of Samuel's children were of special concern to their uncle: George Steptoe Washington, who was eight at the time of his father's death, Lawrence Augustine Washington, who was six, and Harriet, who was five when her father died. Since the two boys were attending school in Alexandria after the war, their uncle became very involved in their upbringing. Harriet spent time both at Mount Vernon and Kenmore (the home of George Washington's sister, Betty Washington Lewis), in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
One of the most noticeable differences between George Washington and his wife in regard to raising children had to do with their approach to discipline. George Washington, with his experience as a soldier, tried to take a rather hard line toward young people who acted inappropriately and was not against the judicious use of corporal punishment. 4 Martha Washington, however, tended to be much more lenient with the children in her care. 5
Education was extremely important to George Washington. The death of his own father when he was only eleven meant that Washington did not have the opportunity to study in England, as had his two older half brothers. With education being such an important topic in his life, George Washington could not understand why the young men he helped to raise either could not or would not see the need to apply themselves at school. 6
George Washington's female stepchildren and step-grandchildren approached education in a far more positive manner. When told by her teacher that the only suitable subjects for women were "mending, writing, Arithmetic, & Music," Eliza Parke Custis reacted despondently, often thinking of those words "with deep regreet" throughout her life because of her desire for formal education. 7 During the years of George Washington's presidency, younger sister Nelly studied at some of the best schools available to young women in both New York and Philadelphia.
Martha Washington's youngest child, Martha Parke Custis (known to the family as Patsy) had a particularly difficult life. Only a toddler when her parents were married, she grew into a gentle teenager who showed great promise. However, by the time Patsy was around eleven or twelve she became plagued with frequent seizures. The young woman passed away during the summer of 1773, when she was around seventeen years old.
Among the parenting duties George Washington found himself undertaking as his wife's granddaughters grew into young women was counseling them on the subjects of love and marriage. In the late summer of 1794, the oldest granddaughter Eliza (then eighteen years old), was feeling dejected because her next youngest sister Martha had just become engaged. Her step-grandfather seemed to think some fatherly encouragement was called for, explaining that a good marriage required that the proposed partner "should possess good sense, good dispositions, and the means of supporting you in the way you have been brought up," as well as having the respect and esteem of his social circle. 8
In the last years of his life George Washington saw all three of his step-granddaughters marry and give birth to the next generation of his adopted family. By the time of his death on December 14th of 1799, there were five great-grandchildren, including Nelly's two-and-a-half week old daughter, Frances Parke Lewis. Thus the man known throughout the world as the father of his own country but had no biological children of his own spent the forty years of his married life in a home filled with children. In the process of raising Nelly, Jack and the other children who came into his life, Washington learned that being a father was much more than a simple biological process, but involved years of care, worry, advice, money, humor, and joy.
Mary V. Thompson
Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens
1. See, for example, "George Washington to Charles Thomson, 22 January 1784," in The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 27 ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, DC: The United States Government Printing Office, 1931-1938), 312 and The Last Will and Testament of George Washington and Schedule of his Property to which is appended the Last Will and Testament of Martha Washington ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Mount Vernon, Virginia: The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union, 1972), 22.
4. "George Washington to Samuel Hanson, 6 August 1788," The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, Vol. 6, ed. W.W. Abbot, (Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1997), 429.
5. "Abigail Adams to Mrs. William Stephens Smith, 11 October 1789," in New Letters of Abigail Adams, 1788-1801, ed. Stewart Mitchell (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1947), 30.
6. "Jonathan Boucher to George Washington," 21 May 1770, The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, Vol. 8, 339.
7. William D. Hoyt, Jr., "Self-Portrait: Eliza Custis, 1808," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (April 1945), 97.
Washington's Brothers and Sisters
George Washington had 9 siblings: 3 brothers, 2 sisters, 3 half-brothers, and 1 half-sister.
Samuel Washington (1734-1781)
John Augustine Washington (1736-1787)
Charles Washington (1738-1799)
Betty Washington Lewis (1733 - 1797)
Mildred Washington (1737-1740)
Butler Washington (1716-1716)
Lawrence Washington (1718-1752)
Augustine Washington Jr. (1720-1762)
Jane Washington (1722-1734)
Lawrence Washington was the elder half-brother of George Washington, being the oldest living child of Augustine Washington and his first wife Jane Butler. George Washington idolized his elder brother from a young age.
Betty Washington Lewis
Betty Washington was the second child and only surviving daughter of Augustine and Mary Ball Washington. In adulthood, she and her husband, Fielding, contributed a considerable amount of their personal wealth and time toward the American Revolution.
Charles Washington was George Washington&rsquos youngest brother. The brothers corresponded throughout their lives, and Charles frequently visited his older brother at Mount Vernon in the years prior to the American Revolution.
The Secret History of George Washington’s Slave Descendants
While George Washington had no biological offspring, he did have a child. George Washington Parke Custis (or “Wash,” as he was often called) was a grandchild of Martha’s from her first marriage. When Daniel Parke Custis died in 1757, she married George in 1759, with the two remaining together until his death in 1799. When Wash was orphaned at the age of just six months in 1781, Martha and George adopted him.
Wash lived to the age of 76, dying in 1857. He inherited a fortune from George and, while not considered a particularly effective plantation manager, remained a respected figure through his life, particularly for his role in preserving the possessions of his adopted father. (He also had an extremely accomplished son-in-law in the form of Robert E. Lee, who married the only acknowledged Custis child to live to adulthood.)
Yet this didn’t change the fact that family members felt that Martha “spoiled” him while George was occupied with his obligations to our emerging nation and not around to supply any discipline. (George wrote of Wash: “From his infancy, I have discovered an almost unconquerable disposition to indolence in everything that did not tend to his amusements.”) Consequently, Wash tended to drift, never completing his college education and also engaging in behavior in his personal life that Mount Vernon and the National Park Service did their best to ignore for over 200 years.
Specifically, it was long rumored that Wash fathered children with Arianna Carter and Caroline Branham, two of the slaves at Mount Vernon. This turned out to be an understatement: It appears Wash fathered children with several slaves. (DNA testing is still needed to confirm all the connections.) Only in 2016 have the National Park Service and Mount Vernon publicly admitted this likelihood as part of an exhibit exploring George Washington’s relationship with slavery—while a lifelong slaveholder, George took the bold step for the time of freeing his slaves in his will.
To read more about these previously concealed branches of the Washington family tree, click here. To read about how some of Washington’s newly acknowledged descendants feel about this change in the historical record, click here.
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Descendants of Slave's Son Contend That His Father Was George Washington
Did George Washington father a son with Venus, a young slave who lived on the estate of his half brother John Augustine Washington?
Three descendants of Venus's son, who was called West Ford, say that according to a family tradition two centuries old, George Washington was West Ford's father. They hope to develop DNA evidence from descendants of the Washington family and Washington's hair samples to bolster their case.
Historians are skeptical, saying there is no documentary evidence to suggest that Washington ever met Venus, whose son was born four or five years before Washington became President, and several reasons to consider any such liaison improbable. In addition, Washington, 26 when he married Martha, then 27, had no children with her. But Martha bore four children in her first marriage, suggesting that Washington may have been sterile.
Yet there is reason to believe that if the child's father was not Washington, it might have been someone closely related to him. The cousins' claim has several elements of truth, enough to set up a historical mystery as to the identity of West Ford's father and to add a new strand to the emerging links between the black and white sides of slave-owning families.
Though the tradition was passed down with a warning to tell no white person, the present generation of West Ford's descendants has spoken freely of their secret. They are doing so again after DNA evidence, reported last November, supported the tradition among descendants of Sally Hemings, a slave on Thomas Jefferson's estate, that Jefferson fathered her family.
''When West Ford was a little boy, he heard the slaves talking about how much he looked like George Washington,'' said Linda Bryant, a health writer and pharmaceutical representative who lives in Aurora, Colo. Ms. Bryant is repeating the story her mother, Elise Ford Allen, heard from Mrs. Allen's grandfather, Maj. George W. Ford, a grandson of West Ford.
''We were told she was his personal sleep partner and that when it was obvious she was pregnant he no longer slept with her,'' Ms. Bryant said, referring to her great-grandfather's statements about Venus. ''When she was asked who fathered her child, she replied George Washington was the father.''
Ms. Bryant and her sister Janet Allen, an editor in Peoria, Ill., have been trying to arrange a DNA test to compare West Ford's descendants with those of the Washingtons.
''We're the heirs of George Washington on the slave side,'' Ms. Allen said, 'ɺnd we can't get a Washington to come forward.''
Ms. Bryant and Ms. Allen have a distant cousin, Judith S. Burton, a retired teacher in Alexandria, Va. Ms. Burton is a great-granddaughter of John Bell Ford, Major Ford's brother. The cousins say that they have known one other only since 1994 and that Ms. Burton had been told the same story by her grandmother.
''My grandmother used to tell us all the time when we were very young that West Ford was the son of George Washington,'' she said. ''His mother was Venus. Venus was the daughter of Jenny who was the servant to Hannah Washington, George Washington's sister-in-law.''
Oral traditions like this have won a new respect in light of the Jefferson-Hemings liaison, which until the DNA tests was for years dismissed by most historians of Jefferson. But Washington historians have not found evidence to support the idea that George Washington might have fathered a child with a slave.
For one thing, he was protective of his reputation, which the exposure of an extramarital relationship could have impaired.
''George Washington had an acute self-awareness of his importance to a young, untested nation,'' said Jean Lee, a University of Wisconsin historian who is an expert on Mount Vernon and its slaves. ''He watched and modeled his behavior very carefully, and that would not comport with a liaison.''
For another, there is no evidence that Washington ever met Venus. Unlike Sally Hemings, who was a personal attendant of Jefferson, Venus lived on a distant estate belonging to Washington's half brother John Augustine Washington. The plantation was at Bushfield, one and a half to two day's hard riding from Mount Vernon, Washington's home.
To relate their family tradition to known historical facts, Ms. Bryant and Ms. Allen have suggested that George Washington visited his brother in April 1784 for the funeral of John Augustine's 17-year-old son, also named Augustine, who was killed in an accident.
''We believe that is when he had the relationship with Venus,'' Ms. Bryant said. ''Venus was made available to him for his comfort.''
Historians disagree. Mary V. Thompson, a research specialist at Mount Vernon, said she had consulted many records but could find no evidence that Washington and Venus were ever in the same place at the same time.
West Ford, Venus's son, seems to have been born before June 1784, or possibly before November 1785, according to an ambiguous statement in the will of Hannah Washington, John Augustine's wife, Ms. Thompson said. Only the later date allows any possibility that George Washington was the father: he was away fighting the Revolutionary War and did not return home to Mount Vernon until Christmas Eve 1783.
To investigate the cousins' claim, Ms. Thompson said she had tried to establish Washington's whereabouts for every day in 1784 from his correspondence and for 1785 from his diary. There are several gaps of a few days in 1784, in which a person could perhaps have dashed over to Bushfield and back.
But Washington, though officially in retirement, was extraordinarily busy during this period. His house was so full of visitors that he rarely sat down to dine with his wife alone.
''He called Mount Vernon a well-resorted tavern,'' said Dorothy Twohig, who was chief editor of Washington's papers for 30 years. ''It just seems to me, knowing Washington very well, that whatever the moral aspects, this is a question of politics. Washington was an extremely careful man, very conscious of his reputation.''
Ms. Bryant, who is writing a book about her family tradition, is trying to develop DNA evidence and has consulted Dr. Eugene Foster, the pathologist who took DNA samples in the Jefferson family case. Dr. Foster told Ms. Bryant that he would need DNA from men in the all-male line of descent from West Ford and the Washington families.
Ms. Bryant said that she had a male relative in an all-male line of descent from West Ford and that she was negotiating with an all-male line descendant of Corbin Washington, George's nephew, to determine whether he would also be willing to be tested. Although George and Martha Washington had no children together, comparison of a Y chromosome inherited from one of his brothers with that of a West Ford descendant could indicate whether a Washington family member was West Ford's father. But it could not prove that George Washington was the father.
Ms. Bryant said the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union, which runs Mount Vernon, had refused to provide hair samples for testing. It ''will do anything by whatever means necessary to keep this story hushed,'' she said.
But Ms. Thompson, the research specialist and a staff member of the association, said that for a different purpose -- to test their authenticity -- the Federal Bureau of Investigation had analyzed samples of hair identified as Washington's from Mount Vernon and four other museums but had failed to recover enough DNA even to tell if the samples were from the same person.
''So I don't think testing the hair would really help,'' Ms. Thompson said. But she and other historians give serious weight to the cousins' family history, even if they interpret it differently, because similar accounts have been preserved independently.
''I think it is very interesting that the tradition came down in two branches of the family, separated for over 100 years,'' she said.
West Ford seems to have had a secret, one that was known to John Augustine and Hannah Washington and that caused them to treat him with special favor. A portrait preserved at Mount Vernon shows that West Ford was fair skinned, suggesting that his father was white. According to the oral history received by Ms. Burton, West Ford attended church and went hunting with Augustine and Hannah Washington, as if he were a family member. Hannah, in her will, directed that West should be inoculated against smallpox, trained in a trade until he was 21, and then freed, the only of her slaves to be freed.
It is not impossible that West Ford's father was one of Hannah's three sons, all of them young, unmarried men at the time of his birth: in 1784 Bushrod was 21, Corbin 19, and Augustine 17.
Bushrod, who later inherited Mount Vernon and became a Justice of the United States Supreme Court, is an obvious candidate. He took West Ford to Mount Vernon, where he served as a carpenter and foreman. Bushrod also left West Ford a tract of land in his will.
''If you compare pictures of West Ford with Bushrod Washington, they look a lot alike,'' said Philander Chase, who followed Dr. Twohig as editor of Washington's papers.
Ms. Thompson suggests another possibility. When Augustine, the youngest son, died in the gun accident, his parents were distraught. Augustine ''possesed as sweet a disposicion as ever a Youth did,'' his father wrote to George Washington, adding ''I wish to God Mrs Washington could have borne this loss as well as myself -- but the shock was too great for her infirm frame to bear with any tolorable fortitude, upon the first communication she fell into a Strong Convulsion which continued for some time, and when that went of, she lay for near four hours in a state of insencibility, when her reason returned her grief did also and she had a return of the Fit.''
Could Hannah have freed West Ford because she believed him to be Augustine's son? Oral traditions often have large elements of truth 'ɻut sometimes things get a little skewed,'' Ms. Thompson said.
The slain boy's full name, she noted, was George Augustine Washington, although some documents also give his first name as William.
Ms. Bryant rejects the possibility that ''George Augustine'' could have changed into ''George Washington'' in the telling of her family's story. She emphasized the directness of the history, saying that West Ford had told it to his grandson, who told it to her mother.
It is not hard to believe that Ms. Bryant and her cousins may be true Washingtons, a testimony to the power of their oral history. But without independent evidence, Venus's voice across the centuries is too faint for listeners to make out the first name of her son's father.
Did Washington father a child with slave? Descendants of slave named Venus say she bore first President a son Historians are skeptical
Did George Washington father a son with Venus, a young slave who lived on the estate of his brother, John Augustine Washington?
Three descendants of Venus' son, who was called West Ford, say that according to a family tradition two centuries old, George Washington was West Ford's father. They hope to develop DNA evidence from Washington family descendants and his hair samples to bolster their case.
Historians so far are skeptical, saying there is no documentary evidence to suggest that Washington ever met Venus, whose son was born four or five years before he became president, and several reasons to consider any such liaison improbable. In addition, Washington, who was 26 when he married Martha, then 27, had no children with her. But Martha bore four children in her first marriage, suggesting that Washington may have been sterile.
There is, however, reason to believe that if the child's father was not Washington, it might have been someone closely related to him. The cousins' claim has several elements of truth, enough to set up a historical mystery as to the identity of West Ford's father and to add a new strand to the emerging links between the black and white sides of slave-owning families.
Though the tradition was passed down with a warning to tell no white person, the present generation of West Ford's descendants has spoken freely of their ancient secret. They are doing so again after DNA evidence, reported last November, supported the tradition among descendants of Sally Hemings, a slave on Thomas Jefferson's estate, that Jefferson fathered her family.
"When West Ford was a little boy he heard the slaves talking about how much he looked like George Washington," said Linda Bryant, a health writer and pharmaceutical representative who lives in Aurora, Colo. Bryant is repeating the story her mother, Elise Ford Allen, heard from Allen's grandfather, Maj. George W. Ford, a grandson of West Ford.
"We were told she was his personal sleep partner and that when it was obvious she was pregnant he no longer slept with her," Bryant said, referring to her great-grandfather's statements about Venus. "When she was asked who fathered her child, she replied George Washington was the father."
Bryant and her sister Janet Allen, an editor with the Traveler Weekly of Peoria, have been trying to arrange a DNA test to compare West Ford's descendants with those of the Washington family.
"We're the heirs of George Washington on the slave side and we can't get a Washington to come forward," Allen said.
Bryant and Allen have a distant cousin, Judith S. Burton, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Alexandria, Va. Burton, who has a doctorate in education, is a great-granddaughter of John Bell Ford, George Ford's brother. The cousins say that they have known one another only since 1994, but that Burton had been told the same story by her grandmother.
"My grandmother used to tell us all the time when we were very young that West Ford was the son of George Washington," Burton said. "His mother was Venus. Venus was the daughter of Jenny who was the servant to Hannah Washington, George Washington's sister-in-law."
Oral traditions like this have won a new respect in light of the Jefferson-Hemings liaison, which until the DNA tests was dismissed by most historians of Jefferson. But Washington historians have not found any evidence to support the idea that Washington might have fathered a child with a slave.
For one thing, he was protective of his reputation, which the exposure of an extramarital relationship could have impaired.
"George Washington had an acute self-awareness of his importance to a young, untested nation," said Jean B. Lee, a historian at the University of Wisconsin who is an expert on Mount Vernon and its slaves. "He watched and modeled his behavior very carefully, and that would not comport with a liaison."
For another, there is no evidence that Washington ever met Venus. Unlike Sally Hemings, who was a personal attendant of Jefferson, Venus lived on a distant estate belonging to Washington's brother, John Augustine Washington. The plantation was at Bushfield, one and a half to two day's hard riding from Washington's home at Mount Vernon.
To relate their family tradition to known historical facts, Bryant and Allen have suggested that George Washington visited his brother in April 1784 for the funeral of John Augustine's 17-year-old son, also named Augustine, who was killed by a classmate in an accident with a loaded gun.
"We believe that is when he had the relationship with Venus," Bryant said. "Venus was made available to him for his comfort."
But historians disagree. Mary V. Thompson, a research specialist at Mount Vernon, said she had consulted many records but could find no evidence that Washington and Venus were ever in the same place at the same time.
West Ford, Venus' son, seems to have been born before June 1784, or possibly before November 1785, according to an ambiguous statement in the will of Hannah Washington, John Augustine's wife, Thompson said. Only the later date allows any possibility that George Washington was the father: the general was away fighting the Revolutionary War and did not return home to Mount Vernon until Christmas Eve of 1783.
To investigate the cousins' claim, Thompson said she had tried to establish Washington's whereabouts for every day in 1784 from his correspondence and for 1785 from his diary. There are several gaps of a few days in 1784, in which a person could perhaps have dashed over to Bushfield and back.
But Washington, though officially in retirement, was extraordinarily busy during this period. His house was so full of visitors that he rarely sat down to dine with his wife alone.
"He called Mount Vernon a well-resorted tavern," said Dorothy Twohig, who was chief editor of Washington's papers for 30 years. "It just seems to me, knowing Washington very well, that whatever the moral aspects, this is a question of politics. Washington was an extremely careful man, very conscious of his reputation. He would have been extremely unlikely to have gotten involved in anything."
Bryant, who is writing a book about her family tradition, is trying to develop DNA evidence and has consulted Dr. Eugene Foster, the pathologist who took DNA samples in the Jefferson family case. Foster told her he would need DNA from men in the all-male line of descent from West Ford and the Washington families.
Bryant said she had a male relative in an all-male line of descent from West Ford, and that she is negotiating with an all-male line descendant of Corbin Washington, George's nephew, to determine whether he would also be willing to be tested.
Although George and Martha Washington had no children, comparison of a Y chromosome inherited from one of his brothers with that of a West Ford descendant could indicate whether a Washington family member was West Ford's father. But it could not prove that George Washington was the father.
Bryant said the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which runs Mount Vernon, had refused to provide hair samples for testing. The association "will do anything by whatever means necessary to keep this story hushed," she said.
But Thompson, the research specialist and a staff member of the association, said that for a different purpose to test their authenticity the Federal Bureau of Investigation had analyzed samples of hair identified as Washington's from Mount Vernon and four other museums and had failed to recover enough DNA even to tell if the samples were from the same person. "So I don't think testing the hair would really help," Thompson said.
But she and other historians give serious weight to the cousins' family history, even if they interpret it differently. It is significant that similar accounts have been preserved independently by both women.
Did You Know George Washington Had A Black Son Named West Ford
One of the many things school didn’t teach us about Black History month was that George Washington had a illegitimate black son with a slave nammed Venus named West Ford. According to Westfordlegacy:
1785 West Ford, the son of George Washington and Venus, is born in Westmoreland County, VA.
1799 George Washington dies at his Mount Vernon plantation.
1802 West Ford comes to Mount Vernon with new owner, Bushrod Washington. West becomes caretaker of George Washington’s tomb and is befriended by Washington’s old valet, Billy Lee.
1804 West Ford is freed on his 21st birthday his portrait is drawn to commemorate the occasion.
1812 West Ford marries Priscilla Bell, a free woman, they have four children William, Daniel, Jane and Julia. The children are educated on the Mount Vernon plantation.
1829 Bushrod Washington dies and wills 160 acres of land to West Ford. John Augustine Washington III inherits Mount Vernon. West works at Mount Vernon as an overseer. Venus dies a slave before West can buy her freedom.
1833 West Ford sells his land and purchases 214 acres adjacent to it the area is known today as Gum Springs.
1994 A National Enquirer article speculating upon whom should be heir to the U.S. “throne” left vacant by George Washington results in the Allen/Ford family reuniting with another branch of the Ford family through descendant Dr. Judy Saunders Burton.
1996 The Allen/Ford family goes public with the story of George Washington in their family tree articles appear in Newsweek, Time, and Der Spiegel magazines.
1998 The Washington/Venus story breaks in every major newspaper in the U.S. Feature stories are carried in the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The Peoria Journal Star, Rocky Mountain News, Foster’s Daily Democrat, Newsday, Waterloo Courier, Boston Globe, and USA Today. A number of television broadcasts carry the story as well, including live feature stories on MSMBC and Channel 9 Denver, Colorado mentions on major city networks including CNN, BET, and Saturday Night Live. The story is also featured on several live feature radio broadcasts including WGN, Sheridan Broadcasting Network, KACT Los Angeles, and BBC London.
2000 The West Ford story ushers in the new millenium with a new website and media interest continuing to grow. To date this year the story has been featured on CBS Sunday Morning News, in the Chicago Tribune and Rocky Mountain News. Other print articles and television broadcasts are in the works. In March, a historic meeting took place at Mount Vernon between members of the Ford family and Mount Vernon staff. In May, PBS broadcasted a docu*entary featuring the Ford history and posted a mini-docu*entary called George and Venus that still can be seen on the worldwide web.
2001 Ford descendant Linda Allen Bryant publishes I Cannot Tell a Lie: The True Story of George Washington’s African American Descendants.” The book is the first to explore her family’s controversial history. The History Channel features the Ford family history in a docu*entary called Family Tree in September. Exploration into the saga of West ford and the African-American descendants of George Washington is ongoing. And the story continues….
Discovering George Washington
1. Washington's birth record does not include a middle name.
2. Upon the death of his father, Augustine, Washington became an 11-year-old owner of ten slaves.
3. Washington's formal education ended when he was around 15 years old.
4. Washington stood six feet, three inches tall.
5. He started losing his teeth in his twenties.
6. The National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore, Md., has on display one of Washington's lower dentures—made from gold, ivory and lead, as well as human and animal teeth.
7. The only time Washington traveled out of the country was to Barbados in 1751 with his brother Lawrence who was suffering from tuberculosis.
8. He and Martha were both 27 when they married.
9. Martha, who had first been married at 18, was one of the wealthiest widows in the Tidewater region of eastern Virginia when she married Washington. Only one of her four children with her first husband Daniel Custis survived to adulthood.
10. When Washington inherited Mount Vernon from his brother, the plantation was 2,000 acres. By the time of George's death in 1799, it was 8,000 acres.
11. Charles Willson Peale painted the earliest known portrait of Washington in 1772.
12. One of Washington's most interesting innovations was a nearly round, 16-sided barn for thrashing wheat.
13. He established a spy ring in 1780 to reveal that Major General Benedict Arnold was a traitor.
14. Washington died on December 14, 1799 of a throat infection and was mourned by the nation for months.
15. At his death, Washington owned more than 300 slaves. They were emancipated in his will and some were paid pensions for decades.