DNA and the Case for the Paternity of West Ford

by Linda Allen Bryant

From the time humans first recognized their capacity to pass on characteristics to their offspring, they have wrestled with the puzzle of heredity, which, over the last twenty years, has evolved into the relatively new science of genetics. DNA, the substance in which genetic information is stored, contains a code that can be read and translated by all forms of life. Molecular scientists believe that the same code has been in continuous use for more than 3.5 billion years. Scientists also know that DNA codes are transmitted from one generation to the next with almost flawless accuracy.


DNA forms the "building blocks" of life. DNA tests have been used by police to identify potential suspects in criminal cases such as rape, murder, and homicide. Conversely, the tests have also been used to clear suspects who have been wrongfully accused of these heinous crimes.

As prosecutor Harlan Levy points out in his book And the Blood Cried Out, which examines the power of DNA, in some instances - such as the celebrated O.J. Simpson case - the only way defense attorneys can counter the powerful evidence provided by DNA tests is to undermine the tests by launching an assault on those who did the testing. DNA tests have also been used to identify and/or verify genetic links. DNA is ideal for these purposes for several reasons:

  • It is unique to an individual (except in the case of identical twins);
  • It is unchanging throughout life; and
  • It is found in cells from skin, blood, hair follicles, saliva, and semen.
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    The most infamous and widely-publicized case involving DNA testing was the case of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, his slave mistress.

    An in-depth DNA study compared nineteen genetic markers on the Y chromosomes of fourteen subjects-five male-line descendants of two sons of Field Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson's paternal uncle), three male-line descendants of three sons of John Carr (grandfather of Samuel and Peter Carr), five male-line descendants of two sons of Thomas Woodson, and one male-line descendant of Eston Hemings.**

    The results of the study clearly showed that the male-line descendants of Field Jefferson and Eston Hemings have identical Y-chromosome haplotypes (the particular combination of variants at defined loci on the chromosome). While the study by itself does not establish that Hemings's father was Thomas Jefferson, only that Hemings's father was a Jefferson, scientists note that there is less than a 1 percent probability that this is due to chance.

    The revelation that Thomas Jefferson almost certainly fathered a child with his slave, Sally Hemings, has given the descendants of George Washington a new impetus in our search for the truth. DNA is the only way to truly settle the dispute of West Ford’s paternity, yet many barriers stand in the way of this distinctive testing being done in the case of West Ford.


    Previous Next There is no simple matter for DNA testing when it comes to discerning the paternity of West Ford. As my sister Janet Allen points out, the phrase "DNA" has come to mean "Do Not Accept" - as our research has been continuously discounted and our attempts to obtain existing evidence that could provide the required "proof" of our rightful heritage have thus far been blocked.


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    For a 99% match, DNA from both George Washington and West Ford would be needed. We first sought hair follicles from George Washington, held by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which were vehemently denied us.

    However, the descendants of West Ford are no longer pushing for the hair samples to be tested because they have not conclusively been proven to belong to George Washington. In June of 1994, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was asked to find out if several hair samples actually came from the head of George Washington. The hair samples were taken from the collections of several historic institutions and the hair strands ranged from the chestnut colored hair of Washington’s youth to the snowy white hair of his old age. Washington’s hair may have come from locks of his hair cut for friends and family members to place in their lockets, a tradition common during the 18th and 19th centuries.



    The FBI conducted a DNA test on one of the hair samples, using a newly developed forensic technique which included microscopic analysis and DNA sequencing analysis. A sampling of 11 hairs were extracted from larger samples in the collections from the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, Colonial Williamsburg, Fraunces Tavern in New York City, Tudor Place Foundation, and the DAR Museum.


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    To get a comparable sample, the FBI obtained hair samples from two white, seventh-generation female line Washington descendants. Their hair was tested because mothers pass DNA information on to all their children, but only daughters pass on the specific code sequence to the next generation.

    The FBI’s final analysis showed that a 1781 sample from Tudor Place had a limited sequence and they would not exclude this hair as originating from George Washington. The hair samples were in the house from the time it was built between 1805 and 1816.



    The Tudor Place originally belonged to Martha Peter, granddaughter of Washington’s wife. The house was turned over to the Tudor Place Foundation in 1984 to use as a museum and the hairs were found on a piece of paper dated 1781. The hair sample from Colonial Williamsburg was not genetically tested because the hairs were not long enough. Testing of the eight other hair strands were inconclusive because of a lack of DNA.

    The FBI's findings changed our minds about pursuing the hair samples that were so carefully guarded by Mount Vernon. If we are to pursue DNA testing, we need reliable, proven genetic material to work with.


    PreviousNext Another reason the DNA testing currently eludes the family is that West Ford’s burial place is now unknown. During the Civil War the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association took an ill West from his property on Little Hunting Creek and brought him back to Mount Vernon to tend him. He died a month later.

    Our family oral history states that West was buried in the old tomb of George Washington. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association claims not to know where West Ford is buried, and suggests that he was laid to rest in the mass grave that once comprised the slave cemetery.

    In 1997, I asked the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association if the old tomb could be opened and West Ford’s body exhumed for DNA testing. My request was denied, presumably on the grounds that the old tomb was a National monument and could not be opened to the public. But on October 31, 1998 I visited Mount Vernon and was taken on a private tour along with my cousin, Judith Burton-Saunders, and some friends.


    PreviousNext As I stood in front of the old tomb, the tour guide explained to our group that there was nothing inside the tomb - no coffin, no body, only a dirt floor. She also told us that the tomb would be renovated and open for public viewing in 1999.

    If West Ford’s body was in the old tomb, it is no longer there. One might ask why the tomb was opened with none of West Ford’s relatives in attendance, when the Association knew about the controversy concerning his final resting place. We might also ask why the tomb was renovated and opened to the public after we were told it could not be opened to the public.



    Without conclusive, viable genetic evidence from either West Ford or George Washington, where do we from here with regard to DNA testing? Eugene Foster, a retired pathology professor in Charlottesville, Virginia, who took part in the Thomas Jefferson study, explained the testing that was done in the Jefferson case.

    Only males carry the Y chromosome and all direct descendants in a line share the same or nearly the same Y chromosome. DNA testing on the Y chromosome can reveal whether two men share a common male ancestor. Scientists can analyze variable markers known to identify different lines of Y chromosomes. The markers are repeated sequences of nucleotides the letters in the DNA alphabet.


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    The descendants of West Ford would like to use the same Y-chromosome testing that showed that Eston Hemings, was genetically linked to Jefferson. The descendants of West Ford have a direct male line that can be traced through several branches.

    What is needed to complete the test is the white male line from one of Washington’s brothers. We have been contacted from a lineage coming from an uncle of George Washington. The gentleman was willing to give a DNA sample, unfortunately, he descends from a female line. Another Washington family lineage we have contacted is not presently willing to donate DNA for the testing.

    Thus, our struggle continues. We are actively seeking Washingtons from the male line so that Y chromosome testing can be done and that we might progress in our search for the truth.

    The End


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    "DNA and the Case for the Paternity of West Ford" ©2000 was excerpted from an untitled manuscript by Linda Allen Bryant.Bibliography

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