Major George William Ford Biography

MAJOR GEORGE WILLIAM FORD, written by Linda Allen Hollis for

Ford, Major George William, (23 Nov. 1847 – 20 June 1939), U.S. military officer was born in Alexandria, Virginia, the son of William West and Henrietta Bruce Ford.  George Ford was the great grandson of West Ford, the African American son of George Washington.  George was born on the Mount Vernon plantation in a room above the spinning house.  He was baptized at the age of five at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church where the Washington family worshipped. Though the Virginia state legislature forbade formal education of the enslaved and free blacks, George and his siblings, John, Daniel, Constance, and Hannah, were educated at the Mount Vernon schoolhouse. 

As a young boy, George sold pictures to tourists visiting Mount Vernon, where his grandfather, West Ford was the estate manager.  He and his two brothers also became guardians of George Washington’s tomb.  Prior to the Civil War, he and his parents moved to New York and stayed with his aunt and uncle, Mary Virginia and James Bell. The Bells owned a prominent boarding house on Broome Street, in New York City in the 1860s.  George Ford was around 16 years of age during the New York Draft Riots of 1863.  Military guards were placed at the Ford home to protect them from the predatory mobs of anti-black whites. The riots lasted for four days until the Federal soldiers put down the insurrection.  Property valued at more than two million dollars was destroyed.  After the Civil War, the Fords moved back to their property in Gum Springs, adjacent to the Mount Vernon Plantation.  The Freedmen’s Bureau set up camp on a portion of his grandfather West Ford's land for the newly freed enslaved. That land would later become Gum Springs, Virginia and West Ford would be known as the "father and founder" of Gum Springs. 

Ford oral history states that George Ford was the first family chronicler and that he told his children and grandchildren that West Ford was the son of George Washington. Continuing with the vein of secrecy, the heritage was never disclosed outside of the family. George's name and biography has appeared in numerous journals and newspaper articles during his lifetime. A feature article titled: "From Mt. Vernon to Springfield" appeared in the Illinois State Register in 1937, mentioned that his grandfather, West, was a picturesque fellow and well known to the citizens of Alexandria.  He went on to mention that the Washington’s treated West as a privileged servant, but did not claim a blood relationship to him as the heritage was kept within the family. This article sparked interest in the Ford family and in early 1940, the Pittsburgh Courier ran a story describing West Ford as the Negro son of George Washington. 

From the time he was a small boy, George William Ford desired to become a soldier like his great grandfather, George Washington.  At the age of 20, he joined the Army in 1867.  He enlisted as a trumpeter with the legendary 10th Cavalry, Company L. During that time he and his fellow troops protected railroad working crews, escorted stages, and supply trains. His unit was constantly delayed helping usher the hordes of people traveling Westward and to scout along the Red River. George also was tasked with carrying mail between Forts Arbuckle and Fort Gibson. General Nelson A. Miles, George Custer, Buffalo Bill, and many other men of the plains were familiar figures to him. His troop also traveled from Kansas to the Rio Grande without crossing a railroad. Major George Ford served with his regiment for ten years (1867-1877) before he was honorably discharged with the rank of Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant. His commanding officer wrote on his discharge papers, “character excellent, good and faithful soldier.” This was the highest rank a black man could hold in the army at the time in the 10th Cavalry.

George Ford married Harriet Bythewood after his first stint in the army and they had eight children, George Jr., James Irwin, Noel, Elise, Vera, Harriet, Cecil Bruce and Donald.  Ford voluntarily enlisted at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War at the age of 50 with his eye on the prize – the rank of officer with the 23rd Kansas Volunteers. Major George Ford was one of the so-called “Immune Troops” sent to Cuba. There had been a myth at the beginning of the war that black troops would be “immune” to the diseases of the tropics and capable of more activity in high, humid temperatures. The assumption proved inaccurate as scores of black soldiers including, George Ford, came down with dysentery and malaria.

During his time in Cuba, Major George Ford became personal friends with Theodore Roosevelt. When Roosevelt was running for vice president, Ford sat as a delegate from Kansas in the Philadelphia National Convention in June of 1900 in support of his candidacy.  Theodore Roosevelt was accused of making some disparaging remarks in a Topeka, Kansas journal about the dependence of colored soldiers on their white officers during the Spanish American War.  George wrote to him with his concerns and sent the clippings for his review.  Theodore Roosevelt wrote back that the colored troops under his command served honorably and that the article had misquoted him. (Manuscript Division from the Library of Congress, Reel 6, 324, 325). The two friends continued with their friendship and corresponded many more times through the ensuing years.  Roosevelt was not the only president that Major Ford met in his lifetime.  He remembered seeing Abraham Lincoln walking down Pennsylvania Avenue many times and remarked about his sad countenance and stooped figure.  He was a witness to the sorrows and burdens of his lonely task as president during a time of crisis. Other presidents Ford had the honor of meeting were Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and Thomas Woodrow Wilson.

After his tenure in the service, Major Ford met W.E.B. DuBois and accepted an advisory position as Secretary of the Army-Navy committee in the Niagara Movement, a precursor to the NAACP. The two men became lifelong friends, sharing in their belief of  equal rights for blacks.  After the disbanding of the Niagara Movement, Major Ford went on to become the first and only African American superintendent of five National Cemeteries. His career as the superintendent at Camp Butler National Cemetery ended when he retired on October 20, 1930. The man, the soldier, spent 52-years overseeing five national cemeteries. Major Ford later served as president of the Springfield, Illinois Branch of the NAACP.  He was a firm believer that the black race had to be active in seeking their civil rights, lest they be taken from them. He belonged to numerous other memberships including: a Thirty-third degree Mason (of the Eastern Star Lodge), a senior warden at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Springfield, Illinois, and Treasurer of the Lincoln Exposition (Chicago).

Major George Ford continued a life of public service until his death in 1939 at the age of 91. He was honored with a full military funeral and was buried at Camp Butler Cemetery in Springfield.  At his death, he was the last surviving member of the original 10th United States Cavalry.  From the days that Major George Ford lived on the Mount Vernon Planation to his last assignment as superintendent at Camp Butler, he had a full and illustrious career, not unlike that of his namesake, George Washington.

Further Reading:

Allen-Bryant, Linda,"I Cannot Tell a Lie:  The True Story of George Washington's African American Descendents"