West Ford Biography

WEST FORD, written by Linda Allen. B. Hollis

Ford, West, (1785–20 July 1863), caretaker of the historic Mount Vernon home of President George Washington, was born on the Bushfield Plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia, the eldest son of Venus, a house slave owned by George Washington’s brother, John Augustine and his wife, Hannah.  Though some reports suggest that Ford was the son of President Washington - and despite that Venus told her mistress that George Washington was her child’s father – some historians dispute Ford’s paternity, suggesting instead that one of Washington’s nephews may have been his father.  These scholars believe that Washington was rendered sterile from a bout with smallpox and was unable to father children, while others believe it was Martha, his wife, who was the cause of their childless state.

From 1785 until 1791, George Washington frequently visited the Bushfield Plantation.  As he grew older, Ford served during these visits as Washington’s personal attendant.  Washington took him riding and hunting, and Ford often accompanied him to Christ Church, where he was provided with a private pew.  After Washington became president of the United States, his open visits with Ford ceased. 

Following the death of their father in 1787, John Augustine Washington’s sons, Bushrod and Corbin, made a gift of the boy West to their mother, Hannah.  Hannah Washington died in 1801 and her Last Will and Testament decreed that “the lad called West” was to be inoculated for smallpox, taught a trade and to be set free at the age of 21.  Bushrod Washington inherited the Mount Vernon Plantation after the death of Martha Washington in 1802 and Ford, along with his mother and grandmother, accompanied him to the plantation.  While at Mount Vernon, Ford was trained as a carpenter and taught how to read and write at a time when it was unlawful to educate blacks, free or slave.  He also became the first tomb guard of the dead president’s grave, setting the precedent for three generations of Fords serving in this position at Mount Vernon.

Around the year 1805, West Ford was granted his freedom.  To commemorate the occasion, the Washington’s hired an artist to sketch his portrait, which was later given to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association by a descendant of John Augustine Washington III, the last private owner of Mount Vernon.  The Washingtons never claimed Ford as blood kin, but treated him like a privileged servant.  Ford lived as a free and educated man during a time in U.S. history when most black Americans remained enslaved and were forced to adhere to the rigid slave codes implemented throughout the South.  Ford, by contrast, became the caretaker of Mount Vernon and was able to travel the Virginia countryside on business without a pass.

 In 1812, Ford married Priscella Bell, a free woman, and the couple eventually had four children, who were born and raised on the Mount Vernon plantation.  They were educated at the plantation school house where laws continued to ban blacks from receiving any formal education.  Between 1830 and 1860, Southern states continued to pass laws forbidding further manumission of slaves and enacted laws to expel free blacks from their states.  Ford and his family were granted asylum by the Washingtons from these laws.

 Ford was given 160 acres of land by the terms of Bushrod Washington’s will in 1829, making him one of the first free blacks to own property in Virginia.  In 1833, Ford sold his land and purchased 214 acres adjacent to it which he later divided up into four 52-3/4 acres for his children.  After the Civil War his property became a refuge and depot for freed slaves.  His original plot of land would later be the site of a suburb of Alexandria, Virginia known as “Gum Springs” and Ford would become known as “the Father of Gum Springs.”

 Ford continued to manage Mount Vernon until the estate was sold in 1858 to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.  The Association pledged to bring the plantation back to its former glory and hired Ford to help with the refurbishing of the mansion house.  Ford was interviewed and his picture was sketched a second time by Benson Lossing, a historian of the day.   An article was printed in an 1859 New Harper’s Monthly Magazine about West Ford and Mount Vernon.  Benson Lossing stated: I found him prepared, having on a black satin vest and silk cravat, and his curly gray hair arranged in the best manner.”  Ford, aware of Lossing’s surprise at his formal attire, stated, “Artists make colored folks look bad enough anyhow.” Ford wrote his name on the sketch further verifying his status as an educated person.

 In June 1863, an ailing West Ford was brought from his home to the Mount Vernon estate by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.  Members of the Association cared for Ford until his death.  Ford’s body was interred in the tomb on the plantation that had once held the remains of George Washington.  His obituary was posted in the Alexandria Gazette which read, “West Ford, an aged colored man, who has lived on the Mount Vernon estate the greater portion of his life, died yesterday afternoon, at his home on the estate.  He was, we hear, in the 79th year of his age.  He was well known to most of our older citizens.”

 Suggested Further Reading:

 Allen-Bryant, Linda I Cannot Tell a Lie: The True Story of George Washington’s African American Descendants. New York, iUniverse (2004).