FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT WEST FORD
The following is a list of responses to questions frequently posed to the Ford Family about their claim to be the descendants of George Washington.*
QUESTION: Was West Ford a slave of George Washington's?
FORD FAMILY: West Ford was the slave of George Washington's favorite brother, John Augustine Washington. John Augustine and his wife, Hannah, owned the Bushfield plantation where West and his mother, Venus resided.
QUESTION: When was West Ford born?
FORD FAMILY:No one is sure of the exact date of West Ford's birth. This is because the birth dates of slaves were generally not recorded. Literature has reported dates from 1784 to 1786. In a register dated October 17, 1831 for free blacks living in Fairfax County, Virginia, there is a reference to West Ford being 47 years of age that would suggest that he had to be born in 1784. Another entry dated March 3, 1839 gives his age as 54 and would suggest that West Ford was born in 1785. West Ford's obituary printed in the Alexandria Gazette stated that he died at the age of 79 in July 1863, making the year he was born 1784. Historian and reporter, Benson Lossing, wrote an article in 1858 on West Ford, commenting that West was 72 years old making 1786 as the year he was born.
In the list of John Augustine Washington's Negroes dated 3rd March 1783, there is no mention of West. Only Billey, Jenny (West's grandparents) and Venus were listed as slaves. (From J. A. Washington's Ledger C, RM-73, MS-2166).
QUESTION: Did George Washington know West Ford, or his mother, Venus?
FORD FAMILY:We contend that George Washington did in fact know Venus and West.
Ford oral history states that Venus was a young girl when she was first asked to "comfort" George Washington. She also met George Washington on his visits to Bushfield before and after the Revolutionary War. Ford oral history further states that after Venus became pregnant with West, Washington no longer had sexual relations with her. When asked by Hannah Washington who the father of her child was, Venus replied, "The Ole General be the father, mistress."
Other references that Venus and George Washington were probably acquainted comes from correspondence dated 2/17/97 from the MVLA to Linda Bryant, "The fact that Venus' parents were also singled out in John Augustine's will might suggest that the possible link between the Washingtons and West Ford's family goes back several generations." John Augustine's June, 11, 1784 Will states, "Billey, Jenny, & Venus, I give impower my Wife to devise to such of my Children by her as she please." Certain additions were made to this will on November 19, 1785. There was no mention of West in these additions.
An interesting fact is that George Washington played with slave children - Jenny, Joe, Jeremy, Phyllis, and Steven. (Thomas Flexner's, "The Black Mount Vernon"). Jenny was Venus' mother.
QUESTION: Information that George Washington had known West Ford can be found in the 1937 Illinois Register article titled, "From Mount Vernon to Springfield - George W. Ford,Veteran of Indian Wars, Traces Ancestry Back to Revolutionary Days When Grandfather was Valued Servant at Mount Vernon." The article quotes Major Ford saying: "He tells us that his grandfather (West Ford) frequently went when a lad, as a personal attendant, with General Washington when he attended church in the more immediate neighborhood of Mount Vernon, Polick Church."
Dr. Judith Saunders-Burton's 1986 Doctoral Dissertation titled, "A History of Gum Springs, Virginia: A Report of a Case Study of Leadership in a Black Enclave" states on page 20: "Oral history connects George Washington and West Ford in several situations. For example, Catherine C. Ford Saunders, the great-granddaughter of West Ford, often told the story of West Ford riding everywhere in the wagon with George Washington (Saunders, C., 1945). Bruce A. Saunders, West Ford's great-great-great-grandson, stated that, "George Washington carried West Ford to Christ Church with him, and that a pew was provided for West." (Saunders, C., 1970).
QUESTION: Aren't George Washington's whereabouts well documented through his diaries?
FORD FAMILY:James Thomas Flexner, a biographer of George Washington, stated in his book titled, "George Washington - The Forge of Experience" page 232 that: "George Washington's earlier diaries never contained those personal soliloquies in which a man speaks freely to his most intelligent, beloved, and understanding friend - himself." Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Washington would record his dalliances with Venus or their son, West Ford.
There would be other times that George Washington would not enter into his diaries that he had visited his brother's plantation. "He (Washington) dined at Hobb's Hole, now Tappahannock, on the 20th, where he must have crossed the Rappahannock River the same day or the next, though he says nothing about it in his diary account." (The Washingtons and Their Homes, John W. Wayland).
QUESTION: When did George Washington have the opportunity to meet Venus?
FORD FAMILY:Washington's diary entries show that his brother John was at Mount Vernon a number of times in the years between 1760 and 1786.
A reference taken from (The Washington and Their Homes, John W. Wayland) states: "The last week in August of the same year, 1768, Washington spent partly with his brother John at Bushfield. He was at Bushfield two or three days, taking dinner there on Sunday, the 28th, after attending services at Nomini Church."
There is also correspondence available that states John Augustine visited his brother in June of 1784, (Letter from George Washington to John Augustine, June 30, 1784). Other recorded dates the brothers were in each other's company are June 1785, October 1785, and October 1786. (The Washingtons and Their Homes, John W. Wayland).
One particular reference in Wayland's book has an excerpt taken from a letter to George Washington from John Augustine dated July 17, 1785 that read: "Previous to my setting off to Mt. Vernon and Alexandria the last time I was up, a great Coat of yours that you had been kind enough to lend my son Corbin when he was last at your House, and a book that my Wife's maid the time before the last that she was there had put up supposing it to be her Mistresses, as she had one in the Chariott to read on the road, but I forgot both and brought them back…" Venus, being a house servant in a maid's capacity, of course would have accompanied her mistress to Mount Vernon.
One date proposed for George and Venus' initial liaison was after the death of Washington's nephew, Augustine, in 1784. In a letter dated April 4, 1784 from John Augustine to George Washington he states: "Should Bushrod return shortly, as soon as he has spent some days with his Mama and recovered from the fatigue of his Journey, he and Corbin and my Self will do ourselves the pleasure of waiting on you, unless I should hear that you are gone to the northward."
QUESTION: Wasn't George Washington's brother's plantation too far away for him to visit Venus on a regular basis?
FORD FAMILY:The Bushfield plantation was about a 1 ˝ to 2 days ride from Mount Vernon. George Washington was an expert horseman; a two-day ride would not be that difficult for him to accomplish. Washington's visit to Mount Vernon in September of 1781, as reported in Elswyth Thane's book "Washington's Lady" on page 188 states that: "It was Humphreys, yes, but only because he had managed to keep up with George, who had ridden the sixty miles from Baltimore in one day to snatch a few precious hours in his home before the rest of the company arrived."
John Fitzpatrick's article, "The George Washington Scandals, Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress" page 389 stated that: "Washington's diaries show that his daily ride around his farms was in utter disregard of the weather or season; snow-drifts that stopped his horse did not always stop the rider, who at times abandoned the animal and plunged forward on foot."
The brothers also traveled back and forth from their plantations by schooner via the Potomac River. One reference states: "The last week in August of the same year, 1768, Washington spent partly with his brother John at Bushfield. This time he came down the Potomac from Chotank, in King George County, in his schooner, fishing with a seine in Machodoc Creek, Nomini Bay, and other places thereabout. (The Washingtons and Their Homes, John W. Wayland).
QUESTION: Were there any contemporary accounts reporting any relationships between George Washington, other women, Venus and/or West Ford?
FORD FAMILY:There are several known sex scandals associated with George Washington. John C. Fizpatrick's, "The George Washington Scandals", Manuscript Division of Library of Congress" page 389 discussed these scandals in a 1927 article. These scandals have not been proven as fact, but have been bandied about for years. The scandals consist of "Sweet Kate" the mulatto, washer-woman's daughter who may have slept with Washington. George Washington's use of ciphers next to various female slaves listed in several of his diaries have also been circumspect; and that his fatal illness of December 13, 1799, was the result of an assignation with an overseer's wife.
Many historians will now concede George Washington's love for Sally Fairfax, his best friend's wife. In Thomas Flexner's book, "George Washington – The Forge of Experience" page 198, depicts a letter George Washington wrote to Sally Fairfax in which he states his unrequited love for her.
Dr. Judith Burton's 1986 Doctoral Dissertation states on page 19 that: "Florence Holland and Robert King, both residents of Gum Springs and employees at Mount Vernon during the 1940s, have alleged that on several occasions they read a diary that listed the children sired by George Washington; although it is not known whether West Ford's name was listed in the diary. They further claimed that when they were discovered reading the book by their supervisors at Mount Vernon, the book was confiscated and they never saw it again." (Holland, 1972; King, 1956).
QUESTION: Did West Ford live at Mount Vernon?
FORD FAMILY:West Ford moved to the Mount Vernon plantation after the death of Martha Washington. West Ford was freed on his twenty-first birthday and Ford oral history states that a drawing was sketched of him to commemorate the event. The original drawing of West Ford at 21 years of age is in the possession of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. The ornate-framed sketch was found in the Clement Biddle family memorabilia and donated to the Association. Clement Biddle was George Washington's agent in Philadelphia. Benson Lossing, who was writing an article on West Ford and Mount Vernon in 1858, sketched a second picture of West in his early 70's.
In 1985 Donald Sweig wrote in the Fairfax Chronicles that: "In his role as overseer at Mount Vernon, Ford had considerable independence and responsibility." West Ford was also treated as a privileged servant by the Washington Family. Ford's children were educated in the estate schoolhouse along with the Washington children. (Correspondence from Washington, J. Jr., 1857). West Ford's grandson, George Ford, was baptized at the age of five at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, where the Washington's worshipped. (From "Mount Vernon to Springfield").
Washington's old valet, Billy Lee, befriended West Ford. In Elswyth Thane's book titled, "Mount Vernon is Ours - The Story of its Preservation" he stated on page 248 that: "Old West Ford was an exceptional Negro who had been one of Judge Bushrod's household, and could remember the stories told in his (Billy Lee's) somewhat boozy old age by Billy Lee, who was General Washington's body servant." Ford oral history states that Billy Lee was like a surrogate father to West Ford and told him many stories about the "Ole General."
West Ford became the first tomb guard for George Washington's gravesite. Three generations of Fords would also hold the title of tomb guard at the Mount Vernon plantation. (1937 Illinois Register article title, "From Mt. Vernon to Springfield – George W. Ford, Veteranof Indian Wars, Traces Ancestry Back to Revolutionary Days When Grandfather was Valued Servant at Mount Vernon" & George Ford's 1939 obituary).
QUESTION: Is the Ford oral history a new claim?
FORD FAMILY:The West Ford story is not a new claim. Dr. Judith Saunders-Burton has been in contact with the Association since the early 1970s. Linda Bryant contacted the Mount Vernon's Ladies' Association in 1997 requesting information regarding West Ford's body for possible DNA testing.
QUESTION: Is there any documentation to corroborate the Ford family's oral tradition?
FORD FAMILY:Three generations of Fords lived and worked on the Mount Vernon plantation including Major George Ford, son of William, West Ford's first born son. Major George Ford was sixteen years old when West Ford died. Major Ford is cited in a 1937 Illinois Register article titled, "From Mount Vernon to Springfield - George W. Ford, Veteran of Indian Wars, Traces Ancestry Back to Revolutionary Days when Grandfather was Valued Servant at Mount Vernon" discussing his home and his family life on the plantation.
Ford's 1939 obituary also appeared in the same newspaper. Both articles cite statements made by Major Ford concerning his grandfather and the time he spent at Mount Vernon, which validates and corroborates the family's oral tradition: "He (West Ford) lived at Mount Vernon for nearly sixty years and was raised in the Washington family; Major Ford frequently recalled stories his grandfather told of the Washington family; Major Ford remembers this picturesque old fellow, his grandfather, as a sort of privileged character at Mount Vernon and in the city of Alexandria."
The descendants of Major George Ford did not speak openly to anyone outside of their race about George Washington being in their family tree. The family elders worried that the story of their shared heritage with the first President would spark racial reprisals during the eras of slavery, Reconstruction, segregation, and the Civil Rights Movement. It was only when one of the present-day chroniclers, Elise Ford Allen, decided the time was right to take the heritage public that her daughters, Janet and Linda, started speaking openly to the media.
On the other hand, Dr. Judith Saunders-Burton and the Fords in Virginia have been very open with the story of George Washington being in their family tree. Historian J.A. Rogers quotes in his 1940 book titled, Sex and Race in the New World, page 222 that "In the District of Columbia is a Negro family, which claims descent from Washington." A 1940's Pittsburgh Courier article also by J.A. Rogers stated: "Know Your History: West Ford, known as a Negro son of George Washington."
QUESTION: Did George Washington bestow special privileges upon West Ford?
FORD FAMILY:West Ford was not mentioned in George Washington's Last Will and Testament. This was probably to be expected as Washington was aware that his Will would be made public for generations to come. His reputation would have been demolished if he had laid claim to an illegitimate, slave son.
West Ford did, however, remain the personal attendant of George Washington until he became the first President of the United States. (From "Mt. Vernon to Springfield").
QUESTION: Was West Ford's body entombed in the old family vault at Mount Vernon, and has it been removed?
FORD FAMILY: During the heart of the Civil War in 1863, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association's secretary, Ms. Sarah Tracy, and Upton Herbert, the first Resident Superintendent of the estate, took West Ford from his home on Little Hunting Creek to Mount Vernon after finding him ill. Elswyth Thanes book, "Mount Vernon is Ours" said on page 248: "We (Sarah Tracy and Upton Herbert) have had old West Ford brought here (Mount Vernon). Mr. Herbert and myself went to see him Sunday and found him very feeble, and fearing all the excitement might hurt him, we have had him brought here, where we could take better care of him. I felt it was our duty to see that he should want for nothing in his old age." West Ford died two months later and his obituary appeared in the Alexandria Gazette the next day.
Ford oral history states that West Ford was buried in the old tomb of George Washington. His oldest son, William, was in New York during the Civil War. William was told upon his return to Virginia that his father's body was in the old tomb and he never had it removed.
In 1997, Linda Allen Bryant asked the Mount Vernon's Ladies' Association if the old tomb could be opened to see if West Ford's body was interred there for DNA tests. She was told that the tomb was a National Monument and that it would take a court order to open it. In October 1998 a tour guide told Bryant that the tomb had been opened, that it was empty, and it was going to be renovated for viewing by the public 1999.
QUESTION: What technology is necessary to test for paternity and can DNA testing establish West Ford's paternity?
FORD FAMILY:For a 99.9 percent match the DNA from West Ford and DNA from George Washington would be needed. Without West Ford's body, paternity cannot be conclusively made at this time.
Linda Bryant contacted Dr. Eugene Foster, the pathologist in the Jefferson/Hemings study, for his recommendation on the Ford case. Mr. Foster in correspondence dated 11/28/98 stated that: "To do this the way we did the Jefferson study, one would need to have DNA from at least one living male-line descendent of West Ford and one living male-line descendant of one of George Washington's brothers, or other paternal relatives. If the Y chromosomal DNA from these two individuals matched exactly or almost exactly, that would be strong evidence that a Washington, not necessarily George was West Ford's father. In the event that there was a match, one could conceivably go farther by trying to get a sample of George Washington's DNA. If his Y chromosomal type was exactly the same as that of his paternal relatives, one would still not know whether he or one of his relatives was the father. On the other hand, if George Washington's DNA was slightly different from that of his relatives and if it exactly matched that of the West Ford descendant, it would be strong evidence that George Washington was West Ford's father."
QUESTION: Will the Association provide a sample of George Washington's hair for a DNA testing in the future if technology changes?
FORD FAMILY: The Association has said it is committed to providing samples of Washington's hair for DNA analysis, when DNA science concludes that these hair samples can resolve the issue of West Ford's paternity. The Association is committed to historical accuracy. (Mount Vernon Press Release, October 1999.) The Ford family will seek the commitment of the Association at the appropriate time DNA testing is initiated.
QUESTION: Was George Washington sterile?
FORD FAMILY: No one truly knows if George Washington was sterile, including historians.
George Washington and Martha did not have children together, but it may have been Martha who was incapable of conception. As stated by the Association's research, 40% of the time the male is at fault and that leaves the greater percentage (60%) with the female. (Mount Vernon Press Release, October 1999).
One must take into consideration that Martha had had four children in succession by her previous husband and may have had complications, which may have caused her not to be able to conceive during her marriage to Washington. In the book, "George Washington - the Man Behind the Myths" by William Rasmussen and Robert Tilton, the authors state on page 90: "According to a tradition passed down in Masonic circles, Martha Washington would have needed some sort of corrective surgery in order to conceive additional children, after the birth of Patsy."
Martha Washington believed the problem may have been with her, as stated in Elswyth Thane's book titled, "Washington's Lady" page 29: "She (Martha) wondered if something had gone wrong at Patsy's birth, to leave her last child so frail and herself under a disability. Or was it - Nancy had thought it possible - because she had had measles nearly three years ago?"
Washington did have a bout with smallpox and malaria but there is no proven medical fact that these diseases cause sterility and no one examined George Washington to determine the assumption.
George Washington himself did not believe he was sterile. In Miriam Anne Bourne's book titled, "First Family - George Washington and his Intimate Relations" page 107 she states, "Would Washington's happiness have been even more genuine and permanent had he children of his own? A remarkable letter written in 1786 (West Ford's birth date is believed to be around 1784-1786) to a nephew reveals that in George's opinion it was not because of himself that he was childless." The letter stated: "If Mrs. Washington should survive me there is moral certainty of my dying without issue, and should I be he longest liver, the matter in my opinion is almost as certain; for whilst I retain the reasoning faculties I shall never marry a girl and 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."