Who Was West Ford?

by Linda Allen B. Hollis

West Ford was born in 1784 or 1785 on the Bushfield Plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia, to Venus, a mulatto slave woman owned by George Washington's brother, John Augustine Washington and his wife, Hannah. According to Ford oral history, Venus told her mistress, Hannah, that George Washington was her child's father. Historians dispute this fact, suggesting that one of Washington's nephews may have fathered the boy, West. Over the next several years (1785-1791), George Washington frequently visited the Bushfield Plantation. During these visits, West Ford served 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 West ceased.

John Augustine Washington's sons, Bushrod and Corbin, made a gift of  West to their mother, Hannah Washington, following the death of their father. In 1802, Hannah Washington's Last Will and Testament decreed that "the lad called West" was to be set free at the age of 21. Around the year 1806, West Ford was, in fact, granted his freedom. To commemorate the occasion, an artist came to Mount Vernon and sketched his portrait. In 1812, West Ford married Priscella Bell, a free woman. Their four children - William, Daniel, Jane and Julia - were educated on the Mount Vernon Plantation, despite laws which restricted the instruction of blacks in those times. In 1829, Bushrod Washington died on the estate. In his Will he gave 160 acres of land adjacent to Mount Vernon to West Ford, who continued to live on the Mount Vernon plantation as a caretaker.  A detailed entry in the  Fairfax County Register of Freed Slaves, dated October 17, 1831, describes West Ford as "a yellow man, about Forty seven years of age, five feet eight and a half inches high, pleasant countenance, wrinkle resembling a scar on the left cheek, a scar on the left corner of the upper lip." In 1833, West Ford sold his land and purchased 214 acreas adjacent to it. The area is known today as the Black community of Gum Springs, Virginia.

Over the next several years, West Ford was frequently highlighted in the media, making his private life a matter of public record. In 1850, two Virginia newspapers - the Alexandria Gazette and the Virginia Advertiser - carried articles describing his prestigious position and authority at Mount Vernon. In 1857, an entry in the Fairfax County Deed Books noted that Ford divided his land among his four children, giving each of them 52-3/4 acres. In 1858, Ford was sketched a second time, by reporter and artist Benson Lossing. Harper's New Monthly Magazine featured an interview with West Ford in 1859, in which he spoke about his property on Little Hunting Creek where he planned to retire after the Washington estate was no longer in the Washington family.

In June 1863, an ailing West Ford was brought back to the Mount Vernon estate by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. The Association cared for West Ford until his death on July 20, 1863. The following day, the Alexandria Gazette carried his obituary, stating:

                    "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."

Ford oral history states that West Ford was buried in the old tomb of George Washington on the estate.

Information cited are excerpts from the book, "I Cannot Tell a Lie: The True Story of George Washington's African American Descendents," pages 441-454.