The story of Frank Lee, brother of William Lee, is added to by a report of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association about allegations that West Ford, buried at Mount Vernon, is the son of George Washington. Report notes that Frank Lee died in 1821 and is buried in the slave grave yard at Mount Vernon.
Questions and Answers in Report:
What is the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association's opinion regarding the claims that George Washington fathered West Ford?
After conducting extensive research on this subject the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association has found no documentation to corroborate the family's oral tradition. Although we respect the West Ford family's beliefs we need to look at all available information, both oral and written.
Why do Ms. Allen and Ms. Bryant believe George Washington fathered West Ford?
Ms. Allen and Ms. Bryant (sisters) base their belief on traditions passed down orally in their family.
Is this a new claim?
No. Stories about West Ford and questions about his paternity have been around for many years. Ms. Allen and Ms. Bryant initially contacted the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association in 1996 and Mount Vernon's research staff shared the results of their investigations with the sisters at that time. Since that time, the staff has conducted additional research and has shared those results as well.
Did George Washington know West Ford, or his mother, Venus?
There is no documentary evidence that George Washington ever met Venus, the mother of West Ford, who was a slave belonging to his brother John Augustine Washington of Bushfield Plantation, nor any that supports that George Washington ever met West Ford. No records indicate that George Washington visited his brother's plantation at all from the time he returned to Mount Vernon on December 24, 1783 at the end of the Revolution, until John Augustine Washington's death in early January of 1787. While there is documentation that male members of the Bushfield family visited Mount Vernon several times during this period, no evidence exists that Venus accompanied them. In accord with 18th-century custom, they would have brought male servants with them. The only known visit of John Augustine's wife, Hannah Bushrod Washington, to Mount Vernon during this period was in October of 1785. This trip would have been the only possible time that Venus could have been at Mount Vernon.
Why do researchers think that it was unlikely that a liaison occurred between George Washington and Venus?
Historians studied primary documents including diaries, letters, journals, newspaper accounts, financial papers, invoices, etc. to piece together the day-to-day activities of George Washington. The facts gathered indicate that it is unlikely that George Washington would have been able to father a child with Venus. It is reported that West Ford was born in early 1784 or possibly as late as November 1785. The liaison therefore would have had to occur between mid 1783, and the first quarter of 1785.
George Washington's whereabouts during this period were well documented. Having brought victory to the colonies, George Washington was America's most famous citizen. He returned to Mount Vernon on December 24, 1783 after an eight-year absence due to the Revolutionary War. Early in 1784, regional accounts from numerous sources indicate that the weather was unusually treacherous for several months, with icy and snowy conditions making travel difficult. Over the next few years,
George Washington was extremely busy with both public duties and rebuilding his estate. In addition, a variety of sources record that visitors to Mount Vernon were numerous, keeping him at home and occupying much of his available time. According to our research, there are very few times when his whereabouts cannot be documented for this period.
The Bushfield Plantation was located in Westmoreland County, approximately 95 miles southeast of Mount Vernon. According to Washington's writings he routinely traveled five miles per hour. Riding for eight hours per day, it would take him more than two days to get to his brother's home.
Were there any contemporary accounts reporting any relationship between George Washington and Venus and/or West Ford?
There is no documentation from the period reporting any extramarital affairs. No contemporaries of George Washington reported this "relationship" during George Washington's lifetime. It is important to note that Washington's second term was acrimonious. Although he was frequently under attack in the press, there were no allegations of infidelity. This is another source that historians would check for evidence of such a relationship. There is no documentary evidence of George Washington frequently taking a slave child to Christ Church. This occurrence is one that would have been particularly noteworthy and would likely have been recorded.
Did West Ford live at Mount Vernon?
Yes, but not during George Washington's lifetime. West Ford moved to Mount Vernon in 1802, three years after George Washington died. In George Washington's will, he left the Mount Vernon estate to Bushrod Washington. Bushrod was the eldest son of George Washington's brother, John Augustine. Bushrod moved to Mount Vernon and brought West Ford with him. West Ford, according to the will of Hannah Bushrod Washington, the mother of Bushrod, was freed at the age of 21. Evidence indicates that West Ford was employed by Bushrod until Bushrod's death in 1829. He continued to work for members of the Washington family (Bushrod's nephew, and then his great nephew) for many years. Bushrod Washington bequeathed land in 1829 to West Ford, giving him 119 acres of land on Hunting Creek, and in the same document requested that West Ford continue in his present job. According to records, West Ford was in a managerial position while working for the family.
Did George Washington bestow special privileges upon West Ford?
No. Documentary sources indicate however that West Ford, a slave of the Bushfield plantation, received special treatment by other members of the Washington family which is documented in the last will and testaments of Hannah Bushrod Washington and her son, Bushrod Washington as well as in family correspondence from the Bushfield family. Hannah bequeathed West Ford's mother Venus, his grandmother Jenny, and his younger sister Bettey to her grandson, Richard Henry Lee Washington. She requested that Ford "may be as soon as possible inoculated for the small pox, after which to be bound to a good tradesman until the age of twenty one years, after which he is to be free the rest of his life." West Ford was freed, according to Hannah Bushrod's will in 1805. At this time he was living at Mount Vernon with the then owner, Bushrod Washington. In his will, Bushrod Washington gave West Ford 119 acres of land on Hunting Creek and asked that West Ford continue in his present job.
Why would West Ford, an elderly black man, have been brought to Mount Vernon during his final illness in 1863?
Several factors probably influenced the decision of Sarah Tracy, the secretary of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, to bring West Ford to the estate, when he was dying in the summer of 1863. First, the local community seems to have been quite unstable during 1863. The former Mount Vernon estate property was located between the Union and Confederate lines, and while the 200 acres acquired by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association was recognized as neutral ground during the Civil War, other parts of George Washington's beloved farm had previously been sold to private individuals and remained vulnerable to raiding parties from both sides. Many African-Americans in the community migrated to other towns and cities looking for work. Some tried to earn money from farming and cutting wood for sale in the local area. Those who stayed, including two men named Joe and West Ford (presumably younger relatives of the West Ford in question), were run off their land by the sheriff in February of 1863. By June of that year, the family patriarch, West Ford, then in his late 70s, became ill. There may have been no one left to take care for him at home, or those left may have been too burdened trying to support themselves to care for a dying senior citizen.
Second, both John Augustine Washington (III), the last private owner of Mount Vernon, and his wife had died by this time, leaving six young children. Therefore, the white family most likely to have aided former African-American workers from the estate was could not help West Ford. Miss Tracy, a native of New York, probably felt that she could offer West Ford a more stable environment and brought him to Mount Vernon as a practical move that would also satisfy her feelings of responsibility to the African-Americans who had worked on the plantation.
Why would the Alexandria newspaper have taken notice of the death of an elderly black man like West Ford in 1863?
After he was freed at the age of 21, West Ford continued to work for the Washington family at Mount Vernon, until the last private owner, John Augustine Washington (III) and his family moved out in February of 1860. Ford seems to have supervised the slaves, taken care of errands for the family, and escorted many thousands of visitors around the estate each year. Among those visitors were journalists, several of whose articles later mentioned West Ford. Thus, after almost sixty years on the estate, he had become a well-known individual, both in the Mount Vernon/Alexandria area and throughout the country. He had also become the second wealthiest free black person in Fairfax County. He was not only well-known, but held a prominent place in the local community, respected by whites and blacks alike. It would make sense that the local newspaper would want to note the passing of such an individual. This was not the first time that the death of an African-American associated with Mount Vernon was recorded in the Alexandria newspaper. When Francis ("Frank") Lee, George Washington's former butler, died in the summer of 1821, the Alexandria Gazette included an obituary for him.
Was West Ford's body entombed in the old family vault at Mount Vernon, and has it been removed?
There is no evidence that West Ford's body was interred in either the old vault, or in the new tomb built in 1831. Instead, there is a strong tradition dating from the 1 9th century that West Ford, along with his wife, was buried in a cemetery set aside as the final resting place for current and former Mount Vernon slaves. Several other former slaves were buried there up until the 1880s. George and Martha Washington's bodies (along with the bodies of 20 other Washington family members) were removed from the old vault in 1831 and reinterred in the New Tomb. Mount Vernon records indicate that the New Tomb has not been opened since the last recorded Washington burial there in 1855. The old vault has stood empty since 1831, and underwent a major restoration in 1938. Photographs taken at that time indicate that the vault was empty and in poor condition.
What about performing DNA testing to establish West Ford' paternity?
According to the experts we have consulted, it is impossible to determine conclusively that George Washington was the father of West Ford.
What technology is necessary to test for paternity?
According to a report in Nature Magazine, the Y chromosome is passed unchanged from father to son. Apart from occasional mutations, DNA analysis of the Y chromosome can reveal whether or not individuals are likely to be male-line relatives. This process was used in the widely publicized testing of male descendants of Thomas Jefferson, in order to try to prove the paternity of descendants of Sally Hemings (Nature Magazine, November 1998). If the same format were followed, the West Ford family and the Washington family will need to produce several direct male descendants to be tested. The results of the test are limited in that they can only determine if there is a match to the Washington male line, not to a specific individual, and therefore could not prove George Washington's paternity.
Would it be possible to disinter the body of West Ford from the African-American burial ground to perform DNA testing?
If West Ford is buried there his grave is unmarked. Therefore, it would require excavating up to 50 skeletons that are believed to be located there, and comparing the DNA results with samples taken from a male descendant of West Ford. Consultations with experts indicate that there is a very slim possibility that nuclear DNA could be detected if the body were exhumed. This substance is necessary to determine paternity. Skeletal remains, particularly remains that have been in the ground for over 200 years, will likely only reveal X chromosome data.
Could locks of George Washington's hair be used to prove paternity?
No. Hair samples carry the X chromosome. George Washington and West Ford had different mothers therefore they would have different mitochondrial DNA from their mothers. The Y chromosome is necessary for DNA paternity analysis. In other words, a hair test could not be used to determine paternity.
Did the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association have hair tested by the Federal Bureau Investigation? What were the results?
Yes. In 1994, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association and the DAR museum had locks of hair tested by the FBI to determine if all or any were from George Washington. The FBI reported that "very little, if any DNA was detected in the hair purported to be from George Washington. Based on the current state-of-the-art DNA sequence technology, low levels of DNA in the submitted hairs would not allow for conclusive DNA sequence analysis." Mount Vernon's hair samples are deteriorated and fragmented, making them poor candidates for any DNA testing. Although the 1994 test was not conducted to determine any paternity issues, it is clear from the report and follow up conversations, that hair cannot be used to determine paternity.
What is Mount Vernon's position regarding paternity DNA testing of living Washington and Ford family members?
It is not up to us. It is important to note however that DNA testing will not determine that George Washington was the father of West Ford. This test can only determine that the West Ford descendant who is tested is related to the Washington family.
Will the Association provide a sample of George Washington's hair for a DNA testing in the future if technology changes?
The Association is committed to providing samples of Washington's hair for DNA analysis, when science concludes that these hair samples can resolve the issue of West Ford's paternity. The Association is committed to historical accuracy.
Was George Washington sterile?
George and Martha Washington together did not have any children. Historians have inferred from documentation that it is possible that George Washington was physically incapable of fathering children.
Martha Washington was a widow when she married George in 1759; both were then in their mid- to-late 20s. Martha and her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, had four children in the seven years they were married. We know that George and Martha Washington shared the same bed over the forty years of their marriage and we have to assume that they had a normal sexual relationship. There are many reasons why a couple might not be able to conceive children, but in roughly 40% of the cases, the problem is with the husband.
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