Did Washington father a child with slave?

Descendants of slave named Venus say she bore first President a son

Historians are skeptical

August 19, 1999|By Nicholas Wade | Nicholas Wade,New York Times News Service

Did George Washington father a son with Venus, a young slave who lived on the estate of his brother, John Augustine Washington?

Three descendants of Venus' son, who was called West Ford, say that according to a family tradition two centuries old, George Washington was West Ford's father. They hope to develop DNA evidence from Washington family descendants and his hair samples to bolster their case.

Historians so far are skeptical, saying there is no documentary evidence to suggest that Washington ever met Venus, whose son was born four or five years before he became president, and several reasons to consider any such liaison improbable. In addition, Washington, who was 26 when he married Martha, then 27, had no children with her. But Martha bore four children in her first marriage, suggesting that Washington may have been sterile.

There is, however, reason to believe that if the child's father was not Washington, it might have been someone closely related to him. The cousins' claim has several elements of truth, enough to set up a historical mystery as to the identity of West Ford's father and to add a new strand to the emerging links between the black and white sides of slave-owning families.

Though the tradition was passed down with a warning to tell no white person, the present generation of West Ford's descendants has spoken freely of their ancient secret. They are doing so again after DNA evidence, reported last November, supported the tradition among descendants of Sally Hemings, a slave on Thomas Jefferson's estate, that Jefferson fathered her family.

"When West Ford was a little boy he heard the slaves talking about how much he looked like George Washington," said Linda Bryant, a health writer and pharmaceutical representative who lives in Aurora, Colo. Bryant is repeating the story her mother, Elise Ford Allen, heard from Allen's grandfather, Maj. George W. Ford, a grandson of West Ford.

"We were told she was his personal sleep partner and that when it was obvious she was pregnant he no longer slept with her," Bryant said, referring to her great-grandfather's statements about Venus. "When she was asked who fathered her child, she replied George Washington was the father."

DNA test

Bryant and her sister Janet Allen, an editor with the Traveler Weekly of Peoria, have been trying to arrange a DNA test to compare West Ford's descendants with those of the Washington family.

"We're the heirs of George Washington on the slave side and we can't get a Washington to come forward," Allen said.

Bryant and Allen have a distant cousin, Judith S. Burton, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Alexandria, Va. Burton, who has a doctorate in education, is a great-granddaughter of John Bell Ford, George Ford's brother. The cousins say that they have known one another only since 1994, but that Burton had been told the same story by her grandmother.

"My grandmother used to tell us all the time when we were very young that West Ford was the son of George Washington," Burton said. "His mother was Venus. Venus was the daughter of Jenny who was the servant to Hannah Washington, George Washington's sister-in-law."

Oral traditions like this have won a new respect in light of the Jefferson-Hemings liaison, which until the DNA tests was dismissed by most historians of Jefferson. But Washington historians have not found any evidence to support the idea that Washington might have fathered a child with a slave.

For one thing, he was protective of his reputation, which the exposure of an extramarital relationship could have impaired.

"George Washington had an acute self-awareness of his importance to a young, untested nation," said Jean B. Lee, a historian at the University of Wisconsin who is an expert on Mount Vernon and its slaves. "He watched and modeled his behavior very carefully, and that would not comport with a liaison."

For another, there is no evidence that Washington ever met Venus. Unlike Sally Hemings, who was a personal attendant of Jefferson, Venus lived on a distant estate belonging to Washington's brother, John Augustine Washington. The plantation was at Bushfield, one and a half to two day's hard riding from Washington's home at Mount Vernon.

To relate their family tradition to known historical facts, Bryant and Allen have suggested that George Washington visited his brother in April 1784 for the funeral of John Augustine's 17-year-old son, also named Augustine, who was killed by a classmate in an accident with a loaded gun.

"We believe that is when he had the relationship with Venus," Bryant said. "Venus was made available to him for his comfort."

No evidence

But historians disagree. Mary V. Thompson, a research specialist at Mount Vernon, said she had consulted many records but could find no evidence that Washington and Venus were ever in the same place at the same time.

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