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."
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."
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.
West Ford, Venus' son, seems to have been born before June 1784, or possibly before November 1785, according to an ambiguous statement in the will of Hannah Washington, John Augustine's wife, Thompson said. Only the later date allows any possibility that George Washington was the father: the general was away fighting the Revolutionary War and did not return home to Mount Vernon until Christmas Eve of 1783.
To investigate the cousins' claim, Thompson said she had tried to establish Washington's whereabouts for every day in 1784 from his correspondence and for 1785 from his diary. There are several gaps of a few days in 1784, in which a person could perhaps have dashed over to Bushfield and back.
But Washington, though officially in retirement, was extraordinarily busy during this period. His house was so full of visitors that he rarely sat down to dine with his wife alone.
'A careful man'
"He called Mount Vernon a well-resorted tavern," said Dorothy Twohig, who was chief editor of Washington's papers for 30 years. "It just seems to me, knowing Washington very well, that whatever the moral aspects, this is a question of politics. Washington was an extremely careful man, very conscious of his reputation. He would have been extremely unlikely to have gotten involved in anything."
Bryant, who is writing a book about her family tradition, is trying to develop DNA evidence and has consulted Dr. Eugene Foster, the pathologist who took DNA samples in the Jefferson family case. Foster told her he would need DNA from men in the all-male line of descent from West Ford and the Washington families.
Bryant said she had a male relative in an all-male line of descent from West Ford, and that she is negotiating with an all-male line descendant of Corbin Washington, George's nephew, to determine whether he would also be willing to be tested.
Although George and Martha Washington had no children, comparison of a Y chromosome inherited from one of his brothers with that of a West Ford descendant could indicate whether a Washington family member was West Ford's father. But it could not prove that George Washington was the father.
Bryant said the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which runs Mount Vernon, had refused to provide hair samples for testing. The association "will do anything by whatever means necessary to keep this story hushed," she said.
But Thompson, the research specialist and a staff member of the association, said that for a different purpose to test their authenticity the Federal Bureau of Investigation had analyzed samples of hair identified as Washington's from Mount Vernon and four other museums and had failed to recover enough DNA even to tell if the samples were from the same person. "So I don't think testing the hair would really help," Thompson said.
But she and other historians give serious weight to the cousins' family history, even if they interpret it differently. It is significant that similar accounts have been preserved independently by both women.