George Washington, the Revolutionary War general and first US president, fathered a child with one of his family’s slaves, descendants of the woman claim.
At some point between 1784 and 1785, Washington had a child with Venus, an enslaved person belonging to Hannah Washington, the widow of George Washington’s brother Augustine, descendants say.
The child, West Ford, would go on to work at the Washington’s Mount Vernon estate for much of his life, and would go on in 1833 to found Gum Springs, one of the oldest surviving freedmen’s villages in the country.
Linda Allen Hollis, Ford’s 70-year-old great-great-great-grandaughter, said “the old general” is the true father of West Ford, in an interview with The New Yorker magazine, which published an investigation into the claims.
Adding to the evidence, family members say, is how the Washington family seemed to treat Ford with extra favor throughout his life.
When Hannah Washington died, he was the only one of her 35 slaves who was explicitly mentioned, granting him legal freedom when he was 21.
Bushrod Washington, Hannah Washington’s son, left Ford 160 acres of land, an uncommon gift from a white family to an African-American at the time, which Ford sold to fund the establishment of Gum Springs, named for a tree and a spring where George Washington reportedly watered his horses.
The lineage could strengthen a campaign to save Gum Springs, which began to decline after its early 1900s heyday, and has been the site of public housing projects and a proposed highway expansion compared to richer, whiter parts of Fairfax County. Gum Springs residents hope to make the old agricultural village site a national historic sight.
The fate of Gum Springs provides a striking contrast to Mount Vernon, which has been faithfully restored, and now hosts roughly a million visitors a year and boasts a $55m operating budget.
It is only more recently, however, guides at the site have begun candidly discussing slavery and restoring the slave cemetery on the grounds.
Historians associated with Mount Vernon say there is no evidence that Washington, who had no known children with his Martha, is the father of Ford.
“George Washington wasn’t anyone’s father,” Douglas Bradburn, the president and CEO of Mount Vernon, told the magazine.
Historians say there are meticulous records about Washington’s whereabouts throughout much of his life, and there’s no evidence he ever met Venus or was near Bushfield, the plantation where she worked, at the relevant time of conception.
The controversial around Washington’s descendants is akin to that of another Founding Father and Virginian, Thomas Jefferson.
The author of the Declaration of Independence, which famously proclaimed “all men are created equal,” was both a significant slavehold, and likely fathered multiple children with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who was his late wife’s half-sister and was three decades his junior.