Skip to main content

Engraved illustration of portrait of West Ford from Benson J. Lossing's, "The Home of Washington or Mount Vernon and Its Associations, Historical, Biographical, and Pictorial," 1871, Illustration 131, page 352.
Engraved illustration of portrait of West Ford from Benson J. Lossing's, "The Home of Washington or Mount Vernon and Its Associations, Historical, Biographical, and Pictorial," 1871, Illustration 131, page 352.

West Ford was born in 1784 at Bushfield Plantation. He was enslaved by John Augustine Washington (brother of George Washington) and Hannah Bushrod Washington.

Around 1805, Ford gained his freedom through manumission after a period of enslavement by Bushrod Washington. Ford remained at Mount Vernon in a managerial position, where he supervised enslaved workers, conducted business for the Washington family, and assisted with the thousands of guests who visited George Washington's estate and Tomb.

In 1829, West Ford inherited over 100 acres of land in Fairfax County, Virginia from Bushrod Washington. Ford later sold that plot and purchased property that became the nucleus for a free black community called Gum Springs.

In 1863, in poor health, Ford returned to Mount Vernon at the invitation of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association and died the same year.

What is the MVLA's opinion regarding the claims that George Washington fathered West Ford?

While we respect the Ford family's beliefs, after conducting extensive research, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association has found no documentation to corroborate the family's oral tradition of West Ford’s paternity.

West Ford was born at Bushfield plantation between March 3, 1783, and June 22, 1784. George Washington was not in Virginia between November 1781, following the victory at Yorktown, and his return to Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve of 1783 at the end of the American Revolution.

George Washington’s day-to-day locations have been documented in diaries, letters, journals, newspaper accounts, financial papers, and invoices. This extensive collection of sources shows that George Washington was not in proximity to Bushfield Plantation and did not father West Ford.

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.

Venus was enslaved at Bushfield Plantation, which was owned by George Washington’s brother John Augustine Washington. No records indicate that George Washington visited his brother's plantation from the time he returned to Mount Vernon on December 24, 1783, 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.

Did West Ford live at Mount Vernon?

Yes, but not during George or Martha 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 upon Martha Washington’s death. 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 (Bushrod Washington’s mother) was freed at the age of 21.

Evidence indicates that 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.

What provisions did West Ford receive in Hannah Bushrod Washington’s will?

Hannah Bushrod Washington requested that West 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." However, Hannah bequeathed West Ford's mother Venus, his grandmother Jenny, and his younger sister Bettey to her grandson, Richard Henry Lee Washington.

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.

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 19th century that West Ford and his wife were buried in the enslaved people’s burial ground. People formerly enslaved at Mount Vernon were buried in that space into the late 19th century.

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 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?

To ensure utmost respect is paid to the people interred in the burial ground, the remains of any individual will not be excavated.

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 MVLA have hair tested by the FBI? What were the results?

Yes. In 1994, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association and the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum had locks of hair tested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation 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 that report and follow-up conversations, that hair cannot be used to determine paternity.

What is the MVLA's position regarding paternity DNA testing of living Washington and Ford family members?

This test can only determine that the West Ford descendant who is tested is related to the Washington family. DNA testing will not determine that George Washington was the father of West Ford.

If technology changes, will the MVLA provide a sample of George Washington's hair for DNA testing in the future?

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.