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West Ford, American Son

West Ford was born in the mid-1780s on the Bushfield Plantation in Westmoreland County, Virginia, to Venus, a mulatto slave woman owned by George Washington's brother, John Augustine Washington and his wife, Hannah. According to Ford oral history, Venus told her mistress Hannah that George Washington was her child's father. As the story goes, Venus also shared the knowledge of his paternity West, along with the warning to tell no white person that his father was George, the old general. The secret of his paternity was repeated only to his children, and to their children's children, for nearly two centuries.

Family stories say that young West served as Washington's personal attendant over the next several years (1785-1791). Washington took the boy riding and hunting, and Ford often accompanied the old general to Christ Church, where he was provided with a private pew. But After Washington became President of the United States, his open visits with West ceased.

It is documented that John Augustine Washington's sons, Bushrod and Corbin, made a gift of the boy West to their mother, Hannah Washington, following the death of their father. In 1802, Hannah Washington's Last Will and Testament decreed that "the lad called West" was to be set free at the age of 21. Sometime around the year 1806, West Ford was, in fact, granted his freedom. To commemorate the occasion, an artist came to Mount Vernon and sketched Ford's portrait.

In 1812, West Ford married Priscella Bell, a free woman. Their four children - William, Daniel, Jane and Julia - were educated on the Mount Vernon Plantation. In 1829, Bushrod Washington died. He willed 160 acres of land adjacent to Mount Vernon to West Ford, who continued to live on the Mount Vernon estate. Ford was employed as caretaker at Mount Vernon for most of his life, and helped restore the estate to its original glory.

A detailed entry in the recently released Fairfax County Register of Freed Slaves dated October 17, 1831, describes West Ford as:

"A yellow man, about Forty seven years of age, five feet eight and a half inches high, pleasant countenance, wrinkle resembling a scar on the left cheek, a scar on the left corner of the upper lip."
In 1833, West Ford sold the land he inherited from the Washingtons and purchased 214 acres adjacent to it. He used the real estate to establish the free Black enclave of Gum Springs, Virginia - a community that still thrives today.

Throughout his adulthood, West Ford was frequently highlighted in the media, making his private life a matter of public record. A large collection of documented mentions in news media as well as private and public papers substantiates Ford's position as a noteworthy person. His personality and identity clearly intrigued those who encountered this gentleman.

In June 1863, an ailing West Ford was brought back to the Mount Vernon estate by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. The association cared for West Ford until his death on July 20, 1863. The following day, the Alexandria Gazette carried his obituary, stating:

"West Ford, an aged colored man, who has lived on the Mount Vernon estate the greater portion of his life, died yesterday afternoon, at his home on the estate. He was, we hear, in the 79th year of his age. He was well known to most of our older citizens."

Today, more than 100 years after he lived, West Ford is an inspirational historical figure for people to discover. His legacy of family and community are the hallmarks of a revolutionary spirit.

Visit the website dedicated to the Legacy of West Ford

Article written by Linda Allen Bryant and Wendy Robinson and submitted by Wendy Robinson

Created: 3 Apr 2000 | Updated: 3 Apr 2000
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