Gum Springs: A Slave’s Legacy
By Michael K. Bohn
This is an excerpt from a four-part series on the history and future of Gum Springs, a historically African-American community in the Mount Vernon area.
The founder of Gum Springs, a mixed race man named West Ford, began his life as a slave. His path to freedom started when his owner, George Washington’s younger brother, John Augustine, died in 1787.
West Ford, shown here in an 1858 drawing, founded the African-American community of Gum Springs in 1833. Fairfax County Public Library, Virginia Room.
John’s will left a third of his slaves to his wife Hannah, including a couple named Billy and Jenny, their daughter Venus, and her son West. Upon Hannah’s death in 1801, her will stipulated that young West be freed when he reached the age of 21. She also asked her heirs to inoculate West for small pox and bind him to a “good tradesman.”
Hannah’s son Bushrod assumed ownership of West, then 16 or 17. Also, Bushrod inherited Mount Vernon when Martha Washington died in 1802, and he moved there and took West with him. Following Hannah’s will, Bushrod freed West in about 1805. According to oral family history, West adopted the surname Ford upon gaining his freedom.
Ford remained at Mount Vernon, working as a wheelwright and carpenter. He could read and write, and ultimately became foreman of the house servants and a guardian of Washington’s tomb. In 1812, he married Priscilla Bell, a free black woman from Alexandria. Because of her status, their four children — William, Daniel, Jane and Julia — were also free.
Virginia required freed slaves to register, and the 1831 entry for West Ford described him as “a yellow man about forty-seven years of age, five feet eight and a half inches high, pleasant countenance, a wrinkle resembling a scar on the left cheek ….” Ford was a mulatto, a term of the time that was used to describe a person of one African and one European parent.
Bushrod Washington died in 1829. An associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court for 30 years, Washington left West Ford 119 acres of land on the south side of Little Hunting Creek.
Ford sold his inherited land and used the proceeds in 1833 to purchase Samuel Collard’s Gum Spring Farm, a 214-acre tract on the north side of Little Hunting Creek. Collard sold the property to Ford for $500 and five annual installments of $84.80.
In 1857, Ford deeded his Gum Springs land to his four children, dividing the tract into equal parts of 52 3⁄4 acres. The property lines of those parcels coincide exactly with many of today’s lot lines, as well as the main north-south roads in Gum Springs — Holland, Andrus, and Fordson.
The present limits of Gum Springs correspond with the 214-acre parcel bought by West Ford in 1833.
By 1860, Ford and his daughter Jane’s husband, Porter Smith, were growing cash crops of corn, oats, and potatoes. The total tract was assessed at $1,800 in 1860, making West Ford the second-most wealthy freedman in Fairfax County.
Ford was near death in the summer of 1863 when staff members at Mount Vernon brought the weakened man back to the estate for his final days. He died on July 30 and The Alexandria Gazette marked his passing: “He was, we hear, in the 79th year of his age. He was well known to most of our older citizens.”
WEST FORD’S FATHER
“George Washington is my fifth great-grandfather,” Linda Allen Bryant declared on the CBS News TV show, “Sunday Morning” in February 2004. Her assertion, which she first made in 1996, created a stir on two fronts — historians regard George as childless, and Ms. Bryant is African-American.
Bryant, a descendent of Gum Springs founder West Ford, maintains that General Washington was Ford’s father. A health writer and pharmaceutical representative in Aurora, Colo., Bryant seemed to take advantage of the publicity surrounding the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings revelations in 1998 to draw attention to her claim.
The issue of southern plantation masters having their way with female slaves has simmered for years, largely among historians. But the controversy boiled over into the larger public consciousness following disclosures of Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings. Mulatto slaves were a common sight on Virginia’s plantations in the 1700s. They were the product of what some men then considered sport, and the slaves viewed as a loathsome manifestation of their plight.
THE FORD FAMILY ARGUMENT
Linda Bryant has written that John Washington sent Venus to comfort his brother George as a “sleep partner” during a visit by George to his brother’s home. The two surviving portraits of Ford show a resemblance to Washington men, and Ford’s freedom and inheritance reflected special status. Bryant expands her version of the family’s allegations in her novel, “I Cannot Tell a Lie.” She called it a “narrative history,” but the dialogue she injects into the subject is all hers.
Knowing that DNA testing resolved the Hemings’s family claims, the Ford descendents have pressed Mount Vernon for hair samples from the General. The Ladies Association has refused the request.
THE LADIES ASSOCIATION’S POSITION
The Mount Vernon Ladies Association has adamantly denied that General Washington fathered West Ford. “The Ford family contention is based on a family tradition,” said Dennis Pogue, Mount Vernon’s associate director of preservation in 2000. “We respect that, but if this is true, there should be other evidence to support it.” Pogue’s polite approach took a sharper edge in 2004, when he said, “there’s not a shred of evidence” to support the Ford family allegation. In late 2009, Pogue again reiterated Mount Vernon’s position.
Linda Allen Bryant continues to press her case in the court of public opinion, but her views are creating less and less interest.