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.
Mark Anthony Bretz is the 4th Cousin of West Ford (supposedly).
Alling Ball-(Siblings)-William Ball
Alling Ball II-(1st Cousin)- Joseph Ball
Edward Ball-(2nd Cousin)- Mary Ball
Caleb Ball-(3rd Cousin)-George Washington
Caleb Ball-(4th Cousin)-West Ford
Deborah Ball (4th Cousin once removed)
Hosea Wright (4th Cousin twice removed)
Hiram Wright (4th Cousin thrice times removed)
Martin Van Buren Wright (4th Cousin 4 times removed)
David Brazillie Wright (4th Cousin 5 times removed)
Fannie Elizabeth Wright (4th Cousin 6 times removed)
Elsie Mae Dexter (4th Cousin 7 times removed)
Billy Joe Bretz (4th Cousin 8 times removed)
Mark Anthony Bretz (4th Cousin 9 times removed) (A Bible Scholar)
West Ford is the cousin (supposedly) of the following:
It is just in, the newest hero is Sam Irick, the (supposedly) distant cousin of West Ford!
Randall Kent Burris is the distant cousin of (supposedly) of West Ford!
Just came upon a web site for the Quander family. Claim to have traced their family back to 1000 a.d. Say they are descendants of West Ford and his father Bushrod Washington
just curious if gum springs area on fordson road was ever a place where slaves where tortured… or if it was ever a grave yard or what was on the land of fordson road in gum springs? i really want to know if slaves ever where tied up with chains?
Im a decendant of west ford and fordson road was not a place where slaves were tortured or things of that nature. It was my families land from that road pass that new Walmart shopping center and even toward the movie theater and more. During the summer Granny would send me there from N.Y. to visit all my cousins , great uncles etc. This road is where u may still find some of my relatives even today. They might not remember me but surely they will remember that at the end of the road opposite of the church behind dunkin donuts is where George & Catherine Ford raise around14 children. My Granny was one of those siblings Mary Jane ford my mother was Gloria Pipkins Hudson . My name is Shawn Dwight Pipkins. Love to all my cousins i miss u guys very much… IN Georgia now
I have not given up. They think that most of us are not alive but guess what they have miss calculated. LOL Shawn D Pipkins oldest grandchild of Mary Jane Ford
Linda Bryant if something should happen to me i give u permission to obtain hair samples from my remains. God Bless I will never tell a lie
john kiger bushrod is my great great great great grandfather from Virginia
john kiger bushrod is my great great great great grandfather from Virginia he was there during the time West Ford lived there
hello cousin tell me more at SunShawnD@hotmail.com or you can find me on Facebook Shawn D Pipkins
Find me lee we have much to talk about. See my Navy Pic on the book Shawn D Pipkins
Bushrod inherited Mt Vernon in 1799 after George died. It is said he was a boy toy.
Make no mistake about it im a West Ford. Check Fordsome rd. in Gumspring that is where my granny was born Mary Jane Ford my great uncles and Aunties . My great grandmothers name was Catherine Saunders Ford married to George Ford had a house on behind the dunkin donuts on that track of land North of Mt. Vernon and Bushrods land. That is where the land was divided up with relatives back in the day some of my cousins still live on that road they just don’t know all of us from N.Y. but they do know that they have cousins on top. Im still alive and kicking and don’t plan on leaving for another 50yrs or more so don’t be shy nor feel like your better than the next ford cause we are all family. Real Talk Bedstuy Brooklyn and Mt Vernon Connection
Fordsome road was not a place where slaves were tortured or things of that nature. Actually it was on of the first black communities in that region . They were self sufficient and built schools hospitals and farmed on their own. You have to remember they taught George some things that he took credit for. Read the inventions and contributions George made to agriculture and you can figure out how he got those ideas. It were they slaves whom transformed MT. Vernon into the example of what the first farming model was in America or had a significant hand on the blueprint to Agriculture read the inventions George Patent during his time. You will be surprised. Also Martha was no chump her and George owned a vast amount of land up and down the Potomac im not talking about a couple of acres but thousands upon thousands. She was a daughter of a Aristocrate.and George father was a high ranking officer in the British Army. Follow the money!
George Washington is not in a tomb on MT. Vernon he is buried underneath the White House . He is a national Treasure and it will take a act of congress for his remains to be dug up. Don’t believe me check out the story. He was moved several times.
Also related to the Fords, Chases, Quanders, Hollands, Kings, and I’m pretty sure the Nappers and Fergusons are all descendants.
Hello Cuz I do know for sure that the Chases, and Hollands are of relation to me… Anyway I love my family . You to Florence !
Ms Jones, thank you so much for the slice of great history. I am in no way related, but recently discovered my own family history after 55 years of knowing absolutely nothing. It goes so deep that even my last name is only one generation old. My Dad made it up and legally changed his name at 17. Talk about rough research, couldn’t even start with my own name. Excellent writing, great story. EddieP
My great grandparents are Catherine and George who lived in the house at the corner of ford’ some rd.
My name is Anita Ferguson my grandfather is Howard Ferguson. We lived in the old school house on Fordson Rd. I would love to know more
Any current or former Gum Spring resident that was around in the 1960s please call or write the Spring Garden Apartments leasing office in Gum Springs on Richmond Highway and ask for Mr shiver who is writing a book on the area. Thanks.