This Long-Ignored Document, Written by George Washington, Lays Bare the Legal Power of Genealogy

In Washington’s Virginia, family was a crucial determinant of social and economic status, and freedom

Washington geneaology
In the corner of one side of the document, Washington wrote "Genealogy of the Washington Family in Virginia" Courtesy Karin Wulf. Document at the Library of Congress, George Washington Papers, Series 4, General Correspondence: George Washington, Genealogy Chart, 1753.

The scads of advertisements from or PBS’ “Finding Your Roots” make it easy to imagine geneaology as the arena of the hobbyist or amateur historian. Sites and shows like those and others suggest that, in our highly individualistic world, ancestry is just a pastime. But in fact ancestry still has (literally) grave consequences. Matters of inheritance and heritage are at the core of many functions of the state, from birthright citizenship to Native American ancestry to matters of probate. Such is the reality now, and so it was in the founding years of the United States.

For a man of his times like George Washington, but also for men and women without his wealth or prominence, lineage was foundational. By the time he was 18, George Washington was a competent genealogist -- and he had to be. In Washington’s Virginia, family was a crucial determinant of social and economic status, and freedom.

How did Washington understand his family, and what can that tell us about the world in which he lived and played such a significant role? Thanks to a document long ignored by biographers and historians alike, we now know how fully he grasped the basic truth that genealogy is power.

Inscribed by Washington in distinct sections during the late 1740s and the early 1750s, decades before the American Revolution, the two sides of this document, held at the Library of Congress, help us to see how Washington viewed the importance of his family connections, including as a route to inheritance, and also how these relationships were crucially connected to the lives of enslaved people.

The most profound feature of this document is the explicit link between his family’s wealth and the enslavement of other families. George Washington’s history as a slaveowner is fairly well known. Historian Erica Dunbar’s Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge detailed how aggressively Washington managed the human beings he considered property. Mount Vernon research historian Mary Thompson’s recent analysis of Washington’s attitudes about the institution of slavery and his behavior toward enslaved people is the closest look yet at the lives and experiences of those men, women and children. In this document the connection of elite inheritance and slavery is made in the hand of the foremost American founder himself.

The first time George Washington, probably in the late teens and working as a surveyor, put pen to this paper, he drew a family tree. It is not an elegant piece of work, but a practical one. Washington drafted this family tree for many of the same reasons that plenty of other people all over the British colonies did. Family was both a matter of emotional connection and of business. Men of Washington’s status kept records as keepsakes, but also as indicators for legal matters like inheritance in which property, either in the form of land or human labor, was transferred. Some of the most regularly consulted legal works, for lawyers, judges, and other officals, reproduced examples of family trees to illustrate the importance of knowing and recording such information.

In Washington’s spiked, looped early handwriting, less polished than that of his later years, and with rough lines connecting relations from one generation to the next, and siblings to one another, the family tree nonetheless included impressive detail. Washington likely knew some but not all of the details of his family’s history, and if he was like many other people, he would have consulted family historical memory and records, such as church accounts. For the Washington family not much of this sort still exists today.

He began with his great-grandparents, John and Ann Pope Washington, and his great-grand uncle, Lawrence Washington. This was the English-born generation that immigrated to Virginia in the mid-17th century. For each generation, the younger Washington noted all of the children, but only traced to the next generation his own direct ancestors, leaving, for example, the marriage, family, and descendants of Lawrence unremarked.

Washington was repeating a practice of many men and women in British America, by recording his family history and also by tracing a male line (his father, his father’s father, his father’s father’s father). If he had followed his mother’s family, or his grandmother’s, his genealogical rendering would have included a different set of connections. But the law of inheritance was structured so that property would flow from men to men. Protestant culture and the British monarchy also both stressed the significance of male lineages, even though reproductive and demographic realities were such that women often did inherit—even, during the lives of Washington’s patrilineal ancestors, the throne of England.

The flipside of the document is as important and revealing as the first. Titled “A List of Tithables” by Washington, it was likely written in the early 1750s. It includes the names of an overseer, William Ricksey, and 10 enslaved men and women: Acco, Moll, Franck, Ben, Nan, Oney, Jack, Gabriel, William and Judah.

In Virginia, men like Washington paid a tax on free white men, adult servants and enslaved people in their household. Counties assessed these taxes, but very few county tithable lists have survived the centuries. Virginia’s state library has several dozen, including, for example, a partial one from 1764 for Buckingham County. The list has columns for the name of the hundreds of taxpayers, and the categories on which they were taxed, including “number of Tith[able]s,” “Quantity of Land acres,” and “wheel Carriages.” Often the name of the tithables was included.

Washington created his list in advance of this county tax process, and to account for the enslaved men and women who were part of his recently deceased half-brother Lawrence’s estate. According to records at the Library of Congress, Lawrence paid tax for two white men and 27 enslaved individuals in 1749. Four years later, after Lawrence’s death, George Washington created an inventory of his half-brother’s estate, in which he listed 36 enslaved men, women and children. Of those names, six also appear on Washington’s “List of Tithables” found on the reverse of his family tree.

Details about the lives of Acco, Ben, Franck, Gabriel, Jack, Judah, Moll, Nan, Oney, and William and are obviously harder to come by than for someone like, say, George Washington. The system that produced records of their enslavement was not designed to capture or preserve more individual or intimate information about them. Their family, intellectual and religious experiences, among so many other dimensions of human life, survive in other forms—in oral histories, in some archaeology and material culture, and in the corners of documents like these where their families were sometimes noted.

The inventory of Lawrence Washington’s will, for example, states that one Moll was “daughter to Frank,” presumably the same man on the tithable list as “Franck,” but because a second Moll was listed, perhaps Frank and Moll may have had a daughter—also Moll. “Will’s,” presumably William’s, spouse was named, too: Barbara. From these and other fragments the lives of people enslaved by the Washington family come into slightly better focus.

Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon, George Washington's Virginia estate. Martin Falbisoner via Wikicommons under CC- BY-SA 3.0

Mount Vernon was George Washington’s pride and joy—or as he famously referred to it (and Lin-Manuel Miranda put to music), his “own vine and fig tree.” John Washington, the first name on George Washington’s family tree, first held title to the land that would become the Mount Vernon estate in 1674. From him, what was then the Little Hunting Creek plantation was inherited by George Washington’s paternal grandfather, Lawrence Washington. But then, it went to George’s aunt, Mildred Washington Gregory and her husband. They sold it to her brother and George’s father, Augustine Washington, who left it to his eldest son, Lawrence—George Washington’s half- brother.

So how did Mount Vernon come to be George’s? By a path that only genealogy could trace. Lawrence followed the pattern of a number of men in his family, by marrying women of high status and great wealth. But his and his wife Ann Fairfax Washington’s children all died very young. When George Washington penned his genealogy, he wrote down three of Lawrence’s children—Jane, Fairfax, and Mildred—but all of them had died, none having lived much more than a year, and none of them having survived long enough to meet a sibling. Not long after he inscribed the family tree, though, Sarah Washington was born—in November of 1750. And it was to her that Lawrence Washington, already ill, left his estate.

We don’t think of Mount Vernon as George Washington’s inheritance from his toddler niece. But in fact it was Sarah’s death, just two years after her father, that allowed the property to come to her uncle.

The property at Mount Vernon that George Washington inherited included the estate, but also enslaved people. Among those men and women, some were born in Africa and sold into the slave trade, but others were of the second or third generation of people enslaved in the Chesapeake region. According to the laws of Virginia, all of these women’s children would be enslaved. The doctrine of partus sequitur ventrum held that a child’s status would follow their mother’s. When George Washington recorded the family relationships of enslaved people, as he did in particular when accounting for those people who comprised part of Lawrence Washington’s estate, he was illustrating—again—the legal importance of genealogy.

Famously, when Washington died in 1799, his will stated his “earnest wish” for the emancipation of enslaved people. But because of the laws of the time, ever intertwined with genealogy, only some enslaved children, women, and men acquired their freedom. The rules of inheritance kept women from owning property except in a few circumstances, including in widowhood. Martha Washington, for instance, held enslaved people in trust for her children and grandchildren as part of the inheritance from her first husband. Though George Washington had the management rights to these people and their labor, and he profited from it, he did not own them. And therefore, he could not free them in his will.

In lists he made shortly before his death, Washington had to distinguish between the people enslaved by him and those people who were enslaved by Martha. As he described them, “Negros belonging to George Washington in his own right and by marriage.” He could legally free the former, but not the latter, and yet as he also acknowledged in more careful and fulsome notes, the families that were formed across that line meant that some would be free, while their spouses and children remained enslaved, or the reverse.

There is more to note about the thin piece of paper on which a young George Washington wrote comparatively few words, but words that contained multitudes, and there is a lot more to know about the people whose lives rested on those lines. In the 1790s he picked up that paper again, and in the course of his correspondence with one of the most prominent English genealogists of the era, Sir Isaac Heard, labeled the document as “Genealogy of the Washington Family in Virginia.” He saved it for all those decades, for reasons that are plain to us now.

Savage portrait of George Washington and his family
Edward Savage, The Washington Family, 1789-96, National Gallery of Art. Public domain

The common conception of Washington is that of his nuclear family: his marriage to Martha Custis and his own lack of biological children. The famed Edward Savage painting shows the president, his wife, their adopted grandchildren, and William Lee, an enslaved man who served Washington as a manservant or valet.

Documents like this one show that through geneaology, historians are finding new ways to expand our conceptions of what family means and to show us the power, privilege, and even violence of family connections in the past. This unexpected look at George Washington, genealogist, suggests why this is such a potent source of information about his world—and our own.

A host of sources help to contextualize and date this extraordinary document, not least the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, but three indispensable guides to the lives of George Washington and to the families enslaved by the Washington family are the Slavery Database at Mount Vernon, Founders Online the database of six founders’ edited papers, and the ongoing work of the Papers of George Washington documentary editing project.

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