Redrawing A Community – A Washington Descendant’s Journey

In 2010, an archive of rare documents passed down in my family for over 250 years arrived at my home in Austin. Reading them I came face to face with my family’s role in both creating democracy and denying freedom.

 I’m the 5x great-granddaughter of George Washington’s brother John Augustine Washington. Although the President freed his slaves in his will, his brothers and heirs continued using slave labor to maintain their lives of privilege until the Emancipation Proclamation became law.

 My own life has followed a different cultural current of American history. I’ve been a professional blues musician for over 40 years. I launched my career playing with blues legends, learning authentic styles from those who grew up in the Jim Crow era.

 I’ve been looking for linked descendants, and specifically those who share a life in music. Soon after I began my search I found Coming To The Table. Susan Hutchison, one the founders, helped me to come to terms with my family’s legacy. I’m forever in her debt – thank you, Susan!

 I’m outlining my search – so far! – In three parts, as a Bittersweet blog post – “Redrawing a Community”.

Part One, “Paper” deals with the impact of learning about my family’s past as slave-owners.

Part Two “People”, tells the story of connecting to the living descendants of Solomon Thompson and Reuben Hatter.

Part Three “Music”, talks about the impact of African-American music on my life, and my search for linked descendant musicians.

I’m telling the whole story in my upcoming book “The Washingtons and The Blues”.

 

 Redrawing a Community

 Part One – “Paper”

 My family sold their plantation and farmlands in Jefferson County, West Virginia in the wake of the Civil War, and headed west around 1905, to start over. They resettled in Eastern Washington State, where my mother was born and raised. Her father, grandfather, uncle and aunt claimed adjacent homesteads in arid country along the Columbia River. The cabins and corrals they built are long gone, but the land remains in the family, home now to low brush and a few chimney stones. They never returned to West Virginia. Claymont, their West Virginia home, is now owned by the Claymont Society for Continuing Education, which offers it, among other things, as a meditation retreat.

Claymont post card

Claymont Plantation, birthplace of my great-grandfather Bushrod Corbin Washington ll. It was built by 90 workers enslaved by his grandfather around 1820. The family sold it in 1871. The Funkhouser family noted on the postcard bought the home in the 1940s. It is now owned by The Claymont Society for Continuing Education.

 

I grew up knowing the 20th century story of my family. My mother, aunt and uncle told me of their ranch land childhoods, and shared what they remembered of their father, Nathaniel Willis Washington. There were only a few scattered stories of their grandfather, Bushrod Corbin Washington II. He died of influenza in 1919, living his last days on the ranch he hoped would become “a new plantation in the West’ – a phrase my uncle always repeated with an ironic lift of his chin. Bushrod’s son Nat Washington was interested in dams, not plantations. The Grand Coulee Dam was built within a few miles of the ranch; my grandfather was part of a group that proposed it.

One day in 1926, during a swimming excursion with visiting cousins, my grandfather Nat, his brother James, and his sister Peachey were all drowned in the rain-swollen river, witnessed by my twelve-year-old uncle, Nat Washington Jr.. Stories of earlier life in West Virginia, those that would have been told to children when they were old enough to be interested, disappeared in The Tragedy, when an entire generation was swept away by the Columbia.

Bushrod's Cabin

My great-grandfather Bushrod Corbin Washington II and great-grandmother Emma at their homestead on the Columbia River. He died there in 1918. (3rd person unknown.)

 I’m starting my story here, because this was my initial vantage point for the work I’m doing now. I was disconnected from my West Virginia ancestors, not concerned with them. The Tragedy – the drowning -was our own family story, and contained enough grief and drama to keep me from looking much farther back.

 It wasn’t until 2010 that I was able to read through a family archive that had been passed down for generations. The papers had traveled west with the West Virginians, by train to Spokane, and by horse cart to the ranch on the Columbia, contained in a trunk. In my lifetime they had been kept by my Uncle Nat, who occasionally took them out of a sideboard in his dining room to show them to family (oddly, I could be the only family member with no memory of this.) The archaic handwriting was hard to read, but they looked impressive, and certainly historical.

When Uncle Nat died, his will stipulated that the archive should be auctioned, a surprise to all of us. He knew an auction would draw interest because of its connection to George Washington; we are descendants of George’s brother, John Augustine Washington. The archive arrived at my house en route to the auction. By then the documents had also been transcribed from the original, impossibly stylized, script.

As I read through each page I was emotionally slammed by the significant and disturbing role of slavery in my family. There were wills listing hundreds of enslaved people, denied surnames; documents drawn up for the division of assets – cattle, tools and humans; a letter about hunting for runaways; hate mail from an abolitionist; references to the American Colonization Society, dedicated to freeing slaves on the condition that they colonize Liberia.

 I was unprepared for the shock of meeting the issue face-to-face. I felt betrayed.

 I knew we had owned slaves, of course. The subject rarely came up, but it wasn’t forbidden. I had asked about it and been answered, but it seemed very far away. Slave owning was acknowledged, but remained invisible, banished like a bad dog. Not overtly avoided, but empty of detail. Much of our oral history had been lost. What was left of our back-home stories had no gauzy references to “beloved servants”, let alone deeper and darker tales. My broadminded mother, Glenora Washington Brown, would have shared the specifics if she had them. As it was, our family baggage consisted of old papers that were hard to decipher, and she knew little of their substance.

 There were warm and loving letters from parent to child also, describing privileged lives complicated by early deaths and other hardships; women who were constricted by the times they lived in; men comfortable as entitled “gentlemen farmers”, seemingly uninterested in broader horizons. What bearing did these people have on my life? Could I recognize the Western family I knew, in them? To what extent was I tied to their legacy, especially the glaring brutality of slavery? How would I address the acts of my ancestors?

 Who were the individuals my ancestors regarded as property, visible only as shadows on inherited sheets of paper?

Slavery’s legacy is as alive as it is chilling. The Washington family retained custody of the people we formerly held in bondage by virtue of owning what I assumed were the only records existing of their lives.

 I began to work on what I called a “table”, as a way to memorialize the people enslaved by my family. The table is comprised of ten columns, each representing a will or inventory containing names of those enslaved. Each row represents one enslaved individual. Completed it traced seven generations; about 50 members of my family were supported by over 538 people they held in bondage.

The entries create a timeline, describing paths through the generations whenever possible. I included salvaged information on where people had lived, and which Washington family member had “inherited”, bought or sold them. I tried to determine if their children had remained with them, or been taken away. I included references in letters, shedding slivers of light on daily lives. The table was my first step toward returning history to the families to whom it belonged.

I had originally planned to print it out as a long scroll, a monument in paper, but it’s way too long to be manageable. Visually, the table might be a massively tall tower with a tiny footprint, 10 columns wide and 538 rows tall; there’s no way it could ever stand. And indeed, it fell, but not until 1865, when the Washingtons and their planter neighbors were forced to emancipate the community they held in bondage.

At one point, while handling these lists of names, I was chilled by the thought that I was perpetuating the sickening tradition of inheritance – that I was merely the latest custodian of human property, now in the form of wills rather than flesh and blood. It’s easy to take on ever increasing doses of guilt in this kind of project. But it’s better to deal with this tradition than to hide it. Those of us who have the details of their family’s involvement in slavery have a responsibility to share it, and learn by it.

"Valuation of Negroes" - part of my family archive. My 3x great-grandfather and his brothers divide "property" inherited from their father, Corbin Washington, George Washington's nephew. At this time there were more than 130 people enslaved by the family.

“Valuation of Negroes” – part of my family archive. My 3x great-grandfather and his brothers divide “property” inherited from their father, Corbin Washington, George Washington’s nephew. At this time there were more than 130 people enslaved by the family. The archive is now part of Special Collections at the Fred W. Smith Library for the Study of George Washington, at Mount Vernon.

                                                             *                                    *                                     *

 Scott Casper’s Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon; The Forgotten History Of An American Shrine, comprises the most extensive research to date on people who were enslaved by George Washingtons and his heirs at Mount Vernon. Scott Casper based some of his research on our archive (which had been loaned by my uncle to the library at Colonial Williamsburg.) He created a web site: http://www.unr.edu/cla/history/casper.html, and a spreadsheet on the people he wrote about, and I depended on it a great deal while constructing my own table. I extended his research by concentrating on my own branch of the family.

 

 

 

 

I am a full time musician living in Austin TX. I'm exploring my family's history as slaveholders, and searching for linked descendants. I'm especially interested in musical connections between linked families.

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Posted in Ancestry, Colonial (Before 1770s), Connecting Across Families, Discovery & Personal Reactions, Historic Harms, Legacies, Linked Descendants, North America, Plantations, Racism, Slaveholders, Slaveholding (1780 -1865), The Journey
23 comments on “Redrawing A Community – A Washington Descendant’s Journey
  1. Gene Fowler says:

    Hi Sarah. I was doing some of my daily searches for the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes deal, and I like to search for info about healers and healing. I searched for Washington healer 1890s and one of the pages that came up was yours. Epiphany Time! It said something about “Ties to Slavery and the Work of Healing.” I had a little gig back in 2010 doing research for the Institute of Texan Cultures exhibit on the Buffalo Soldiers in West Texas circa 1870s, so I did a lot of research on former slaves for that. Your project is really interesting. Gene Fowler

    • Sarah Brown says:

      HI Gene! I’m excited that you found this page in your search. I’ll be posting more soon.
      I hope we get to work together again in the future!

  2. nstarpgbreakingdownthewalls says:

    Sarah, I loved it!! You did a great job.

  3. Jim Williams says:

    Hi cousin, I think you have taken on a monumental task not only in its significance to the ancestors of these slaves but to those of who are ancestors of the Washington family. I was fortunate to have the parents i have had. Both our Mothers raised us color blind. I didn’t know that racial issues existed in this country until I was old enough to understand what it was all about. If you think I could be of any help in your endeavor just ask. I think what your doing is extremely important. God bless you! Love you, Jim

    • Sarah Brown says:

      So great to hear from you, Cousin Jim! I really appreciate your support. We were lucky to have the mothers we did – the twins. I think you’ll be interested in the other stories on these pages too. All the best to you.

  4. Sarah Brown says:

    I’m honored to be sharing this space with this great group! I want to direct anyone who finds this page through my Facebook posting to explore this site and read the other amazing stories here. And please explore the Coming To The Table site for some true inspiration.

  5. A story that needs telling, for as many reasons as there are people who need to hear it. Thank you!

  6. jfparker14 says:

    Than you Sarah, I loved reading this. And am looking forward to the next ones.
    Julie, of CTTT

  7. Rillia says:

    Very interesting story!

  8. Karen Branan says:

    beautifully felt and wonderfully written, sarah…i can’t wait for the rest.

  9. Happy President’s Day!
    Thank you for sharing the impact of your realizations, particularly in such an orderly, comprehensible fashion.
    I’ve been meditating some, on the way society transmits culture. George Washington has been packaged for general consumption in ways which cross into myth-making. Descendants of slaves have, through shoddy record-keeping and a general neglect of their personhood, been deprived of documentation of their flesh and blood history. Your work helps inform us of our actual position in things.
    Researching Rev. William Hardesty (1776-1846), I glanced off President Washington’s personal household in Philadelphia. This NY Times account introduces Ona Judge, Martha’s seamstress. Hers is a much more interesting story than alluded to here:
    George Washington, Slave Catcher
    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/16/opinion/george-washington-slave-catcher.html

  10. Sarah Brown says:

    Thanks for attaching this story, Roger – it needs to be told repeatedly. This article notes that GW waited until death to direct his slaves to be freed – and then, only after the death of his wife Martha. The article doesn’t mention that the inheritor of his Mount Vernon property, his nephew Bushrod Washington, brought slaves back to Mount Vernon. He was a Supreme Court Justice, and he bought and sold slaves while seated on the highest court in the land. Almost every relative of George Washington continued to own slave through the Civil War.

  11. […]  Part One: https://linkedthroughslavery.com/2015/02/01/redrawing-a-community-a-washington-descendants-journey/ […]

  12. Sharde Bushrod says:

    Hello. My ancestors were the slaves of the Washington Family. I’m in search of where my people originated. My ancestors are from Westmoreland County in Virginia. I do believe there is a connection here. Hannah BUSHROD married John Augustine Washington.

    • Sarah Brown says:

      Hello Sharde – very exciting to hear from you! Yes, John Augustine Washington married into the Bushrod family, and they lived in Westmoreland County. I have several wills that list many enslaved people, though of course they used first names, which makes identification really hard. I would love to share the information I have with you, and find out what you know about your family’s ties with the Washingtons. I’ve been working with a few other families to do the same. You can contact me at hellosarahbrownbass@gmail.com.
      All the best to you and your family!
      Sarah Brown

  13. Tom Washington says:

    Hello Cousin. I believe we spoke on the phone a few years ago. Interesting work you are doing. I knew of the branch of the family that moved to Washington but your blog has filled in some of the details for me. The National Society of Washington Family Descendants Inc. is a good place to meet some of your other cousins.

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