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The Secret History of George Washington’s Slave Descendants

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(Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
(Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

While George Washington had no biological offspring, he did have a child. George Washington Parke Custis (or “Wash,” as he was often called) was a grandchild of Martha’s from her first marriage. When Daniel Parke Custis died in 1757, she married George in 1759, with the two remaining together until his death in 1799. When Wash was orphaned at the age of just six months in 1781, Martha and George adopted him.

Wash lived to the age of 76, dying in 1857. He inherited a fortune from George and, while not considered a particularly effective plantation manager, remained a respected figure through his life, particularly for his role in preserving the possessions of his adopted father. (He also had an extremely accomplished son-in-law in the form of Robert E. Lee, who married the only acknowledged Custis child to live to adulthood.)

Yet this didn’t change the fact that family members felt that Martha “spoiled” him while George was occupied with his obligations to our emerging nation and not around to supply any discipline. (George wrote of Wash: “From his infancy, I have discovered an almost unconquerable disposition to indolence in everything that did not tend to his amusements.”) Consequently, Wash tended to drift, never completing his college education and also engaging in behavior in his personal life that Mount Vernon and the National Park Service did their best to ignore for over 200 years.

Specifically, it was long rumored that Wash fathered children with Arianna Carter and Caroline Branham, two of the slaves at Mount Vernon. This turned out to be an understatement: It appears Wash fathered children with several slaves. (DNA testing is still needed to confirm all the connections.) Only in 2016 have the National Park Service and Mount Vernon publicly admitted this likelihood as part of an exhibit exploring George Washington’s relationship with slavery—while a lifelong slaveholder, George took the bold step for the time of freeing his slaves in his will.

To read more about these previously concealed branches of the Washington family tree, click here. To read about how some of Washington’s newly acknowledged descendants feel about this change in the historical record, click here.