George Washington‘s biracial family tree has officially been recognized and will be now part of an exhibition called “Lives Bound Together” in Arlington House and Mount Vernon.
In a statement issued by the National Park Service and the nonprofit that runs Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, it was revealed that starting in the fall; they will acknowledge that George Washington Parke Custis, the historical figure’s adopted son, had children with two slaves.
John “Jacky” Parke Custis was the son of Martha Washington (née Dandridge) and Daniel Parke Custis. After the death of Parke Custis, Dandridge married George Washington, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.
While Martha and George Washington did not have any children together, the nation’s first president adopted and raised his wife’s children – Daniel Parke Custis, Jr. and John Parke Custis – as his own.
Washington also adopted his step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, who was the son of John Parke Custis and Eleanor Calvert Custis.
George Washington Parke Custis, who was given the nickname Wash, was considered a problem child much like his biological father. He was also a failure in school and attended several colleges and never graduated. George Washington Parke Custis went to Germantown Academy, the College of New Jersey, and St. John’s College.
Washington often shared his frustration about the young man in his letters. George Washington once wrote:
“He appears to me to be moped and Stupid, says nothing, and is always in some hole or corner excluded from the Company.”
George Washington’s adopted son married Mary Lee Fitzhugh, a Caucasian Episcopal lay leader in Alexandria County. George Washington Parke Custis and Mary Lee Fitzhugh Custis’ only surviving daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, married American Confederate Army general Robert E. Lee.
However, he also fathered children with two black slaves – Arianna Carter and Caroline Branham. Parke Custis likely fathered a girl named Lucy with Branham.
Matthew Penrod, a National Park Service ranger and programs manager at Arlington House, said this is the place “where the lives of the Washingtons, their slaves and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee all converged.” Penrod explained:
“We fully recognize that the first family of this country was much more than what it appeared on the surface.”
Penrod confessed that in the past 26 years, tour guides at Arlington House were asked to describe slave dwellings as “servants’ quarters” and “the focus was on Lee, to honor him and show him in the most positive light.”
Penrod stated that they have no new scientific evidence to confirm George Washington’s biracial family tree, but they have made the changes to reflect “a growing sense that African-American history cannot be disregarded and that Arlington House represents more than Lee’s legacy.” For a scientific proof, DNA testing will have to involve descendants of Lee, Carter and Branham.
Some family records are kept at Robert E. Lee’s birthplace, Stratford Hall, but research director Judy Hynson said she knows of none that acknowledge Parke Custis fathered children with slaves. Hynson said.
“That’s not something you would write down in your family Bible.”
Carter and Branham’s descendants were thrilled to learn the news, and the same can not be said for Robert E. Lee’s lineage. Stephen Hammond, of Reston, a Carter-Syphax descendant said the Park Service’s recognition is gratifying. Hammond said:
“It’s become a passion of mine, figuring out where we fit in American history.”
Hammond stated he and his cousins have not yet decided to approach the Lee descendants for genetic tests, and many of them are not interested and have refused to comment on this story. Branham descendant’s ZSun-nee Miller-Matema, of Hagerstown, Md., said:
“My aunt told me that if the truth of our family was known, it would topple the first families of Virginia. As a kid I would always tell people I was related to George Washington, but no one would believe me.”
She traced her ancestry to Caroline Branham, who appears in documents written in the first president’s own hand. She added:
“I just couldn’t believe it. Gen. Washington was taking notes on my Caroline?”
Donna Kunkel, who is related to Carter, said while she knows that slaves could not refuse the sexual advances of the plantation owner, she tries not to think of the acts as rape. Kunkel explained:
“I try to focus on the outcome. He treated Maria with respect after the fact.”
“Incorporating these family histories into the nation’s shared story is particularly important at a time of renewed racial tension. We’re all so much a part of each other. It just makes no sense any more to be a house divided.”
In June, the Park Service re-enacted the 1821 wedding of Maria Carter to Charles Syphax at Arlington House. A new family tree was unveiled at the event and listed Parke Custis and Arianna Carter as Maria Carter’s parents.