George Washington's Great-Grandfather, John

A missing marker at the George Washington birthplace caused a reader to write to Answer Man.
A missing marker at the George Washington birthplace caused a reader to write to Answer Man. (National Park Service)

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By John Kelly
Sunday, November 16, 2008

Years ago, I visited the George Washington Birthplace National Monument in Westmoreland County, Va. There was a tombstone for John Washington and "his first wife Anne Pope, mother of all his children." I visited the site again in 2006, and the tombstone had been removed to storage. I once read that John Washington (George Washington's great- grandfather) had abandoned a family in England when he came to America. Could this be the reason for the removal of the tombstone -- that Anne Pope was not his first wife?

-- James Long, Mesa, Ariz.

Answer Man thought he had stumbled upon a centuries-old scandal. Secret wives, contested bloodlines, purloined gravestones. It's an American "DaVinci Code."

The story of George Washington starts with John Washington, or "immigrant John Washington" as he's usually referred to. He left England for Virginia in 1657. In 1658, he married a widow named Anne Pope Brodhurst. After her death, he married two more times. John's son Lawrence had a son named Augustine who had a son named George who was the Father of Our Country.

Although Answer Man has nothing against the name "John" -- is quite fond of it, in fact -- its excessive use can complicate efforts to tease out the branches of the Washington family tree, which are full of Johns. Similarly, it didn't help that John Washington's first two wives were both named Anne. Much confusion ensued over the years, leading to speculation that John was a widower when he arrived in the colonies or that his English wife died here.

In 1921, an author writing in the journal of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania went so far as to claim that John's children were from this supposed first wife and thus the Pope branch of the family was not related to George Washington at all. The author even posed the question, "Was Col. John Washington a bigamist?" although that was referring to yet another marriage.

There is something a little odd about that inscription. It refers to John's "first wife" Anne Pope, "mother of all his children." Nearby stones memorializing other couples just read "wife," not "first wife." Also, why bother to point out that she's "the mother of all his children"?

But perhaps they wanted to quash gossip. The stones don't date from John Washington's day. They were placed in the 1930s at a time when historians had only recently been able to nail down many of the details regarding the Washington family in England and America. These are details found in baptism records, marriage banns, court cases, family Bibles, and last wills and testaments -- the tools of the genealogical sleuth.

Documents such as these led John Washington of Bethesda, a descendant of George's brother Lawrence, to tell Answer Man, "The immigrant John Washington was married three times, all in Virginia." Of the other theories, he said, "They're all crazy."

Dick Lahey, a park ranger at the Washington birthplace, has heard the rumors, but he, too, discounts them. "I suspect the long arm of the law would have kept up with him," Dick said. "They had a pretty good legal system even in backwoods Virginia." A bigamist wouldn't have gotten far.

As for the memorial marker, Dick said: "The motivation behind removing it had nothing to do with the historical fight over whether John Washington was married before or not. It was simply a case that old stones tend to suffer from acid rain." They were removed for safekeeping.

"One thing I do know is, George Washington didn't care," Dick said. When a famous British genealogist wrote to Washington after he had become president asking for details on his family tree, George fobbed the task off on an elderly relative and wrote back that he didn't know much about his family's history. And besides, it wasn't that important to Americans, who weren't obsessed with matters of pedigree.

"It was kind of a final jab at the English way of life," Dick said.

If only George could see how important it is to our way of life now.

Have a question for Answer Man? Send it to answerman@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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