Popes Creek tribute / Servants'
descendants honor their ancestors
Times-Dispatch Staff Writer
Anita Wills' journey to her
mulatto ancestors' home at George Washington's birthplace began 20
It's a voyage that spans nearly 270
years and is rooted in two people -- Mary Bowden and her daughter,
Patty, both mixed-race indentured servants at the Washington family's
plantation near the Potomac River in Westmoreland County.
National Park Service officials say
Wills is the first black person they know of who has traced her family
history to the site, which the park service administers. Yesterday,
she and about 16 other Bowden descendants paid tribute to their
ancestors during ceremonies at the 550-acre plantation along Popes
"From the moment I was a child, my
mother told me about my ancestry," said the 53-year-old Wills, who
lives near Oakland, Calif. "It has been a spiritual quest and has
opened my eyes."
Mary Bowden was born into servitude in
1730, the child of a white woman and a man of either African or
American Indian descent, according to Wills, whose research was aided
by local and park service historians. Mary Bowden served George
Washington's father, Augustine Washington, as a cook, cleaning woman
and family caretaker. George Washington was born at the plantation
just two years after Mary Bowden and, of course, went on to become the
country's first president. Washington lived at Popes Creek plantation
until age 4, when his family moved to Ferry Farm near Fredericksburg,
but he returned to his birthplace often as a teen-ager.
Around 1750, Mary Bowden gave birth to
a daughter, Patty, who also was raised on the Washington family
plantation. Court records show Mary Bowden ran away from the
plantation twice after giving birth to her daughter. By then,
Augustine Washington Jr., George Washington's older half-brother, had
inherited the estate from their father, who died in 1743.
WHAT: George Washington
Birthplace National Monument
WHEN: Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
daily, except Christmas and New Year's days
WHERE: In Westmoreland
County near the junction of state Routes 3 and 204, about 38 miles
east of Fredericksburg
COST: Admission is $2 for
those 17 and older, free for children 16 and younger.
PHONE: (804) 224-1732
Patty Bowden primarily served Elizabeth Washington, the eldest
daughter of Augustine Washington Jr. Both women were about the same
age, and Patty Bowden continued to serve her mistress after Elizabeth
Washington's marriage to Alexander Spotswood, the grandson of Gov.
Mary and Patty Bowden were eventually freed from their servitude
because of their partially white lineage, and settled in
Fredericksburg. Patty Bowden married, and two of her sons defended
America against the British in the War of 1812. Other descendants went
on to fight in the Civil War.
Dwight Pitcaithley, the National Park Service's chief historian in
Washington, said that yesterday's ceremony is part of a growing
recognition of the roles blacks have played in shaping America's
history. Until recently, America's history often focused only on
famous figures, he said, and not on the "common" people.
"A broadened understanding of the past is coming into focus," he
told the audience of about 100 people.
Indeed, blacks' roles in Virginia are being more closely examined
at both Thomas Jefferson's Monticello home and at Colonial
Williamsburg. Monticello has added to its programming Jefferson's
probable fathering of at least one child with slave Sally Hemings.
Colonial Williamsburg is re-enacting the harsh treatment of blacks
during Colonial times.
"The purpose of the program is to educate. It's not to make anyone
feel guilty or put 20th century values on it," Lorraine Brooks, a
Colonial Williamsburg spokeswoman said last week.
Dianne Swann-Wright, a historian at Monticello, said at yesterday's
event that she and others are trying to put together the lives of not
only Hemings but of some of the other slaves that Jefferson owned. To
date, they have talked with more than 100 people who are descended
from Hemings and other Jefferson slaves.
As for the possibility of a Washington family scenario similar to
the probable Jefferson-Hemings liaison, Paula S. Felder, a
Fredericksburg-area historian who assisted Wills, said she doesn't
believe Patty Bowden was fathered by a Washington family member.
"No, I don't think that would be the case," she said.
Robert Watson, a history professor at Hampton University, said that
slavery is often a sensitive topic for both blacks and whites but that
America should not be afraid to examine all aspects of its history.
"Slavery is a chapter in our history," he said. "You don't start
reading a book on chapter three."
Wills plans to continue digging into her family's history and says
she harbors no ill feelings about her family's past.
"They were extraordinary people," she said. "They never passed on a
legacy of hate, only one of love."
© 1999, Richmond Newspapers Inc.