by Anita Wills
The Bowden Family Website
|AAGSNC Note: This month's column is a reprint of an article about Anita Will's 20-year research journey.|
Popes Creek tribute / Servants' descendants honor their ancestors
BY KIRAN KRISHNAMURTHY
Times-Dispatch Staff Writer
Anita Wills' journey to her mulatto ancestors' home at George Washington's birthplace began 20 years ago.
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 Creek.
"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.
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. Alexander Spotswood.
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.
|Copyright ©1998-1999 by Anita Wills. Reprints require approval by the author.|