BUNCE ISLAND, Sierra Leone—Twelve American presidents owned slaves, eight while serving in office, and at least 25 presidents count slave owners among their ancestors. But new historical evidence shows that a direct ancestor of George W. and George H.W. Bush was part of a much more appalling group: Thomas Walker was a notorious slave trader active in the late 18th century along the coast of West Africa.
Walker, George H.W. Bush's great-great-great grandfather, was the captain of, master of, or investor in at least 11 slaving voyages to West Africa between 1784 and 1792.
Scores of European merchants and American plantation owners grew rich on the trade that transported more than 10 million Africans to North America, the Caribbean, and Brazil between 1550 and 1850. Bush's family, like many others, has previously been identified as slave owners in the United States. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, at least five Walker family households, George W. Bush’s ancestors by his father’s mother, owned slaves in Maryland’s Cecil County.
But this is the first time an ancestor of Bush has been directly linked to the brutal trans-Atlantic trade in which millions perished. When I queried the New England Historic Genealogical Society, which publishes ancestries of American presidents, the only other president they flagged up with definite slave dealer ancestry was Thomas Jefferson, whose father-in-law, John Wayles (1715-1773), was a planter, slave trader and lawyer in the Virginia Colony. (The NEHGS did acknowledge that there could be other presidents with slavers as ancestors.)
The discovery of the slave-trading ancestor of the Presidents Bush was made by two men: Roger Hughes, a retired newspaper editor and genealogist in Illinois who has previously documented other Bush ancestors as slave owners in the United States, and Joseph Opala, an American historian who has spent much of his adult life in Sierra Leone, the former British colony on the West African coast.
Opala heads a project to preserve Bunce Island, a slave fort 20 miles upriver from Sierra Leone's coastal capital, Freetown, where Thomas Walker bought Africans in the late 18th century. On Bunce Island thick jungle hems in the hulking ruins of the slave fort, abandoned after Britain banned the slave trade in 1807 and left largely untouched since then. Gravestones record the names of long-dead slavers.
As Hughes conducted genealogical research into Bush's ancestors, he began to suspect that two Thomas Walkers in the historical record—one a British-born merchant and known ancestor of the Bushes, the other a slave ship captain who journeyed to Bunce Island—might be the same man. The known Bush ancestor married in 1785 at Bristol, which along with London and Liverpool was one of the three British cities highly involved in the Atlantic slave trade. He later emigrated to the United States, applying for naturalization at New York in 1792, which he received two years later, and purchasing property at Burlington, N.J., in 1795.
At Opala's recommendation Hughes sent scans of the two Walkers' signatures to Maija Jansson, a handwriting analyst at Yale University, without any information on their provenance. Jansson confirmed that the signatures were from the same individual.
"The angle and slope of the writing is the same on all of the signatures," Jansson told Slate in an email. "The initial letter of the family name, 'W', is the same form in each, as is the initial 'T' of the Christian name."
"The decorative loop under the signature is a key and is virtually the same in the letters," she said.
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