A Beautiful, False 19th-Century Pedigree for George Washington

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Feb. 3 2014 12:00 PM

A Beautiful, False 19th-Century Pedigree for George Washington

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James Phillippe, a British genealogist working in London, presented this genealogical chart of George Washington’s lineage to Ulysses S. Grant in 1873. Phillippe hoped to curry favor with the president, and to establish his bona fides as a researcher.

Though beautiful, the chart is plain wrong. In 1889, genealogist Henry Fitz-Gilbert Waters debunked the Phillippe pedigree with the help of Col. Joseph Lemuel Chester, a respected American genealogist who had made English family histories his specialty. Chester wrote to the New York World in 1879 to argue that Phillippe had fabricated the two sons of Leonard Washington, Laurence and John, that he claimed emigrated to America in 1659. (In truth, the emigree was John Washington, son of Lawrence, who came to Virginia in 1656.)

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Phillippe had made himself a controversial figure in the world of British genealogy by issuing sweeping pronouncements like “Nearly the whole of the pedigrees hitherto published are fictitious” and calling himself “The only living genealogist.” Such puffery made him a popular target, and Waters clearly felt some glee at proving the chart’s falsity.

Phillippe would have intended this evidence of the Washington family’s history in Britain to be a compliment to the nation’s Founding Father, especially at a time when theories of racial difference lauded the Anglo-Saxon as the hardiest and most intelligent “people.” But the first president himself cared little for the details of his own ancestry. When asked about his lineage in 1792, Washington wrote to an inquirer: “This is a subject to which I confess I have paid very little attention.”

WashingtonPedigreeFinal
"Pedigree of the Most Illustrious General George Washington, first President of the United States of America, 08/01/1873."

National Archives.

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.

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