Revolutionary War Historical Article
George Washington and Genealogy
by Donald N. Moran
Editor's Note: This article was reprinted from the May 1999 Edition of The Liberty Tree and Valley Compatriot Newsletter
Whenever one is involved on researching the life of an individual, questions constantly arise. How we would delight in being able to sit down with that person and get the answers.
George Washington is no exception. In spite of thousands of pages of existing letters, numerous diaries and other surviving documents, questions still are unanswered.
The General’s consistent use of the Washington coat of arms and at the same time, his well known statement that he had “little moment for genealogy” seems to be a contradiction. We believe we have found the answer to that puzzling question. Among the treasured documents preserved at the Huntington Library, in San Marino, California, there exists a volume of original letters between George Washington and Sir Isaac Heard, Garter Principal King of Arms of England. These letters concern a request for family information sent by Sir Isaac, on December 7th, 1791, to Washington. This letter apparently contained quite a bit of Washington family information, including some on the Washington coat of arms. A page, containing a line drawing of the stained glass windows at Sulgrave Manor was attached. We can only assume the reason for the inquiry, which most probably was the result of George Washington’s international fame.
These letters, plus the surviving letters Washington sent to members of family, explain a great deal about his knowledge of his family and his interest in family history.
On March 24th, 1792, Washington wrote to the widow of the late Warner Washington.
"Dear Madam; Having lately received from Sir Isaac Heard a letter, with a sketch of a genealogical table of the family of Washington, I have taken the liberty to enclose copies of them to you, begging your assistance to enable me to comply with the request he made (if among the papers of my deceased relation there be any trace of this matter) that I will complete the sketch, by making the additions which are there wanting, or rather filling up the blanks. As I have heretofore paid but little attention to this subject, and my present avocations not permitting me to make the necessary research now, I am induced to ask your aid…."
A similar letter was sent to Hannah Bushrod, the widow of his brother John Augustine Washington. Her response of April 9th, was copied by Washington, almost verbatim in his response to Sir Isaac.
On May 1792, Washington answered Sir Isaac. "Sir; Your letter of the 7th of Dec. was put into my hands by Mr. Thornton; and I must request you will accept my acknowledgments, as well for the polite manner in which you express your kind wishes for my happiness, and for the trouble you have taken in making genealogical collections relative to the family of Washington. This is a subject to which I confess I have paid very little attention. My time has been so much occupied in the busy and active scenes of life from an early period of it that but a small portion of it could have been devoted to researches of this nature, even if my inclination or particular circumstances should have prompted the enquiry. I am therefore apprehensive that it will not be in my power (circumstanced as I am at present) to furnish you with materials to fill up the sketch which you have sent me, in so accurate a manner as you could wish. We have no Office of Record in the Country in which exact genealogical documents are preserved; and very few cases, I believe, occur where a recurrence to pedigree for any considerable distance back has been found necessary to establish such points as may frequently arise in older Countries.
On comparing the Tables which you sent with such documents as are in my possession, and which I could readily obtain from another branch of the family with whom I am in the habit of correspondence I find it to be just. I have often heard others of the family, older than myself, say that our ancestors who first settled in this Country came from some on the Northern Counties of England, but whether from Lancashire, Yorkshire or one still more northerly I do not precisely remember. The Arms enclosed in your letter are the same that are held by the family here, though I have also seen, and have used as you may perceive by the seal to this Packet a flying Griffen for the Crest.
If you can derive any information from the enclosed lineage which will enable you to complete your table I shall be well pleased if having been the means to assist you in those research which you have had the politeness to undertaken and shall be glad to be informed of the result, and of the ancient pedigree of the family, some of whom I find intermixed with the Ferrers, Etc.
Lawrence Washington, from whose Will you enclose an abstract was my Grand Father; the other abstracts (which you sent) do not, I believe, relate to the family of Washington in Virginia, but of this I cannot speak positively,
With due consideration,
I am, etc. G. Washington."
Six years later, on April 5th, 1798, George Washington wrote his cousin, Colonel William A. Washington a letter concerning several family matters and in the 7th paragraph of this long letter asked William if he had ever received from him the letter from Sir Isaac.
He wrote: "Did you ever receive a letter from me transmitting the request of Sir Isaac Heard of the Heraldry Office in England respecting the genealogy of our family? And my desire to be furnished with the inscriptions on the tombs of our Ancestors on (Illegible) Bridge’s Creek? Among your father’s paper, I thought it was likely, you might obtain some information on his headstone. From the coming over of John and Lawrence Washington brothers in the year 1657, 1 have been able to trace the descendents of the former, being the one from whom our family came; those of Lawrence, from who the Chotanckers proceeded, I have not been able to give any correct account; and that is the Branch to which Sir Isaac Heard’s enquiries particularly point, being tolerably well informed of the descendants from John. The enquiry is, in my opinion of very little moment, but as Sir Isaac has interested himself in the matter and seems desirous of tracing the family from whence we are descended back, I wish to give him as correct information of it as I am able to procure…." The letter continued on other topics.
How often do we receive letters from genealogists that are apologetic, or the opposite - - - do you apologize when writing others for information? It seems to come with the territory.
In the case of George Washington, consider the difficult position he found himself in. Even the slightest hint that he was interested in genealogy, without the qualifying statement he made in every letter on the subject ("of little moment to me") would provide his enemies with political ammunition. That misconceived information would permit them to attack him on the grounds he was planning on establishing a Washington Dynasty - a hereditary system of government!
Nevertheless, we have documentary evidence that he compiled a genealogical chart when he was 21 years old; spent a great deal of time and effort to cooperate with a member of the English aristocracy (Sir Isaac Heard) compiling his family history. Then, six years later he’s still asking his family members for genealogical information.
Was Washington bitten by the genealogy bug! His regard for heraldry (coats of arms), is well known and quite obvious. Today we have literally dozens of examples of his having used the Washington coat of arms. His book plates (example pictured above), his seals, on the doors of his carriage, one carved on the over-mantle in his main dinning room. It was part of his life-style.
We are not the first to question the uses of coats of arms by an American. William Barton asked about them and Washington replied on September 7th, 1788: "…..it is far from my design to intimate an opinion that heraldry, coat-armour, &c. might not be rendered conductive to public and private uses with us; or that they can have any tendency unfriendly to the purest spirit of republicanism. On the contrary, a different conclusion is deductible from the practice of Congress and the States; all of which have established some kind of Armorial Devises to authenticate their official instruments."
George Washington’s position was clear and he saw no harm in the use of coats of arms or regulating same. He used a heraldic seal throughout his presidency.
In the Fall 1982 issue of The SAR Magazine, then President General Howard Hamilton wrote an article about one of the treasures of the National Society - General Washington’s Seal Ring.
This ring is stored in a safety deposit box and brought out only for the swearing the President General ceremony. At that time the ring is placed on the President General’s finger by his predecessor. President General’s are permitted to purchase a copy of the ring from a franchised jeweler, and wear the replica. That has become a tradition, which every President General has followed.
The ring again will be transferred at the 109th Congress in San Diego at the Wednesday night banquet.
Subsequent to our having written the above titled article for this May, 1999, issue of this newsletter, additional and important information has come to light, supporting our contention that General George Washington had been bitten by the genealogy bug.
A visit to the Huntington Library, in San Marino, secured the assistance of John Rhodelhamel, Curator of American Historical Manuscripts. He found the original, December 7th, 1791, letter from Sir Isaac Heard, King of Arms of England, to General Washington seeking information on the Washington family in Virginia. It is transcribed below. In addition, also shown is the referenced illustration on the Washington Coat of Arms, which we trust you will find interesting.
College of Arms
Sir Isaac Heard
Garter Principle King of Arms
" 7 Dec 1791
From a sincere respect for the distinguished character of Your Excellency, I made a genealogical collections, many years ago, relative to the Family of Washington, originally,from Lancashire; Branches of which were established in the Counties of Northampton, Kent and Wilts, enjoying ample Possessions; Several of the Family had been Knighted in the early part of the last century. Exclusive of the Heralds Visitations & various Registers & M.S.S. preserved among the Archives of this College, I procured Extracts from several Parochial Registers & copies of Monumental Inscriptions in different parts of this Kingdom. I likewise obtained lists of, & inspected the Wills & Administrations of many of the Name from the Reign of Queen Elizabeth to the present time; in the hope of proving the exact connection of your Branch, tho’ this is not fully accomplished yet if Your Excellency will have the goodness to complete the imperfect sketch of your Pedigree here inclosed, & make such additions as may be in your power, I have no doubt but the connecting link will be clearly supplied.
Your Excellency will observe, that I have obtained a part of Your own Pedigree from the Will of Laurence Washington of Washington in Virginia dated 11 March 1696/7 & proved in London 10 Dec1’ 1700, an abstract of which is inclosed, as well as Abstracts of two Administrations. The Family Arms, of which a small painting accompanies this, were confirmed in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth by Clarenceux, King of Arms, to Laurence Washington, Esquire, Lord of the Manor of Sulgrave in Northamptonshire. I should have transmitted by this Occasion the ancient part of the Pedigree of Washington including the different Branches, but I should feel a particular Gratification if Your Excellency will condescent to enable me previously to complete my Collection by showing the Descent of your Line & thereby enable me to present the whole of your Excellency in one view. I have requested Mr. Thornton to lay this before Your Excellency & to receive the Honour of any Commands Your Excellency may be pleased to confer on Your Excellency’s most respectful & most obedient, Humble Servant, Isaac Heard, Garter
P.S. - I must intreat Your Excellency’s indulgence in the necessity of an Amanuensis of my letter, and, also, for adding, that having made two visits from Europe to North America in the early part of life - - that I was at Boston in 1755 when the Intelligence of the unfortunate affair near Fort Du Quesne arrived and your distinguished Services on that Occasion - - that having experienced while in American the various respectable families the most kind & hospitable receptions, and that having also married a Niece of Sir William Pepperrell, the first Baronet, are circumstances which have constantly excited my anxious attention to the scenes of that country & present wishes for the welfare of many families with which I had the happiness to be acquainted.
Your Excellency’s Most respectful & Most obedient, Humble Servant, Isaac Heard"
Reading this letter from Sir Isaac Heard must make one wonder why the President of the United States, George Washington, was still gathering information six years later? Washington responded to the letter on May 2nd, 1792, and there is no evidence that there was any further correspondence between them. Hence, we can draw but one conclusion: The Father of our Country was a victim of the infamous Genealogy Bug!
A second inquiry, to Sir Isaac’s successor, P. L. Gwynn-Jones, Garter Principal King of Arms of England, resulted in the following enlightening biographical information on Sir Isaac himself.
SIR ISAAC HEARD
King of Arms
The following biography of Sir Isaac Heard was provided by his successor, P. L. Gwynn-Jones, Garter Principal King of Arms.
Sir Isaac was born at Ottery, St. Mary, Devonshire on December 10th, 1730, the eldest son of John Heard of Bridgewater and London.
Isaac served as a midshipman in the Royal Navy for six years, 1745-1751, serving on H.M.S. Blandford. In August of 1750, off the Guinea Coast, he was washed overboard and nearly drowned. He left the Navy and became a merchant in Bilboa, Spain and from there he visited North America. On one of these business trips, he met Miss Katherine, daughter of Andrew Tyler of Boston. They were married in 1770.
On June 15th, 1759, he was appointed the Bluemantle Herald, starting his long and distinguished career as a Herald of England. In 1761 he was elevated to the Lancaster Herald, then in 1774, the Norroy Herald. He held the posts of Brunswick and Clarenceux Herald and finally on June 1786 he was elevated to the Garter King of Arms, the Chief Herald. In his capacity as the King of Arms, he not only had the responsibility for all matters regarding heraldry, titles of nobility, inheritance for English titles, but for diplomatic missions as well. He was sent to Hesse-Casselin 1786, Saxe-Gotha in 1791; The Netherlands in 1814; Russia in 1813; Spain in 1815.
As the Garter Principal of Arms, a position he was granted on March 27th, 1784, he became prominent in the field. He was the first to interest himself in American Genealogy (1), no doubt influenced by his wife Katherine.
During his many years as the King of Arms, Sir Isaac was instrumental in changing some of the aspects of traditional coats of arms. He was largely responsible for establishing "landscape" style of heraldic achievements. It was conspicuous in the Arms granted Admiral, Lord Horatio Nelson. The landscape style actually depicted an event in the life of the grantee.
He compiled a number of manuscripts (2) considered priceless today, which are part of the College of Arms wonderful collection.
He died, still on the job, at the College of Arms, in London on April 29th , 1822, at the ripe old age of 92. He was held in such high regard, he was buried in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.
(1) Wagner “An 18th Century King of Arms Collection of American Pedigrees”
“The New England Historical Genealogical Register”, Volume XCV, pp 20-28.
(2) The manuscripts attributed to Sir Isaac include 8 volumes on the early Peerage of England; 1 volume on American Pedigrees, including the Washington family, and 26 volumes on English family genealogies. There were other volumes, which were not at the College of Arms, but are known to still exist.