New evidence shows the Bush presidents are descended from a notorious slave trader

Posted June 20th, 2013 by
Category: History Tags: , , , , ,

Bunce Island, a slave fort along the coast of Sierra LeoneRecently uncovered historical evidence shows that the family of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush has something in common with the DeWolf family of Traces of the Trade: both are descended from notorious slave traders.

In the case of the Bush presidents, they are directly descended from Thomas Walker, a notorious English slave trader who transported enslaved Africans between the west coast of Africa and the Americas in the late 18th century.

The discovery was made by Roger Hughes, an amateur genealogist, and Joseph Opala, the curator of Bunce Island, a slave fort on the coast of Sierra Leone where Walker purchased slaves before taking them across the Middle Passage. Hughes, who had previously identified members of the Bush family as slave owners in the U.S., is the one who first suspected that the Thomas Walker known to be a Bush ancestor was also the Thomas Walker appearing in historical records as a slave ship captain. After Opala, a historian, became involved, handwriting samples from each Thomas Walker were analyzed at Yale University to confirm the match.

Documents comparing signatures of Thomas WalkerIt appears that, like the DeWolf family, the Bush family retained little or no memory of their prominent ancestor’s slave-trading past. In retrospect, however, both families should have suspected the truth. In the case of the Bush family, Thomas Walker was known to have been a wealthy merchant in Bristol, England, one of the great centers of the transatlantic slave trade, and he continued as a merchant after emigrating to the United States, operating out of Baltimore, a U.S. hub for the slave trade. And as documented in Traces of the Trade, James DeWolf of Bristol, R.I., the leading DeWolf slave-trader, was one of the most prominent merchants in the U.S., operating a maritime fleet larger than the U.S. Navy’s and being, according to at least one newspaper account, the second-richest man in the country.

Update: We have learned from Roger Hughes, the genealogist mentioned above whose painstaking research uncovered this Bush family history, that there is a mistake in the otherwise excellent Slate article linked to above. It turns out that Thomas Walker did not operate out of Baltimore after arriving in the U.S. In fact, he went to New York City after arriving in the U.S. from England, then to Philadelphia, before finally buying property in Burlington, N.J.  in 1795. The fact that a slave trader from England settled in the northeastern United States, and is believed to have continued operating as a slave trader from there, should surprise no one. Roughly 85% of the U.S. slave trade operated out of northern ports, especially prior to the U.S. abolition of the slave trade in 1808.

Neither slave-trader appears to have deserved their socially elevated reputations, either: Thomas Walker was eventually murdered by his crew in a mutiny during a slaving voyage off the African coast, while James DeWolf, during one of his own slaving voyages, was infamously accused of throwing overboard an enslaved African woman dying of smallpox, tied to a chair, and lamenting the loss of the chair.

Why was neither family aware of their slave-trading history, despite social prominence and ample documentation of their ancestry? The answer appears to lie in the fact that the United States has engaged in its own form of collective amnesia regarding slavery and the slave trade. In this public accounting of its history, involvement in slavery is confined mostly to the southeastern United States, with the vast complicity of the northeastern United States (and the rest of the country) in slave-owning, slave-trading, supplying slave plantations, and profiting from slavery elsewhere mostly ignored and implicitly denied. Our public memory of slavery, therefore, allows anyone outside the South to believe, falsely, that their family and regional history is disconnected from slavery, to the point where wealthy merchant families from Rhode Island or Maryland can talk about their past without anyone even thinking about a maritime activity as common, or as economically important, as “slave trading.”

Spokesmen from the Bush family have so far declined to comment on the discovery, but there is now new resonance in the remarks made by President George W. Bush on Goree Island, a major slave-trading center off the coast of Senegal, when he came close to apologizing for the U.S. role in the slave trade:

At this place, liberty and life were stolen and sold. Human beings were delivered and sorted, and weighed, and branded with the marks of commercial enterprises, and loaded as cargo on a voyage without return.

One of the largest migrations of history was also one of the greatest crimes of history.

Small men took on the powers and airs of tyrants and masters. … Christian men and women became blind to the clearest commands of their faith and added hypocrisy to injustice.

We can fairly judge the past by the standards of President John Adams, who called slavery “an evil of colossal magnitude.”

My nation’s journey toward justice has not been easy and it is not over. The racial bigotry fed by slavery did not end with slavery or with segregation. And many of the issues that still trouble America have roots in the bitter experience of other times. But however long the journey, our destination is set: liberty and justice for all.

9 Responses to “New evidence shows the Bush presidents are descended from a notorious slave trader”

  1. Bobbi Patterson Says:

    Not surprise at all!

  2. Jenny Redo Says:

    What makes you think NO ONE in the Walker Family suspected this?

  3. James DeWolf Perry Says:

    We certainly don't know that for sure, Jenny. All we know is that the Bush family appears not to have made the connection between the two Thomas Walkers, and has never said anything about slave trading, while biographers, genealogists, and others outside the family had not realized the connection until Roger Hughes put the pieces together.

    In fact, if there were suspicions about this history within the Bush family, and it wasn't openly acknowledged, this would match the broad outlines of the DeWolf family's experience, as well. There was very little awareness of our family's slave-trading past in recent generations, and no understanding at all of the full extent of the family's role in the transatlantic slave trader. But there were certainly DeWolf family members who had heard that there had been (some) slave trading in the family's past, and who were able to minimize its importance, failed to ask the questions that would have led to the full truth, and/or found reasons to justify not talking about the subject.

  4. Cathy Ingram Says:

    As a Walker, I have been researching Thomas for a few years. I have been told by many new-found family members that he was a slaver and was killed in a ship mutiny. I can not defend him, but can say he had been at sea since he was ten years old, and literally was nourished by the ugly traditions of seamen and their masters in the 1700's. He grew into a callous and ruthless man. His brothers and father were also in the trade.
    He was killed when his son, George was only a child. George's mother died just a few years later and George was raised by his sister and her husband. As often as Thomas was at sea, he surely was not a guiding influence in his young son's life.
    The Bush family has money and power, but they were nourished by generations of men who were driven to succeed as farmers, accumulating land and entering politics as leaders of the towns, mercantile owners who filled the need for goods, not slaves, in this growing country. These men made sure their progeny were well educated and valued hard work.
    Our family is now very diverse, and many branches had no idea they were related to one another. Pulling this information together has been very challenging for me. Roger Hughes has spent thousands of hours and many, many years actually finding proof of the relationships. His research is impeccable and I am forever thankful he has managed to fill in our family history.
    That being said, most of us had family stories, but no proof…so I do not think the Bush's had any more information than the rest of the Walker's.

  5. James DeWolf Perry Says:

    Cathy, thank you so much for commenting here, and for sharing your research on the Walkers, your information about what the family did or didn't know, and your thoughts about how the family made their way in the world in generations past.

    On the matter of history, I think it's important to note that we can't, historically, draw a clear distinction between slave traders, on the one hand, and farmers, merchants, and the like, on the other.

    There's no doubt that members of the Walker family worked very hard, and ensured that their children were well educated. But there's also little doubt that most U.S. merchants were connected to slavery historically, whether through the slave trade, the provisioning trade to the West Indies (our dominant form of trade in colonial times), the cotton trade (our dominant form of trade between the Revolution and the Civil War), or other cash crops. There's little doubt that most U.S. farmers participated in, and benefited from, a market for agricultural products that supplied the provisioning trade, the slave trade, or southern slave plantations prior to the Civil War. This is true of northern farmers, large and small, and of farmers in the Midwest and the West, where the most significant economic incentive for settling and farming, prior to the Civil War, was the market for food for slave plantations in the South.

    Our nation's financiers and industrialists were equally dependent upon slavery, our consumers knowingly benefited from slavery, and our voting public, by and large, supported slavery up until the end. Our white settlers and immigrants, however little they started with and however hard they worked, benefited enormously from a system in which they had access to jobs made possible in large part by slavery, and in which they had opportunities for advancement, for themselves and their children, that would be almost entirely denied to black families until quite recently in our history.

    I say this as a member of the DeWolf family, and specifically as a direct descendant of James DeWolf, the leading slave trader in the history of the United States. I know that it's very important to remember all of the hard work done by a great many honest, decent members of the DeWolf family over the centuries. In fact, many of my ancestors were successful not in business or politics, but as public servants and especially as military veterans and ministers of God, and I would never want to diminish the value of their lives and accomplishments.

    I take the same attitude when looking at the Walker family or any other American family. But I want to make sure that in this country, we are careful to acknowledge the connections between the successes of those families which found themselves among the privileged by accident of birth, including skin color, and the hardships endured by those less fortunate by reason of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or other factors.

  6. Jenny Redo Says:

    I am also a Walker. Nice to meet you Cathy.

  7. roger hughes Says:

    Excellent commentary and comments. It would be good and encouraging to see the Walker-Bush cohort "take ownership" of its heritage in a manner that's somehow similar to what has occurred among so many in the DeWolf extended family.

    What the DeWolf Family has done and is attempting to continuing to do is absolutely magnificent!

  8. Lea Says:

    It is a disgrace that one human being feels it has the right to take and destroy another human being, slavery is a disgrace, abhorrent in any shape or form, still in some of your feed back I hear arrogance in some of your words. you should pay homage to the decedents of slaves and beg for there forgiveness those of you who are decedents of slave masters should hang your heads in shame for hundreds of years these people were denied any rights, it was nothing less then legalised murder. I am British and although do not have any slave master ancestors in my family my country was steeped in the slave trade and I have been researching the history of the slave trade and I am shocked and ashamed of what I have found out about Britain's involvement in slavery. It is no wonder we as whites are mistrusted and hated by the African race, I for one cannot blame them.

  9. James DeWolf Perry Says:

    Lea, as a descendant of the most notorious slave trader in U.S. history, I agree with everything you say about the horrors of slavery and the slave trade, and about how mistrust, and even hatred, arise quite understandably in many people of African descent.

    However, I'd like to suggest that perhaps it isn't necessary for white people to "hang their heads in shame" or to "pay homage" and "beg for forgiveness" for the actions of people long dead. This is a matter of opinion, of course, but I choose to believe that those of us who are white can feel horror and grief at this history, and take seriously our responsibilities to help address the legacies of this history today, without blaming ourselves for being descended from some of the perpetrators, or from the broad population grouping whose society carried out these particular atrocities.

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