Home / Articles / Features / History / Legacy
Print this Article
Thursday, April 5, 2007 05:25 am


Records show the Walker branch of President George W. Bush’s family, which settled in central Illinois, included slave owners.

Untitled Document Add President George Walker Bush to the list of top-tier U.S. politicians whose ancestors include slaveholders. U.S. Census records for 1790 to 1830 testify to the slaveholding past of some early Walker-family members. The many available Bush-Walker genealogies lead to the same people and places that are found in the U.S. Census. The slave-ownership issue has received national attention in recent weeks in the developing 2008 presidential race. Census findings compiled by a genealogy researcher show slaveholders in the family trees of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, a Democrat; former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat; and Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Republican. The census also documents slaveholding ancestry in the family of former U.S. Sen. and Vice President Al Gore of Tennessee. He was the Democrats’ presidential nominee in 2000. Those census records were gathered by William Addams Reitwiesner, who works at the Library of Congress and is a spare-time genealogist. The records are retrievable at his Internet site, www.wargs.com. In a related development, civil-rights activist Al Sharpton of New York recently was told by a team of professional genealogists that his great-grand-father was likely once owned by ancestors of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C. Sharpton was a 2004 Democratic candidate for president. Bush’s long-ago Walker-and-related forebears, along with some of their cousins and in-laws, owned plantations and farms at Sassafras Neck in Cecil County, Md. This is a narrow strip of land between the Bohemia and Sassafras rivers, which flow into Chesapeake Bay. The pages of the nation’s earliest Census enumerations offer this testimony, which has been independently compiled: Robert and Ann (Bolton) Mercer owned slaves. They were fifth great-grandparents of the president and great-grandparents of Bloomington’s Judge David Davis, who helped put Abraham Lincoln in the White House. In 1790, there was an Ann Mercer in Cecil County at the West Sassafras Hundred election district. She headed a household of one free white male age 16 or over, one free white male under 16, two free white females, and five slaves. Mercer had been widowed for about two decades. William and Sarah Davis owned slaves. They, too, were fifth great-grandparents of the president and great-grandparents of David Davis. In 1790 at West Sassafras Hundred, a William Davis household had three free white males ages 16 and over, one free white male under 16, one free white female, and seven slaves. Some family-history researchers suggest that William and Sarah are misidentfied by various genealogists as ancestors of two presidents and the judge and therefore that it was not their daughter Rebecca (born in 1772) who married a John Mercer.
Instead, they list a John and Elizabeth (Stockton) Davis as the appropriate fifth great-grandparents of Bush. They, too, had a daughter Rebecca (born in 1785). However, a now-deceased direct descendant of Judge Davis and his son George Perrin Davis concluded that the William and Sarah ancestry was considerably more plausible. Alice Davis Cates wrote: “There are different versions of Rebecca Davis’ parentage. One is that she is the daughter of John Davis and Elizabeth Stockton, but that Rebecca was born in 1785 and was too young to have had her first child (William Davis Mercer) in 1794. “I think Rebecca’s father was William Davis because he had a daughter Rebecca of an appropriate age as inferred by his will and because John Mercer and Rebecca named their first child William Davis Mercer. Also, their plantations adjoined, both being on Back Creek of Sassafras River.”
Rebecca (Mercer) Veazey owned slaves. Veazey was the widowed daughter of Robert and Ann Mercer. She also was a fifth great-aunt of the president and a great-aunt of Davis. In 1790 at West Sassafras Hundred, a Rebecca Veazey household had one free white male age 16 or over, two free white males under 16, one free white female, and 10 slaves. John and Rebecca (Davis) Mercer owned slaves. They were fourth great-grandparents of the president and grandparents of Davis. There were six slaves on Mercer land at Bohemia Hundred in Cecil County in 1790, 15 in 1800, and 18 in 1810. Harriet and Ann Mercer were two of their children. The Mercers and Davises descended from prominent families that began receiving land grants from the British Crown as early as the 1600s. There were kinfolk all across the Delmarva Peninsula of Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia. • In Prince George’s County, Md., Naylor and Jane (Lyon) Davis owned slaves. Their son Dr. David Davis and his wife, Ann (Mercer) Davis, would be the parents of Judge Davis, who was born in 1815. Ann was a fourth great-aunt of Bush. A 1790 census entry at Prince George’s County for a Naylor Davis documented a household of two free white males ages 16 and over, one free white male under 16, six free white females, and 21 slaves. James and Rosetta (Walker) Scanlan owned slaves. At Cecil County in 1810, their property holdings included 10 slaves. Genealogies, plus various archival and family sources, affirm that Rose, born in England, was the sister of a George E. Walker, born in Burlington, N.J. She also was a fourth great-aunt of the president. Scanlan was George’s court-appointed guardian, starting in 1811 after the deaths of the 13-year-old’s mother and stepfather. Dr. Davis, husband of Ann, also expected to be involved in the boy’s upbringing at Cecil County, but he died in 1814, shortly before the birth of his son David. George married Harriet Mercer in 1821.
George E. and Harriet (Mercer) Walker owned slaves. They were great-great-great-grandparents of President Bush and the uncle and aunt of David Davis. With the 1820 death of her father John Mercer, Harriet inherited a 321-acre farm in Cecil County called Chew’s Resurvey. An 1830 census entry at Sassafras Neck for George E. Walker and his family included one male slave in the 24-to-36 age category and one female slave in the 10-to-24 age range. It is not known whether there were more than two slaves on this land before or after 1830. The Walkers fell on hard times in Cecil County in the 1830s and lost their land. In the fall of 1838, the family pioneered by boat and wagon to rural McLean County in Illinois. They settled on a 64-acre farm at Blooming Grove. McLean County property records show that this land had been purchased about a year earlier by George Biddle, a friend and possibly a cousin by marriage of David Davis.
The farm was about 4 miles southeast of Bloomington, where nephew David Davis had been practicing law since 1836 and where he would bring his young bride Sarah Woodruff Walker (unrelated to his Uncle George E. Walker) in late 1838. David Davis Walker was born in McLean County in 1840, the eighth of 10 children whom Harriet would bear. He would be a great-grand-father of President George Herbert Walker Bush and a great-great-grandfather of President George Walker Bush. A few decades earlier at Cecil County, Harriet and Ann Mercer were growing up on The Rounds plantation, owned by their father, John Mercer. Harriet was born June 30, 1802, during a tragic year in the Mercer family. Her brothers John, 4, and James, 2, died when she was just a week old. Her mother, Rebecca, died in late November. Dysentery is believed to have been a contributing cause in all three deaths. John Mercer was left with three young children — William Davis, 8; Ann, 6; and Harriet, 5 months — but he had the help of numerous kinfolk. Also, there were slaves to help run Mercer’s household and tend his land. In David Davis: Lincoln’s Manager, a 1960 biography, author Willard King wrote: “As early as 1790, John Mercer had six slaves. In 1810, he had eighteen, and . . . he must have had many more by 1820. A few years later, in the Deep South, each thousand acres of plantation had about a hundred slaves, and John Mercer owned more than 1,600 acres.”
Mercer had three plantations at Sassafras Neck, including The Rounds. The manor house at The Rounds has been variously described by historians, including King: “Georgian in architecture, as it faces the hills, Queen Anne, on its river side, it overlooks the broad Bohemia from a high slope, as Mount Vernon looks over the Potomac. Tradition in the Davis family claims that it was built in 1740 with bricks brought from England. Inside, the house is spacious and well proportioned. . . . ”
Like her future nephew David Davis, born several years later at The Rounds, there probably were many playmates for Harriet. She had her siblings and many cousins. The playmates also perhaps included, as King wrote of the David Davis childhood experience, “the Negro children who lived in the slave cabins on the plantation.”
The cabins and other structures were near the kitchen of the manor house, King explained. There was, for example, a large ice house. “Fifteen or twenty loads of ice, cut from nearby ponds, were hauled there by oxen each winter and packed with straw. A woodhouse was kept filled from the neighboring hills. A smokehouse, a washhouse, a stable, a coachhouse, and the slave quarters made up the demesne [estate].”
Plantation life was of such a nature that, as King wrote: “Ann Mercer’s descendants in upper New York still tell that until she went North in her late thirties she had never made her own bed.”
A Walker descendant in Illinois recently recalled this family anecdote: “The Mercer girls wore magnificent Southern-belle taffeta dresses, but Harriet had to give them away before they moved to Illinois because of no room in the wagon.”
Willard King, the Davis biographer, wrote that by the time the future judge left Maryland he “was imbued with two ideas that were to guide his thinking in later life: he deplored slavery and he loathed Abolitionists.”
The U.S. Census has no evidence of any slave ownership in Illinois by the Walker or Davis families.

Roger Hughes, of Normal, has been gradually researching the mostly unknown early history (1700s to early 1900s) of the Walker family for more than three years.
Hughes recently retired after a more than 35-year career in Illinois journalism with The Pantagraph, Bloomington; the Decatur Herald &Review (as metro editor); Lindsay-Schaub Newspapers, Decatur; and the Southern Illinoisan, Carbondale. He received a master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University.
Contact him at rdhughes@insightbb.com.

Turn the page to read “Degrees of separation,” which      provides additional details about Walker descendants.

Also from Roger Hughes


  • Thu
  • Fri
  • Sat
  • Sun
  • Mon
  • Tue
  • Wed