The forgotten South Asian boys in George Washington’s family

The White House in Washington DC. PHOTO: T. Vishnudatta Jayaraman, News India Times

On Jan. 6, 1796, George Washington, the sitting president in the temporary capital of Philadelphia, wrote a long letter to his teenage step-granddaughter with relationship advice. Though Washington never had biological children, he helped raise quite a few, including his stepchildren from his wife’s previous marriage, and his stepchildren’s children, like Eliza Custis.

Don’t play too hard to get, he advised her, but don’t be too forward either. Try to pick a husband your own age, “for youth and old age, no more than winter & Summer, can be assimilated,” he wrote. It’s best to pick an American from a “known” family with “visible property” and stable wealth. You should feel some passion for the guy, he told her, but that will fade, so it’s more important he be a friend you have known for a while.

Eliza, bless her heart, didn’t listen. Soon after, she announced her engagement to a man more than twice her age, Thomas Law. He was a “nabob,” an Englishman who had lived in India. Though his wealth was significant, it was not stable, having been invested in risky land speculation.

And the scandalous cherry on top? Law had three mixed-race sons from a previous relationship with a South Asian woman he hadn’t married. George, John and Edmund Law were among the first known people of South Asian descent in America, and by a twist of fate, they ended up joining one of its most prominent families.

By Gilbert Stuart – The Athenaeum: Home. Public Domain,

Their improbable and surprising lives are coming into focus thanks to new research by historian Rosemarie Zagarri, who is working on a book about them.

“Partly because of their racial ambiguity as South Asians rather than Black, they were able to cross boundaries more easily,” Zagarri said. “But also because of their high social class, they gained a lot of acceptance.”

When Law met Custis, he had been in America with two of his sons for about a year. Born into an aristocratic family near Cambridge, England, Law had joined the British East India Company as a teen, rising through the ranks, building a fortune and – like a lot of colonial officials, Zagarri said – maintaining a long-term relationship with a local woman.

Historians have usually referred to her as a “mistress” or “concubine”; Zagarri uses the word “companion.” Her name is unknown – Law was careful never to mention it in his records – but she and Law were together long enough to produce three children between 1784 and 1791.

When Law returned to England in 1791 after 18 years abroad, he took the boys with him, a move Zagarri said “was not unheard of but was unusual.” What became of his companion is unclear.

“This is part of the story of colonization, in that the mothers, the wives, the native women are erased,” Zagarri said.

For decades, many of the mixed-race children of British colonial officials ended up in orphanages, while others were educated in England and returned to work for the East India Company. But in 1786, the company got a new boss, Lord Charles Cornwallis (fresh from defeat in the American Revolution), who imposed rules limiting opportunities for mixed-race children. The clampdown may have been part of Law’s motivation to emigrate, Zagarri said.

“By coming to America,” Law wrote later, “one object was to settle my natural children where a variety of climate reconciles differences of complexion & where there are not such strong prejudices.” In port towns like Salem, Mass., which had ties to trade in Asia, seeing South Asian sailors would not have been out of the ordinary, Zagarri said. But these sailors were visitors, not immigrants, and outside of those areas, they were unheard of.

Law brought two of his sons, George and John, with him across the Atlantic, leaving the youngest boy, Edmund, in England with an aunt. He set up temporarily in New York City, flush with cash and looking for property, and soon joined a group of investors buying up land in what would become Washington, D.C., on the bet that its value would skyrocket as the federal government took shape there.

“He would go back and forth from New York to visit the nascent nation’s capital, and he would stop in Philadelphia on the way, and that’s apparently where he met Eliza,” Zagarri said.

Even before the engagement, Eliza – smart, moody and with a tendency to ride a horse around town in a military uniform – was a frequent subject of the rumor mill. Afterward, it hit a whole new level. John Adams gossiped about the mixed-race boys to his wife. Eliza’s stepfather, David Stuart, tried to get Law to abandon the boys before the wedding, Law later claimed. Visitors commented on the “olive” skin tone of Law’s “Asiatic” sons. Martha Washington supported the pairing, though that might have been mostly because she hoped marriage would calm her granddaughter down. George Washington “wasn’t thrilled about it,” Zagarri said, though in letters, he seemed more concerned about the couple’s 21-year age difference.

Still, the wedding took place, and at first, the eccentric couple’s future looked bright. They moved to Washington City, as the new capital was called, establishing themselves among its elite. Eliza embraced the boys, insisting they call her “Mother,” and soon gave birth to a daughter, also named Eliza. George Washington wrote about doting on the baby girl but never mentioned the boys – “the silence probably says a lot,” Zagarri said – though all three probably visited his Mount Vernon plantation.

The good times didn’t last. The oldest boy, George, died suddenly, and Eliza chafed under the strictures of marriage. Law threw himself into work, becoming a sort of public intellectual, always advocating for some big idea: canal building, importing Indian goods, ending slavery. When he left for England on a business trip in 1802, he refused to take his wife with him, enraging her.

Law returned nearly two years later with a couple of surprises in tow: his third son Edmund – of whom Eliza does not seem to have been aware – and a French mistress. The couple legally separated in 1804, a rare move at the time, and divorced in 1811. Eliza maintained a warm relationship with her stepsons, but her relatives (excluding George and Martha Washington, who had died long before the separation) turned on Law and his male progeny.

John and Edmund were sent to Harvard and Yale, respectively. They became naturalized American citizens – a reflection of their privilege since only White people were eligible at the time.

Class trumping racial ambiguity happened more back then than we might assume today. For example, there’s compelling evidence that young George Washington’s best friend, George William Fairfax, had noticeable African ancestry via a mixed-race Caribbean mother. Fairfax’s sister Ann, who would have had the same African ancestry, married Washington’s older half brother, Lawrence, bringing with her a fortune and connections galore. The Fairfax siblings’ father, Col. William Fairfax, was one of the most powerful men in Virginia and gave Washington his first military appointment soon after. If there were questions about the Fairfax children’s racial background, the Washingtons would have reason to ignore them.

“Once you get beneath the surface narrative, society was always much more complicated than people wanted to understand or know,” Zagarri said.

John Law, who was extroverted and ambitious, became an attorney with a thriving practice in Washington City; he married a White woman from an old Virginia family, with whom he had two children. Edmund Law was more reserved, a little more aimless, never marrying, shifting careers and spending long periods in territorial Florida and Mexico.

A historian in 1901 described the brothers as having “brilliant eyes, raven locks and dark complexions reflecting the rich tints of the mother, a daughter of the land of the sun,” but it’s unclear if that description is based on source material or the author’s assumption or embellishment. In any case, they appear to have been “well integrated into White Washington society,” Zagarri said, attending balls and serving in the city government and the Columbian Institute, a precursor to the Smithsonian. Still, when they made enemies, the “superficial politeness” of society dissolved, and their South Asian roots were used as ammunition.

In one incident, John Law torpedoed the federal appointment of a man who had once enslaved two of Law’s clients; the man and his supporters publicly denounced Law as “a snarling cur” who was “dark as Indian,” had the “blackest nature” and “acted as a tiger, or as an anaconda that sprung from the place of [his] nativity.” The man successfully sued Law for slander in a sympathetic, slaveholding jurisdiction.

When John and Edmund’s half sister, Eliza, married during this period, they were barred from the wedding. Whether the snub was because of “their mixed race, because they were illegitimate, or because [Eliza’s maternal relatives] were just trying to be mean to Thomas Law, it’s really hard to separate out,” Zagarri said. The brothers were “deeply wounded” and never spoke to their sister again. She died five years later at 25.

The brothers also died young, of unknown illnesses – John at 35 in 1822 and Edmund at 39 in 1829.

Eliza Law lived a nomadic life after the divorce, staying with various relatives and friends until her death in 1831. Thomas Law died in 1834 at his mansion in Prince George’s County, Md. In his will – which his grandchildren would fight over in court for two decades – he revealed one more surprise: another mixed-race son, named Thomas, whom he had fathered in his 50s with his enslaved housekeeper and to whom he left $1,000. He had manumitted mother and child years earlier.

“Thomas Law was so bad in so many ways,” Zagarri said. “But he wanted to take care of his children.”



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