Washington McGruder

Washington “Wash” McGruder, also called George Washington Magruder
b abt 1795-99, PG Co MD.  d after 1880

+ Mary or May [Payne? see below] d after 1880

1. Annie McGruder, b~1851

2. Phebe McGruder, b~1854

3. Armstead McGruder, b~1858-1861, d after 1880

Possible grandson: James Ward, b~1873

1825: In the Inventory of John Smith Maguder’s estate, PG Co: “Negro man Washington,” 26 years old, appraised at $350.  In the will, Washington was left to John Smith Magruder’s daughter, Ellen McGregor. (In 1820, J.S. Magruder had changed the surnames of all his living children to McGregor. In Slavery’s Legacy, see the cluster of pages John S. Magruder and MacGregor Slaves for more about this family.)

In 1827 Ellen McGregor married Dr. Jesse Ewell, and in 1831 they moved to Prince William County, Virginia, at that time a frontier area. With enslaved labor, the Ewells cleared and built a new plantation, called Dunblane after her father’s birthplace, a prominent Magruder plantation in PG County. In her 1931 book, A Virginia Scene, or Life in Old Prince William, Ellen’s granddaughter, Alice Maude Ewell, says two slaves, both experienced carpenters, were sent by Ellen’s brother, Roderick McGregor, to build the main house. Ewell does not name them, but one was probably William Bowie. (See William & Matilda Bowie.)

According to Ewell, Wash Magruder “had been free for many years” before the Civil War. She describes him as a wise person “of marked individuality and high character…in authority next to the Master and Mistress” and “not gentlemanly, just a gentleman.” Her description of his appearance conforms to the prejudices of the day, but from it we can extract that he was “hazel-brown,” with “a mixture of white blood” and “the features of a high-caste white man, aquiline nose, thin-lipped, flexible mouth, eyes most expressive and intelligent.” His loyalty to the Ewell family is stressed (as is typical in such accounts of “favorite” slaves), particularly to Ellen McGregor Ewell, whom he had served since childhood. His wife, May Magruder, is described as being “of lighter skin and mind, with very ladyfied ways and a great Family Historian.” No information is provided about May’s birth or origins.

This account, however, does not square with the census records of Prince William County.

“Washington McGruder” appears on no census before the war. In 1870, he appears with his wife, Mary, and the children listed above. Washington is a farm laborer, 75 years old, born in Maryland. Mary is keeping house, 66 years old, born in Virginia. Neither can read or write and the whole family is designated “mulatto.” Other than naming Mary as Washington’s wife, the census does not specify relationships, but all the children are surnamed McGruder. I have listed them, above, as the children of Washington and Mary, though the youngest may be a grandchild.

Also in the household is an 89 year-old woman, born in Virginia. Her name is difficult to read. Ancestry.com gives it as Siner Byrne. I think it is more likely Sonia Payne. It is easy to assume this is Mary’s mother, but I have no corroboration.

The 1880 census is terribly faded and online images are virtually impossible to read, but the McGruders are there, transcribed by Ancestry.com as “McGruden.” Washington is 86, Mary is 76, and in this record it says she, too, was born in Maryland. The only other person in the household is James Ward, a 7 year-old boy, also described as mulatto. Also in 1880, Armstead McGruder, 22 years old, is a farm laborer in Jefferson Township, Loudoun County, Virginia, working for a white family headed by George T. Rust.

In both 1870 and 1880, the McGruders are listed next door to the family of John Smith Ewell (also known as John Smith Magruder Ewell), the eldest son of Jesse Ewell and Ellen McGregor Ewell, and his wife Alice. He is a 41 year-old farmer, born in Washington, D.C., in 1829. Probably his mother went to the home of relatives in D.C. for his birth, as Prince  William County was still a frontier at that time. Among their many children is Alice Maude Ewell, nine years old, who would grow up to write the family memoir. This long proximity would explain her strong and fond memories of Washington McGruder, though not the failure of her facts.

John Smith Magruder Ewell’s first wife was his first cousin, Helen Woods McGregor (1829-1854), the oldest daughter of Susan Euphemia Mitchell (born in Scotland, d.1894) and Ellen McGregor Ewell’s brother, Nathaniel Mortimer McGregor (1803-1870) . Helen Woods McGregor was married in 1852, bore a son, Jesse Ewell, in 1853, and died a year later. Nathaniel maintained a business and residence in Washington, D.C., that seems, from family letters, to have served as a hub for extended family members coming and going through the city.

Alice Maude Ewell also wrote that May and Wash “after long hesitation” followed their children to Washington, D.C. Anxious to find family members in PG Co., she says, Washington Magruder set out to walk there on a winter day. He found no one who remembered him and was overtaken by a blizzard on his way back. He was found nearly frozen and died the next day. If this is true, he set off on that fateful walk at the age of 86 or older.

As yet, I have no evidence on which to base a theory about Washington McGruder’s parentage. His white blood and Magruder name could have come from a white Magruder father, or from a generation or more back. John S. Magruder’s estate inventory of 1825 names 21 slaves. One woman, Flora, 45, is old enough to be Washington Magruder’s mother. The oldest man is 30. For two men, Harry and Frank, no age is given; their appraised values suggest they were in their prime, but older slaves with valuable skills could also be valued highly.

Nor have I yet found later records for Annie or Phebe McGruder. One interesting coincidence I stumbled on while searching: in 1880 a black man named Benjamin McGruder, with a wife Georgeanna McGruder, lived in Richmond and worked in a tobacco factory. On the same page are several families named Payne and one named Morton. In 1870, Jesse Ewell and Helen McGregor Ewell had a 41 year-old live-in woman servant named Morton. Her name is given as “Morton Morton,” but I tend to view that as an error. Her children, also in the household, were Walker Morton (8), Henry Morton (4), Catharine Morton (5 months). All are designated mulatto. With them was Susan Adams (10) designated black. So is this Richmond page a wild goose chase? Possibly; but it’s worth filing away in the back of your mind as you search for your ancestors, their homes of origin, and their movements in the decades after Emancipation.


Prince George’s County Register of Wills (Estate Papers) 1789-1831. Estate Papers of John S. Magruder. MSA C2119-60-3.

U.S. Census 1870, population schedules, Prince William County, VA, Gainesville, p7, dwelling [illegible], family 43, Washington McGruder family, digital image, Ancestry.com.

U.S. Census 1870, population schedules, Prince William County, VA, Gainesville District, p7, dwelling [illegible], family 44, John S. Ewell family, digital image, Ancestry.com.

U.S. Census 1880, population schedules, Prince William County, VA, Gainesville District, p31?, dwelling 226, family 226, Washington McGruder family, digital image, Ancestry.com. This is unsearchable on Ancestry. Search John S. Ewell, and look for McGruders in the household next door.

U.S. Census 1880, population schedules, Prince William County, VA, Gainesville District, p31?, dwelling 227, family 227, John S. Ewell family, digital image, Ancestry.com.

U.S. Census 1880, population schedules, Loudoun County, VA, Jefferson Township, p17, dwelling 106, family 109, George Rust family (including Armstead McGruder), digital image, Ancestry.com.

U.S. Census 1880, population schedules, Richmond, VA, p54, dwelling 106, Benjamin McGruder family, digital image, Ancestry.com.

Alice Maude Ewell. A Virginia Scene, or Life in Old Prince William. Lynchburg: J.P. Bell Co, 1931. Repr. Prince William County Historical Commission, n.d. pp 13, 114-115.

Sue Emerson. Magruders in America. Self-published, 2007, compact disc. p 1704.

McGregor Family Papers 1857-1984 (bulk 1860-1862), Huntington Library, San Marino, CA; digital images, Huntington Digital Library (https://hdl.huntington.org/digital/collection/p15150coll7/search/searchterm/McGregor : accessed 12 Feb 2021).

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