What’s in a Namesake?: George Washingtons Who Have Made Their Mark on America

Ever since the Revolution, Americans have been naming their kids after George Washington. Some parents did so to honor our leaders, others hoped it would endow their children with the same luck and qualities of the commander in chief. Others probably just liked the way the name sounded. Today, most Americans named after Washington are Black, historians think its because many freed people after the Civil War adopted his name to assert their freedom and passed the name down to their descendants. The late Dr. Ira Berlin has said that “names are this central way we think about ourselves. Whenever we have these kinds of emancipatory moments, suddenly people can reinvent themselves, rethink themselves new, distinguish themselves…New names are one of the ways they do it.” For children who were named after Washington, this could be a small way of aiming them towards a brighter future.

george washington silhouette
Bet you know who this is! National Portrait Gallery.

Here are 15 men from the past with the same name as our inaugural president. Each went on to have interesting and noteworthy lives. I think each of these men resemble Washington in one way or another- some inherited the best parts of Washington’s legacy, others the worst. What do you think, have these men lived up to their namesake? What similarities and differences do you see?

One last thing- I’ve looked and looked but haven’t been able to find any women who were named after Martha Washington (or any other famous women from that era); I thought that would be a great companion piece to this article. If you know of any women named after famous Americans, please let me know!

George Washington Sears (1821-1890)

Nessmuk
This drawing of Sears was included in his 1888 book “Woodcraft.”

The grandfather of today’s outdoors-men and conservationists, Sears lived in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania for most of his life where he spent most of his time hiking and enjoying the natural beauty of the area. He wrote under the pseudonym “Nessmuk” in The Atlantic Monthly and Forest and Stream about his adventures and advice on camping, hunting, and hiking. He also wrote two popular books: “Woodcraft” in 1884 and “Forest Runes” in 1887 (a collection of forest poetry). For Sears, nature was a refuge from the hardships of life. “We do not go to the green woods and crystal waters to rough it,” he urged, “we go to smooth it.. take it easy, and always keep cool.”

George Washington Plunkitt (1842-1924)

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Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Plunkitt wasn’t just a politician in New York City. He was the politician in NYC from the 1870s to the early 1900s. He was a member of Tammany Hall and used his political influence to make himself a fortune through patronage, the spoils system, and other shady practices he called “honest graft.” Plunkitt has faded into relative obscurity since his death, but you can still read his book “Plunkitt of Tammany Hall,” (1905) a collection of talks he gave from his seat at the bootblack stand in the county courthouse. “I seen my opportunity” he always said, “and I took ’em.”

George Washington Hill (1884-1946)

George Washington Hill
George Washington Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company. “Sold American!”

This man lived and breathed (ironically) to sell cigarettes. President of the American Tobacco Company for 21 years and a dogged marketer, Hill poured millions of dollars into advertising campaigns for Lucky Strike cigarettes that were noted for their crassness, controversy, and effectiveness (he inspired this classic 1947 Sydney Greenstreet scene from The Hucksters). Almost single-handedly, Hill took his company to the top of the cigarette market, outselling other popular brands like Camel and Chesterfield even during the tough Depression years. He was an early adopter of many advertising strategies such as public relations, radio advertising, and celebrity sponsorships. Hill got millions of Americans hooked on smoking and inspired many of the types of advertising that we still see today.

George Washington Carver (1864?-1943)

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Betsy Graves Reyneau painted this portrait of Carver in 1942. National Portrait Gallery.

Most of us have heard about George Washington Carver, and his inventions and brilliant work promoting sustainable agriculture and teaching at the Tuskegee Institute. But did you know that he was not named after President Washington at birth? He actually chose his own middle name sometime in his early 20s. Nonetheless, he is a worthy addition to this list. Teaching at Tuskegee for 47 years, he gained an international reputation in research, education, and outreach. Carver taught his students that nature is the greatest teacher and that by understanding the forces in nature, one can understand the dynamics of agriculture. He instilled in them the attitude of gentleness and taught that education should be “made common” –used for betterment of the people in the community.

George Washington Goethals (1858-1928)

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This three cent stamp featuring Goethals (right) was issued in 1939. National Postal Museum.

His work has been described as “one of the greatest feats of engineering and construction since the Egyptians completed the mighty pyramids.” Who was this impressive engineer and architect? Goethals was a talented civil engineer in the U.S. Army and worked on various construction projects before he was appointed the chief engineer of the Panama Canal in 1907. A project that bamboozled many and cost millions of dollars (and the lives of hundreds of workers), Goethals managed to complete the project in just seven more years. He was known for his design of high-lift locks, which made the Panama Canal possible. After the canal was finished, he served as the Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army during World War I. Goethals understood an army isn’t just about fighting, its about logistics and organization. “I now consider that I am commanding the Army of Panama,” Goethals once said during his canal days, “and the enemy we are going to combat is the Culebra Cut and the locks and dams at both ends of the canal.”

George Washington Johnson (1845-1914)

George Washington Johnson
This portrait of Johnson was featured in an 1898 issue of The Phonoscope.

One of the earliest important figures in the recorded music industry, Johnson was the first African American to make phonograph records. A minstrel performer, he began recording with the New Jersey Phonograph Company in 1890 and in the next 15 years made dozens of other wax cylinder recordings. At the time, musical recording equipment could not make multiple copies of one performance, so artists had to make many recordings of the same song for companies to distribute. John recorded his repertoire dozens of times, sometimes even singing with many machines recording him at once. Always in high demand, no other singers could match his distinctive laugh and whistling style. He hit his peak in 1895 with his songs “The Whistling Coon” and “The Laughing Song.”

George Washington Parke Custis (1781-1857)

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This photograph of Custis was taken around 1856. National Portrait Gallery.

Custis is the only relative of General Washington on this list. The grandson of Martha and adopted son of George, he grew up at Mt. Vernon and the executive mansion. After a short stint in the army, he spent the rest of his career living off of the legacy and advantages his family privileged him with. He built the Arlington Mansion as a monument to George Washington and was involved in the construction of the Washington Monument. He also wrote Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington. Like his namesake, Custis owned hundreds of slaves. Among his many descendants were Robert E. Lee (step-son), several other officers who fought in the Civil War. He also fathered at least one child, Maria Carter Syphax, with one of his enslaved workers Arianna Carter.

George Washington Dixon (1801?-1861)

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This 1846 lithograph of Dixon was used to promote his performing career. National Portrait Gallery.

Like President Washington, Dixon was also a founding father of sorts. He was a pioneer in minstrelsy and blackface, the form of demeaning racial stereotyped song and dance that was super popular in the 19th century that still persists today. He joined a traveling circus at the age of 15 and became a popular performer. He began performing in blackface in 1829 and was soon best known for his song “Zip Coon.” The Coon even went as far as to have his own presidential aspirations: “Dare General Jackson, will him lampoon/ An de bery nex President, will be Zip Coon.”

George Washington Dupee (1826-1897)

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Dupee as he looked shortly before his death. “Afro-American Encyclopedia.”

“He is a man of a great deal of power over men.” Born into slavery in Kentucky, Dupee rose to prominence as a Baptist leader in the South for most of the 19th century. He taught himself to read (he claimed it was a miracle) using nothing but a borrowed Bible in 1844. Using his new abilities to study his Bible, he began preaching in the Lexington area. For several years, he split his time between preaching and working for his slave owner in a rope making factory. His congregation purchased his freedom in 1856 when he was on the auction block. In the 1870s he established and edited the American Baptist which was widely read in the region. By the end of his life, he preached over 12,000 sermons, baptized 8,000 people, pastored 12 churches, and married more than 13,000 couples. And it’s not like this work was easy- Dupee was known to walk dozens of miles to give a single sermon. Can you say commitment to the job?!

George Washington Harris (1814-1869)

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He even looks a little snarky in this photo. Wikipedia.

The literary and rhetorical origins of American comedy and humor are in the South in the 19th century. These early humorists used their jokes to lampoon and often sneakily satire others. Harris was a Pennsylvanian originally but moved to Tennessee at a young age and became one of the best known Southern humorists of the century. A failure as a slave owner and farmer, he began publishing writings in local newspapers in the 1840s. Harris’ stories depict the southern backwoods and their residents, using folksy (and super detailed) dialects and clever metaphors. Many of his writings satire politicians (often Radical Republicans and Abraham Lincoln) and religious figures and supported the slaveholding South. In 1854 Harris created his most famous character, Sut Lovingood, a young man and “nat’ral born durn’d fool” from Tennessee who always says his brains are “mos’ ove the time onhook’d.” Harris published a number of Lovingood’s adventures in the 1850s and 1860s. Harris, though he is not as well known today, was a big influence on other American writers like William Faukner and Mark Twain.

George Washington Pilipō (1828-1887)

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One of the few photographs taken of Pilipō. Bishop Museum, Honolulu.

The Lion of North Kona.” “One of Hawaii’s truest and staunchest friends.” These were just a few of the names given to Pilipō throughout his career as an elected representative in the Kingdom of Hawaii. He originally worked as a teacher and pastor in the Kuamakapili Church before being elected to the Hawaiian House of Representatives in 1860. Over the next 24 years, he served under four different monarchs and was known for his vocal support of Hawaiian independence and nationalism. He was a talented orator and tried to expose corruption and the harmful influence of American planters in the Hawaiian government. He was also a passionate critic of the 1875 Reciprocity Treaty which he felt gave the United States too much influence in his country and hurt its economy. Though the Hawaiian government was tragically overthrown by the United States after his death, Pilipō’s impact on Hawaiian politics can’t be understated.

George Washington Williams (1849-1891)

George Washington Williams
Williams was also the subject of a fantastic biography written by John Hope Franklin. “History of the Negro Race in America.”

Another Pennsylvania native, Williams was born in Bedford Springs to a Free Black family. At the age of 14 he enlisted in the Union Army under a fake name and served in the Civil War. From there he had a successful military career in the American and Mexican armies. After his army days were over he went to theological school and became a popular Baptist minister, even working at the prestigious Twelfth Baptist Church in Boston. It was an achievement that’s even more impressive since he had no formal education and could barely read when he began his training. He was also a influential political figure, serving in the Ohio legislature and holding prestigious appointed positions in government. Today, Williams is most known for his work as a historian. His two books, A History of Negro Troops in the War of Rebellion and History of the Negro Race in America 1619-1880 are considered some of the finest African American histories written in the 19th century. Scholars today have written that “Williams’s sources and methods qualify him as a pioneer in the transformation of American historical scholarship from panegyrics to professionalism.” Sadly, his life was cut short from disease- Williams died while journeying home from the Congo Free State, where he had been reporting on human rights violations in the Belgian colony.

George Washington Morrison Nutt (1848-1881)

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The Connecticut Digital Archive has this and many other images related to P.T. Barnum in their collection.

Commodore Nutt (as he was known on the stage) “was distinguished for large-hearted virtues that are often lacking in bigger men.” A talented entertainer and little person, he began performing in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in 1861. Barnum, realizing the fortune to be made with a performing troop of little people, bought the touring and guardianship rights for George from his parents. Nutt traveled around New York City in a small carriage shaped like a walnut to advertise for the museum and later traveled around the world meeting royalty and world leaders. After a few disagreements with Barnum and fellow performer Tom Thumb, Nutt went his own way and found mixed success in comic operas, variety shows, and running a saloon with his brother.

George Washington (1817-1905)

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Apparently Washington was fond of dogs, other photos of him also held by the Washington State Historical Society also have furry companions!

The only man on this list whose name is identical to the first president, George Washington’s story bears many similarities to the founding father’s. A child of enslaved parents, he was adopted by a white couple who raised him from a young age in Missouri. Eventually, Washington and his family moved west to what was then Oregon Territory (today Washington) and in 1875 he founded the town of Centralia. Washington was central to the growth of the community, donating land for its church, cemetery, and open public spaces. During the Depression of 1893, he forgave debts and aided the poor to keep his neighbors afloat. The praise that Washington won during and after his life are remarkably similar to the original George Washington. “He was held in the highest esteem by all who knew him,” one obituary proclaimed, “and his life was spent in doing good for humanity as well as himself.” By the time of his death Centralia had a bustling community of 1,600, and the town is still thriving today! “The City of Centralia is today what it is because it had George Washington.” Do you think this George Washington surpassed his namesake’s legacy?

George Washington Cable (1844-1925)

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This 1920 photo of Cable from the Archives of American Art shows that he liked dogs too!

George Washington seems to be a good namesake for 19th century writers. Cable was a New Orleans native and is often remembered today as one of the first “modern Southern writer.” He was a contemporary and friend of Mark Twain who wrote that “In him the South has found a masterly delineator of its interior life and its history. In truth, I find by experience, that the untrained eye and vacant mind can inspect it and learn of it and judge of it more clearly and profitably in his books than by personal contact with it.” Cable began his writing career shortly after serving in the Confederate Army. He wrote several popular stories about Creole life in the South which (unlike many of his peers) described multi-racial society, racial injustice, and miscegenation. Eventually, his opposition to Jim Crow laws garnered Cable and his family with enough threats from white Southerners that he moved his entire family to Massachusetts, where he continued to write for the rest of his days. His work had a profound influence on other Southern writers including Twain, William Faulkner, and Robert Penn Warren.

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