George Caleb Bingham was named for his paternal grandfather, George Washington Bingham, a wheat and tobacco farmer who lived on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The artist remembered his grandfather as “a tall and white-headed gentleman, overflowing with the milk of human kindness.” [ii] Was he?
The first known record of George Caleb Bingham’s paternal grandfather is in Hanover County, Virginia’s 1782 census: George Bingham, household of two. Those two people were George, 29, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, and his bride, the former Louisa Vest, 21, who was pregnant at the time. A few months later, Henry Vest Bingham, George Caleb Bingham’s father, was born. He was the first of eight children: six girls, Elizabeth, Rhoda, Mariah, Rebecca, Mildred, Maria, and a boy, John. The children grew up surrounded by cousins, uncles, aunts, and probably, grandparents. In that 1782 census, on the line below George Bingham, the census taker wrote, “John Bingham” with a household of six. Two lines above, was the name Josias Bingham, household of seven; one slave.[iii]
“In 1784, after serving in the Hanover Militia, George Washington Bingham bought land in Orange County, Virginia, that extended from the county line along Lynch River to the top of what has become known as Bingham Mountain.” [iv] After Rhoda’s birth in 1785, the family moved west from Hanover County to Orange County[v], to the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, about 20 miles north of Charlottesville.[vi]
Dyke, Virginia, became the nearest town. There, George W. Bingham farmed wheat and tobacco. He was also a preacher, licensed to perform marriages in Orange County. In 1795, he was one of ten men who bought an acre of land from Harry and Sally Austin in order to establish a Methodist church, the first denomination to appear in the Blue Ridge mountains. They built the church on the north side of the Lynch River. Originally, it was called Austin’s Meeting House. Later it became known as Bingham’s Meeting House. A church still stands there today.
In 1838, Orange County split, with the Western part becoming Greene County. The new dividing line ran straight across the former, larger county and through the middle of Bingham’s Church. “The church now straddles the Albemarle-Greene County Line. The preacher stands in Albemarle County and the congregation sits in Greene County. At times the church has struggled. It was twice closed during the 1950s because of low membership, but because of it’s historic value it has come to life again and again as Greene County’s oldest church.”[vii]
Bingham wrote that his grandfather “was exceedingly kind and indulgent” to his numerous slaves, “never using the lash or allowing it to be used upon his place.’’[viii] Rose-colored glasses often tint the past, but the artist’s grandfather may, moreso than many, have lived by the principles he preached. Census details hint that G. W. Bingham’s eight slaves were a family: an adult man and woman with six children, four girls and two boys.[ix]
Some twenty years later, when the artist visited his own childhood home, he was troubled that a slave the Binghams had sold to neighbors when they left for Missouri had been abandoned by his owners. In a letter to his mother, George Caleb Bingham quoted the elderly man’s wife, “now that they had got all the cream out of him they didn’t want him any more.” The young artist, pressed money into the man’s hands and asked him to contact him if he were ever in distress.[x] I have often wondered if the man did, and if so, what was Bingham’s response.
Still, Bingham’s attitude and action were a step or two above the norm. Could the man for whom he was named, George Washington Bingham, have influenced the artist’s enlightened thinking?
Many thanks to Jackie Pamenter of Greene County [VA] Historical Society for her insights.
All Rights Reserved
[i] George Caleb Bingham, unpublished memoir, undated, in E. Maurice Bloch, George Caleb Bingham: Evolution of an Artist (University of California Press, 1967), 9.
[ii] George Caleb Bingham wrote that his grandfather George Washington Bingham was “born and raised in some of the New England states.” (E. Maurice Bloch, George Caleb Bingham: The Evolution of an Artist (University of California Press), 10) If true, his paternal family probably arrived in the first wave of settlement. But, a 610-page Genealogy of the Bingham Family in the United States, published in 1898, contains no information related to George Bingham. (Theodore A. Bingham, Genealogy of the Bingham Family in the United States, Especially of the State of Connecticut (Harrisburg Publishing Company, 1898).
[iii] Department of Commerce and Labor, Bureau of the Census, Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1790 and Records of the State Enumerations: 1782 To 1785 Virginia (Government Printing Office, 1908) page 29, column 1, lines 38, 40, 41.
[iv] Edgar Woods, Albemarle County in Virginia: Giving Some Account of what it was by Nature, of what it was Made by Man, and of Some of the Men Who Made it (Michie Company, printers, 1901), 135.
[v] Most Bingham histories state that the family lived in Albemarle County. Facts, including the 1820 census, as well as church history, indicate the family residence was actually in Orange County.
[vi] E. Maurice Bloch, George Caleb Bingham: The Evolution of an Artist (University of California Press), 10.
[vii] Donald Covey, Greene County, A Brief History (History Press, 2007); Woods, op. cit., 135.
[viii] E. Maurice Bloch, George Caleb Bingham: The Evolution of an Artist, op. cit., 10.
[ix] United States Census Bureau, Fourth Census of the United States, “Household of George Bingham,” Orange County, Virginia, 1820, National Archives and Records Administration, Series M33, Roll 141, page21, line 7. Detail of Record is:
Free White Persons – Males – 26 thru 44: 1
Free White Persons – Males – 45 and over: 1
Free White Persons – Females – Under 10: 1
Free White Persons – Females – 16 thru 25: 1
Free White Persons – Females – 45 and over: 1
Slaves – Males – Under 14: 1
Slaves – Males – 14 thru 25: 1
Slaves – Males – 45 and over: 1
Slaves – Females – Under 14: 4
Slaves – Females – 26 thru 44: 1
Number of Persons – Engaged in Agriculture: 5
Free White Persons – Under 16: 1
Free White Persons – Over 25: 3
Total Free White Persons: 5
Total Slaves: 8
Total All Persons – White, Slaves, Colored, Other: 13
[x]George Caleb Bingham, “Letter to Mary Bingham,” September 25, 1841, Petersburg, Virginia, in Lynn Wolf Gentzler, editor, Roger E. Robinson, compiler, “But I Forget That I am a Painter and Not a Politician”: The Letters of George Caleb Bingham (The State Historical Society of Missouri and Friends of Arrow Rock, Inc. 2011), 57.