Fairfax County in Henry Howe's 1845 History of Virginia

Submitted by Alice Warner

Book Title: Historical Collections Of Virginia By Henry Howe

Fairfax was formed in 1742, from Prince William, and named after Lord Fairfax,
the proprietor of "the Northern Neck." The part of Virginia included in the
District of Columbia was formed from Fairfax. The county is watered by the
Potomac and the Occoquan, and their branches. Pop., whites 5,469, slaves 3,453,
free colored 448; total, 9,370.

Fairfax Court House is near the centre of the county, 21 miles from Washington
City; it contains the county buildings, and about 200 inhabitants. Centerville
is a village of about the same population, on a high and healthy situation near
the southwestern angle of the county.

Much of the land of this county, and, indeed, of the whole of the tide-water
country of Virginia, is flat and sandy. Some parts, it is true, are very fertile
and produce large crops; but these are so intermixed with extensive tracts of
waste land, worn out by the excessive culture of tobacco, and which are almost
destitute of verdure, that the country has frequently the aspect of barrenness.
A ruinous system has prevailed to a great extent, of working the same piece of
land year after year until it was exhausted, when new land was cleared, in its
turn to be cultivated a few seasons and then abandoned. In some parts of the
country the lands thus left waste throw up a spontaneous growth of low pines and
cedars, whose sombre aspect, with the sterility of the soil, oppresses the
traveller with feelings of gloom. However, land thus shaded from the rays of the
sun, recovers in time its former fertility.

Several years since, some of the enterprising farmers of German origin from
Dutchess county, New York, commenced emigrating to this county and purchased
considerable tracts of worn-out land, which they have, in many instances,
succeeded in restoring to their original fertility. Good land can be bought for
$8 or $10 per acre; tolerable fair for about $3; which, in a few years, can be
brought up with clover and plaster. Some of the finest farms in New York are
upon lands, which, a few years ago, were sand, blowing about in the wind. The
worn-out Virginian lands are not so bad as this, and, with a fine climate, are
as easily restored. The success thus far attending the experiment is
encouraging, and emigration still continues. These farmers make this movement
better than going west, for they are sure of a good market, without the whole
value of their produce being exhausted by the expense of transportation.
Slave-labor is not employed in resuscitating land; the farmers work themselves,
with their sons and hired men.


The following extracts are from Davis's Four and a Half Years in America,
publised in 1803. Davis was a school-teacher in the section of country which he
describes. His work is dedicated, by permission, to Jefferson :--

I prosecuted my walk to /i/Newgate/i/, where, on the piazza of Mr. Thornton's
tavern, I found a party of gentlemen from the neighboring plantations carousing
over a bowl of toddy, and smoking cigars. No people could exceed these men in
politeness. On my ascending the steps to the piazza, every countenance seemed to
say, This man has a double claim to our attention, for he is a stranger in the
place. In a moment there was room made for me to sit down; a new bowl was called
for, and every one who addressed me did it with a smile of conciliation. But no
man asked me where I had come from, or whither I was going. A gentleman in every
country is the same; and, if good breeding consists in sentiment, it was found
in the circle I had got into.

The higher Virginians seem to venerate themselves as men; and I am persuaded
there was not one in company who would have felt embarrassed at being admitted
to the presence and conversation of the greatest monarch on earth. There is a
compound of virtue and vice in every human character; no man was ever yet
faultless; but whatever may be advanced against Virginians, their good qualities
will ever outweigh their defects; and when the effervescence of youth has
abated, when reason asserts her empire, there is no man on earth who discovers
more exalted sentiments, more contempt of baseness, more love of justice, more
sensibility of feeling, than a Virginian.

No walk could be more delightful than that from Occoquan to Colchester, when the
moon was above the mountains. You traverse the bank of a placid stream, over
which impend rocks, in some places bare, but more frequently covered with an
odoriferous plant that regales the traveller with its fragrance. So serpentine
is the course of the river, that the mountains which rise from its bank may be
said to form an amphitheatre; and nature seems to have designed the spot for the
haunt only of fairies for here grow flowers of purple dye, and here the snake
throws her enamelled skin. But into what regions, however apparently
inaccessible, has not adventurous man penetrated? The awful repose of the night
is disturbed by the clack of two huge mills, which drown the echoes of the
mocking-bird, who nightly tells his sorrows to the listening moon.

Art is pouring fast into the lap of nature the luxuries of exotic refinement.
After clambering over mountains, almost inaccessible to human toil, you come to
the junction of the Occoquan with the noble river of the Potomac, and behold a
bridge, whose semi-elliptical arches are scarcely inferior to those of princely
London. And on the side of this bridge stands a tavern, where every luxury that
money can purchase is to be obtained at first summons; where the richest viands
cover the table, and where ice cools the Madeira that has been thrice across the
ocean. * * * Having slept one night at this tavern, I rose with the sun and
journeyed leisurely to the mills, catching refreshment from a light air that
stirred the leaves of the trees. About eight miles from the Occoquan mills is a
house of worship, called Powheek church; a name it claims from a run that flows
near its walls. Hither I rode on Sundays and joined the congregation of parson
Weems, a minister of the Episcopal persuasion, who was cheerful in his mien,
that he might win men to religion. A Virgnian church-yard, on a Sunday,
resembles rather a race-course than a sepulchral ground; the ladies come to it
in carriages, and the men after dismounting from their horses make them fast to
the trees. But the steeples to the Virginian churches were designed not for
utility but ornamentl for the bell is always suspended to a tree a few yards
from the church. It is also observable, that the gate to the church-yard is ever
carefully locked by the sexton, who retires last. * * * Wonder and ignorance are
ever reciprocal. I was confounded, on first entering the church-yard at Powheek,
to hear

Steed threaten steed with high and boastful neigh

Nor was I less stunned with the rattling of carriage wheels, the cracking of
whips, and the vociferation of the gentlemen to the negroes who accompanied
them. But the discourse of parson Weems calmed every perturbation; for he
preached the great doctrines of salvation, as one who had experienced their
power. * * * In his youth Mr. Weems accompanied some young Americans to London,
where he prepared himself by diligent study for the profession of the church. *
* * Of the congregation at Powheek church, about one half was composed of white
people, and the other of negroes. Among many of the negroes were to be
discovered the most satisfying evidences of sincere piety, an artless
simplicity, passionate aspirations after Christ, and an earnest endeavor to know
and do the will of God.

The church described in the foregoing sketch is still standing and an object of
interest from having been the one Washington regularly attended for a long
series of years while resident at Mount Vernon, distant some 6 or 7 miles. The
particularlocation of the church is ascribed to him. At a very early age he was
an active member of the vestry; and when its location was under consideration
and dispute, surveyed and made a map of the whole parish, and showed where it
ought to be erected. The Rt. Rev. Wm. Meade, Bishop of Va., in an official tour
taken three or four years since, thus describes its appearance as it was at that
time; since which it has been repaired:

My next visit was to Pohick church, in the vicinity of Mount Vernon, the seat of
Gen. Washington. I designed to perform service there on Saturday as well as
Sunday, but through some mistake no notice was given for the former day. The
weather, indeed, was such as to prevent the assembling of any but those who
prize such occasions so much as to be deterred only by very strong
considerations. It was still raining when I approached the house, and found no
one there. The wide open doors invited me to enter, as they do invite, day and
night through the year, not only the passing traveller, but every beast of the
field and fowl of the air. These latter, however, seemed to have reverenced the
house of God, since few marks of their pollution are to be seen throughout it.
The interior of the house, having been well built, is still good. The chancel,
communion table, tables of the law, etc., are still there and in good order. The
roof only is decayed; and at the time I twas there, the rain was dropping on
those sacred places, and on other parts of the house. On the doors of the pews,
in gilt letter, are still to be seen the names of the principal families which
once occupied them. How could I, while for an hour traversing those long aisles,
entering the sacred chancel, ascending the lofty pulpit, forbear to ask: And is
this is the house of God which was built by the Washingtons, the Masons, the
McCarties, the Grahams, the Lewises, the Fairfaxes -- the house in which they
used to worship the God of our fathers according to the venerable forms of the
Episcopal church, and some of whose names are yet to be found on those deserted
pews? Is this, also, destined to moulder piecemeal away -- or, when some signal
is given, to become the prey of spoilers, and to be carried hither and thither,
and applied to every purpose under heaven?

The Rev. M. L. Weems, to whom allusion has been made, was the rector of Mount
Vernon parish at the time Washington attended this church. He was the author of
a life of Washington, and also one of Marion. His memoir of Washington has been
a very popular work, and has passed through 30 or 40 editions. It is a volume
extremely fascinating to the youthful mind. "He turns all the actions of
Washington to the encouragement of virtue, by a careful application of numerous
exemplifications drawn from the conduct of the founder of our republic, from his
earliest life."

From a clerical friend of the late Mr. Weems, we have gathered these facts
respecting him: The wants of a large family occasioned Mr. Weems to abandon
preaching for a livelihood, and he became a book-agent for the celebrated
Matthew Carey of Philadelphia. He travelled extensively over the southern
states, and met with almost unprecedented success -- selling, in one year, 3000
copies of a high-priced Bible. He also sold other works, among which were those
of his own writing. He was accustomed to be present at courts and other large
assemblages, where he mingled with the people; and by his faculty of adapting
himself to all circumstances, he generally drew crowds of listeners, whom he
would address upon the merits of his works, interspersing his remarks with
anecdotes and humorous sallies. He wrote and sold a pamphlet entitled "The
Drunkard's Looking-Glass," illustrated by cuts, showing the progressive stages
of the drunkard from his first taking the social glass until the final scene of
his death. With this in hand he entered taverns, and addressing the inmates,
would mimic the extravagance of an inebriate, and sell the pamphlet. His
eccentricities and singular conduct lowered his dignity, and occasioned the
circulation of many false and ridiculous tales unbecoming his clerical
profession. He was a man of much benevolence, and a great wit. When travelling,
he sometimes received and accepted invitayions to preach. His sermons were
generally moral essays, abounding with humor. On one occasion, when at
Fredericksburg, he preached from the text, "We are fearfully and wonderfully
made," -- which sermon he abruptly concluded by saying, "I must stop; for should
I go on, some of the young ladies present would not sleep a wink to-night." mr.
Weems was of the medium stature, his hair white and long, and his countenance
expressive and sprightly. He was energetic in his movements, and polite. He
proved useful in his volcation, being careful not to circulate any works but
those of a good moral tendency. He died at an advanced age, many years since,
leaving a highly respectable and well-educated family.

An English traveller in this country, about the close of the revolution, gives
the following list of the seats on the Potomac existing at that time:

"On the Virginia side of the Potomac, are the seats of Mr. Alexander, Gen.
Washington, Col. Martin, Col. Fairfax, Mr. Lawson, near the mouth of Oquaquon,
Col. Mason, Mr. Lee, near the mouth of Quantico, Mr. Brent,[* Burnt by the enemy
early in the revolutionary war], Mr. Mercer, Mr. Fitzhugh, Mr. Alexander, of
Boyd Hole and all Chotank, Col. Frank Thornton, on Marchodock, Mr. Thacker
Washington, Mrs. Blair, Mr. M'Carty, Col. Phil. Lee of Nominey," &c.

Mount Vernon is on the Potomac, 8 miles from Alexandria, and 15 from Washington
City. The mansion is built of wood, cut in imitation of free stone. The central
part was built by Lawrence Washington, brother to the general; the wings were
added by Gen. Washington. It is named after Admiral Vernon, in whose expedition
Lawrence Washington served.

The following graphic description of a visit to Mount Vernon from the pen of a
New Englander, we extract from a recent number of the Boston Daily Advertiser
and Patriot:

I had this morning, for the first time, crossed the Potomac, and was under the
full influence of the sense that I was in a new land, and amid all the
historical associations of the "Ancient Dominion." The day was soft and balmy,
and, though early in March, was as warm as our budding days of May. We were in a
portion of the great primeval forest of America. The crows cawed from the tops
of the ancient, half-decated trees; and the naked trunks and branches of the
sycamore, and the strange spreading forms of the other giants of the wood, were
beautifully relieved by the evergreen of the pines and cedars. A solemn
stillness filled the air. An ancient, sad, half degenerate, but most venerable
and soul-stirring character was impressed upon all around us.

After a few miles of riding through the forest, with occasional openings and
cultivated spots, in one of which a negro was following his plough through the
furrows, my friend pointed out a stone sunk in the found by the road-side,
which, he said, marked the beginning of the Mount Vernon estate. Still, we rode
on for a couple of miles of beautiful country, left much in its natural
condition, without even a fence to line the roadside, with a delightful variety
of surface, before the gate and porter's lodge came in sight.

Instead of an iron gate upon stone posts, there was a simple wooden gate,
swinging from posts of wood, without paint, turned to a gray color, and shutting
with a wooden latch. An aged negro came out of the porter's house, courtesied as
we passed, and answered civilly the questions as to her health, and whether her
mistress was at home. All was characteristic of the domestic institutions of
Virginia, even to the woman's standing still, and letting the gate swing to and
latch itself. We had still half a mile before us, and the simple carriage-path
led us over hills and down dales with a surface as diversified as that of Mount
Auburn, while the trees were more grand and forest-like, though thinly
scattered, and with less variety and richness. We crossed a brook, passed
through a ravine, and felt ourselves so completely in the midst of aboriginal,
untouched nature, that the sight of the house and its cluster of surrounding
buildings, came like a surprise upon me. The approach to the house is towards
the west front. The high piazza, reaching from the roof to the ground, and the
outline of the building, are familiar to us from the engravings; but its gray
and time-worn aspect must be mentioned to those whose eyes are accustomed to the
freshness of white walls, green blinds, and painted bricks. We rode up to the
piazza, but an unbroken silence reigned, and there was no sign of life, or of
any one stirring. Turning away, we passed among the adjoining houses, occupied
by the black, from one of which a servant, attracted by the sound of our horses'
hoofs, came out, and being recognised by my friend, took our horses from us, and
we walked towards the house. The door from the piazza opened directly into a
large room, which we entered. It was no mere habit that lifted my hat from my
head, and I stepped lightly, as though upon hallowed ground. Finding that no one
had seen us, my friend went in search of the family, and left me to walk through
the halls. from the first room I passed into another, from which a door led me
out upon the easter piazza. A warm afternoon breeze shook the branches of the
forest which closes in upon the house on two sides, and breathed across the lawn
and rising knolls with a delicious softness. Under this piazza, upon its
pavement of flat stones, Washington used to walk to and fro, with military
regularity, every morning, the noble Potomac in full view, spreading out into
the width of a bay at the foot of the mount, and the shore of Maryland lining
the eastern horizon. By the side of the door hung the spy-glass, through which
he watched the passing objects upon the water. Little effort was necessary to
call up the commanding figure of the hero, as he paced to and fro, while those
pure and noble thoughts, which made his actions great, moved with almost and
equal order through his simple and majestic understanding.

My friend approached and told me he had learned that the family were at dinner,
and we left the house privately and walked towards the tomb. At a short distance
from the house, in a retired spot, stands the new family tomb, a plain structure
of brick, with a barred iron gate, through which are seen two sarcophagi of
white marble, side by side, containing the remains of Washington and his
consort. This had been recently finished, as appeared from the freshness of the
bricks and mortar, and the bare spots of earth about it, upon which the grass
had not yet grown. It is painful to see change and novelty in such connections;
but all has been done by the direction of Washington's will in which he
designated the spot where he wished the tomb to be. The old family tomb, in
which he was first placed, is in a more picturesque situation, upon a knoll, in
full view of the river; but the present one is more retired, which was reason
enough to determine the wishes of a modest man. While we were talking together
here, a person approached us, dressed in the plain manner of a Virginia
gentleman upon his estate. This was the young proprietor. After his greeting
with my friend, and my introduction, he conducted us to the old tomb, which is
the one represented in the prints scattered through the country. It is now going
to decay, being unoccupied, is filling up, and partly overgrown with vines and
shrubs. The change was made with regret, but a sacred duty seemed to require it.
It is with this tomb that our associations are connected, and to this the
British fleet is said to have lowered its flags while passing up the Potomac to
make the attack upon the capitol.

To one accustomed to the plantation system and habits of Virginia, this estate
may have much in common with others; but to persons unused to this economy, the
whole is new and striking. Of things peculiar to the place, are a low rampart of
brick, now partly overgrown, which Washington had built around the front of the
house, and an underground passage leading from the bottom of a dry well, and
coming out by the river side at the foot of the mount. On the west side of the
house are two gardens, a green-house, and -- the usual accompaniments of a
plantation -- seed-houses, tool-houses, and cottages for the negroes -- things
possessing no particular interest, except because they were standing during
Washington's life, and were objects of his frequent attention. I would not be
one to countenance the making public of any thing pertaining to those who have
received a visitor in confidence and good faith. And I hope not to transgress
when I say, that if he can judge from what may be seen among those who bear the
name and inherit the estate of the hero, no Massachusetts man need hear that the
bond which united the two ancient historical commonwealths, is at all weakened;
or that those memory-charge, cabalistic words, Massachusetts and Virginia have
lost any of their force with the true sons of either. Among the things of note
shown us in the house, was the key of the Bastile, sent to Washington from
France at the time of the destruction of the prison. Along the walls of the room
hung engravings, which were mostly battle or hunting-pieces. Among them I
noticed a print of Bunker Hill, but none of any battle in which Washington
himself was engaged. The north room was built by Washington for a dining-room,
and for the meetings of his friends and political visitors. The furniture of the
room is just as when he used it, and leads us back to the days when there were
met within these walls the great men of that generation who carried the states
through the revolution, laid the foundations of the government, and administered
it in its purer days. The rooms of the house are spacious, and there is
something of elegance in their arrangement; yet the whole is marked by great
simplicity. All the regard one could wish seems to have been shown to the
sacredness of these public relics, and all things have been kept very nearly as
Washington left them. Money made in the stocks can purchase the bedizenry of our
city drawing-rooms; but these elevating associations, which no gold can buy, no
popular favor win, which can only be inherited, these are their heir-looms, the
traditionary titles and pensions, inalienable, not conferred, which a republic
allows to the descendants of her great servants.

Let every American, and especially every young American, visit this place, and
catch, if he can, something of its spirit. It will make an impression upon him
which he may keep through life. It will teach him the story and lessons of the
past so as no printed page can teach them. From amid the small machinery of day
and week politics, he may learn what was once the tone of public life. It will
enlarge his patriotism, elevate his notion of the public service, and call out
some sense of veneration and loyalty towards the institutions of his country and
the memory of her mighty dead; so that YOUNG AMERICA may, as there is some hope
she may, bring back the elements which dignified the first eight years of our
constitutional history.

As the afternoon rew to a close, and we were obliged to take our leave, regret
from parting from our courteous entertainers, was lost in the grand and solemn
impression made by all around us. Nothing was real. Every thing acted through
the imagination. Each object was dim with associations, and seemed but the
exponent of some thought or emotion, the shadow of something great and past. The
whole was enchanted ground; and the occupants seemed privileged persons, whom
the guardian spirits of the place allowed to remain its keepers. When the young
proprietor took leave of us at the piazza, he stood where Washington had stood
to welcome and to part from the immortal men of France and America. He stood
there his representative to a third generation. It may well be supposed that as
we rode slowly home, our thoughts were in no ordinary course. We repassed the
gate, the rivulet, and the open field, but still we were on enchanted ground. So
impressed was I with this feeling, that had I met a companion in arms and in the
cabinet, it would have seemed only a natural consummation. It was not until we
had reached the town, and our horses hoofs struck upon the pavement that the
illusion was fairly broken.

The following was found inscribed on the back of a small portrait of Washington
at Mount Vernon. It was written by some unknown visitor, supposed to have been
an English traveller:

The Defender of his Country. -- The founder of Liberty:
The Friend of Man.
History and Tradition are explored in vain,
For a Parallel to his Character.
In the Annals of Modern Greatness
He stands alone:
And the noblest names of antiquity,
Lose their Lustre in his Presence.
Born the Benefactor of Mankind,
He united all the qualities necessary
To an illustrious career.
Nature made him great,
He made himself virtuous.
Called by his country to the defence of her Liberties
He triumphantly vindicated the rights of humanity:
And on the Pillars of National Independence
Laid the foundations of a great republic.
Twice invested with supreme magistracy,
By the unanimous voice of a free people
He surpassed in the Cabinet
The Glories of the Field.
And voluntarily resigning the Sceptre and the Sword,
Retired to the shades of Private Life.
A spectacle so new and so sublime
Was contemplated with the profoundest admiration.
And the name of Washington,
Adding new lustre to humanity,
Resounded to the remotest regions of the earth.
Magnanimous in youth
Glorious through life,
Great in Death.
His highest ambition, the Happiness of Mankind;
His noblest Victory, the conquest of himself.
Bequeathing to posterity the inheritance of his fame,
And building his monument in the hearts of his countrymen.
HE LIVED -- The Ornament of the 18th Century.
HE DIED -- Regretted by a Mourning World.

Gunston Hall, which was the seat of the celebrated George Mason, stands on an
elevated and commanding site overlooking the Potomac.

Mr. Jefferson said that he was "of the first order of wisdom, among those who
acted on the theatre of the revolution, of expansive mind, profound judgment,
cogent in argument, learned in the lore of our former constitution, and earnest
for the republican change on democratic principles. His eloquence was neither
flowing nor smooth; but his language was strong, his manner most impressive, and
strengthened by a dash of biting criticism when provocation made it seasonable."
Mr. Mason was the framer of the constitution of Virginia, and a member of the
convention which formed the federal constitution, but he did not sign that
instrument. In conjunction with Patrick Henry, he opposed its adoption in the
Virginia convention, believing that it would tend to the conversion of the
government into a monarchy. He alos opposed the slave trade with great zeal. He
died at his seat in the autumn of 1792, aged 67 years.


The annexed epitaph was copied from a tombstone on the banks of Neabsco Creek,
in October 1837. It is, without doubt, the oldest monumental inscription in the
United States. From the earliness of the date, 1608, it is supposed that the
deceased was a companion of Capt. John Smith on one of his exploratory voyages.

Here lies ye body of Lieut. William Herris, who died May ye 16th, 1608: Aged 065
years; by birth a Britain, a good soldier; a good husband and neighbor.


Additional Comments:

**Note, there are more articles about William Harris here.


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Fairfax County, Virginia