Sunday, August 7, 2016

Looking for the Lees Amongst the Ruins of Leesylvania...and Stumbling upon Conventions!

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Last August we finally set out to an adventure that was inspired by an 18th century book that I read on Martha Washington. Curiousity about whatever happened to her descendants (as a result of reading that book) yielded a gold mine of fascinating new locations, especially ruins, to visit. I love these explorations because I love the history and lore of the 18th century. So much of who we are as a nation is rooted in that era. So on this sunny day in August we went adventuring to the past to find ruins...without realizing I would also stumble upon proof of past convention history (supporting a Convention of States!)

Thus we had 3 journeys in mind for the day: the Lee family ruins, the Fairfax family ruins, and the Custis family ruins, all of the 18th century, but only one from Martha's family, yet all were intertwined.

We began at the southernmost point by visiting Leesylvania. The reason for visiting these ruins were entirely born from curiousity because I've often seen the signs for it when driving on I-95. One day I decided to google Leesylvania and I found out it was the 18th century home of the Lee family, friends of George Washington. Well, with my new goal of discovering ruins, I was all in! So was my family! We packed a picnic lunch and ate along the shoreline of the Potomac. Then we began our hike. Of course to get our bearings we studied the map first, and I'm happy to say that unlike our Fort Marcy hike, we did not get lost!

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Our hike took us to an ascent of a rise of land overlooking the river. Old Civil War earthworks and cannons were discovered hidden under the trees. Interestingly enough, Confederate General Lee ordered these artillery positions to blockade the river on the grounds of his ancestral home. (After all the river led to Washington DC.) The very home we were seeking on our hike was his father's birthplace...

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Further into the woods we found a deer...

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...make that two deer.

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A glimpse through the trees brought more views of the river and more interesting looking places beckoning us for a future visit...

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And again...deer...

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...and a spider...

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At last, ruins. These ruins were not of the Lee family but of the Captain Henry Fairfax family,. They were of no relation to George William Fairfax who was friend and neighbor of George Washington at Belvoir (our next visit of the day). George William Fairfax returned to England before the American Revolution. Captain Henry Fairfax bought this land from the Lee family in 1825.

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After exploring the ruins of the 19th century Fairfax home, we hiked deeper into the woods. At last we came to the ruins of the 18th century Lee family home.

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According to a nearby historical marker, the Lee family history began in Virginia in 1675 when Richard Lee II married Laetitia Corbin. Then according to a family tree in the museum, it appears that their son Henry Lee married Mary Bland. Their son, Henry Lee II married Lucy Grymes of Shirley Plantation, (which we visited here). It was they who named the woods, Leesylvania (Latin, sylvania=woods). In 1750, Henry Lee II chose this high spot overlooking the Potomac for their home. It is thought that their home was similar to nearby Rippon Lodge (one of the locations on my to go to list.) George Washington lived 14 miles up the Potomac River. Washington's diary recounts numerous visits to the Lee home. It was here that Henry Lee III (Light Horse Harry Lee) was born. (more on him in a bit) He was father to Robert E. Lee (the Confederate General of the Civil War).  This home burnt down after the death of Henry Lee II. In the 1950's a road was cut through here, further damaging the area. Today only a bit of the foundation can be seen in all the growth.

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Here is the Lee family cemetery. Henry Lee II was buried here in 1787.

Died on the 15th Instant, at the seat of Mr. Richard Bland Lee in Loudon County (Sully Plantation), Hon. Henry Lee, Senator for the District of Fairfax and Prince William, in the fifty-eighth year of his age, thirty of which have been assiduously devoted to the service of his Country. (Obituary from The Virginia Journal and the Alexandria Advertiser)

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Henry Lee II's public service included being County Lieutenant and Presiding Justice of Prince William County. He also served in the House of Burgesses for Prince William County and at the Revolutionary Conventions, (See! Convention of States does have a past!) and the state senate from 1758-1788.
This was really an exciting find of information! Not only about the Conventions but also about being a burgess for Prince William Country. I've been researching for  years for this bit of information and finally here it is! Now I'm geeked out to know who "my" 18th century burgess was! It helps my kids and I to play 18th century a little bit better! ;)

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After completing the trail we went to the museum at the visitor center. I love these maps, probably because I'm such a geek about discovering historical sites and ruins! This is what the "neighborhood" looked like in the 18th century! I've already blogged about Mount Vernon, Washington's Gristmill, Woodlawn, Alexandria, Occoquan, and Gunston Hall. (All of the other places are now on my "to visit" list!)

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That horrible condition of slavery we cannot ignore. The Lees, like many Founding Fathers, agreed that slavery should be banished. However they were bound by 17th century British law that they had great difficulty undoing. Through their fruitless efforts their one hope was that slavery would soon die out, like it did in the north. It would have too, had it not been for the invention of the cotton gin.

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This is Henry Lee II. He graduated from the College of William and Mary with a degree in law. Along with what I wrote above about his service, he specifically served at the Virginia Conventions of 1774, 1775, and 1776. (See, there is a past history of Convention of States. These are  just a few of many instances!)

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And this is what Leesylvania looked like when he lived there in the 18th century.

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This is what the brick foundation would have looked like...

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And this is the infamous Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee III.

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He was a calvary commander of light dragoons in the American Revolution. I know all about dragoons! I visit them quite often, blogged about numerous places like Monticello, Battle of the Hook, and Colonial Williamsburg. Because of his swift and daring attacks against the British, Henry Lee III was dubbed "Light Horse Harry Lee." He too served politically. Some of his service included the General Assembly and as Governor. It was he who said of George Washington after his passing, "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."

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The engraving, above, depicts Light Horse Harry Lee at the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, North  Carolina, March 1781. "He was best known for his commando tactics in which he would engage a larger enemy force in a quick-hitting surprise attack and then escape before they had time to strike back." (quote from the info under the engraving)

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Lee designed the uniform that he and his men wore. The crazy thing is that this uniform looked a lot like those of the British cavalry which could prove dangerous. (You can see pictures of them in reenactment in the dragoon photos above.) 

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And here is the family tree. Everyone will recognize General Robert E Lee at the bottom...

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Presenting the Fairfaxes! No, not the Fairfax after whom Fairfax County was named and who was friend and neighbor to George Washington. He moved back to England before the American Revolution. This is Captain Henry Fairfax of 1825. He bought the land from the Lee family and built a home, which we saw in ruins (earlier in this post.)

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Well, my favorite part about them is that their son, John Fairfax, purchased Oak Hill (pictured below) from President James Monroe's heirs in 1852. He lived here until after the Civil War, when he returned to his boyhood home of Leesylvania. Oak Hill is a big deal to my family, because my son's dorm at Patrick Henry College is Oak Hill. All (but one) of the dorms are named after the homes of the Virginia presidents. We knew all the names but Oak Hill threw us. I guessed it had to be a home of James Monroe and research proved me correct. Well, you know what that meant. I had to find the home so we could visit. I discovered that it is currently under private ownership, and they do open the home to the public on occasion. For months I researched deeply, trying to figure out the secret location and I finally found it! I had to laugh because we drive by there quite frequently. When I told my family they didn't believe me at first. Well, now they do! We all agreed we had to stay tuned for a public tour. I joined a page that I thought would be the secret to finding out about a tour and I was right because it was announced that a huge event nearby along with an open house of Oak Hill would be available this coming weekend! Alas, it is way out of budget for us. Well, perhaps when my kids are out of college we can hope again for an open house. For now, this is the most we can see of it apart from a most proper 18th century glimpse through the shrubbed entryway.

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After all, we like adventures in history. Two more adventures amongst the ruins laid ahead of us this day: Fairfax's home at the relatively secret Ft Belvoir, and Jackie Custis's home in a surprise (and rather secret) location! Stay tuned!

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