Parson Waugh's Tumult

17th Century church tower at Jamestown

The original tribes discovered by John Smith are no longer living as intact units in Northern Virginia, but they did not disappear without a fight. One of those is documented as "Parson Waugh's tumult," and it reflects the social tensions between Catholic Maryland/Protestant Virginia as much as conflict between Europeans and Native Americans.

Northern Virginia was officially Anglican, just like the rest of Virginia between 1607-1785. The first Catholic church in the state (St. Mary Church in Alexandria) was not built until 1795. Very few Catholics settled here until the 1840's, when Irish laborers were imported to build the first railroads.

In colonial Virginia, there was no separation of church and state. The king of England was head of the Church of England. The rivalry between Catholic Spain and Protestant England was partly over control of the church, which in theory could control beliefs and behavior of the people in the nation. The first meeting of a representative government by colonists in North America, the first meeting of the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1919, was in the largest building in the settlement - the Jamestown church.

So it was a big deal in Jamestown when Charles I granted Cecil Calvert (Lord Baltimore) a colonial charter for Maryland in 1632, and two Jesuit priests arrived with the first settlers in 1634. The Calverts were Catholics, and land the Virginians thought was "theirs" was now going to be settled by people with a key difference.

However, one Catholic family managed to move from Maryland and gain political power in Northern Virginia without changing their religion.
- read The Brent Family

After Bacon's Rebellion was resolved, Northern Virginia was still the frontier. Native Americans no longer controlled the land, but neither did the English. In the 1600's the colonial governor in Jamestown issued land grants to territory occupied by the Dogues. Later, tobacco "quarters" were established in areas where the Native Americans used to raise corn and hunt. Not surprisingly, at times there was armed conflict between the two societies.

As the European settlers gained in population, however, they increasingly asserted power over territory that nominally was not in private ownership. To complicate the issue even further, in 1649 all of Northern Virginia north of the Rappahannock River had been granted by Charles II to his allies in the fight to regain the throne. The grants would ultimately be consolidated under the ownership of Lord Fairfax, but trying to establish "ownership" of estates north of the Rappahannock River would require substantial moxie.

The Anglican ministers serving congregations on the frontier did not have a "cushy" appointment. Ministers were supported by taxes on local residents, imposed by parishes that were managed by members of the gentry (organized as a "vestry"). On the frontier the land was not as valuable as in settled areas, and the tobacco was usually lower-quality. As a result, the better-educated, more capable ministers were rarely assigned to Northern Virginia parishes in the 1600's.

One of the less-than-ideal ministers assigned to northern Stafford County was Parson John Waugh, who served as minister of Overwharton Parish from 1670-1700. Waugh exacerbated tensions in 1688-89, at the time when civil unrest associated with the Glorious Revolution in England was affecting the colonies as well. Waugh spread the rumor that the Native Americans in Maryland were conspiring with the Cathollcs to kill the Anglicans - and that the Brent family in Stafford County was part of the conspiracy. The rumor that an Iroquois tribe, the Seneca Indians, had assembled 10,000 warriors to invade Virginia created fear in the community.

The Brents sought protection from other members of the gentry. The wealthy - and Anglican - friends vouched for the Brent family loyalty, protecting them from potential harm. Ultimately the colonial government in Jamestown arrested Waugh and other agitators, and this "tumult" faded into history. Few residents of Northern Virginia today realize how intense was the anti-Catholic feeling in the region, at one time.


People of NOVA, Then and Now
Geography of Northern Virginia
Virginia Places