The Brent Family

Catholics were not officially granted the right to worship as they pleased in Virginia until after the General Assembly passed the "Act for Establishing Religious Freedom" in 1785. They were present in the colony long before then, of course - starting with the Spanish missionaries in 1570. The individual Catholic families were vulnerable to fines or censure until James Madison maneuvered the approval of the legislation that Thomas Jefferson had first introduced in 1779.

That law was thus proposed when it appeared the American Revolution might fail. It was adopted three years before the Constititution was ratified, and six years before the First Amendment ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech...") made the Federal protection of religious freedom explicit.

The Brent family initially chose to settle in Maryland, and Margaret Brent was so close to Governor Leonard Calvert (brother of Lord Baltimore) that she served as the executor of his estate. (In the process, she asked for the right to vote, and is often mentioned as the first suffragette and first female lawyer in America.)

However, the political conflicts in Maryland were intense, including several small-scale civil wars, and the Brents moved to Virginia. Margaret Brent was the first English owner of what today is Alexandria. She and her brother Giles was the first English settlers in Northern Virginia.

She built a plantation called "Retirement" while he built "Peace" near Brents Point on Aquia Creek, in what was Northumberland County but is now Stafford County. Giles married Kittamaquad (also spelled as Chitamachen), the daughter of the Piscataway Tayac or chief - just as John Rolfe married Pocahontas, the daughter of Powhatan. Giles Brent's marriage provided him a potential claim to the lands of the tribe, including those of his son Giles Jr.

Brent ended up needing the governor and the Governor's Council of Virginia to affirm that his claim to the land on Aquia Creek was based on a grant from the Virginia colonial government. Lord Baltimore tried to claim that *he* was entitled to issue a grant to someone else for the land where Brent had settled,1 because (according to Lord Baltimore...) Potomac Creek marked the Maryland-Virginia boundary.

Giles' nephew, George Brent, later built "Woodstock" on Aquia Creek. He was the only Catholic elected to the colonial Virginia House of Burgesses. The Arlington Diocese of the Catholic Church owns the property of George Brent and has excavated at the site of his colonial home, "Woodstock."2

George Brent married the step-daughter of the third Lord Balimore, maintaining the close ties with the Catholic proprietor across the Potomac River. George Brent had a different relationship with the Native Americans than his uncle Giles, however.

Brent Point, at southern tip of Widewater Peninsula in Stafford County
Brent Point, at southern tip of Widewater Peninsula in Stafford County
Source: US Geological Survey, Widewater 7.5 topo map (2011)

In 1675, George Brent led a militia response to the presumed murder of a frontier herdsman by a Doeg Indian. That response to "outrages" on the frontier, a prelude to Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, ended up including a raid across the Potomac River and an attack on settlements in Maryland that resulted in the death of numerous innocent Susquehannock Indians:3

"Capt. Brent went to the Doegs' cabin (as it proved to be) who speaking the Indian tongue called to have a "matchacomicha, weewhio," i.e. a councill called presently such being the usuall manner with Indians) the king came trembling forth, and wou'd have fled, when Capt. Brent, catching hold of his twisted lock (which was all the hair he wore) told him he was come for the murderer of Robert Hen, the king pleaded ignorance and slipt loos, whom Brent shot dead with his pistoll, th' Indians shot two or three guns out of the cabin, th' English shot into it, th' Indians throng'd out at the door and fled, the English shot as many as they cou'd, so that they killed ten, as Capt. Brent told me, and brought away the king's son of about 8 years old, concerning whom is an observable passage, at the end of this expedition; the noise of this shooting awaken'd the Indians in the cabin, which Coll. Mason had encompassed, who likewise rush'd out and fled, of whom his company (supposing from that noise of shooting Brent's party to be engaged) shott (as the Coll. informed me) ffourteen before an Indian came, who with both hands shook him (friendly) by one arm saying Susquehanoughs netoughs i.e. Susquehanough friends and fled, whereupon he ran amongst his men, crying out "ffor the Lords sake shoot no more, these are our friends the Susquehanoughs."
In 1686, a decade after Bacon's Rebellion, all was quiet on the northern front. George Brent and three partners obtained a grant from the Crown - one of the last before the Culpeper family took control of their claim to all the land between the Rapahannock and Potomac Rivers, ultimately known as the Fairfax Grant.

George Brent, Richard Foote, Robert Bristow, and Nicholoas Hayward also received a special dispensation from James II so settlers on their grant would have freedom to worship in their own manner. Brent and his partners were planning to recruit Huguenots (French Protestants) to the Brent Town tract, south of modern-day Brentsville in what are now Prince William and Fauquier counties. (It was part of Stafford until 1731.) Later, the real estate speculators sought to recruit Catholics to move to their inland parcel, but were unsuccessful.

Today, there is a large crucifix on Route 1 north of Fredericksburg, honoring the Brent family role in establishing "religious liberty" in Virginia. Like so many other Virginia traditions, the facts may not support the claims completely. The Brents deserve acknowledgement as pioneers, and they clearly were Catholic, but the Brent Town project was a real estate venture motivated by a hope of profit and targeted intially towards Protestants, rather than a pioneering initiative to establish religious freedom for Catholics in Virginia.

Links

References

1. Prince William: The Story of Its People and Places, Bethlehem Good Housekeeping Club, Manassas, Virginia, 1961, p. 16-17
2. Gould, Pamela, "Digging Stafford history," Free Lance Star (Fredericksburg, VA) http://www.thefreelancestar.com/news/Local/Stafford/0801arch.htm (last checked March 24, 2002)
3. "The Beginning, Progress, and Conclusion of Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia, In the Years 1675 and 1676," from The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/mtjhtml/tm.html (last checked March 24, 2002)


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