The Fairfax Grant

"Fairfax" and "Culpeper" are names closely linked in the formation of Virginia. The Fairfax Grant, which shaped development of Northern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley for a century, was a political payoff to allies of the King during the civil war in England in the mid-1600's.

The Puritans under Cromwell won the English Civil War and controlled England for a decade. The victorious Puritans executed Charles I on January 30, 1649 (1648, using the Old Style calendar). His son declared himself to be the next king, Charles II, but had to flee to France with his few supporters. While in France, the king in exile had few resources, but he claimed the right to reward his allies with grants of land in Virginia. In September, 1649 Charles II granted the entire Northern Neck of Virginia - all the land between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers - to Lord Culpeper and six other supporters.

Fairfax Grant and modern political boundaries
Fairfax Grant and modern political boundaries

It was easy for the king to grant those lands, which were far far away. Besides, Charles II needed short-term loyalty far more than long-term revenue. The king's allies couldn't ensure legal title to the grant unless Charles II regained the throne, so their allegiance to the king was solidified by the grant. The grantees had very little understanding of the location or value of their promised land in Virginia, but the grant had to be worth something...

After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, Thomas, Second Lord Culpeper calculated that he could increase the value of the vague land grant of the Northern Neck. He had inherited just 1/6th of the grant, but other grantees and their heirs were focused on more-immediate opportunities for wealth in England.

In 1669, Lord Culpeper got a 21-year renewal of the grant from Charles II, clarifying that the claim to Virginia land was still valid despite the confusion of the English Civil War. Culpeper and Henry Bennett, Earl of Arrington, obtained a new grant from King Charles II in 1672, giving them rights to Virginia revenues (outside the Northern Neck) as a proprietary colony for 31 years. To enhance his capacity to collect those revenues, from 1677-83 Lord Culpeper served as Governor of Virginia.

By 1681, he acquired 4/5ths of the rights to the Northern Neck from other grantees. Combined with the 1/6th that he had inherited, Lord Culpeper owned 5/6ths of the grant. His cousin, Alexander, owned the remainder.

Culpeper worked hard to make a profit from his speculation in Virginia lands, but failed to generate much income from the grant. Culpeper bought out Arlington in 1681 and traveled again to Virginia for the first 5 months of 1682, but was unable to convince the Virginia gentry to support his claims. He managed to issue just two large grants during his period of control, one for the future location of Mount Vernon in 1675 and one for the Brent Town parcel in Prince William/Fauquier counties in 1687.1

In 1688, just before King James II was expelled and replaced in the Glorious Revolution by William and Mary, Culpeper got the last Stuart king to renew his grant. Perhaps based on his experiences in actually visiting Virginia while governor, he had the 1688 grant language revised from the wording in previous charters. One major change: the 1688 grant was indefinite, removing the 21-year term limit in the 1669 grant. In addition, there were geographic changes:2

All that entire tract, territory or parcel of land situate, lying and being in Virginia in America and bounded by and within the first heads or springs of the rivers of Tappanhannocke alias Rappahanocke and Quiriough alias Patawomacke Rivers, the courses of the said rivers, from their said first heads or springs, as they are commonly called and known by the inhabitants and descriptions of those parts, and the Bay of Chesapoyocke, together with the said rivers themselves and all the islands within the outermost banks thereof, and the soil of all and singular the premisses.

When Lord Culpeper died in 1689, his only legitimate child, daughter Catherine (or Katherine) Culpeper, inherited his 5/6th of the "proprietorship." She married Thomas, Fifth Lord Fairfax, whose mother controlled the other 1/6th. The Culpepers and Fairfaxes had been on opposite sides of the English Civil War, but the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 had put that dispute behind them.

During the colonial era, the Virginia government based in Jamestown (until 1699) and Williamsburg (after 1699) objected to the claims of the Culpepers and Fairfaxes. Under terms of the grant, the colonial governor and General Assembly retained political and legal authority over the Northern Neck, but colonial officials did not want to lose the authority to grant land in that area - and to collect fees from processing such grants.

Thomas, Fifth Lord Fairfax, refused to sell the family's proprietary claim to the colony. After the English monarchs changed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, he successfully blocked efforts of colonial officials to get the grant cancelled, and succeeded in having William and Mary reaffirm his rights again in 1693.

Starting in 1690, two years after James II had reaffirmed the grant, all patents between the Rappahannock-Potomac rivers were recorded in special Northern Neck grant books, separate from other Land Office grant books used for the rest of the colony of Virginia. (You thought regional conflicts between northern vs. "rest of Virginia" were something new?)

The Fairfaxes used Virginia-based agents (including Philip Ludwell, George Brent, William Fitzhugh, Thomas Lee, Edmund Jenings, and Robert "King" Carter) to manage the proprietary until Carter died in 1732. Thomas, Sixth Lord Fairfax (grandson of Lord Culpeper) inherited 100% of the claim after his father (Thomas, Fifth Lord Fairfax) and grandmother (Margaret Lady Culpeper, the estranged wife of Thomas, Second Lord Culpeper) died in 1710. However, Thomas, Sixth Lord Fairfax was only 16 years old in 1710, so his mother controlled the proprietary until she died in 1719. (She willed him just a life estate in her 5/6th interest, limiting his ability to pass on the property to any heirs.)

Continued legislative threats to his legal rights triggered Fairfax to ask the Privy Council in London to reaffirm his claim and order a final survey of the boundaries of his ownership. He also sent his cousin, William Fairfax, to the colony to replace Robert Carter as his land agent, so he had someone trustworthy to sell property and collect fees and quitrents (taxes). Lord Fairfax came in person to Virginia in 1735 to defend his claim to the land, returned to England in 1737 to negotiate with the Privy Council, and then returned again to Virginia in 1747.

After Thomas, Fifth Lord Fairfax, returned to Virginia in 1747, he lived at his cousin William Fairfax's home, Belvoir (now the site of Fort Belvoir), before building a home in the Shenandoah Valley, west of Ashby's Gap where modern Route 50 crosses the mountains. He named his small stone house "Greenway Court" and settled there permanently in 1762. At the time, this was the frontier, far away from the settled Tidewater and the sophisticated gentry that came closest to resembling the society in which he grew up in England. Though his reasons will never be known for sure, there is some evidence that he was rejected by a woman he intended to marry before he came to Virginia in 1735; Lord Fairfax was a life-long bachelor.

The 1688 grant included the land between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers: "All that entire tract, territory, or parcel of land situate, lying, and being in Virginia in America, and bounded by and within the first heads or springs of the rivers of Tappahannock als Rappahannock and Quiriough als Patowmack rivers, the courses of said rivers from their said first heads or springs, as they are commonly called and known by the inhabitants and description of those parts and the bay of Chesapeake, together with the said rivers themselves and all the islands within the outermost banks thereof..."3 (The "als" means "alias.") The key disputes centered on the location of the beginning or "headsprings" of the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers.

Robert Carter, acting as the proprietary's agent in Virginia, claimed in 1706 that the "first heads or springs" of the Rappahannock and Potomac river included all the area between the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers. Virginia claimed the Fairfax grant was limited to the area between the confluence of the Shenandoah and the Potomac (Harpers Ferry today), and the falls of the Rappahannock (Fredericksburg today). Alternative options included defining the headwaters of the Rappahannock, not the Rapidan, as the southern headspring, and defining the headwaters of the South Branch of the Potomac River as the northern headspring.

Near the Chesapeake Bay, the boundaries of the Northern Neck are clearly defined by the main channels of the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. Going upstream, however, it became a tougher and tougher judgement call to decide at each confluence which stream should be called the Potomac (or Rappahannock) and which stream was a tributary. Typically, the stream with the most water was considered the main stem of the river, and side streams were given other names (such as Difficult Run or Shenandoah River).

No one had a clue about the location of the headsprings and thus the western boundary of the Fairfax Grant in 1649, 1688, or even 1706. John Lederer and others had explored west of the Blue Ridge, but in 1716 Governor Spottswood feared that Lake Erie was only a few days march away from the Blue Ridge. Once colonial settlement moved upstream of the Fall Line into the Piedmont, the dispute over the inland edge of the land claim of Lord Fairfax became a major issue. Settlers claiming land had to know whether to file paperwork and pay fees to the colonial government in Williamsburg or the Land Office of Lord Fairfax.

John Smith map showing Rappahannock-Potomac rivers
1624 John Smith map showing Rappahannock-Potomac rivers
Source: Library of Congress, John Smith map
inland portion of area that was granted, showing how poorly-understood it was in 1649
inland portion of future Fairfax Grant on John Smith's 1624 map
Source: Library of Congress, John Smith map

As noted by the US Supreme Court in 1910, "It is said, and the record tends to show, that the only map of the country then known to be in existence was one prepared and published by Captain John Smith, upon which only a very small part of the Potomac river is shown, and from which we get no light as to the true source and course of the upper reaches of the Potomac river."4

1670 map by Augustine Herrman
1670 map by Augustine Herrman, showing lack of understanding of area
south of Potomac River and upstream of Fall Line - north is to the right
Patowmeck Fall = Great Falls, Turkey Buzzard Point = Fort McNair in DC)
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia and Maryland as it is planted and inhabited this present year 1670
John Ferrar's 1667 map
on John Ferrar's 1667 map, note confusion over western extent of Potomac Creek
(underlined in red) between Rappahannock/Potomac rivers - north is to the right
Source: Library of Congress, A mapp of Virginia discovered to ye hills, and in it's latt. from 35 deg. & 1/2 neer Florida to 41 deg. bounds of New England

Fairfax complained to officials in London that the colonial government in Williamsburg was disposing of land that, according to Fairfax, was within the boundaries of the Fairfax Grant. For example, in 1730 the colony had granted 40,000 acres in the Shenandoah Valley near the Potomac River to John and Isaac VanMeter. They sold their land to Joist Hite, who obtained an additional 100,000 acre grant. Every grant authorized by Governor Gooch reduced the opportunity for Lord Fairfax to sell the land and make a profit - though he proceeded to issue his own grants for some of the same parcels claimed by Hite, triggering the Hite v. Fairfax lawsuit that complicated land ownership for 50 years in the Winchester area.

In 1733, the Privy Council in London ordered that surveyors mark the Fairfax Grant boundaries. In 1736, Governor Gooch and Lord Fairfax designated separate teams of surveyors (and commissioners for each side to oversee the survey) to mark the edges of the grant. The first Fairfax Stone was set at the start or "headspring" of the South Branch of the Potomac River in 1746, though the site had been marked in 1736 by the original survey of the Fairfax Grant. The Virginians, whether allies of the colony or of Lord Fairfax, probably shared a common interest in marking that boundary far to the west, in order to minimize the rights of the Calverts and their charter for Maryland.

Not surprisingly, the two sides disagreed on the extent of the grant, after the survey was completed. The colonial leaders argued that in determining the headspring of the Rappahannock River, the grant should follow the northern channel at the confluence with the Rapidan and end up at the start of the Hedgmans River.

alternative lines for boundaries of the Fairfax Grant, 1737
alternative lines for boundaries of the Fairfax Grant, 1737
(Virginia proposed the red line, Fairfax proposed the green line
including the land between Rapphannock-Rapidan rivers)
Source: Library of Congress, A survey of the northern neck of Virginia, being the lands belonging to the Rt. Honourable Thomas Lord Fairfax Baron Cameron, bounded by & within the Bay of Chesapoyocke and between the rivers
Rappahannock and Potowmack:With the courses of the rivers Rappahannock and Potowmack, in Virginia, as surveyed according to order in the years 1736 & 1737

In 1745, the Privy Council in London decided finally in favor of Lord Fairfax, designating the springs at the heads of the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. The London officials declared on April 11, 1745 that "the boundary of the petitioners land doth begin at the first spring of the South Branch of the River Rappahannack now called Rappidan[,] which first spring is the spring of that part of the said River Rappidan as is called in the plans returned by the name of Conway River[,] and that the said boundary be from thence drawn in a straight line North West to the place in the Allagany Mountains where that part of the River Pattawomeck alias Potowmack which is now called Cohongoroota alias Cohongoronton first arises."5

Survey of back line to and from Fairfax Stone from headsping of the Rappahannock, 1746
survey of "back line" to and from Fairfax Stone from headspring of the Rappahannock, 1746
Source: The Fairfax Line: Thomas Lewis's Journal of 1746, (image from Wikipedia, Fairfax Line)

From September-November, 1746 a 75-mile long "back line" was surveyed between that point and the start of the Rappahannock River. Again, "gentleman commissioners" accompanied the hard-working surveyors. When the topography was challenging, the commissioners took the easy path - for example, on September 25th, the first day of surveying northwest from "a Red oak and 5 Cotton trees" at the head of the Conway River up across the Blue Ridge, "the Gentlemen Comsr thought it Impractcable to follow us over the mountains therefore parted from us & made the Best of their way to Shanando [Shenandoah] Leveing Some Bagage horses to Cary Our tents & Some provision."6

After the surveyors completed their initial traverse between the Conway and Potomac, they adjusted their bearings, marked initials on numerous trees at the headwaters of the Potomac River (plus FX on one stone...), and surveyed the actual Fairfax Line on the return trip to the Blue Ridge. The round-trip journey was about 150 miles, though of course there were many side trips during the two months they were in the field.

This 1746 survey did not end all disputes. The Hite vs. Fairfax lawsuit continued until 1786, ultimately being decided in favor of Hite's claims. Fairfax initially lost to Hite in Virginia courts, but the English lord appealed to the Privy Council in 1771. The London officials were slow to respond, however. After the American Revolution, officials in London had minimal influence on Virginia land policy, and the Virginia courts finally resolved Hite vs. Fairfax in Hite's favor.

Location of headspring of the Rappahannock River - at the headwaters of the Conway River, as depicted on Fry-Jefferson Map of 1755
location of headspring of the Rappahannock River - at the headwaters of the Conway River, as depicted on Fry-Jefferson Map of 1755
(after 1746 survey defined boundaries of the Fairfax Grant)
Source: Library of Congress, Fry-Jefferson Map

The decision in London to confirm the boundaries of Lord Fairfax's grant allowed him to establish control over 5.2 million acres between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers, until he died at the end of the American Revolution. Fairfax stayed neutral during the Revolutionary War and died in December, 1781 (after Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown).

by the start of the French and Indian War, the North Branch of the Potomac was accepted as the headwaters
by the start of the French and Indian War, the North Branch of the Potomac was accepted as the headwaters
Source: Library of Congress, A trader's map of the Ohio country before 1753

Virginia had started to confiscate the unappropriated lands within the Fairfax Grant under a law passed in 1779, during the Revolutionary War. However, the process was not completed before the Treaty of Paris (1783) and the Jay Treaty (ratified in 1795) protected property rights of English supporters in Virginia. A decade of negotiating and lawsuits followed regarding land titles, including a case (Martin v. Hunter's Lessee) that triggered the US Supreme Court to assert it had authority over state courts to interpret federal law.

The new Commonwealth of Virginia acquired title to the Fairfax lands that had not already been sold, while those who had purchased lands directly from Fairfax or his heirs got clear title to their lands.

In 1852, Maryland claimed "the true location of the western line of Maryland between the states of Maryland and Virginia, beginning at or near the Fairfax stone on the North Branch of the Potomac river, at or near its source, and running in a due north line to the state of Pennsylvania, is now lost and unknown, and all the marks have been destroyed by time or otherwise."

However, in 1859, a United States Topographical Engineers survey by Lieutenant Michler reported "The initial point of the work -- the Fairfax Stone -- stands on the spot encircled by several small streams flowing from springs about it. It consists of a rough piece of sandstone, indifferent and friable, planted to the depth of a few feet in the ground and rising a foot or more above the surface, shapeless in form, it would scarce attract the attention of the passerby. The finding of it was without difficulty, and its recognition and identification by the inscription Fx, now almost obliterated by the corroding action of water and air."7

By 1884, vandals had destroyed the original Fairfax Stone. The Davis Coke and Coal Company installed a replacement. By 1911, that replacement was gone, and only the base of a 4-foot high survey marker built by Lieutenant Michler in 1859 still survived. In 1910, a replacement concrete marker was erected, and in 1957 the West Virginia Conservation Commission placed a 6-ton sandstone marker at the site.8

modern location of Fairfax Stone
Modern location of the long-vanished original Fairfax Stone

As a result of a lawsuit between Maryland and West Virginia, the US Supreme Court redefined the western boundary of Maryland in 1912. The southwestern corner of Maryland was defined as a point about a mile north of the Fairfax Stone, so the 6-ton sandstone marker (the fifth Fairfax Stone) is completely within West Virginia now. The Fairfax Stone no longer borders Maryland.9

Today, the boundary between Shenandoah and Rockingham counties follows that 1746 line that connects the headwaters of the Rapidan to the headwaters of the North Fork of the Potomac River. It crosses Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, between the Hazeltop overlook and Lewis Mountain campground, and stops at the headwaters of the Conway River where Greene, Madison, and Page counties meet. East of the Blue Ridge, Greene County, Orange County, and Spottsylvania County are south of the Rapidan, so they were not part of the Fairfax Grant.

Headspring of the Rappahannock - Middle Fork of the Conway River
Headspring of the Rappahannock - Middle Fork of the Conway River
is near the junction of Greene, Madison, and Page counties Source: Microsoft Research Maps

Fairfax Grant, 1737
Fairfax Grant, 1747 (after resolution of Fairfax v. Virginia by Privy Council in 1745)
Source: Library of Congress, A survey of the northern neck of Virginia, being the lands belonging to the Rt. Honourable Thomas Lord Fairfax Baron Cameron, bounded by & within the Bay of Chesapoyocke and between the rivers
Rappahannock and Potowmack:With the courses of the rivers Rappahannock and Potowmack, in Virginia, as surveyed according to order in the years 1736 & 1737

Virginia-Maryland Boundary

Links

References

1. Groome, H. C., Fauquier During the Proprietorship, p.42, http://books.google.com/books?id=Rh3ffHGarxQC (last checked August 9, 2009)
2. Robinson, W. Stitt Jr., Mother Earth: Land Grants in Virginia 1607-1699, Jamestown 350th Anniversary Historical Booklet Number 12, Virginia 350th Anniversary Celebration Corporation, Williamsburg VA, 1957, Chapter Five, digitized by Project Gutenberg at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/28499/28499-h/28499-h.htm (last checked August 9, 2009)
3. U.S. Supreme Court, STATE OF MD. v. STATE OF W.VA., 217 U.S. 1 (1910), http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=217&invol=1 (last checked August 9, 2009)
4. ibid
5. McClinton, Arthur (ed.), The Fairfax Line: A Historic Landmark, including "The Fairfax Line: Thomas Lewis's Journal of 1746," The Henkel Press, New Market, VA, 1925 (reprinted by Shenandoah County Historical Society, 1990), p.12
6. ibid, p.16 of reprinted journal
7. U.S. Supreme Court, Maryland v. West Virginia, 225 U.S. 1 (1912), http://supreme.justia.com/us/225/1/case.html (last checked August 9, 2009)
8. Nomination of Fairfax Stone to the National Register of Historic Places, http://www.wvculture.org/shpo/nr/pdf/grant/70000653.pdf (last checked August 9, 2009)
9. U.S. Supreme Court, Maryland v. West Virginia, 225 U.S. 1 (1912)


Fairfax County
Boundaries and Charters of Virginia
How Watersheds Define the Boundaries of Virginia
Virginia Places