A lot of understanding history is understanding connections. Making relevant connections
and interpreting those connections to people. Recently I played a part in curating a new exhibit at the Manassas Museum. This exhibit “A Virginia Aristocracy: The Carters of Virginia” focuses on the Carter family in Virginia and their vast influence. Beginning with Robert “King” Carter, the Carters amassed great wealth and land in Virginia. The Carters were one of the leading families in colonial Virginia and their influence was felt all the way up to the Civil War.
As I was leading an exhibit talk last weekend, I started to make some of those connections that I love to share with the public. One that I knew about, but didn’t really contextualize until talking to a small group was how the Carters influenced the course of American history. In a way beyond their ancestry to future U.S. Presidents, but in a connection that “King” Carter never intended.
Robert “King” Carter was a powerful man – he had political influence by sitting on the Governor’s Privy Council, owned thousands of slaves and controlled a large swath of land north of the Rappahannock River. This land, called the Fairfax Proprietary (or Northern Neck Proprietary) included nearly 5,000,000 acres between the Rappahannock River and the Potomac River (and their headwaters). This land was granted by the British monarchy for loyalty to “cavaliers” during the English Civil War. By 1702 the proprietary was consolidated and owned by Thomas Fairfax, 5th Lord Fairfax of Cameron. Living in England, Fairfax employed Carter to be his land agent and handle all management of his 5,000,000 acres. A position that Carter would use to his and his family’s benefit.
At Carter’s death in 1732, it became clear to Lord Fairfax that Carter used his position as
land agent to secure nearly 300,000 of the best acres in the Proprietary for himself and his family. This revelation led Lord Fairfax to have his cousin, Colonel William Fairfax (then serving in Massachusetts) to move to Virginia and take over as land agent. He would settle along the Potomac River at a place called Belvoir. Carter’s greed would start a domino effect that led to the rise of an important founding father.
As William Fairfax served in his post and raised his family, his daughter Anne was courted by Lawrence Washington who lived at nearby Mount Vernon. In 1743 they were married, connecting the Fairfax and Washington families. Lawrence also served as Adjutant of the Virginia Militia. Lawrence and Anne had no children to survive to adulthood but Lawrence served as a surrogate father to his younger half-brother, George.
Through Lawrence’s connections and George’s skill, at age 17 he became an accomplished surveyor and was named the County Surveyor for Culpeper County. George spent much time at Mount Vernon and became close to the Fairfax family. On several occasion George assisted in surveying the western lands of the Fairfax proprietary. Making him very familiar with the western lands of Virginia. Also his close relationship to his half-brother put him in the company of the Virginia Governor, Robert Dinwiddie. In 1752, Lawrence died at Mount Vernon after battling tuberculosis. Upon his death, Dinwiddie divided up the colonial militia into four districts. Much because of his affection and appreciation of his half-brother Lawrence, Dinwiddie named George Washington as a district commander with the rank of Major.
So, it is with his knowledge of the western territory of Virginia, through his surveying, his new military rank of major and his closeness to the Fairfaxes and Governor Dinwiddie that George Washington was called to Williamsburg in 1753 to travel to the Ohio country to deliver a message to the French to leave the Ohio country. As the Virginians and British laid claim to the Ohio Country, the French involvement in the area was seen as an illegal claim to British land.
In December of 1753, Washington would travel west. A young, inexperienced but ambitious man ventured to find the French. This journey would not just lead him to Fort Le Boeuf and a meeting with the French emissaries, but also to begin a world war with the French at Fort Necessity. These events led him to command a rebel army of colonials against the greatest power on earth and found a new nation.
When you study history, one cannot do so in a box. You must look for those connections, and in these connections we not only understand history more thoroughly, but also understand our place and connections in history as well.
For More Information:
Visit: “A Virginia Aristocracy, The Carter of Virginia” at the Manassas Museum. The exhibit runs to December 31, 2015. Admission to the museum is free.
Read: The Blooding at Great Meadows by Alan Axelrod
George Washington, A Biography, Vol. 1 by Douglas Southall Freeman