George William Fairfax

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George William Fairfax (January 2, 1724 – April 3, 1787) was a member of the landed gentry of late colonial Virginia and a planter. A contemporary and good friend of George Washington, Fairfax made opportunities for the younger Washington through his powerful family.

Early life and education[edit]

Fairfax was born in 1724 on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas.[1] He was the son of Sarah (née Walker), and her husband Sir William Fairfax, a British colonel who had served as an English Customs agent in Barbados, as well as a justice and Governor of the Bahamas. At his son's birth, William was working as the Customs Collector in Marblehead. Sarah's father Thomas Walker was Chief Justice of the Bahamas. In addition to George, the Fairfaxes had two daughters, Anne and Sarah. The father William was first cousin to Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron. William's wife Sarah died January 21, 1731.[2]

At Lord Fairfax's request, the senior Fairfax was reassigned to the colony of Virginia as customs agent. There he became a lieutenant of the County of Fairfax, and member and president of the council in Virginia (equivalent to lieutenant governor). William Fairfax also worked as a land agent for his cousin Lord Fairfax, managing his extensive holdings in the Northern Neck of Virginia.

Genealogists remain unclear as to the origins of George William Fairfax's mother, Sarah Walker, and whether she might have possibly been of mixed race. In a letter to his mother, William Fairfax appeared to have worried about the reception of the boy by the London Fairfax family when he sent him to England.

Col. Gale has indeed kindly offered to take the care of safe conducting my eldest son George, upwards of seven years old but I judged it too forward to send him before I had your's or some one of his Uncles' or Aunts' invitation, altho' I have no reason to doubt any of their indulgences to a poor West India boy especially as he has the marks in his visage that will always testify his parentage.[2]

"West India" was a term used synonymously with Creole, which denoted native-born as much as it did mixed race in the period.

After William Fairfax moved his family to Virginia, George William became a friend of George Washington, who was eight years younger. They remained friends until Fairfax's death in 1787. Fairfax's older sister Anne married George Washington's older half-brother Lawrence in 1743, when George Washington was eleven years old.

Fairfax arranged for the younger Washington to help him to survey the Virginia lands of his cousin, Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron.[3] This gave him a working introduction into Virginia society

Marriage and family[edit]

In 1748, George William married Sally Cary, who came from one of Virginia's oldest and wealthiest families. Sally was apparently one of the most attractive women in Virginia at the time and she had a close friendship with George Washington, who lived at the neighboring plantation, Mount Vernon.[4]


In 1757 after the death of his father, George William Fairfax inherited the Belvoir plantation. His cousin Lord Fairfax moved to the Shenandoah Valley in 1752, fixing his residence at Greenway Court near White Post in Clarke County, at the suggestion of Thomas Bryan Martin.[5]

As George William Fairfax was a mentor to the young George Washington, the younger man spent considerable time at Belvoir before his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759. From letters that have survived, it seems that Washington had fallen in love with Sally Cary before his own marriage.[6][7]

George William and his wife Sally Fairfax did not have any children. They returned to England in 1773, prior to the events of the American Revolutionary War, to take care of a family property matter. Fairfax was a Loyalist. He directed his friend Washington to rent Belvoir and sell some of his property, including slaves. The Fairfaxes did not return to Virginia afterward.

In 1774 Washington wrote to George William Fairfax with an account of actions related to his business and property affairs in Virginia; with political tensions on the rise, he assured Fairfax he was keeping quiet about his friend's plans not to return to the colony. Washington also wrote of the Virginia governor's dissolution of the 1774 Virginia Assembly for passing a resolution critical of his office and the Crown, and news of tensions in the northern colonies.[8] The two men continued to correspond during the buildup to war.[9]


  1. ^ Thompson, Mary V. (2016). "George William Fairfax (1724–1787)". Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Library of Virginia (1998– ). Retrieved 2017-02-28.
  2. ^ a b Mario Valdes, "The Fairfaxes and George Washington", The Blurred Racial Lines of Famous Families, Frontline, PBS. Note: Valdes interprets historical documents as suggesting that Sarah Walker was of partial African descent from her maternal line. Her husband Fairfax was concerned about the progress of his mixed-race children in the world. Valdes has found that a later descendant tried to cover up this aspect of the family's history by eliminating parts of letters when quoting family documents.
  3. ^ William H. Snowden (1902). The Story of the Expedition of the Young Surveyors, George Washington and George William Fairfax: to Survey the Virginia Lands of Thomas, Sixth Lord Fairfax, 1747-1748. G. H. Ramey. George William Fairfax.
  4. ^ Thomas Fleming Archived 2010-04-19 at the Wayback Machine "George Washington in Love," American Heritage, Fall 2009.
  5. ^ Thomas Kemp Cartmell, Shenandoah Valley Pioneers and Their Descendants, p. 245
  6. ^ Thomas Fleming Archived 2010-04-19 at the Wayback Machine "George Washington in Love," American Heritage, Fall 2009.
  7. ^ James Thomas Flexner (1974). Washington: The Indispensable Man. p. 364.
  8. ^ "Letter from George Washington to George William Fairfax, July 1774", The Road to Revolution, The Documents of George Washington, University of Virginia, accessed 13 November 2011
  9. ^ "George Washington letter to William Fairfax, 31 May 1775", excerpted from The Writings of George Washington, Vol II, edited by Jared Sparks, 1847; at Family Tales Website

External links[edit]