William Fairfax (1691–1757) was a political appointee of the British Crown and a politician: he was Collector of Customs in Barbados, and Chief Justice and governor of the Bahamas; he served as Customs agent in Marblehead, Massachusetts before being reassigned to the Virginia colony.
There he was elected to the House of Burgesses and then as President of the Governor's Council. As a tobacco planter, he commissioned the construction of his plantation called Belvoir in northern Virginia. He was the son of Henry Fairfax (d. 1708), a grandson of Henry Fairfax, 4th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, and first cousin of Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron. He acted as land agent for his cousin's vast holdings on the Northern Neck of Virginia.
Early life and career
William Fairfax was born in London in 1691, the son of Henry Fairfax and grandson of Henry Fairfax, 4th Lord Fairfax of Cameron. As a young man, he went to the English colonies in the Caribbean, where he served as the Customs agent in Barbados and as Chief Justice of the Bahamas under Woodes Rogers. He served as governor of the Bahamas after Rogers' departure.
William was the cousin of Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, proprietor of the extensive grant of land on the Northern Neck of Virginia. Residing in England in Leeds Castle, Lord Fairfax used a succession of land agents to manage his vast Virginia property. Upon reading the 1732 obituary of his last resident agent, Robert "King" Carter, and learning of the vast personal wealth Carter had amassed, Lord Fairfax decided to place a trusted member of the family in charge of his 5-million-acre (20,000 km2) Northern Neck proprietary.
He arranged for William Fairfax to be transferred from Massachusetts to Virginia, to be assigned as that colony's customs collector for the Potomac River and to act as his land agent.
Marriage and family
In the Bahamas, Fairfax had married Sarah Walker (c. 1700 - January 21, 1731). Her father was a former Justice of the Vice admiralty court and acting deputy governor of the Bahamas, and served as a fellow Justice with Fairfax in the Bahamas. Sarah was said to be of mixed race and partial African ancestry through her mother, so their children were also mixed race. The Fairfaxes first had a daughter Anne, followed by a son George William Fairfax, and another daughter Sarah. William's wife Sarah died January 21, 1731.
After Sarah's death, Fairfax married Deborah Clarke. Together they had three sons: Thomas, William Henry "Billy," and Bryan, and a daughter Hannah.
In June 1743, the eldest Fairfax daughter Anne (then aged 15) was hastily married to Lawrence Washington. At age 25, Washington had recently returned to Virginia from two years at war in the Caribbean. He had served with distinction as a senior company officer in the American Regiment, under Admiral Edward Vernon, as "Captain of the Soldiers acting as Marines", aboard the admiral's flagship HMS Princess Caroline (80 guns).
Upon his return in 1742, Washington was appointed Adjutant (commander) of the Virginia militia, at the colonial rank of major. In the spring of 1743, the young Anne disclosed to her parents that she had been sexually molested by Charles Green, the Anglican priest of Truro Parish. Surviving court documents suggest Lawrence Washington may have been staying with the Fairfax family at Belvoir in the spring of 1743, awaiting the completion of his new home at nearby Little Hunting Creek, which he named Mount Vernon. In 1745 Washington took Green to court over his actions with Anne Fairfax; he and the senior Fairfax tried to have the priest deposed for the scandal, but were unsuccessful. Green rallied support in the county, and the trial was aborted.
Lawrence and Anne Washington had four children together, but all died in childhood.
George William Fairfax married Sally Cary; they had no children.
William Fairfax's two younger sons both died in combat while serving the Crown: Thomas (1726-1746) was killed in action on 25 June 1746 (Old Style) against the French Navy off the coast of India, aged about 20, while serving as a newly enrolled midshipman in the Royal Navy aboard HMS Harwich (50 guns). Lieutenant William Henry "Billy" Fairfax died of wounds received during the British Army's capture of Quebec in fall 1759 during the Seven Years' War.
Life in the Virginia colony
From 1738 to 1741, William Fairfax and his second wife Deborah Clarke lived along the lower Potomac. He picked out a site for a home overlooking the river adjacent to the Washington family's estate, which was later known as Mount Vernon. Fairfax commissioned a two-story brick home, which was completed in 1741 and named Belvoir Manor. He and his descendants lived there for the next 32 years.
In 1757 after William's death, George William Fairfax inherited Belvoir and lived there for years with his wife Sally Cary. They had no children. In 1773, they sailed to England on business and never returned after the American Revolutionary War disrupted society. Fairfax wrote his good friend and neighbor George Washington to look after the estate and put it up for rent.
Historic documents and archeological artifacts found at Belvoir Manor attest to the elegant lifestyle enjoyed by the Fairfax family. The mansion, described in a 1774 rental notice, was spacious and well-appointed. Its furnishings consisted of "tables, chairs, and every other necessary article ... very elegant." The Fairfaxes had imported ceramics from Europe and the Orient to grace its tables. Unoccupied after the Revolution, the manor home was destroyed by fire in 1783.
Prominent citizens of the colony, including Washington, had visited frequently. Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, the first member of the British nobility to reside in the colonies, lived at Belvoir briefly, in 1747. He moved to the Shenandoah Valley and established an estate at Greenway Court. Despite the grandeur of their surroundings and the refinement of their furnishings, planters such as the Fairfaxes, Masons, McCartys, and Washingtons did not lead indolent lives. Conscious of their civic duty and of the elite class, they were the political, social, economic, and religious leaders of their immediate neighborhood and of the colony at large.
In 1741, Fairfax was elected a member of the House of Burgesses. He introduced the bill that created Fairfax County as a separate political jurisdiction in 1742 (carved out of the northern portion of Prince William County). He subsequently served as presiding Justice of the County Court, and as County Lieutenant, the county's chief law-enforcement officer.
At the same time, he managed his own large properties throughout Fairfax County and served as the land agent for his cousin, Lord Fairfax. The senior Fairfax managed the Northern Neck estate until his death in 1757.
Fairfax was elected President of the Governor's Council in Williamsburg, a position equivalent to today's Lieutenant Governor. In this position, he represented the colony at an important conference with the Iroquois Confederacy in Albany, New York in 1753. New York and Virginia officials worked to gain agreement with the Iroquois to allow passage and settlement of colonists in the Shenandoah Valley, which had been an area of their warring with southern Indians.
As the senior colonial official in Fairfax County, William Fairfax was nominally in command of the county's militia. As such, he was entitled to be called a "Virginia colonel." This county rank was largely honorary and carried no pay or benefits, and did not extend to a higher echelon. Formally, the entire Virginia colonial militia fell under command of the resident governor, as colonel. Day-to-day command of the militia was exercised by the Adjutant (at the rank of major). But, at the county-level, all the local militia officers adopted a separate "colonel-major-captain-lieutenant" rank structure for use at the local level.
In his will of 1757, Fairfax left Belvoir and his plantation of Springfield, containing 1,400 acres (5.7 km2), to his eldest son George William Fairfax. He left his plantation Towlston Grange, with 5,500 acres (22 km2), to his youngest son Bryan Fairfax; he left land in Culpeper County of 3,250 acres (13.2 km2) and 1,100 acres (4.5 km2) to his daughter Hannah.
- Edmund Lodge, The Genealogy of the Existing British Peerage, p. 191
- 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 in her maternal line. Her husband Fairfax was concerned about the progress of their mixed-race children in the world. They continued to marry "white". 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.
- Peter R. Henriques, "Major Lawrence Washington versus the Reverend Charles Green: A Case Study of the Squire and the Parson", Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 100 no. 2 (April 1992), pp. 233-64, accessed 13 November 2011
- William Henry Whitmore, William Sumner Appleton, The Heraldic Journal, p. 95
- Woodard, Colin. (2007) The Republic of Pirates. Harcourt, Inc. ISBN 978-0-15-101302-9, pp. 98, 302, 313
- "The Eighteenth Century: Fairfax County's "Golden Age"". United States Army. Retrieved 11 February 2016.
- Lindsay Fairfax, An Historic Sketch of The Two Fairfax Families, p. 12
- William Fairfax transcript, Fairfax County Circuit Court
- "Belvoir in the Seventeenth Century". Historic Fort Belvoir. Dept. of the Army U.S. Army Garrison, Fort Belvoir. Retrieved 2008-10-16.
- "The Eighteenth Century:Fairfax County's "Golden Age"". Historic Fort Belvoir. Dept. of the Army U.S. Army Garrison, Fort Belvoir. Retrieved 2008-10-16.
- "Belvoir in the Antebellum Period". Historic Fort Belvoir. Dept. of the Army U.S. Army Garrison, Fort Belvoir. Retrieved 2008-10-16.
- Will of William Fairfax
- Cleggett, David A.H., History of Leeds Castle and Its Families (Leeds Castle Foundation: 1992), “Part II: The Virginia Proprietary”.
- Brown, Stuart E., Jr., Virginia Baron: The Story of Thomas 6th Lord Fairfax (Chesapeake Book Company: Berryville, VA: 1965)