In November, 1775, Harrower tells us of a muster of the minute men of the district, composed of the counties of Spotsylvania, Caroline, King George, and Stafford, which was held at "Belvideira," below the town. In the list of members of the Spotsylvania committee of safety chosen by direction of ordinance of convention on November 17th, of this year, by an assembly of freeholders of the county, meeting in Fredericksburg we find the town represented by Fielding Lewis, Charles Washington, George Thornton and Hugh Mercer. Throughout the Revolutionary War Fredericksburg was a center of distinction. "There is not one spot in the State so generally useful in our military operations," wrote James Mercer in April, 1781. The spring of 1781 witnessed in Virginia that remarkable campaign of the gallant young Marquis de LaFayette; the wonderfully conducted retreat from Richmond leading Cornwallis away from that important center and attempting a juncture with Wayne, who was on his way from Pennsylvania with reinforcements.
William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine (William and Mary Quarterly)
Volume XXVII, No. 2. October 1918. pp. 73-95. Parts II and III may also be read online.
FREDERICKSBURG IN REVOLUTIONARY DAYS
In a charming diary kept by him while under indentures to Colonel William Daingerfield, of Belvideira (a plantation on the river about seven miles below Fredericksburg) John Harrower a clever Scotchman, and schoolmaster to the youth of the Daingerfield and other neighboring households, was wont from time to time to copy letters which he had addressed to his "kith and kin" across the seas. In a letter to his wife in Lerwick in Scotland, sent under date of December 6, 1774, Harrower, after alluding to the "hote war" on the frontier which had terminated in the sanguinary battle of Point Pleasant: the conflict known to history as Dunmore's War, refers to the trouble then brewing between the Mother Country and her American colonies.
History, particularly popular history, need not be dull, something that Cormac O’Brien demonstrates readily in his book, The Forgotten History of America. Written in a conversational tone and broken into vignettes, old history is made new when written this way. Even so, it’s not the standard stuff taught in schools. It’s about wars and both sides in those wars, reaching back to the country’s colonial beginnings in the 16th century. With personalities writ large on both sides and a good understanding of the differences in modern and historical society, O’Brien leads his readers on journeys back in time:
It begins with the first permanent European settlement in North America:
Pedro Menedez de Aviles anxiously paced the deck of his flagship, San Pelayo. Two days earlier, off the coast of Florida, he had gone ashore and met with Indians who offered valuable information about the prey he was desperately seeking. Now, confident of success, he led his five vessels northward along the coastline, scanning the beaches for any sign of European settlement. The day was September 4, 1565, and Menendez was hunting heretics.
You can find them on a map. Barely. Little towns that used to be rather important hubs dot the Virginia countryside, dating from the days when agriculture ruled along with the horse and buggy or mule and wagon. These central spots, often near rail stations, rivers, or better roads, were communities in their own right and many have faded away as the interstate system grew. The Lost Communities of Virginia, by Terri Fisher and Kirsten Sparenborg, takes a look at these fading places, several of them near our area, including Mineral, Woodford, and Milford.
Fans of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café can relate to little Milford, situated in Caroline County and still located on a railroad line. Originally the popular area here was Doguetown, named for the Dogue Indians who used the Mattaponi River for transportation. Milford, named for a nearby plantation in 1792, also used the river as a point for shipping—and inspecting—tobacco. The Mattaponi River was connected to both the York River and the Chesapeake Bay. By the early 1840s, the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad ran from Richmond to Aquia Creek with a stop in Milford. Milford’s North-South railroad connections made it a target in the Civil War.
When I began began doing genealogical research many years ago, like all beginners I focused on marriage records, birth and death records--when they were available, and wills. Then came deeds and other land records, and through using them I discovered the world of "courts of chancery" and "chancery records."
Not all Virginia courts judged cases the same way, you see. Some courts decided cases based on written laws that either specifically allowed or specifically prohibited various actions in certain circumstances. There was in these courts no latitude for judicial interpretation; there were no "grey areas."
Other courts, however, dealt with issues of equity or fairness in a much more flexible way--Chancery Courts. These courts decided cases which codified law could not readily accomodate, and these cases were usually land disputes, divisions of estates, divorce petitions, and business partnership disputes.
Chancery Court files are filled with subpoenas, depositions of witnesses, affidavits and other items of enormous interest to genealogists!
The Library of Virginia in Richmond has been diligently digitizing and indexing old chancery records, covering cases from the early eighteenth century through World War I. The database now includes hundreds of thousands of items. Several jurisdictions of interest to us are already completed! You may now find and view online the scanned chancery records for Westmoreland County, 1753-1913; Caroline County, 1787-1849; and Culpeper County, 1829-1913. Others will be made available in due course.
The American Revolution didn’t start with the Tea Party.
For more than 100 years before that, the immigrants who came to America had very cogent reasons for leaving the civilized world. Many were hotheads—rebels against the king and his policies on religion. Others had come to the colonies hoping to make their fortunes and discovered much to their dismay that the king was very interested in taking a cut of their profits through high taxes, particularly on tobacco.
In Virginia, high taxes meant that the small farmers were left landless when they could not pay. Their farms were taken by wealthier landholders and the dispossessed went to the frontier to find new land to support them and their families. Not surprisingly, this meant clashes with the native population, some of which were quite bloody. Royal Governor Berkeley’s refusal to support the frontier farmers with soldiers—and his obvious friendships with the wealthier Tidewater land barons--led to Bacon’s Rebellion against the king’s most powerful representative and was but one example of the tension felt between the colonists and their royal masters’ representatives.
Multiple-choice standards of learning tests are not concerned with the details that fill out American history. Who wants to know that those who disagreed with the Revolutionary patriots risked their lives and fortunes in a time of mob rule? What state examiner wants to hear tales of men of honor who refused to break their oaths of loyalty to the king and were whipped, tarred and feathered, or "smoked out" of their homes, as happened to 65-year-old Israel Williams, a respected Loyalist legislator, whose signature in support of the rebel cause was only gained after a night of gasping for air inside his smoky home? In Thomas B. Allen's Tories, many of these stories from across the colonies are well-preserved and well-told so that they might be well-remembered.
George Mason, future patriot, spent part of his childhood in Stafford County. His father died by drowning when he was very young, so he sometimes stayed with relatives including his uncle, John Mercer who lived at Marlborough Point. His uncle was a lawyer and landowner. He had a large library for the time—more than 1,500 books—and 11-year-old George enjoyed the library, including law commentaries his uncle had written.
They say every family has its black sheep.
As my cotton-gloved hands examined the woven fabric, I felt the thrill of encountering a link to the age of discovery. Over a hundred years old and probably unseen and untouched for decades, this artifact of the Cook Islands was being carefully prepared by us technicians to be moved to the Smithsonian Institution’s storage facility. Some twenty years later, Professor Nicholas Thomas’ Cook: The Extraordinary Voyages of Captain James A. Cook has given me much better perspective on these pieces of the past.