History of Hickory Farms - The Colonial Era
By Bob Cosgriff (Cotton Farm Rd - 1994)
There are many anecdotes about the historical events that took place in this area, but just what is fact and what is fancy? What is known of the Native Americans who inhabited this area? Did General Braddock really march up what is now Braddock Road? What happened here during the Civil War? Who owned the land where we now live? So, here we go, back into time to see the interesting and often exciting history of the place we all call home.
Ownership of this land by Europeans is dated from 25 February, 1672 when Charles II of England granted proprietary rights to approximately 5,000,000 acres to Henry Earl of Arlington and Thomas Lord Culpeper, Baron of Thorsway, for their support of Charles' claim to the throne during the period of the Commonwealth under Cromwell. This so-called Northern Neck Proprietary included all the lands lying between the "first spring" or headwaters, of the Potawomack (Potomac) and Powhatan (Rappahannock) Rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. Some scholars believe this is the largest private land holding in history.
As proprietors, these Lords could dispose of their property to other tenants. In 1682, Lord Arlington assigned all his rights to Lord Culpeper. His rights passed through his descendants, one of whom, Catherine Culpeper, married Thomas Fairfax, Fifth Baron of Cameron. Upon the latter's death, the land passed to his son, Thomas, Sixth Baron of Cameron. In 1694, just 300 short years ago, a patent was issued to one William Fitzhugh. His 21,996 acre estate, the largest single land holding in what is now Fairfax County, stretched from near the present-day City of Fairfax to what is now the Shirley Highway, south of Little River Turnpike. He never lived on the land, but planned to lease it out to settlers including, among others, French Huegenots for the purpose of raising grapes for wine. This plan never came to fruition (!) as the subsequent history of colonial Virginia agriculture showed. The first owner to reside on Ravensworth was the original William's great-grandson, also William, who lived there with his wife, Ann Randolph Fitzhugh. The estate was named 'Ravensworth' after an ancestral Fitzhugh home in England.
One of the interesting things to note is the familiar place names encountered: Fairfax, Arlington, Cameron, Culpeper, Ravensworth. In this vein, we should note that the supporters of Charles II were called "Cavaliers." This connection lives on in the immediate area in the W.T. Woodson Cavaliers.
The relationship between Ravensworth and Hickory Farms is found in an investigation of various written sources and land grants. One such description of the estate says that it "...stretched from Fairfax Court House to Alexandria and included most of the territory between Route 123 and the Shirley Highway, south of the Little River Turnpike."1 Other narrative accounts taken from various newspaper articles found in the Ravensworth file describe the holdings as running from Pohick Church (on Route 1) to near Falls Church (Four Mile Run) to Fairfax City, and taking in essentially all of the watersheds of Accotink, Pohick and Back Lick creeks. Rabbit Run, which rises north of Hickory Farms in the woods at the end of Barbara Ann Lane (off Burke Station Road), flows eventually into Pohick Creek, so our location seems to match the description above. The definitive word on Ravensworth is found in a book published by Fairfax County, which states that the Fitzhugh property was the largest single patent in Fairfax County, comprising 21,996 acres, approximately 35 square miles or 9% of the total area of the county. Because of its central location, the estate looked even more imposing, dwarfing its numerous, but much smaller neighboring estates. The accompanying map with land grants overlaid on present-day Fairfax County conclusively shows the north-western corner of Ravensworth to be in Fairfax City and the western boundary tending southwest, intersecting Rabbit Run where that stream flows under Braddock Road in a box culvert.2 Thus, the land we all live on can safely said to have once been owned by the Fitzhugh family. The northern boundary line ran due east between modern Route 236 and Route 50, basically parallel and south of the latter, taking in Daniel's Run Park (which is in the Accotink Creek watershed), most of Mantua and so on eastward across the Beltway, terminating in the Falls Church/Annandale area where the eastern boundary line ran started.
Like most estates, Ravensworth was divided and subdivided as Fitzhugh's heirs died and willed parts of it to their descendants, both sons and daughters. The great-grandson of the William Fitzhugh who first lived on the property left part of the estate in trust for his niece, Mary Randolph Custis, who was the wife of Robert E. Lee.3 The Lee's spent their honeymoon at Ravensworth and General Lee rested there after the Civil War, before leaving to become President of Washington College in Lexington (now Washington and Lee). Anna Maria Fitzhugh, the aging aunt of Mrs. Lee, stayed on the estate during the Civil War. She was forceful enough to cause her property to be placed under the protection of the various Union commanders in Fairfax County. Thus her land suffered little of the damage inflicted on other property here.4 We would have to do further digging to determine whether Hickory Farms was actually part of her estate, the center of which was just off Braddock Road at Port Royal road. It seems more likely that with all the Union troops in and around Fairfax Court House that our area probably saw its share of tree cutting and other usage by the Federal forces. Moving to the post-war years, according to newspaper accounts found in the library file, the estate, even in its diminished state was quite famous. The manor house was mysteriously burned (possibly by the son of the caretaker) in 1926, with the loss of a number of heirlooms of the Fitzhugh and Lee families. The holdings later formed the nucleus of the development of North Springfield, including the namesake Ravensworth Shopping Center.5
Another question concerning our area is whether Braddock Road was actually traversed by its eponym, General Edward Braddock, and his young colonial aid-de-camp, Major George Washington. The latter was dispatched by Governor Dinwiddie in October 1753 to deliver a message to the French Commander on the Ohio. In Washington's own laconic style, he states that he "left Alexandria and went to Winchester,"6 thus leaving us in doubt as to his actual route. The following year he went back to the Forks of the Ohio with a small army of Virginians, but no mention again was made of any of the route until the force was near present day Cumberland, MD, nearer to the enemy. His small force was surprised and defeated, resulting in Washington's capture. He was paroled and therefore was part of Braddock's larger force of regulars which set out in 1755 to chastise the French. According to the diary of a participant, "one regiment and a portion of stores (was) to (go by way of) Winchester, Virginia, whence a new road was nearly completed to Fort Cumberland . . . on the 8th and 9th of April, the provincials and 6 companies of the 44th (regiment) under Sir Peter Halket, set out for Winchester."7 According to an article in the Connection, there was an Indian trail in the vicinity of present-day Braddock Road. This path followed an Ice-Age path made by bison moving between the Shenandoah Valley and the Potomac. There is mention of George Washington clearing this path the year prior to Braddock's march.8 If this is so, it must have been as part of his own campaign; it is doubtful that he cleared the road for Braddock, since the latter was not in the colonies yet. The article also states that Braddock "was supposed to have widened it (the path) to 12 feet." However, the Sargent book describes the Army as being split, one column under Halket in Virginia, the other ferrying across to present day Washington and proceeding up along Rock Creek and thence out a road that was widened, as noted on an historical marker at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and River Road, near Tenley Circle. The Virginia column only marched a few miles in Fairfax before crossing near Georgetown.9 The consensus among historians is that the route went out toward the original county court house (near present Tysons Corner), perhaps along modern Route 7, before crossing the Potomac, possibly at one of the fords near Leesburg.
Even if Braddock or Washington themselves never did march up Braddock Road, it is still interesting to think of what this area must have looked like then, or even earlier when now-extinct Ice Age beasts such as bison did in fact range about Virginia. In any case, the aura surrounding the ill-fated General Braddock was strong enough to result in a road being named after him at some point in time. However, until it was recently widened outside the Beltway, Braddock Road was not exactly an impressive monument to the general. Hardly more than a two-lane rural road well into the 1980's, definitely out of place in suburbia, it could make you swear that Braddock' s baggage train moved faster than rush-hour traffic on Braddock Road.
2008 addendum: Fort Cumberland, in Cumberland, MD, was the key British outpost in the region of the Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania colonies in the mid-1750’s. It’s well worth the trip to go see these two sites and Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic “Falling Waters” house about an hour away in Pennsylvania. The journey by car is about three hours, and it will give you an appreciation for Washington’s vigor and outdoors skills when you see the rugged terrain between here and there. While no trace of the fort exists today, it is well-interpreted by signs and an outline painted in the modern streets of Cumberland. There is also a purportedly authentic reproduction of Washington’s small cabin, built by his men. Cumberland is also the terminus of the C & O canal, 185.1 miles from its start in Georgetown. Going west from Cumberland along the “National Road” (modern U.S. Route 40) you can reach Fort Necessity, site of Washington’s defeat described above. In his capitulation letter, he mistakenly admitted “murdering” a French officer, whose older brother then left Fort Duquesne (modern Pittsburgh) with a sizable contingent and defeated Washington’s small force. There is a modern reconstruction of Fort Necessity and an excellent visitors’ center that gives one a wonderful, multi-media account of this crucial episode in our colonial history. Horace Walpole, 18th century British politician and author, leaves us a much-quoted analysis of these long-ago, but very important events: "A volley fired by a young Virginian in the backwoods of America set the world on fire."
1) Historical Society of Fairfax County, Yearbook, vol. 3, 1954. A rough sketch shows the area now occupied by Hickory Farms to be just inside the western boundary. In the Ravensworth file in the Virginia Room of the Fairfax City Regional Library, there is a modern map of Fairfax with and overlay which shows Hickory Farms lying just outside the western boundary of Ravensworth, which is shown to the east and running through the Fairfax Memorial Park cemetery. However, this map has no date, no attribution and appears to be in error, based on the research cited in the next footnote.
2) From Mitchell, Beth. Beginning at a White Oak: Patents and Northern Neck Grants of Fairfax County, Virginia. Fairfax: Office of Comprehensive Planning, 1977. This meticulously researched book is the definitive source. The maps were done in accordance with the most current cartographic techniques to ensure accuracy. While the unattributed map cited above in footnote #2 shows the same surveying angles and distances, its point of origin in Fairfax City is off by about 1/2 mile compared to the Mitchell map.
3) Netherton, Ross and Nan. Fairfax County: A Pictorial History. Norfolk: The Donning Company, 1986, p.23.
5) Various contemporary newspaper accounts found in the library file.
6) The Journal of Major George Washington. Williamsburg, Va.: Colonial Williamsburg, Inc., 1959, p. A2
7) Sargent, Winthrop, ed., A History of an Expedition against the Fort Duquesne in 1755 Under Major-General Edward Braddock. New York: Arno Press, 1971 reprint. This work was originally published by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1855 and consists of original diaries, records and other accounts of the ill-fated Braddock march. His army was small by modern standards, his regiments numbering 500 each. With his colonial troops, levied here, his forces were approximately 1400 strong. Braddock' s force, marching in formal European style, was ambushed by the French and their Indian allies, suffering over 900 casualties, including Braddock and Colonel Halket.
8) Clark, Allison and Brodie, James Michael, "Travel Through History on the Long, Winding Braddock Road," Fairfax Connection, November 8, 1990, pp. 16-17. Since there are no sources cited in the article, there is no way to find the basis for such assertions as "Braddock and his men needed nine days to travel from the Port of Alexandria to the village of Newgate, which was renamed Centreville in 1792. The fact is, Braddock himself was part of the Maryland column.
Last Update: January 02, 2020
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