Stafford County Historical Eras
One of America's Most Historic Places
During a lengthy prehistoric-era, the area roughly east of today's I-95 highway was covered by ocean water. Prehistoric sharks and other sea life were found in abundance. As the waters receded and the shelf was exposed, prehistoric creatures and other life forms of many types emerged. Over 119 million years ago, new life was evident. Large dinosaurs, such as Astrodon, roamed the river beds and open spaces. Small prehistoric toads, called Anurans, were on the other end of the food chain. The first humans to arrive were Paleo-Indians, identified only by their tell-tale fluted projectile points. Over the course of about 10,000 years they developed into Woodland Amerindian societies which were quite sophisticated and ready to meet other peoples.
Prior to English colonization the Algonquin-speaking Patawomeck (Potomac) Band of the Powhatan Confederacy lived in the eastern part of what is now Stafford County. The villages visited by John Smith in 1608 as he explored the Virginia side of the Potomac River are thought to be Patawomeck. Native Americans in the western part of the county spoke Siouan, and were not part of the Powhatan Confederacy. Smith also encountered them during his exploration of the Rappahannock that same year.
Like the other tribes of Powhatan’s Confederacy, Stafford’s Native American tribal units were destroyed by assimilation. For several generations, Patawomeck descendents repressed acknowledgement of their Indian heritage for fear of suffering from discrimination. As circumstances changed, they have researched all available historical accounts from John Smith, Henry Spelman, and others, to property records, vital statistics, and court records. They have been supported and encouraged in this effort by receiving official tribal recognition from the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Stafford’s English Colonial population represented the full range of British society. The gentry class derived almost exclusively from Cavalier exiles and immigrants from the 1640s to 1670s. Unusually, the Catholic Brent’s were Stafford’s first permanent settlers. They opened the way for the arrival of French Huguenot Protestants to settle in their Brenton Tract. Stafford’s fisheries, tobacco plantations, iron works and flourmills were major suppliers to Great Britain in the Colonial era. George Washington, the father of our country, and George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), lived here as youngsters. James Hunter's Iron Works (Rappahannock Forge) was one of the major industrial plants in the Revolutionary era and supplied the Continental Army with arms and equipment in its fight for independence. With the establishment of our new nation's capital city, Government Island was chosen to provide the stone for the White House and the U.S. Capitol. Ironically, Hunter’s Works and the Government Island Quarry were manned by immigrant workers and African American slave-labor.
During the Antebellum era (1830-1860), Stafford saw two of its young men come to national prominence around the issue of slavery in 1854. African American Anthony Burns escaped to Boston and, when recaptured, was featured in the first test case of the Fugitive Slave Law. When Burns was returned to slavery by a Boston court, some 50,000 Bostonians draped their city in mourning and watched silently as troops march Burns to a southbound ship. They would never return another escapee to slavery. Attending Harvard Divinity School was Staffordian Moncure Daniel Conway. Seeing his boyhood friend enslaved again finally convinced Conway of the necessity to end the institution in America. He went on to become the South’s most prominent abolitionist
During the Civil War era, Stafford was a logistical and transportation center, and a staging ground for many area campaigns. Chatham Manor, like many other homes in Stafford County, was utilized as a Union headquarters and hospital to treat the wounded. The bloody Battle of Fredericksburg took place across the banks of the Rappahannock River in December 1862. In January 1863 Union General Ambrose Burnside bogged down his army on the famous "Mud March". Demonstrating that we still had to face up to the momentous issue of slavery, Stafford's Anthony Burns was the subject of America's first major fugitive slave case. Nationally known, Southern abolitionist Moncure Conway led his family slaves to freedom in Yellow Springs, Ohio in 1862. Observation balloons were first used in America for military surveillance in Stafford by the Union Forces .
Many military "first" and technological and technical innovations first surfaced in Stafford during the Civil War. These included the first: ship-to-shore naval engagement, which also employed naval mines; rapid construction (and means for expedient destruction) of railroad- and other-bridging; ship-to-rail logistical transfer operations; "all-source" intelligence analysis by the Union forces; "secret lines" of the Confederate Signal Corps and Secret Service (ultimately stretching to Canada); large scale emancipation of freed people; multiple-balloon reconnaissance operations; signal intercept and false/deceptive messaging; riverine combat assault; use of massed reserve artillery as a separate command; systematized troop care, feeding, training and inspections; distinctive badges identifying corps and divisions on personnel, wagons and equipment; color-coding logistics vehicles by branch of arms and unit; pack trains for immediate resupply of ammunition and food; ordnance reforms on ammunition handling and distribution; and tailored heavy artillery units with organic support for mobile offensive and siege support. Earlier innovations were also further developed; they included development of a thousand-vehicle ambulance corps and other medical sanitary improvements; improved standardized care for horses and mules; and improved military pay activities. The reorganization of the Army of the Potomac's Cavalry into a single, unified corps, together with subsequent leadership, troop care, animal care, and weaponry improvements (especially wide deployment of the 7-shot Spencer repeating carbine) all proved decisive in gaining the eventual victory in the East.
Historic Places in Stafford County, VA
Aquia Episcopal Church - Aquia Church is one of the oldest colonial churches still actively used in America. Built between 1751 and 1757, Aquia is noted for its continuous history, three-tiered pulpit and Aquia Sandstone quoins and trim. The Church was an early focal point for social and governmental interaction in Overwharton Parrish. A historic center as well, its communal silver was forced to be buried during three wars (Revolutionary, 1812 and Civil).
Aquia Landing – Located at the confluence of the Potomac River and Aquia Creek at the end of Brooke Road, Captain John Smith entered Aquia Creek there in 1608, and the first permanent English settlers, the Brents, entered and settled on Brent's Point (Widewater Peninsula across the creek). The landing served as a key transportation point during the Colonial-, Federal- and Antebellum-periods. The Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad ended there after the 1840s and steamboats connected travelers with Washington, D.C., until the rail was extended in 1877. During the Civil War, Aquia Landing was site of the war's first ship-to-shore naval engagement in May 31-June 1, 1861, and was one of two major Union logistical centers in Stafford supporting the battles of Fredericksburg (1862), Chancellorsville (1863), and Grant's 1864 Overland Campaign. In the summer of 1862, 10,000-12,000 freed slaves exited the war zone through the landing, earning it the title "Gateway to Freedom." It is now a county park and beach.
Belmont - A National Historic Landmark, this 18th century estate was the 20th century home of artist Gari Melchers and his wife Corinne. The main house, gardens, outbuildings, workshop and gallery of his work are included in this estate overlooking the historic port town of Falmouth. It is operated by the University of Mary Washington. Captain John Smith's Rappahannock exploration (also in 1608) took place below Belmont Hill.
Chatham - Headquarters of Fredericksburg Spotsylvania National Military Park, this Georgian-style mansion in the only private home in America to have hosted George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, as well as a large number of other historic figures. As Lacy House, Chatham served as a Union headquarters and hospital during the Civil War. Clara Barton and Walt Whitman joined in caring for thousands of wounded soldiers. Operated by the National Park Service and open daily.
Cotton Warehouse – This two-story frame building constructed in about 1780 in Falmouth was used as a warehouse, a Masonic lodge and a private residence before becoming the present commercial office building.
Crucifix - The Aquia Crucifix monument was erected in honor of the Brent colony, which welcomed and encouraged settlers of all faiths to reside here. Many churches have called Stafford home, one for nearly 250 years. The first English settled here in the 1650s, not the 1640s. The Brent Town tract consisted of some 30,000 acres that now includes parts of western Stafford, Prince William, and Fauquier counties. It never reached as far east as Aquia Creek but did, most certainly include the Brentsville/Bristow area. Located beside US Route 1 about one mile north of I-95 Exit 143, the Aquia Crucifix is open for everyone.
Ferry Farm - then known as Rappahannock Farm, was the boyhood home of George Washington. There he spent his formative years and his mother resided. The term Ferry Farm related to the operative ferry which connected it to Fredericksburg. It saw significant use during the Civil War as a crossing site during three Federal occupations of Stafford. Part of the original 1600s Stafford County, Ferry Farm was briefly in an expanded King George County which stretched into Stafford along the Rappahannock. Now operated by the George Washington Foundation, archeology has revealed the original Washington homesite and numerous other buildings.
Falmouth - The town was quite prosperous from its creation in 1728 until the late 1840s or early 1850s. The economic devastation resulting from the Civil War just finished it off and it never recovered. This historic port town was created in the same 1727/8 charter as Fredericksburg to be "convenient to the inhabitants of the north side of the Rappahannock River, for transporting their commodities." A prosperous industrial and commercial village by the Civil War, it was first occupied by the Union Army in April 1862. It became an exodus point for some of the 10,000-12,000 escaping slaves that summer, and was a central reference point for the 135,000-169,000 man Army of the Potomac during the winter of 1863 undergoing that army's "Valley Forge" in Stafford County. Many of Falmouth's early buildings remain standing, including the Cotton Warehouse; Duff Green Warehouse; Cambridge Inn, Temperance Tavern; Barnes House; Magistrate's Office; Counting House; Basil Gordon House; Moncure Conway House (boyhood home of the South's most prominent abolitionist); and Shelton Cottage. Falmouth also contains the remnants of Union Church and the old-site (now Golgotha Church) and the current Falmouth Baptist Church. The Belmont estate adjoins Falmouth. Cambridge Inn is now a tavern-restaurant; the rest of the buildings are in private hands, but can be viewed in a driving tour.
Golgotha Church - Established in 1891, it was originally home to the Falmouth Baptist Church congregation. For over 110 years, this church has served as a highlight of the Falmouth skyline, a beacon linking its citizens to the past.
Government Island – Located on Aquia Creek, the quarries provided the sandstone for the White House and the original (now center section of the) U.S. Capitol, in addition to a large number of historic buildings and bridges throughout the Chesapeake region. It is now a county park and accessible from US Route 1 about 0.5 miles south of I-95 Exit 143 via Coal Landing Road. A walking tour on a sound path/trail of 1.5 miles length with signage is open to the public until sunset daily.
Hartwood Presbyterian Church - This active, red-brick church, built by its congregation in 1858, replaced a small wooden Episcopal chapel and (after 1825) Presbyterian church. The current building was used as an outpost by Union cavalry guarding Confederate approaches from the southwest. It was involved in several Confederate raids during the Civil War, the most notable being on February 25, 1863. That raid at once demonstrated continued Confederate cavalry superiority and marked the impending rise of the Federal cavalry which engaged in a retaliatory operation the following month at Kelly's Ford (Culpeper County).
Hobby School - The Hobby School is the believed architectural style of school at which George Washington would have received his early education, between the ages of seven and eleven. Little has been documented on this structure. Such schools were open to plantation owners' sons. It is located beside Union Church.
Magistrate’s office - This small, red brick building is Stafford county's oldest existing municipal building. The architecture, Late Federal, suggests it was constructed in the 1820s or 1830s. It was once used as a Customs Office, later as a magistrate’s office, as a voting precinct, and a small museum.
Marlborough Point – This small peninsula at the confluence of the Potomac River at Potomac Creek served as an important Native American location ("Petomek" village) associated with the northernmost Powhatan Confederacy tribe, the Patawomecks. Pocahontas, one of Powhatan's daughters, was visiting there in 1611, when she was kidnapped and held hostage by Capt. Samuel Argall. (The precise kidnapping spot is arguable between Indian Point on the peninsula and Passapatanzy further down river.) Captain John Smith visited the location in 1608 and it was subsequently used as a Virginia outpost (1609-c. 1620) and tobacco storage site. During the Civil War, the large Union Windmill Point Hospital occupied the eastern end of the peninsula. Today, private residences fill the area.
Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers - Stafford is bordered to the east by the Potomac River and to the south by the Rappahannock River, for a combined total of 51 miles of shoreline. The rivers and their tributaries were extremely important as Amerindian villages and during Colonial- and later periods, when water was used to power mills and to transport people and goods. Critical to winter survival as the staple was salted fish provided by what was once one of the largest privately owned commercial fisheries on the east coast of the United States.
Shelton’s Cottage - This historic workman's cottage dates back to around 1770. It is unique and somewhat upscale in that it contains a chimney with six fireplaces in the center of the structure, rather than on the ends. It was used as a residence into the 20th century and is part of the Falmouth hamlet.
Stafford Courthouse - The site of an earlier courthouse, the current (1920s) building stands near the land route passage of Washington's and Rochambeau's Revolutionary War column transiting to and from Yorktown. During the Civil War, the courthouse was raided by Sickles' brigade in April 1862 (during which many documents were destroyed, damaged and stolen) and a number of Union headquarters and camps surrounded it in the winter of 1863. At this site, in April 1863, President Lincoln and Major General Oliver Otis Howard conferred, leading to Howard's later appointment to head the Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands Bureau, a major force during Reconstruction, and his role in founding Howard University (Washington, D.C.) and Lincoln Memorial University (Tennessee) for poor blacks and whites respectively. Nearby in a camp in February 1863, Captain Robert Gould Shaw, 2nd Massachusetts Infantry, was offered command of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, composed of African American soldiers and made famous in the film, "Glory."
Union Church - Land was set aside for a church yard in Falmouth's charter of 1728. The present structure, the third church to be erected on this lot, was built in the early nineteenth century. The church was used on a rotational basis by four denominations. Except for its remaining brick narthex, this place of worship was destroyed by a heavy rain storm in 1950.
White Oak Civil War Museum and Stafford Research Center - is across Va. Route 218 from the White Oak Church and occupies the former White Oak Elementary School - Over 225,000 Civil War soldiers occupied Stafford County between 1861 and 1865. White Oak Civil War Museum honors the common soldiers of both armies and displays one of the world's most extensive relic collections of Civil War artifacts, almost all of which were found in this region. Recognized by the Virginia Historical Society, the museum and its founder D.P. Newton provide unique insights to America's Civil War.
White Oak Primitive Baptist Church - This church, organized in 1789, was first known as White Oak Church of Christ but changed its name in the 1830s in opposition to Baptists straying from original doctrines. Many early black members had been slaves at Chatham plantation. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Stafford’s history is a fascinating tapestry of America’s, Virginia’s and Stafford’s journey through time.
Membership in the SCHS
Membership is open to all with an interest in Stafford’s history. Members receive quarterly newsletters and enjoy members’ prices on Society products. Monthly meetings inform members and the general public on all aspects of Stafford’s nationally significant “local” history. Society members actively research our history and inform themselves and others.
Voices of Stafford
The Stafford County Historical Society maintains an active oral history program with interviews of county citizens. These are in the form of CDs which are available for check out at local libraries. Each interview runs about one hour.
Keepers of the Knowledge
The Stafford County Historical Society maintains a program which recognizes individuals who have contributed to the body of knowledge which comprises our county’s rich history.
Copyright Stafford County Historical Society
Design by Legacy Services>