"The family of Lee has more men of merit in it than any other family."
- John Adams, 1779.
Lee Family biographer Burton J. Hendrick observed in 1935, "From the landing of the first Lee in 1640 to the rise of the Confederacy in 1861, there were few crises that did not find Lees in the foremost ranks."
The Jamestown colony was scarcely thirty years old when Richard Lee (ca. 1613-1664) crossed the Atlantic to explore Virginia. Not much is known of his life in England. Richard's ancestors were seen as hailing from Shropshire until recently, when researchers turned their attention toward Worcester. Lee had set himself up as a London merchant in the tobacco trade, but he was interested in seeing firsthand how tobacco was grown and shipped. He also was curious as to what other opportunities the New World offered.
Richard sailed for Virginia in late 1639 or early 1640. He liked what he saw. Not long after his arrival, he acquired his first lands. In 1640, he acquired land at Tindal's Point in present-day Gloucester County, on the north side of the York River directly across from where Yorktown was later established. Two years later, in 1642, Lee patented a thousand-acre tract on Poropotank Creek, a tributary of the York about twenty miles above the river's mouth. The region on the north side of the York River was still controlled by natives inhospitable to the English. Nevertheless, Lee, exhibiting the adventurous spirit that came to characterize his descendants, was not fearful of the local Native American tribes. He cultivated his fields in their midst and traded furs and skins with them directly. Lee's land was well-suited to planting tobacco, and he soon added to his land holdings. After the third Anglo-Powhatan War, fought in 1644, Lee moved to the south side of the York, where he remained for nearly a decade. In 1653, he resettled on Poropotank Creek, establishing a trading post and tobacco warehouse. He called this estate "Paradise."
Richard and Anne
Richard Lee married the young, Anne Constable, who was born in London and may have come to America at the same time as Richard. They were parents to an ever-increasing brood of children. Between 1645 and 1656, Anne delivered at least ten children, including two girls and six boys that survived infancy: John, Richard, Francis, William, Hancock, Elizabeth, Anne, and Charles.
Successful Planter and Politician
Richard became a successful planter. His tobacco plantation eventually grew to 1,500 acres and became home to seventeen laborers, indentured servants who paid for their voyage from England to Virginia with seven years of service in Lee's tobacco fields. Prosperity brought Lee prestige, and with it political appointments: Clerk of the Quarter Court in 1641; Attorney General in 1643; Sheriff and Burgess of York County in 1646 and 1647; Secretary of State in 1649; and the Governor's Council in 1651. As Secretary of State, Lee was the most valuable assistant to the colony's royal governor, Sir William Berkeley (whose estate Green Spring was later inherited by one of Lee's descendants), and the most powerful man in the colony after Berkeley. As a member of the Governor's Council Lee set a precedent for his offspring, who in succeeding generations occupied a seat on the Council until it was dissolved in 1776.
Richard Lee led an active life. He kept the official records at Jamestown, issuing marriage and travel and hunting licenses, recording wills and land titles, and making trans-Atlantic trips in the governor's name - all the while managing his tobacco fields. He also entered the shipping business, becoming part owner of at least two ships, the Susan and the Elizabeth and Mary.
Lee and Berkeley
Lee was, along with Governor Berkeley, a loyal supporter of the Crown, and with Berkeley his career as a public official ended with Cromwell's seizure of power in England. Lee retired quietly to land on Virginia's Northern Neck, which was then a four-day journey from Jamestown. There, he was forced to wait out the Interregnum on land that was not his, that had been given to the Indians in treaty. He began to amass more tracts of land, in present-day Northumberland County, where he lived out the rest of his life (when he was not in England). Also among his holdings was land in present-day Fairfax County, including what became Mount Vernon.
At the Restoration, Governor Berkeley resumed power in Virginia. Lee returned to his seat on the Governor's Council. By then, however, Richard had grown tired of politics. At his death in 1664, which took place at his home on Dividing Creek (near present-day Kilmarnock, Virginia), Richard Lee owned 13,000 acres of land, more than anyone else in the colony. He was probably the richest man in Virginia at his death. Lee also owned a large estate outside of London, at Stratford-Langton. At the village, an important road (or street) crossed the River Lea by a ford. It originally was known as "Strat by the ford." Stratford would be the name that Lee's grandson Thomas Lee would chose when he built Stratford Hall in 1738, what would became famous as the birthplace of General Robert E. Lee.
Richard's children shared in their father's good fortune. John, the eldest, attended Oxford University, where he obtained a degree in medicine. Richard, the second born and his father's namesake, also attended Oxford. Francis, the third born child, became the family's factor in London. The fourth son, William, died in his mid-forties, apparently without marrying or issue. The fifth son of the family founder, Hancock, married (the second time) Sarah Allerton, a granddaughter of Isaac Allerton, who was a passenger on the Mayflower. Charles, the youngest of all the children, inherited the part of his father's Dividing Creek lands that came to be known as Cobbs Hall, the name also given to Charles's line of descendants. Hancock Lee built a mansion house called Ditchley. Among his descendants were a surveyor for the Ohio Company and the founder of Leestown on the Kentucky River and the mother of President Zachary Taylor. John Lee, the physician, although he died before marrying at age twenty-eight, managed to build a mansion on the Potomac River, Mount Pleasant, and to serve as high sheriff and burgess from Westmoreland County.
Richard the second, said family biographer Burton Hendrick, was "a man thoughtful, serious, quiet, devoted to the domestic virtues, deeply loyal in his political convictions, prepared, at times, to sacrifice personal fortune for things in which believed." If Hendrick can be believed, Richard, sometimes called "the Scholar," was given to melancholy, and even despair. His grandson, William, claimed Richard mismanaged his inheritance. As did his father, however, Richard served on the Governor's Council as a burgess, a naval officer, receiver of duties on the Potomac River, and colonel of the Westmoreland militia (his father had been a militia colonel as well).
During Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, Richard supported the forces under Berkeley. The young Nathaniel Bacon led the insurgents. He described Richard as one of the "wicked and pernitious" culprits responsible for having "sucked up the public Treasury." Bacon captured Richard, hauled him a hundred miles away, and held him for seven weeks.
Virginia's "Golden Age"
The eighteenth century brought changes to Virginia, and to its families of Lees. Virginia was entering its "Golden Age," and perhaps no one in the colony represented more the changes and the splendor of the age than Richard the elder's grandson, Thomas Lee, the builder of Stratford Hall. Although Paradise, located on the York River, was still in family hands (occupied by the younger Richard Lee's third son, Francis, a physician), the family was interested in building an estate in the Northern Neck.
Thomas was the fourth son of Richard the younger (or the fifth if you count the eldest, John, who died in infancy). In an age where the eldest male of a family held special privileges, Thomas would build the family's most enduring structure, Stratford Hall. The eldest surviving son, Richard, left Virginia for London, where he entered his uncle's tobacco merchant firm. Thomas's education was inferior to his brothers. He did not attend university in England, and his inherited lands were of lesser size and value (both defects of course hurt his marriage prospects). He got his start working in his father's office as receiver of shipping duties. Yet the father of the Stratford Lees was intelligent and ambitious, and he exploited his family's political and business connections to great effect.
Tobacco and Slaves
With help from his father, Thomas Lee secured an important appointment as agent to the Fairfax family, the proprietors of the Northern Neck, and the same family that first employed George Washington. Over time, he amassed nearly 30,000 acres of land. His interest in the frontier led to his becoming the guiding spirit and first president of the Ohio Company. Lee was named to the Governor's Council in 1732, and sixteen years later became that body's president, earning him the title of "President of Virginia." Thomas served as the colony's acting governor. In that capacity, he dealt with French "intruders" on the Ohio frontier, which he did by creating alliances with the chiefs of the Six Nations. Lee also became a large slave holder, who eventually owned 500 black workers, who labored in the family's tobacco fields.
Thomas Lee married Hannah Harrison Ludwell in 1722. They had six sons: Philip Ludwell, Thomas Ludwell, Richard Henry, Arthur, Francis Lightfoot, and William, all of whom would become prominent players in the American Revolution. Like their father, these boys were educated on the tobacco plantation. The first four were later sent to England for additional schooling. Thomas and Hannah died before seeing their sons rise to prominence.
Philip Ludwell Lee, although a Patriot, died in 1775. Thomas Ludwell Lee signed the Westmoreland Resolutions, an early Patriot Association, and was one of the radicals who called for Virginia to declare independence from the crown. Richard Henry Lee became a prominent statesman and influential member of the Continental Congress. Arthur Lee, trained as a physician and a lawyer, and who idolized his brother Richard Henry, became a pamphleteer of the Patriot cause and an American diplomat. Francis Lightfoot Lee was an early, behind-the-scenes promoter of independence and a delegate to the Continental Congress. William Lee, intelligent and self-educated and ensconced in the tobacco trade in England, served as one of the two sheriffs of London in 1773 and 1774. He was elected alderman in the city in May 1775. Despite his activities in England, William championed American independence and was also appointed to diplomatic posts.
Henry's home was Lee Hall, a Potomac River estate near Stratford. Henry and his wife Mary Bland were the parents of four children: John, Richard, Henry, and Laetitia. The elder Henry's son and namesake was a burgess along with his cousins, and emerged as a Patriot during the Stamp Act crisis. Henry the second in turn named his youngest son Henry. Henry became famous for his exploits in the Revolutionary War as a cavalry officer, which earned him the name "Light-Horse Harry." He was also the father of Robert Edward Lee, who was born in 1807 at Stratford Hall. Light-Horse Harry has another claim to fame. He authored a eulogy for George Washington that John Marshall delivered on the floor of the U.S. Congress. Lee's eulogy called Washington "First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of His Countrymen."
Harry Lee's son Robert would also wage war on behalf of a rebel government. But unlike Washington, General Lee's efforts would meet with a very different end.