Richard Henry Lee of Virginia: A Biography, by Mary Elizabeth Virginia, Chapter 2

Richard Henry Lee of Virginia: A Biography

Chapter 2
The Background

Born in 1732, Richard Henry Lee was a fourth generation Lee of Virginia. Heir to a remarkable family history, extending from his great grandfather Richard Lee’s arrival in the colony in 1639, to his father Thomas Lee’s extraordinary career in the early eighteenth century, Richard Henry carried the burdens and expectations of membership in Virginia’s Lee family. For the Lee’s had enjoyed a meteoric rise in the seventeenth century, from their modest origins in England to become, arguably, the most influential family in seventeenth century Virginia. Grasping their ancestral reins, the Lee’s of the eighteenth century, that is Richard Henry, his siblings, and cousins, contributed their own talents and abilities to their family history, becoming the most notable generation of Lees to that time.

For the founder Richard Lee the New World was truly a land of endless possibilities and nowhere was seventeenth century Virginia’s opportunity for upward social mobility better illustrated than in his life. Traditionally genealogists and Lee descendants have assumed that Lee’s family heritage was illustrious. Using scanty source materials and family tradition, it was reported that Richard had descended from an old Saxon family. Later assertions placed his heritage with a Norman family, prominent since 1200, at Cotton Hall in the manor of Nordley Regis in Shropshire.1 Recently, David Hackett Fischer, erroneously described Lee as “the archetype of Governor Berkeley’s armigerous elite,” claiming that Lee was immensely proud of his descendence from an old “Saxon family as ancient as the Berkeley’s had been.”2 But evidence for these claims was circumstantial, commencing with Richard Lee’s perpetuating the myth of his exalted heritage by using the Lee arms. Genealogists also pointed to a questionable inscription on a family tankard, “Morton Regis” and the identical inscription on Lee’s tombstone, as proof that Lee had descended from Nordley Regis. In their view, “Nordley” became “Morton” through inaccuracy in transcription attributable to Lee’s ineligible writing.3 Seeking knowledge of his family heritage, Thomas Lee, in the eighteenth century, queried Lancelot Lee of Coton in England. Subsequently admitting his own ignorance, Lancelot nevertheless claimed that Richard Lee was a son of John Lee of Coton. This dubious source of information has likewise been adduced as proof of ancestry. Unsurprisingly, William Lee in 1771, following family tradition, wrote confidently of his ancestor’s origin at Cotton.4

In 1988, William Thorndale, using English probate and parish records, determined that Richard Lee’s origins were, in fact, more humble than previously believed. Rather than descending from an ancient Norman family at Nordley Regis, Richard Lee’s father was a modest clothier in Worcester, some twenty miles south of Cotton Hall. Though admitting that a relationship between the families nay yet be proven, Thorndale found no evidence regarding Lee’s alleged Cotton Hall origins.5

Even given the relatively fluid nature of seventeenth century society, Richard Lee’s achievements in Virginia, whatever his origins, seem extraordinary. His exemplary success, directly resulted from his exceptional adaptability coupled with his keen political and economic acumen. Lee was an aggressive opportunist, availing himself of a variety of alternatives cast up in the fledgling colony. Particularly noteworthy was his use of the headright system for acquiring massive land grants. Entering Virginia in 1639 or 1640 he had immediately begun accumulating headrights, eventuating in landholdings in excess of over 15,000 productive acres by his death in 1664.

Of Lee’s early history, little is known, though he apparently emigrated to Virginia in 1639. His history, and therefore the history of the Lee family, was inextricably tied to the political situations arising in the new colony. After a succession of Royal Governors appointed during England’s turbulent 1620s and 1630s Charles I dispatched his most recent appointee Sir Francis Wyatt in 1639, who probably traveled on the same ship that carried Richard Lee. Lee quickly became Wyatt’s protege, probably being granted his first political position as clerk in the quarter court while still on shipboard. Upon his arrival in Virginia, Lee’s relationship with Wyatt afforded him immediate access to positions of political authority. His future was further strengthened by a propitious marriage to Anna Constable. Having also arrived on the same ship as Wyatt, Lee’s future wife had been a ward of Sir John Thorowgood, one of Charles I’s personal attendants, but in 1639 she was traveling to Virginia under the care of Governor Wyatt and his family.6 Maintaining her affectionate ties with the Wyatts, Anna Constable married Lee and materially helped solidify his relationship with the Governor.

As political turbulence continued in England, another new governor wee soon commissioned and Wyatt was replace’ in office by Sir William Berkeley. Landing in Virginia in 1642, governor Berkeley subsequently profoundly influenced Virginia’s still elastic society bringing a new era of stability to the troubled colony.7 Early in his Virginia career, Berkeley emerged as a successful administrator, dealing leniently with Wyatt’s supporters and thus allowing Richard Lee to remain active in the colony’s government. Having swiftly earned the confidence of the new governor, in 1643, Lee was named Berkeley’s Attorney General, and the two men thereafter maintained a close relationship throughout the governor’s long tenure in Virginia.

Meantime, shortly after his arrival in Virginia, Lee had settled in the lower neck, on land situated on the north side of the York River which he had earned through headrights.8 Established there until the Opecancanough’s Indian uprising in 1646, Lee then abandoned the area, moving his family to land on the southern side of the river where they settled until 1653. Lee named his plantation Paradise, reflecting perhaps the latent possibilities he visualized in the colony as well as describing the beauty of the region. During his residence in the lower neck, Lee while Attorney General was also elected to the House of Burgesses.

But his success was not restricted to his political activities, indeed, he quickly paralleled these with entrepreneurial pursuits, for he was seldom to squander any opportunities for self advancement. Thus having been appointed Secretary of State in 1649, he sailed to the Netherlands in 1650, officially on an errand from Governor Berkeley, but also with ambit enough to exploit the trip for personal profit. Opportunities were also fluid, as the background of his journey shows. When news of King Charles’ execution reached Virginia in 1649, it was greeted with shock and dismay, although Berkeley promptly declared his allegiance to the new king, Charles II, then in exile in the Netherlands. Nervous nonetheless about his legal standing in Virginia and hopeful of securing a commission from the new King, Berkeley straightaway sent Lee, his Secretary of State, to Holland.

With his usual acuity, Lee seized the occasion by chartering a Dutch vessel, which he then loaded with trade goods. Returning with the commission, and apparently a sizeable profit for himself, Lee also acquired thirty-eight indentured servants, parlaying his chance for more headrights and resulting in a grant for 1,200 acres. Contrary to traditional suppositions, this trip was not an example of Lee’s heartfelt devotion to the Stuarts.9 Rather, he was simply acting in his official capacity as Secretary of State. As it transpired, his personal business proved measurably more successful than his official mission, for Berkeley’s fresh commission soon proved useless. For having remained loyal to Charles II, even after hearing of the King’s military defeat three months later, Berkeley was deposed by Cromwell. During this crisis, Lee had been appointed to the Council, only to lose his seat as Berkeley was replaced. Stripped of his Secretaryship in 1652, Lee, for the first time since arriving in Virginia more than a decade before, now found himself freed from political duties.

While out of office, Lee devoted the next few years to expanding his economic holdings. By 1651 his landholdings included 2,400 acres in the lower neck. There he and his wife, between 1653 and 1656, lived on his Paradise plantation flanking the Poropatank River in an area that was still wilderness, the more profitable therefore, because of its central location for capitalizing on the Indian trade. Maintaining a commercial warehouse in the lower neck, Lee also held a partial interest in at least two trading ships,10 indicating that a portion of his wealth was earned through an import-export business. Thanks to his shipping activities, he steadily earned new headrights, thus with regularity gaining additional land.

By means of his acquisitions of new patents, Lee’s holdings increased rapidly. In 1646 he was granted the title for 1,250 acres on the Pamunkey River in York for the service of transporting twenty-five people. Never developing this land, but using a locational strategy, he surrendered the patent in exchange for equal acreage on the north Side of the York River. By 1656 he had accumulated and sold several substantial patents of land in the southern part of the colony, disposing in the same year of many of his older holdings and consolidating the rest.

In the process of garnering a fortune, Lee seldom remained long in Virginia, returning frequently to England in attendance to mercantile affairs. It was in regard to one such trip in 1654 that one of Lee’s few surviving personal records surfaces. Apparently expecting to stay in England for a lengthy period, Lee brought his wife, accompanied by his family silver to England, leaving his children in Virginia. As he was returning in 1655, alert English customs officials charged him with a customs violation for attempting to export silver and accordingly it was confiscated. Claiming that “Colonel Lee (was] being faithful and useful to the interests of the Commonwealth,”11 a sympathetic London merchant, John Jeffreys petitioned for its return—it was after all Lee’s family silver. And it is this statement that has sometimes confused authors whose preference is to view Lee as “zealous in the royalist cause,”12 rather than as an ardent supporter of the commonwealth. Lee was remarkably adroit in selecting advantageous political loyalties. The transference of his allegiance from Wyatt to Berkeley was instantaneous upon the former’s removal. Lee’s services to Berkeley were as much dedicated to personal gain, as evidenced by his trip to Holland, as the attribute of any commitment either to the King or to the Commonwealth. When royal policy contravened his awn perception of self-interest, Lee, in fact, acted quickly in self-defense—as he did for instance when the King reconfirmed the proprietary grants to the Northern Neck in 1669, and Lee along with several colleagues thereupon presented the King with a signed remonstrance against the grants.

Shortly after his return from England in 1655, Richard and Anna Lee moved their family to the Northern Neck. It was a sensible move, since the area had remained peaceful during the Indian uprising of 1644 and continued to be the only location in which a vigorous trade could be prosecuted and maintained. Indeed Lee’s initial attraction to the Northern Neck was probably due to his interest in exploiting possibilities of the Indian trade. Although evidently he already owned the land upon which he settled by virtue of Indian treaties, Lee began officially patenting this land in 1651, initially acquiring 1,900 acres on the Dividing Creek.13 Acting in concert with a mariner and another merchant, he continued to augment his holdings in the Northern Neck, through the addition of 2,600 more acres on the Machodoc River between 1657 and 1658. Though he had only lived at his Paradise plantation for about three years, he moved his family to the Northern Neck in 1656, abandoning Paradise to the competencies of a manager. There he continued to upgrade the value of his plantation by importing slaves. While previously, his headrights had all been earned through named, white indentured servants, in 1660, he imported eighty unnamed blacks, receiving 4,000 acres in headrights and making him one of the first planters profitably to deal in large numbers of slaves.

Confronted with the uncongenial prospects of having to educate his six sons in primitive Virginia, the peripatetic Lee, soon after his move to the Northern Neck again made plans to sail to England with his family. There he purchased an estate at Stratford Langton, a village five miles from London, then considered a fashionable suburb. This was no indication that he intended to jettison his Virginia wealth. Instead he planned frequent crossings, while entrusting his colonial interests to his capable overseer, John Gibbon. Lee’s acquisitiveness did not end with his removal to England, for he continued purchasing lands in Maryland during his final trip to the colonies before his death in 1664.

Lee’s drive and ambition were seemingly endless. By 1658 as a result of his complex business maneuvering he had consolidated holdings totaling 6,600 acres in four areas, including land in the far western portion of the Northern Neck that incorporated present day Washington D.C. and the Mt. Vernon plantation lands. He likewise owned a fashionable suburban London estate. Throughout his life he managed a lucrative personal trade between England and Virginia. Having served the colony as secretary of state, high sheriff, member of the House of Burgesses and member of the Council, he was one of the most influential political figures in his colony. Drafting his will while in England in 1663, Lee secured his family’s future, deciding that on the occasion of his death, his wife and children with “all convenient speed” were to return to Virginia.14 He died in 1664 leaving behind a phenomenal legacy as one of the wealthiest and most noteworthy figures of seventeenth century Virginia.

At his death in 1664, Richard Lee was survived by his Wife and eight children—six bays and twin girls. The vastness of his estates enabled him to provide adequately for all his children, even after ensuring that his eldest sons received the lion’s share of his domains. John, his eldest son and principal heir, was vouchsafed the substantial holdings at the Machodoc River, and his second son Richard Lee II inherited the Paradise plantation. In addition, it had been stipulated that both sons were to be educated in England with John studying medicine at Edinburgh and Richard studying law at the Inns of Court. Expecting his third son, Francis, to become a merchant, Richard allowed that he could remain in England if he desired, probably to serve as a commercial apprentice. To further that end, Francis was also left Richard’s shares in his two ships—the Elizabeth and the Mary. The five younger children, and Richard’s widow Anna, were to be provided with the remainder of his substantial holdings, including his undeveloped 4,000 acres along the upper Potomac.15

John was twenty-two at his father’s death. Favored by an Oxford education, he left no record of his studying “physick” according to the articles of his fathers’ will. Instead, establishing himself at Machodoc around 1664, John became a militia captain, a justice of the peace, a sheriff and finally, a Burgess for Westmoreland County. Little is recorded of John, except he is remembered for a curious agreement he entered into with several of his Northern Neck neighbors. In 1670 John Lee, Henry Corbin, Thomas Gerrard, and Isaac Allerton concerted to build a “banqueting hall” near the area where their four estates joined. Alternately each member was to host an annual gathering. Every fourth year, the group, “for the better preservation” of their friendship,” was to survey its lands, reconfirming boundaries.16 Apparently, the “banqueting hall” did not last long, for in Richard Lee’s will of 1714 he referred to “the place where the Banqueting house had formerly stood.”17 Dying unmarried in 1674, John Lee’s vast estates were inherited by his brother, Richard Lee II.

Suddenly finding himself head of the Lee family, Richard Lee, still a bachelor, left his Paradise estate in an overseer’s hands and took up residence at his brother’s Machodoc plantation. There he soon married Laetitia Corbin, the eldest child of his neighbor Henry Corbin. The Corbins were also one of the most influential Virginia families, and Henry Corbin’s house, Peckatone, was situated amidst a large plantation next to Lee’s. Marriage firmly rooted Lee in the Northern Neck and certainly at no loss to his future prospects. Soon afterwards, in fact he was elected to the House of Burgesses and in 1676 he was appointed Councilor.18

Richard Lee’s character differed significantly from his father’s. Known to his family as “the scholar,” Lee, according to family legend, distinguished himself at Oxford and was asked to stay in England with promises of promotion to the highest dignities in the Church.” Whether or not this was true, Richard II chose to return to Virginia where he remained for the rest of his life. Exhibiting none of the drive and acquisitiveness of his father, he was disdained by later generations of Lees for ignoring the increase of his estates. Moreover, also unlike his father, he remained a staunch loyalist whose political actions were informed by his attachment to the Stuarts.19

Only a few weeks after Lee’s arrival in Jamestown, the once supremely popular Berkeley was coping with his most precarious situation as governor. Falling tobacco prices, difficulty in adjusting to Navigation Acts, and deteriorating Indian relations on the frontier had all become causes of dissatisfaction in his colony, ultimately leading towards open rebellion.20 As is well known, in 1676, a young member of Berkeley’s Council, Nathaniel Bacon, led the dissatisfied Virginians in a revolt against the Governor. Vacillating between appeasement and punishment of Bacon, Berkeley soon dissipated much of his popular support. Notwithstanding, Lee, was apparently unwavering in his loyalty, refusing to support Bacon over the Crown’s chosen representative. Because of Bacon’s rebellion, Lee, although a newly appointed councilor, nonetheless retired from his Jamestown post in 1676 and resumed life on his Machodoc lands. He was not left in peace however. Along with nineteen other Berkeley supporters he was ordered to surrender himself to Bacon. Refusing to recant his loyalty, Lee was captured and imprisoned for seven weeks in the process suffering “great Prejudice in his health by hard usage and very generally in his whole Estate by his absence.”21 Fortunately for Lee, Bacon died soon afterwards of the bloody flux and the rebellion collapsed. But all was not well for Berkeley’s reputation at Whitehall was tarnished and in 1677 he was recalled.

Lee, did, however, return to his post as Councilor, and was subsequently favored by a succession of new governors bent on implementing policies designed to extend Royal control over the colony. He remained in office until a new round of crises was spawned after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, raising fresh questions of loyalty. Adhering to the divine right of kings, Lee refused, in 1691 to pledge allegiance to the new King and Queen, William and Mary of Orange. Paying the price of his actions, he again under pressure vacated his seat on the Council and forfeited his lucrative position as revenue collector for the Potomac.22 This time, unlike during Bacon’s rebellion, his dispossession was short-lived. For he was reinstated in his posts, after evaluating his position and declaring his loyalty.23

In other ways, too, Lee’s devotion to the Crown affected his actions. For instance, through much of the century, controversy was raging over the revised patent requiring settlers to pay quitrents to the proprietors. William Fitzhugh, a proprietor’s agent, as well as a close friend of Lee’s, convinced Lee in 1693 of the proprietors right to collect feudal quitrents and Lee, in consonance with his loyalist convictions, became the first of the great planters to pay quitrents. Following his example, other Northern Neck landholders in turn grudgingly acquiesced to the proprietors’ demands.

Ill-health ultimately forced Lee into retirement in 1691. Ensconced in his home on the Potomac, he lived for another fifteen years amidst his family and his extensive library. During these years, he savored a peaceful life, forswearing politics and enjoying his “scholarly seclusion.” Composed of nearly three hundred books, his library at Machodoc was a model of the well-educated seventeenth century gentlemen’s library. The largest single category in his collection were theological works, fifty-eight such treatises, reflecting the career he might have pursued had he chosen to remain in England at his father’s death. Otherwise Lee’s library consisted of books on history, biography, law, medicine, and utilitarian subjects relevant to the maintenance of his plantations. Over twenty books were ascribable to Greek and Roman authors and another twenty were belles lettres. Sequestered among his family at Machodoc, he apparently spent most of his time reading—an anomalously sedate pastime for Richard’s son.24

Lacking the drive and ambition of his father, Richard Lee dutifully filled roles traditionally expected of his colony’s gentry. Although his achievements were not noteworthy compared to his father’s, he served as Burgess, Sheriff and Councilor. Comfortable with the life of the country scholar Lee was disdained as an aberrant character by his descendants. Yet while his accomplishments indeed added no luster to the Lee family name, he nonetheless was grudgingly respected even by his political foes and while he had not increased his father’s landed legacy, as head of the Lee family, he had successfully maintained his family’s estates, and to that degree, its integrity.

While not strictly construing laws of primogeniture, Virginia’s custom was for the bulk of a father’s estate to pass through inheritance to the eldest sons. Following Precedent, Lee bequeathed to his eldest son Richard his 2,600-acre Machodoc plantation. Perhaps by virtue of his prominence as a London merchant Richard, as it transpired, never resided on his ancestral land. At his death his wife, Martha, sold it to her brother-in-law Thomas Lee. Later, in 1734, Martha’s son George immigrated to Virginia, swiftly repurchasing Machodoc from his uncle and renaming it Mt. Pleasant. Richard II’s own second son, Philip, was heir to extensive holdings in Maryland. While Francis, the third son, received Paradise plantation, and Thomas, his fourth son, inherited the small tract of land at the Dividing Creek. Richard Lee’s fifth son, Henry received the residue” of his lands in Westmoreland, a small tract bordering Machodoc.25

Anne, Lee’s only daughter, was given the 4,000 acre tract in Stafford county surrounding Mt. Vernon on a dubious claim that was ultimately forfeited.26 Prior to its assignment, ownership of the land had already been in contention for several years. Richard Lee, having received a patent from governor Berkeley, and the Washingtons who held a grant for the same land from the proprietor Culpeper, had controverted its possession. In 1752, Lawrence Washington’s widow Anne Fairfax Washington married Richard Lee III’s son George. After an acrimonious struggle, the land finally was awarded to the Washingtons. George Lee, through his marriage to Anne Washington, owned the land. Preferring to remain at Mt Pleasant (Machodoc) George and Anne charged rent from Lawrence Washington’s half brother George. This intricate matter—by no means an uncommon one—was settled penultimately with the death of George and Anne Lee in 1761 when the land reverted through inheritance to none other than George Washington.27

When Richard Lee died in 1715, his two youngest sons, Thomas and Henry still lived, unmarried, with their father at Machodoc. Leasing the land from their elder brother, Richard, they remained at Machodoc after their father’s death, retaining an intimate fraternal relationship throughout their lives. For his part Henry lived quietly in the Northern Neck, acting as a partner to his brother Thomas Lee, and building his own home—Lee Hall as he named it—at Machodoc about 1723 upon the occasion of his marriage to Mary Bland.

In Richard Lee II’s fourth son, Thomas Lee, there was a virtual genetic replication of the acquisitiveness and drive that had made his grandfather, founder of the Lee family, so successful. Having received a modest inheritance, as was anticipated by a fifth son, Thomas nonetheless, became a wealthy man. Capitalizing on his grandfather’s foresight in moving the family to the Northern Neck, and exploiting all of his familial connections, he acquired massive tracts of land and benefited from a highly successful career in government, surpassing even his grandfather’s political largess.

Inheriting his father’s lucrative position as customs collector for the Potomac—a post he assumed before his father’s death in 1713—Thomas Lee’s relatively small inheritance was thereby rendered less consequential. Meanwhile, through familial connections in England, Thomas in 1711, when barely twenty-one, was appointed acting agent for the Fairfax proprietary in the Northern Neck. To be sure, though his uncle reclaimed his position as agent upon returning to the colony in 1716, during the five years in which Thomas was active for the proprietary, he had astutely employed his knowledge of the Northern Neck to acquire substantial land holdings for himself. Exploring the far reaches of the grant on horseback, he became enamored of the lands above the Potomac’s falls and beyond the Appalachians, eventually purchasing 16,000 acres in that area. Similarly Thomas also coveted the 1,443-acre tract of land bordering the Potomac known as the Clifts.

Sited on a geological formation that provided a striking view of towering palisades, the area was then owned by Nathaniel Pope. Traveling to England in 1715, Lee successfully negotiated from Pope the purchase of the land that would become the most famous of the Lee’s Virginia holdings. For it was on the Clifts plantation that he eventually built Stratford. Adding to his original perches of the site, Lee proceeded to acquire 2,400 more acres adjacent to the original Pope property.28 Using his surveyor’s eye, Lee had chosen a stunningly well-situated tract of land, allowing construction of his house far above the marsh areas of the tidewater yet affording easy accessibility to and from the Potomac. Though only one of many impressive Lee homes that enhanced the landscape of eighteenth century Virginia, Stratford is the sole survivor and for that reason, and because it was the birthplace of Robert E. Lee, it has become identified as the ancestral hams of the Lees. Beautifully maintained by the Robert E. Lee Foundation, Stratford Hall remains physical proof of the dominance of the Lees in the Northern Neck.

In marriage, as in every other business transaction, Thomas Lee demonstrated his prudence. Prospecting for a wealthy young lady, he discovered Jenny Willson whose fortune was £3,500 sterling. While he was in England purchasing the Clifts plantation, however, Jenny married another, leaving Thomas Lee to renew his search for a bride. But as if it were a trifle, he postponed his choice better to concentrate on his ascendant political career.

Having won his first election, in 1720, Lee journeyed to Williamsburg, claiming his seat in the House of Burgesses, only to be forced to step down after sitting for only thirty-nine days. The reason lay with his opponent, who contesting the election, proved that many of Lee’s supporters had been ineligible to vote.29 Lee, however, was not so easily brushed aside, and in 1724 he was again, this tine legitimately, elected, continuing as a Burgess until 1733, when the death of fellow Virginian, Robert “King” Carter, left a vacancy on the Council. Lee filled Carter’s place serving in that capacity until 1749, when he was chosen President. Holding that position until his death, he also functioned as acting governor and commander-in-chief after the retirement of Governor Gooch.30

Shortly after his initial trip to Williamsburg Thomas, in 1720, began courting Hannah Ludwell, an eminently well suited young woman. She was the granddaughter of Philip Ludwell who upon his arrival in 1660, had become a close friend and political associate of Governor Berkeley. Ludwell’s second wife, in fact, was the widow Berkeley, who at her husband’s death, had inherited all of his lands, including Greenspring, Berkeley’s already fabled James River plantation. Since Hannah bore no children of her own, Greenspring had come into possession of the Ludwell family after Lady Berkeley’s death. Philip Ludwell II, inheriting the combined properties of his father and brother had automatically become one of Virginia’s largest landholders and richest men.31

It was to Greenspring, therefore, that Richard Lee went courting. If family traditions are to be believed, Lee, in an attempt to demonstrate to the Ludwell that he was no backwoodsman, sponsored a ball for the James River’s wealthy, in the meantime, laboriously teaching himself Greek and Latin in order to avoid embarrassment over his lack of classical knowledge as well as to advertise his worthiness to his guests. He must have succeeded, for Hannah Ludwell and Thomas Lee were married at Greenspring in May 1722. Thomas’ choice of a wife was fortuitous. Hannah was a match for her strong-willed, intelligent husband, and eminently well-equipped for the challenges of the wilderness life in the Northern Neck where over time she seemed determined to recreate the aristocratic surroundings of her youth. In addition, as a daughter of the wealthy and influential Ludwell family, Hannah contributed to her marriage a sizable dowry of £600 sterling.32 Returning to the Northern Neck Hannah and Thomas Lee spent their early married years at Machodoc, which temporarily had been leased from Thomas Lee’s elder brother, Richard.

Construction of their permanent home, Stratford, may have begun as early as the late 1720s, continuing well into the next decade and was doubtless lent impetus by an event that occurred in 1729 when Thomas and Hannah Lee’s Machodoc home was burned to the ground. Evidently convicts had entered the house, stealing several valuable items and then to cover their tracks, setting a fire. Jumping from a second floor window, Hannah and Thomas escaped with their children, but lost all of their possessions, very likely including the library belonging to Thomas’s father. Previously, threats and complaints had been lodged against Lee for his punishment of “outlaws,” and men disgruntled by their strict treatment in the county court retaliated by leveling Lee’s home. Complaining vigorously to the Lords of Trade, in Thomas’s behalf, Governor Gooch used the incident to delineate problems in the Northern Neck ostensibly emanating from the large number of convicts transported there. Praying for relief from the royal coffers, Gooch blamed the burning of the house on Lee’s services as a Justice of the Peace, noting that Lee had “granted a warrant for apprehending some of them.” The Lords showed themselves sympathetic and Lee was recompensed with £300, perhaps, according to family legend, from Queen Caroline herself.33

The site of the burned house at Machodoc became known to the Lees (as it remains), as the “Burnt House Field.” It was on still another location within the Machodoc plantation that George Lee, son of the inheritor of the plantation, Richard Lee III, later built his Mt. Pleasant home, contributing to the myth purveyed by some authors that it was Mr. Pleasant that was burned.34 Very likely it was to his brother, Henry Lee’s Lee Hall that Thomas and his family went to after the fire, meantime constructing a temporary wooden house near their destroyed Machodoc manor home. Burnt House Field then became the family cemetery, with Hannah and Thomas Lee, along with many of their descendants interred there. Thomas’s will attests his close relationship with Hannah, stipulating that the bricks surrounding his wife be moved so that his coffin could be placed “as near to hers as possible.”35

Meanwhile, Thomas Lee remained active in government. His service in 1744 on the peace commission to the Iroquois was particularly notable, earning praise in London from both Pitt and Halifax. Heading a three-man commission, he journeyed to the Ohio Valley to negotiate with the Iroquois displaying an unusual panoply of diplomatic skills. Having exploited the Iroquois’s disillusionment with the French, while meliorating their tempers with food, alcohol and eloquent speeches, Lee successfully concluded his trip with the Lancaster Treaty. To Conrad Weiser, a fellow commissioner, Lee wrote in August 1744 of his own high regard for the Iroquois and of his “great deal of good will for them,” claiming to be “their friend to the utmost of my power,” and informing Weiser that “you may assure our Brethren, everything we promise shall be done.” Lee’s sincerity is evident from his letters in which he repeatedly requested any information about “these extraordinary people.” His interest in Indian culture, including its religion and songs was for the time, extraordinary. Perhaps it was his ingenuousness that satisfactorily mollified the Indians who ceded the land in contention in western Pennsylvania and Maryland, thus shortly opening the area to English settlement. Lee’s respect for the Iroquois, in any event, continued throughout his life. Writing to Weiser in 1750, in one of many letters regarding the business of the Ohio settlement, Lee restated his devotion to fairness in dealing with the Indians and his intent towards them to always “do justice in all his actions.”36

Lee’s interest in western settlement undoubtedly emerged from his early years spent as agent for the Fairfax proprietary. Astutely recognizing the potentialities of westward growth, he requested a large grant of land for himself on the upper Potomac. Negotiating a treaty with the Iroquois certainly further piqued his interest in the far west. Initially, his successfully orchestrated Lancaster treaty appeared to open the way for settlement, in fact, almost immediately thereafter, leading to the granting of several petitions, totaling 300,000 acres. It soon became manifest, however, that the treaty was only a modest first step. Several other problems required address before the west could be settled profitably. The ambiguous wording of the Indian treaty, as well as the very remoteness of the area meant that individuals who breeched the interior faced the likelihood of Indian attacks. On the contrary, it seemed obvious to Lee that well organized groups of settlers under a central leadership could not only defend themselves but would be particularly attractive to Whitehall as well as profitable for the Lee family. Germans who had migrated into the Shenandoah valley, it seemed to Lee, could easily be encouraged to settle farther west if they were guaranteed protection.37 Consequently he organized the Ohio Land Company, consisting of himself and several other Northern Neck men and by 1747 their Ohio company was petitioning Governor Gooch for a grant of land in the Ohio territory.

Gooch’s personal response was unfavorable, for he, along with John Robinson, Speaker of the House of Burgesses, was involved in a rival land company. Probably as a stall he did, however, request advice from the Lords of Trade and there followed a protracted correspondence between Gooch and colonial offices in London. Finally in 1749, he received instructions allowing the grant to the Ohio Company, thereby stimulating a reaction that eventuated in even more petitions for land.38 The Ohio Company, which had petitioned for 500,000 acres were granted 200,000 acres for immediate settlement with an option for 300,000 later. Further stipulations were attached. The Company for instance was to pay no quitrents for ten years; in return committing themselves to settling one hundred families within a seven-year period. Another portion of the grant consisted of an agreement that the Company would provide and maintain a fort for the defense of Ohio’s regions.39

Between 1749 and his death in November of 1751, Thomas Lee while performing his duties as acting governor was the principal force behind the Ohio Company. In actuality, though acting in both capacities, Lee does not seem to have allowed his interest in the Ohio Company to interfere with his official duties, thereby comfortably combining his personal with his official interests. Writing to the Board of Trade in October of 1749, he informed them of the Company’s activities while reporting in his official capacity on the state of the western settlements. According to Lee’s dispatches, the Ohio Company had ordered its first trade goods and had sent explorers. Lee also reported the need for a treaty with the Indians and the necessity of a resolution of the border between Pennsylvania and Virginia.40 By 1751, the Ohio Company was vigorously engaged in settlement of the region as evidenced by the company’s agreement with its agent, the explorer Christopher Gist, for the settlement of fifty families.41

Lee’s Ohio Company was only one of several groups of speculators who were eagerly pushing settlement of the western regions with long range consequences. The proliferation of such speculative land companies, was a variation on the early system of land granting in Virginia. While land previously had been parceled out under the headright system requiring settlers to arrive before land was granted, the new land companies were given land based merely on the promise of settlers.

In this rather loose context, many planters scrambled to become involved in large-scale speculation, including John Robinson of King and Queen County, one of Virginia’s most influential men in the middle of the century. As speaker of the House of Burgesses, Robinson simultaneously served as Treasurer of the colony. As early as 1745, a coalition consisting of Robinson and other southern tidewater planters received a grant for 100,000 acres along the Greenbrier River. After word that the King had approved the Ohio Company’s petition, a rival group of speculators from the Albemarle region also petitioned for land as the Loyal Company. Under Robinson’s influence, the Loyal Company received a grant for 800,000 acres in the southern area of Virginia. None of the stipulations for supplying and maintaining a fort, or for settling the land that had been part of the Ohio Company’s grant, burdened the Loyal Company’s lands. The Loyal and Greenbrier Companies were closely allied and ongoing rivalry between these two groups and the Ohio Company, consisting of men of the Northern Neck, was to be a continuing factor in Virginia politics, with personal repercussions for later generations of Lees.42

But quarrels among themselves were not the land companies’ most serious problem. Responding to British encroachments into the Ohio region, the French quickly reacted, moving their military forces into trans-Appalachia. Sensitive to its own strategic interests, England instructed the colonial governors to use force if necessary to safeguard the Ohio Valley and preparations were put underway to build a fort at the juncture of the Ohio, Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers. This situation rapidly deteriorated, degenerating into open hostilities and, ultimately, war.

Dying in 1751, Lee did not see the results of land speculation in the west. But the grandson of Richard Lee had enjoyed a remarkable career in his colony’s government. Fully utilizing family connections, this younger son had geometrically increased his small inheritance into a substantial fortune, simultaneously amassing large tracts of land in the Northern Neck. His performance in government was stellar, as justice of the peace, as customs collector, Burgess, Councilor, and finally as President of the Council and acting governor.

Notwithstanding, Lee’s reputation at his death was not unblemished. His forceful and commanding nature had apparently angered his neighbors in Machodoc who challenged his authority posthumously. For after moving to Stratford, Lee had retained his position in the Cople Parish vestry, even though Stratford lay in another parish. Thereafter, Lee had allegedly packed the vestry with family members in order to ensure his local dominance. After his death, members of Cople Parish petitioned the House of Burgesses for a dissolution of their vestry arguing that Lee held his office illegally and “by his unlawful votes, and Influence caused many of his Relations to be elected.” After investigating these allegations, the Burgesses concurred with the petitioners, and dissolved the vestry. Landon Carter, who recorded his observations on this affair in his diary, voiced outrage, declaring that the petition “had all the Malice and venom that ever a petition was stuffed with,” sarcastically describing it as a “good lesson for those who fancy power, for it is a testimony that there wants nothing but perseverance.” Not surprisingly, John Robinson, Lee’s rival over questions of policy and land speculations, reacted to the petition with “very large drafts of Rancour and Revenge,” supporting it wholeheartedly. Obviously political animosities accrued during Lee’s career had not ended with his death. Nor would it be the last tine that a member of the Lee family and John Robinson clashed.43

Following Virginia custom, Thomas Lee left the bulk of his estates, including Stratford and the acres surrounding it in Westmoreland and Northumberland counties, to his eldest son, Philip Ludwell. In addition, Philip received lands on the eastern shore of Maryland and two islands in the Potomac. As further recipient of over one hundred slaves, including all the skilled tradesmen, Philip Ludwell came into an inheritance that accounted for the vast bulk of Thomas Lee’s estates. At age twenty-four, Stratford’s new owner was also made the guardian of his younger brothers and sisters. To his next three sons, Richard Lee had bequeathed smaller parcels of lands, all farther up the Potomac. Thomas was allotted part of the lands and the fifty slaves that lived on them in Stafford County. Richard Henry inherited 4,200 acres in Prince William County and forty slaves. To his fourth son, Francis Lightfoot, Richard Lee left 800 acres in Fairfax County. Faring poorly, compared to their older brothers, William and Arthur, Richard Lee’s youngest sans each received £1,000 sterling, but no land. Meanwhile, responsibility for their education was charged to Philip Ludwell, their guardian, so that “they nay learn to get their Living honestly.” Alice, his second daughter was also given £1,000, while Hannah, already married was given a much smaller token. Additionally, his five younger sons, were bequeathed £200 for building their homes.44

Born into this world of eighteenth century Virginia, a member of one of the wealthiest, most influential families, Richard Henry Lee was legatee of a family tradition that expected greatness from its sons. The Lee family’s first three patriarchs had left a tradition of successful political careers, plus the entrepreneurial drive and acquisitiveness of Thomas Lee, which had been matched only by his grandfather, the founder of the family. Richard Henry’s mother, Hannah Ludwell was similarly strong willed, an inheritor of her own traditions of success and determination which she gave evidence of in her replication of the wealth of the James River at her home at Stratford. Richard Henry Lee and his brothers were instilled at an early age with compulsive ambition and the expectation that they, too, were destined for great achievements. As it happened, the fourth generation of Lee’s at Stratford was perhaps the most remarkable to appear. In the second half of the eighteenth century, “that band of brothers, intrepid and unchangeable,” profoundly influenced the history of Virginia and of the emerging nation. Proving, indeed in the words of John Adams, that the Lee family had “more men of Merit in it, than any other family.”45


1 For example: Burton J. Hendrick. The Lees of Virginia: Biography of a Family (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1935), 5; Cazenove Gardner Lee, Jr. Lee Chronicle: Studies of the Early Generations of the Lees of Virginia, ed. and comp. Dorothy Mills Parker (New York: New York University Press, 1957), 6; Edmund Jennings Lee, Lee of Virginia, 1642–1892: Biographical and Genealogical Sketches of the Descendants of Colonel Richard Lee (Philadelphia: Edmund Jennings Lee, 1895. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1974), 24–25; Ludwell Lee Montague, “Richard Lee, the Emigrant, 1613(?)–1664” VMHB 62 (1954): 3–11; Philip A. Bruce, The Virginia Plutarch (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1929), I:230.

2 David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 215.

3 Montague, “Richard Lee,” 7.

4 Lancelot Lee to Thomas Lee. 21 May 1745. VMHB: 255–260; Montague, “Richard Lee,” 8; William Lee, “Manuscript” Bishop William Meade, Old Churches. Ministers and Families of Virginia (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1889), 2:136–139.

5 William Thorndale, “The Parents of Colonel Richard Lee of Virginia,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 76 (1988): 253–267.

6 Montague, “Richard Lee” 1, 5.

7 See David Hackett Fischer Albion’s Way for a good description of Berkeley’s influence.

8 E. J. Lee, Lee of Virginia, 51–52.

9 Lee is frequently viewed as a staunch loyalist: Louis B. Wright, The First Gentleman of Virginia: Intellectual Qualities of the Early Colonial Ruling Class (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1940); David Hacket Fischer, Albion’s Seed, 218.

10 E. J. Lee, Lee of Virginia, 52.

11 petition of John Jeffreys, quoted in Lee, Lee of Virginia, 61.

12 Ethel Armes, Stratford Hall: The Great House of the Lees (Richmond: Garrett and Massie, 1936), 19; Lee, Lee of Virginia, 61; Montague, “Richard Lee” addresses the same issue but only to illustrate that Lee was a royalist.

13 Montague, “Richard Lee, “ 31.

14 Will, 1664, Richard Lee in Lee, Lee of Virginia, 61-64.

15 Will, 1664, Richard Lee, in Lee, Lee of Virginia, 61–64.

16 E. J. Lee, Lee of Virginia, 69.

17 Will, 3 Mar 1714, Richard Lee. mss University of Virginia.

18 William Stanard and Mary N. Stanard, The Colonial Virginia Register (Baltimore: Baltimore Genealogical Publishing Co., 1965), 40, 81.

19 William Lee, Meade, Old Churches, 2:137–138.

20 Though the literature on Bacon’s Rebellion is extensive, there is still no satisfying and unbiased acct of the situation surrounding the Rebellion. see for ex: Thomas Wertenbaker, Torchbearer of the Revolution (Princeton: 1940); Wilcolm Washburn, The Governor and the Rebel: A History of Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1957); Morgan, American Slavery American Freedom, 250–270.

21 Quoted in E. J. Lee, Lee of Virginia, 76.

22 William Fitzhugh to George Luke. 27 Oct 1690. William Fitzhugh and His Chesapeake World ed., Richard Beale Davis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1963), 271.

23 The reason for Lee’s return in unclear, perhaps he changed his mind and declared the oath, more likely his resistance was overlooked after an initial show by the crown.

24 Hendrick, Lees of Virginia, 46; Wright, First Gentlemen of Virginia, 217–234; Nagel, Lee of Virginia, 27.

25 Will, 3 Mar 1714, Richard Lee. mss UVA.

26 Will, 3 Mar 1714, Richard Lee. mss UVA.

27 Nagel, Lee of Virginia, 30.

28 Connie Wyrick, “Stratford and the Lees,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 30 (1971): 76.

29 Journal of the House of Burgesses (JHB) 1720–1722, 5, 8, 25 Nov., 1, 6, 8, Dec. 1720, pp. 254, 260, 280, 286, 291, 291.

30 Lee to James Hamilton. 22 Nov. 1749 mss. HSP.

31 Armes, Stratford Hall, 12–13; E. J. Lee, Lee of Virginia, 127–130.

32 Marriage Bond. in E. J. Lee, Lee of Virginia, 113.

33 Connie H. Wyrick, “Stratford and the Lees,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 30 (1971): 74; 4 March, 1729. Maryland Gazette; Armes, Stratford Hall, 52; Gooch to Lords of Trade, 1729, in C. G. Lee, Lee Chronicles, 65; E. J. Lee, Lee of Virginia, 114.

34 E. J. Lee, Lee of Virginia, 114; Hendrick, Lees of Virginia, 51.

35 Will, 30 July 1751, Thomas Lee. in E. J. Lee, Lee of Virginia, 121.

36 Nagel, Lee of Virginia, 44; Lee to Conrad Weiser. 30 Aug. 1744. mss. HSP; Lee to Weiser. 28 Dec. 1744. mss. HSP; Lee to Weiser. 21 June 1750. HSP.

37 Alfred P. James. The Ohio Company: Its Inner History (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1959), 5.

38 James, Ohio Company, 26.

39 Petition of the Ohio Company, Aubrey C. Land, ed., Bases of the Plantation Society (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1969), 45–47.

40 James, Ohio Company, 30–31.

41 Lois Mulkearn, George Mercer Papers Relating to the Ohio Company of Virginia (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1954), xiii.

42 Abernethy, Western Lands, 6.

43 Journal of the House of Burgesses (JHB) John P. Kennedy, ed., (Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1919), 1752–1754, 28 Oct. 1754 p. 220;JHB 1752–1755. 13 May 1755, p. 253; Landon Carter. The Diary of Landon Carter of Sabine Hall 1752–1778 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1965), 121.

44 Will, 1749, Thomas Lee. E. J. Lee, Lee, 120–123.

45 John Adams to Richard Bland Lee. 11 Aug. 1819; John Adams to Samuel Cooper. 28 Feb. 1779, Works of John Adams C. F. Adams, ed. (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1969), 7:432; 10:382.

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