and a History of Its Neighborhoods
Chapter 3 of a Series
HENRY WILLIS' FREDERICKSBURG: 1735-1745
By Paula S. Felder
By 1735, Henry Willis - most appropriately dubbed “the Top Man of the Place” by William Byrd in 1732 - had the future of Fredericksburg well in hand, with more plans to come.
After losing the campaign for a more central location, the justices let the construction of a permanent courthouse to Willis in 1736. Building began on the site where its replacement stands today. Meanwhile the justices continued to meet in his stone building on Lot 45 for several more years, for Willis as usual ran far behind schedule.
The church, which Willis also built under contract, was already holding services on its half of the public square, with the interior only partially finished.
Problems at the Warehouses
The two warehouses at the public wharf, which Henry Willis ran as owner and proprietor of the station, were already proving inadequate to hold the tobacco arriving for inspection. The justices of the court, who had jurisdiction over the facility, struggled with constant glitches generated by their fellow justice who wore too many hats.
Before the 1735 crop was accommodated, space had to be found for 335 hogsheads of tobacco outside the warehouses, a shortage of spectacular dimensions. At her coffee house and stables, Susanna Livingston rented the court space for 191 of the bulky containers weighing half a ton or more. The rest were distributed around town. Three more warehouses were immediately ordered by the justices, and for once, Willis did not get the contract to build them. It went instead to Francis Thornton.
Willis' neglect of his local duties was probably due to his involvement in the new county of Orange, created on Spotsylvania's western boundary in August 1734. While other Spotsylvanians were bemoaning the loss of almost half of the county's population and court business to the fast growing western area, Willis quickly capitalized on the opportunities it presented. He obtained an appointment to the prestigious position of Clerk of the Court of the new county and the designation of a house he owned on Black Rock Run as a temporary court site - even before the first court convened in 1735.
It took two years, but the Orange County justices, many of whom had served with Willis in Spotsylvania, finally obtained a site of their own choosing; but they were unable to dislodge him as clerk.
Henry Willis’ Imprint
Although nothing remains today of his architectural achievements, Willis’ handiwork is still all around us.
Widowed in 1733, Willis quickly laid siege to Mildred Washington Gregory, herself twice widowed and the only sister of Augustine Washington. Willis and Mildred had many Gloucester County connections. Willis’ brother, Francis, still occupied the family home in the south of the county. Certainly it was Henry Willis who knew the Gloucester County patent owners and obtained their release in 1729. This action prevented the town from disappearing. Mildred’s Gloucester County relations included her other brother, John, with whom Willis had shared vestry duty some years earlier.
Willis’ bride-to-be had such substantial assets—from two earlier marriages and a legacy from her father—that he signed a pre-nuptial agreement before their marriage early in 1734. Because they had a large combined brood of children and he had no suitable estate, she was no doubt amenable to his desire to acquire some attractive land.
As it happened, Willis, the ever adventurous entrepreneur, must already have coveted a piece of property that would further his plans. It was the eastern half of the patent on which Fredericksburg had been laid out. And since 1730, the land had an important new road that ran 24 miles from the North Anna River to the Rappahannock.
The road had been built—at the county’s expense—for Charles Chiswell, who was not even a county resident. Charles Chiswell wanted the road to transport the products of his mines in his new North Anna venture to his rented wharves at Hazel Run. The county justices had turned down his request, but Chiswell had important connections in Williamsburg. He made a partner of Governor Gooch, who simply overruled the court.
We would certainly not be amiss in thinking that Willis’ bride, who had ready cash, was willing to finance this acquisition for her new husband, for the high hill near the town on the property would make an excellent setting for her handsome furnishings.
Not long after their marriage, Willis traveled to Gloucester County and purchased Richard Buckner’s half of the patent, though the deed is among that county’s lost records. Fortunately for us, the property division was recorded in the Spotsylvania Court in October 1735 by the surveyor, George Home. Each owner received 929 acres. This division line, executed on a crude plat, would influence the growth of Fredericksburg’s 19th century neighborhoods, most of which are still recognizable today.
Spotsylvania Deed Book C, Page 161
A Road for Fredericksburg
Chiswell’s road, much of which we know as Route 208, crossed Spotswood’s mine road to his Massaponax wharves at today’s Hood Drive (the original location of “Four Mile Fork”) and continued on toward Hazel Run.
Spotsylvanians had been most uncooperative in building the lower bridges. Chiswell, no doubt wishing to avoid more trouble and expense, veered off about present day Summit Street and skirted the run. However unpopular Chiswell’s road was with the Spotsylvanians who had been pressed into building it, the road has proved to be an indispensable north-south artery for almost three centuries. The illustration shows the path of the county road overlaid on a modern map, including the section, known today as Sunken Road.
Willis was quick to capitalize on the opportunity presented by his new acquisition. He built a fork off the road and continued it through his new property, rounding the commanding hill, and then following his new property line into the back of town. In the neighborhood articles to come, it is important to remember that the lands on either side of this 1735 division line have distinctly different histories. For example, the Brompton and Willis Hill plantations are on opposite sides of the line. Kirkland Street and parts of Hanover are on the path of the line. Liberty Town backs up to the line (now an alley, much modified).
The road was simply called the “County Road” (and later the “Road to the Courthouse”), and it was the major link between county and town far into the 19th century. (It predates Lafayette Boulevard, a town street first called Prussia, which was extended piecemeal, finally linking up with the County Road at the entrance to the National Cemetery.)
After he purchased the 929-acre tract and built his road, Willis created inducements to attract visitors. He laid off a race course on the back line of the town. As part of his purchase, Willis also acquired two lots at the corner of William and Caroline Streets that had been awarded to Richard Buckner as compensation for the loss of his riverfront. There, Willis established John Gordon, the former tavern keeper from Germanna, in his own tavern. Spotsylvanians now came into town to sample its entertainments, buy wares in the shops, do business at court, and enjoy the twice-yearly fairs authorized by the Assembly in 1738.
Willis’ Vision Continued
Willis was in the midst of other ambitious plans for the town when he had a brief warning of mortal illness. In May 1740, Mildred Willis took the precaution of making a deed of gift to her five year old son Lewis, conveying all the goods belonging to her by the pre-nuptial agreement. (She was still a wealthy woman in her own right.) Willis traveled to Williamsburg to attend the Assembly, where he accepted key committee assignments, returning in mid-June. But in July, he executed his will.
The August session at Spotsylvania court was one of the most bizarre in the history of Fredericksburg. Henry Willis bought up one fourth of the town - 17 lots in all. (There were actually 20 lots still unsold, which attests to the sparseness of the population.) On August 5, he spent an entire day recording his purchases. As the law (already much bent) prohibited him from owning more than two lots, the other trustees acted as willing colleagues in his charade, witnessing “deeds” with invented prior owners as lot conveyors. Some were at least plausible; some were long gone residents; and some were unidentifiable. The most fanciful “conveyor” of all was the governor, William Gooch.
Willis then spent the last five weeks of his life supervising the development of his new properties. After his death in September, his executors worked quickly to prepare his assets for sale. They completed a large tavern on Caroline Street in the courthouse block, originally called the “Race Horse Tavern,” later the “Long Ordinary.”
The public auction in June 1741 on Court Day brought in almost £800 and apparently cleared him of debt. Willis left several town lots to his children, and his remaining asset, the tract he had acquired from Richard Buckner, to his wife.
At first, the auction seemingly had no effect on the town’s economy. Lot prices stayed depressed and there was no noticeable increase in transactions. But the foundation for growth had been laid and new arrivals, especially the Scottish merchants, were canny entrepreneurs who would soon capitalize on their acquisitions from the estate of Henry Willis.
Our Rich Colonial Heritage
Perhaps, Henry Willis’ most significant contribution to Fredericksburg's history has been overlooked. After his marriage to Mildred Washington Willis in 1734, it was surely he, with his expansive personality and great enthusiasm, who persuaded his new brother-in-law, Augustine Washington, to settle nearby.
Though they had gone separate ways, there was a close bond between Augustine Washington and his sister Mildred; they had grown up together in the Chotank home of their father’s executor and cousin, John Washington.
In 1726, Mildred had sold Augustine a 2,500 acre tract on Little Hunting Creek, willed to her by their father. In 1732, she was godmother to her infant nephew George, the first son of Augustine’s second marriage.
Through his marriage to Mary Ball in 1731, Augustine had acquired 600 valuable acres his new wife had inherited adjoining his mining venture on Accokeek Creek in Stafford County. This acquisition expanded his incentive for participation in the business.
In 1738, on a trip to England, Washington increased his ownership share in the Principio company; this would require more of his presence at the mine. Soon after his return, a farm opposite Fredericksburg in the estate of William Strother came on the market, and it probably did not take much persuasion from Willis to attract Washington to the November auction.
Its purchase in December afforded him the opportunity to be reunited with his sister. At the same time, he acquired a working farm not far from his business and conveniently located near the town. Neither Augustine Washington nor Henry Willis was cut from the traditional mold of the planter class. They were both mobile entrepreneurs, willing to take risks. Although their relationship was brief, they shared close family ties and interests.
At Willis’ estate sale in 1741, Augustine purchased two lots. In all, he and his son Lawrence acquired five of the town’s 64 lots between 1739 and 1742. In the years after his death in 1743, two of his children and eventually his widow became town residents.
Mildred Willis built a spacious home atop Willis Hill, according to her grandson Byrd’s recollection in his memoirs. There were still several children and stepchildren living at home at the time of her death in 1747.Her estate was valued at £2,000, the largest on record up to that time. She had three feather beds, expensive bed hangings, china, and crystal. Her silver alone was valued at £138. (In contrast the entire household furnishings of her brother, Augustine, were valued at only £160.)
The Washington Properties
Augustine’s eldest son, Lawrence, purchased two lots from the trustees in 1739, Lots 37 and 39; he made known his intention to live on them when he returned from military duty. His destiny changed when his father died in 1743. Lawrence moved to his inheritance at Hunting Creek, which he developed as the plantation Mount Vernon.
On the first day of the sale of Henry Willis’ properties in 1741, Augustine purchased two adjoining lots with a modest building, possibly a small tavern or store. They were Lots 33 and 34 at the lower end of Caroline Street at the town boundary (today the southeast corner of Caroline and Wolfe Streets).
In 1742, the year that Augustine was appointed a trustee of Fredericksburg, he purchased additional property, Lot 40, from John Waller. Today it is the site of City Hall.
When George Washington inherited his father’s properties, he sold Lots 33 and 34 as soon as he turned 21 to a firm of Glasgow merchants for a very handsome price. In 1755, now residing at Mount Vernon, George gave Lot 40 to his young cousin Francis Thornton, whose father, also Francis Thornton, had died in 1749.
The Arrival of the Lewises
Henry Willis' vision also attracted another major player well before the town showed potential. John Lewis of Warner Hall was a neighbor of the Willis family in Gloucester County and a first cousin of Augustine and Mildred Washington.
Lewis, too, was an entrepreneur, already in the shipping business. Through inheritance, he owned and worked 3,000 acres on the Ni River, where he could have seated his young son Fielding. Instead, he opted for a stake in Fredericksburg’s future, purchasing 400 acres in 1742 next to the upper end of town. Although the transaction was completed after Henry Willis’ death, it certainly had to have been the result of consultations with “the top man of the place” and with Lewis’ Fredericksburg cousins. He immediately established a mercantile operation at the town line and hired his cousin - Mildred’s son-in- law, John Thornton, as his store manager.
A decade later, Fielding Lewis - who married not one but two of his Washington cousins - would expand the family holdings by acquiring the other half of the Buckner-Royston patent.
Col. Lewis’ Store
John Lewis had a complex of wooden buildings, paled (fenced in) on the site now occupied by Central Rappahannock Regional Library. They were still standing at the end of the 18th century. A letter written by Joseph Jones to his friend James Madison Sr. in 1792 described them:
“The buildings on the lotts are old, are of wood, and were erected (except for a small lumber or warehouse) by Col. Lewis of Gloucester County, the father of the late Col. F. Lewis of this place, for the late Col. John Thornton to keep a store at [,] who then with Col. F. Lewis when he first came to Fredericksburg resided there and conducted the old Gentleman’s business."
The Lewis, Willis, and Washington families became the centerpiece of Fredericksburg's colonial history. Henry Willis is the pivotal figure who drew these families together. And it is on Lewis and Willis land that Fredericksburg would grow in the 19th century.
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