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Regional History



Area of Study

Historical Communities


Proprietership & Early Plantations

18th century land grants within the area of study,
overlaid with Dulles Airport's current footprint.

Prior to the 18th century, the land that would later become Northern Virginia was inhabited by the Manahoac and Iroquois tribes. These populations would decrease as depleted soil in Virginia's Tidewater region forced European colonists to move north.[1][2]

The area of study was originally a part of the Northern Neck Proprietary, a vast 5,000,000-acre grant established by King Charles II encompassing the land between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers in the Virginia Colony. Robert "King" Carter, agent of Northern Neck administrator Thomas "Lord" Fairfax," patented over 90,000 acres of this land. His son, Robert Carter II, led a business venture known as the Frying Pan Copper Mining Company within the area of study. While this operation was unsuccessful, it led to the settlement of Frying Pan (later known as Floris) in the mid to late-18th century. [3][4]

It was mostly in the early to mid-1700s that Tidewater planters first patented land grants in the area. The land along the border between today's Fairfax and Loudoun Counties was the site of Cameron Parish, a western part of Fairfax County until Loudoun County's founding in 1757. Growth in population resulted in the mass division of large grants into smaller ones by the end of the 18th century.[5][6]

Sketched map depicting settlements c. 1800.

Northern Virginia faced much economic instability as tensions grew between British agents and planters during the Revolutionary period. As a result, it was not until after the war that plantation settlement in Northern Virginia became widespread. Builders of estates built during this time were often descendants of planters who had patented land earlier in the century. Examples of this within the area of study include Sully Plantation, which was established by Richard Bland Lee in 1794 on land originating from a 3,111-acre tract patented to his grandfather, Henry Lee I, in 1725, as well as Leeton Grove, established by George Richard Lee Turberville in 1794 on a 4,142-acre tract patented by his grandfather, Maj. George Turberville in 1727. A lesser known example is a nearby home constructed by John Hutchison in the mid-1700s on a 1,119-acre tract patented by his father, Andrew Hutchison, in 1726. Indentured servants and/or slaves were likely involved in the construction of these plantations.[7][8][9]

Economy & Infrastructure

Computer-generated interpretation of a local turnpike scene.

By the late 1700s, planters focused more on grain crops due to the depletion of soil previously used for tobacco crops. The widespread construction of mills during this time was a result of this shift. As planters seeked increased profit, the practice of slavery was increasingly adopted with the turn of the century.[10]

In 1798, a new boundary between Fairfax and Loudoun counties was surveyed. The counties of Fairfax and Loudoun have had relatively minimal change to their boundaries since this time. By 1800, the populations of both counties had increased drastically since the beginning of the revolution five decades before. Between the beginning of the 19th century and the American Civil War, agriculture grew steadily in the mid-atlantic region. Increased transportational needs necessitated the construction of better roads, including the Little River Turnpike (now known as Route 50 within the area of study) in 1806, and the Alexandria-Leesburg Turnpike (now known as Route 7) in 1818, of which the former runs through the area of study. Villages within the area of study including Chantilly, Pleasant Valley, and Arcola were founded during this period.[11][12][13]

In the 1850s, the Virginia General Assembly chartered the construction of the Alexandria & Harper's Ferry (later known as the Washington & Old Dominion) and Manassas Gap Railroads through Northern Virginia. The Manassas Gap Railroad and its Loudoun Branch were prominent within the area of study. The Loudoun Branch of the Manassas Gap Railroad was set to pass through farmland associated with the villages of Chantilly, Arcola, and the 20th-century community of Willard Crossroads. However, construction was never completed due to financial problems associated with the Panic of 1857 as well as the outbreak of the Civil War.[14][15][16]

The Civil War

Portrait of Col. John S. Mosby, taken
between 1860-1865. (Library of Congress)

Much military activity took place within the area of study during the Civil War. Support for the Confederacy was widespread among local farmers, though exceptions were present. This support combined with the overwhelming presence of Confederate cavalry regiments fighting along the Army of Northern Virginia made conditions dangerous for northerners whose political views were not the norm.[17]

Prominent in the area was Confederate Battalion Commander John Singleton Mosby, who commanded the 43rd Battalion, 1st Virginia Cavalry, known as "Mosby's Rangers." Mosby and his men are notable for their raids on Union outposts, one of which was conducted within the area of study at the Chantilly Estate, located one mile east of the village itself along Little River Turnpike. Multiple members of Mosby's battalion were of the area prior to and/or after the war. Mosby is also said to have conducted skirmishes in the Frying Pan area, near which lived his ladyfriend and Confederate spy, Laura Ratcliffe. Ratcliffe is said to have hidden information and money for Mosby under a large boulder at Frying Pan and allowed him to use her place of residence as a headquarters on certain occasions.[18][19]

On September 1st, 1862, the Union's IX Corps of the Army of the Potomac fought the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia at the Battle of Ox Hill, which took place near the area of study at Ox Hill, west of the nearby Fairfax City. Union major generals Isaac Stevens and Phillip Kearny were both killed in action during this battle. [20]

Recovery & Growth

An outbuilding of the predominantly-black Chantilly Baptist
Church, founded in 1880.

Following the war, a number of local veterans settled down within the area of study, often to engage in business. Some notable local veterans included Mosby Ranger Lt. Albert Wrenn, who opened a general store in Chantilly in 1867, and James Sinclair, who opened a blacksmith shop in Pleasant Valley later on. Changes in the labor force were inevitable as the abolition of slavery led many free blacks to establish their own farms, while others continued to work as farmhands and servants on larger plantations. In the decades following the war, a number of churches and schools were opened specifically to serve blacks in the community.[21][22]

Following reconstruction was a period of prosperity in the 1890s, when new farmers from elsewhere in the state and nation emigrated to the area of study. Numerous new commercial establishments were founded within the area of study as population increased. The progressive era yielded unprecedented growth for existing communities and gave way for the establishment of new communities. Willard Crossroads and the village of Conklin are examples of said communities within the area of study founded during this time period .[23][24]

Progressive-era buildings at Floris.

The area of study remained an agricultural locale through the turn of the century. New technologies allowed for greater farming efficiency and transportational improvements eased shipping and export. While the Great Depression quelled many commercial establishments within the area of study (particularly those associated with Willard Crossroads), local farms continued to flourish with relative autonomy. However, this agriculture met a tremendous decline in the latter half of the 20th century.

The 1950s marked the advent of tract housing and suburbanization in America. Planned residential communities not unlike "Levittown" of Hempstead, NY began to arise in multiple locations within the area of study. Small single-family homes built in rows appealed to veterans of the Second World War and members of the middle class who left urban communities in the phenomenon known as "White Flight." Large farms often owned by families for several generations were sold off to real estate developers as changes in the economic climate evoked the decline of agriculture in the area. This was further aided by the construction of the Capital Beltway and Interstate 66, which made transportation to and from Washington D.C. more efficient than before. Such change is reflected in census data, which indicated a tremendous surge in Fairfax County's population from 40,000 in 1940 to 248,000 in 1950.[25][26]


  1. Christine Feest, Virginia Algonquins. Handbook of North American Indians edited by Bruce G. Trigger, (Washington D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1978)
  2. Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Virginia's Comprehensive Preservation Planning Process: An Overview, (Richmond, 1991), 25.
  3. Fairfax Harrison, Landmarks of Old Prince William. (Berryville, Virginia: Chesapeake Book Company, 1964)
  4. Robert Gamble, Sully: The Biography of a House (Fairfax, VA: Sully Foundation, 1973), 26-32.
  5. Ross Netherton, Donald Sweig, Patricia Hickin, Janice Artemel, and Patrick Reed, Fairfax County, Virginia: A History. (Fairfax, Virginia: Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, 1978), 15.
  6. Netherton, Fairfax County, Virginia: A History, 29-32.
  7. "Salisbury Plain Marker," last modified March 1, 2008, http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=4533.
  8. Gamble, Sully: The Biography of a House, 26-32.
  9. Original Land Grants & Current Roads. Map. Leesburg, VA: Loudoun County Office of Mapping & Geographic Information, 2009. http://www.flickr.com/photos/omagi/3726236799/in/set-72157619283256388/. (accessed 01-20-2011).
  10. Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Virginia's Comprehensive Preservation Planning Process: An Overview.
  11. "West County RECenter Parcel, Cub Run RECenter, Fairfax County Park Authority," last modified January 16, 2011, http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/rec/wcrec/history.htm.
  12. Netherton, Fairfax County, Virginia: A History, 191-195.
  13. "The Migrating Courthouse and Shifting Boundaries of Fairfax County," last modified September 4, 2009, http://www.virginiaplaces.org/vagupnova/movingfairfaxcourthouse.html.
  14. Gamble, Sully: The Biography of a House, 84.
  15. "Loudoun Branch, Manassas Gap Railroad Marker," last modified April 22, 2008, http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=7278.
  16. Peggy D. Vetter, "The W&OD Railroad is Heart of Herndon for 120 Years" Herndon Observer, 2000, accessed January 17, 2011, http://archive.observernews.com/stories/archives/history/wandod.shtml.
  17. Gamble, Sully: The Biography of a House, 91-93.
  18. Maggie MacLean, "Laura Ratcliffe," Civil War Women Blog, September 3, 2006, http://www.civilwarwomenblog.com/2006/09/laura-ratcliffe.html.
  19. Nancy Jennis Olds and Kathryn Jorgensen, "Confederate Spy Laura Ratcliffe's House Has Friends," Civil War News, March 2007, accessed January 20, 2011, http://www.civilwarnews.com/archive/articles/07/ratcliffe.htm.
  20. "Chantilly," last modified February 1, 2011, http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/chantilly.html.
  21. Eugene Scheel, Loudoun Discovered, Communities, Corners & Crossroads: Volume 1, Eastern Loudoun: "Goin' Down the Country" (Leesburg, VA: The Friends of the Thomas Balch Library, 2002), 89-92.
  22. Peck, Voices of Chantilly, 158-164.
  23. Eugene Scheel, Loudoun Discovered, Communities, Corners & Crossroads: Volume 1, Eastern Loudoun: "Goin' Down the Country" (Leesburg, VA: The Friends of the Thomas Balch Library, 2002), 101.
  24. Scheel, Loudoun Discovered, Communities, Corners & Crossroads: Volume 1, Eastern Loudoun: "Goin' Down the Country," 83-88.
  25. "Modern Jurisdictions in NOVA vs. ROVA," last modified September 4, 2009, http://www.virginiaplaces.org/vagupnova/edgesofnova.html.
  26. " A Population Chronology of Fairfax County" last modified October 19, 2001, http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dmb/fcpos/016.pdf.