The Lees of Old Virginia

What do football players Archie, Peyton and Eli Manning have in common with Zachary Taylor, the 12th president of the United States? Answer: an ancestor, Richard Lee, originally of Shropshire, England. Lee was a 22-year-old lawyer when he landed in Jamestown, Virginia in 1639 and started, with the help of family connections, amassing wealth.  By the time he died, he was (thanks to his success as a tobacco farmer, slave trader, indentured servant importer, politician and multitude of other occupations) the largest land owner, and possibly the richest man, in the colony.

After our morning in the James Monroe Museum, we were on to Stratford Hall, about an hour southeast of Fredericksburg.  Stratford Hall was built by Richard Lee’s grandson, Thomas Lee, in the 1730s, and it was there that Thomas raised his rather large family. Among his 11 children were two signers of the Declaration of Independence, Francis Lightfoot Lee and Richard Henry Lee.  Francis owned Menokin, now a museum complex, where I had my all-time favorite historic site tour. History/Broadway buffs may know Richard Henry Lee as the comic relief in the musical 1776.

“The next tour is in 10 minutes,” said the receptionist at the visitor center.  Yay! The “Great House” (as they call it) was a hike from the visitor center so no dawdling along the way. It’s a large, brick, H-shaped Georgian (I love the configuration of the eight chimneys) fronted by an expansive, treeless green lawn — really, impossible to miss. But Patricia and I managed to overshoot it anyway and had to run back to make our tour. Reading the Stratford Hall website after I got home, I saw that they have a self-guided tour option. But I didn’t realize that at the time. You get an audio guide with the self-guided tour. The entrance fee is the same whether you go with the human or audio guide.

I’d toured Stratford Hall before, about 30 years ago, but all I remembered about it was the obnoxious guide who would ask for questions, then roll his eyes and sniff in derision when a question was asked. This time, we — Patricia and I and one other couple — had a perfectly charming guide (my guess is that she’s a volunteer) whose enthusiasm made up for her lack of familiarity with historical details.

The tour started the Great Hall. That’s Thomas Lee in the center, with his wife Hannah on his right and his grandmother on his left.

I seem to recall (though I wouldn’t swear to it) that most of the furnishings were of the period but not Lee pieces. Since the property was sold away from the family in 1822 due to the financial difficulties of its then owner, Henry Lee IV, it wouldn’t be surprising that its furnishings went the same way.

They’re doing a great deal of restoration to the rooms at Stratford Hall.  Recently completed was the parlor (below), now reflecting what it might have looked like in the 1790s, when Light Horse Harry Lee owned the property. The date seems an odd choice, since Harry Lee wasn’t born a Stratford Hall Lee but ended up there because he married his second cousin, who was a Lee of Stratford Hall. She died in 1790 so he spent much of the 90s living there with his second wife.

That’s Light Horse Harry in the portrait, attributed to Gilbert Stuart, on the right. The Marquis de Lafayette is on the left and in the center is a reproduction of a 1768 portrait of William Pitt as a Roman consul, by Charles Wilson Peale. Why Pitt? Because he was pro-colonists and made an anti-Stamp Act speech before Parliament in 1766.

Thomas Lee’s (remember him? the guy who had Stratford Hall built) oldest son, Philip,  inherited Stratford. Philip had two daughters, the elder of whom, Matilda, married Light Horse Harry Lee and eventually acquired Stratford. When Matilda died, Harry continued living at Stratford with his second wife, Ann Carter of Shirley Plantation and it was there that the fifth of their six children — Robert Edward Lee — was born in 1807 (or 1806, depending on the source).

The room where Robert E. Lee was born — a large, bright bedroom at the front of the house– is currently being renovated. Stratford Hall is owned by the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association, so maybe it’s not surprising that they’d renovate the house with a focus on a period when Robert E’s parents were in residence.

Robert himself lived in the house for only a couple of years. His father went bankrupt and was put in debtors prison in 1809 and after he was released, a year later, the family moved to Alexandria, Virginia. The house  went to Harry and Matilda’s eldest son — Robert’s half brother. It was he who sold it.

We saw the main floor, with several more bedrooms (below is the fanciest of them) …

… and random entertainment spaces …

… and the kitchen and servants quarters on the level below.

After the house tour, we were told to take our time seeing the rest of the property.  But Patricia and I were trying to make Williamsburg, two hours away, before dark, so we just had time to take a run through.

We saw the reconstructed slave quarters, where domestic servants and skilled laborers lived, across from the house. The Lees had 137 slaves in 1782, and there’s a small exhibit about slavery in the far cabin. We took a few minutes to look for the slave cemetery shown on the site map we were given, but it seems to be in an unmarked area under a hay field.

The map also shows a family plot in the garden next to the house, but there’s nothing indicating that there are graves there either.

The property occupies 1900 acres along the Potomac River …

… so we took a quick drive to the water to take a look at their beach …

and a c1745 grist mill.

We should have made more time for Fredericksburg, Stratford Hall and the rest of the Northern Neck of Virginia. Next time … next time …. For now: on to Williamsburg.

 

 

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5 Responses to The Lees of Old Virginia

  1. Rick says:

    The Lee’s are a powerful and prominent family that most people do not hear about.

  2. I loved my visit to Stratford Hall a couple of years ago; the style of the house is amazing! I took a bunch of artsy photos of the outside and added filters. Did the guide show you the fireplace grill with the hearth shield with (if I recall correctly) the angel’s face? Apparently Lee wrote about that later in life. Sadly, the guide told me that photos weren’t allowed on the tour; apparently they have changed that. I loved Menokin too! I didn’t end up driving down to see the gristmill; how cool! I absolutely want to see more of the Northern Neck on a future trip.

    • The guide did not show us the grill with the angel’s face 😦 . I think allowing photographs is a fairly new policy. It’s the reason I decided to go back. We missed so much in the Northern Neck — we’ll definitely make plans to stay for a few days the next time.

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