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Bodies of History: The Gravesites We Lost Part I

Patch contributor muses on the gravesite locations of Parson Weems and the Mills family and their historical significance in the county.

During the years of his marriage to Martha Custis, General George Washington traveled from his beloved Mount Vernon home to several prominent Virginia plantations, including two Prince William County homesteads: Rippon Lodge and Bel Air.  Both homes were key stops on routes to Richmond, Charlottesville, and Williamsburg (through famed King’s Highway), frequent destinations for the Washingtons. 

Rippon Lodge is often credited as the “oldest standing house” in the county; although that architectural honor truly belongs to Bel Air, which was built in 1740, seven years before the lodge. Prominent historical figures were entertained there during decades preceding and following the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson and Washington are noted to have dined with both Blackburn and Ewell families, the respective owners of Rippon Lodge and Bel Air. Not to be confused with the Grayson family’s Belle Air in what is now Woodbridge’s Marmusco Hills.

Originally an 800-acre tract of land, the plantation at Bel Air covered much of what is now the western half of local zip code 22193. Over the course of two and half centuries, that land was slowly parceled and sold by generations of Ewells and the subsequent families that purchased the estate.

One of the best-known owners of Bel Air was Reverent Mason Locke Weems. Born in 1759 and known throughout his adult life as Parson Weems, he wrote Washington’s first biography, A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington (1800), a year after the president’s death. Although containing numerous fictitious anecdotes on the life of Washington—including the pervasive “cherry tree” incident, which depicted young George as a hatchet-wielding youth turned paragon of virtue—Weems’s work remained a classic for decades, second only to the Bible in popularity.

Today, in Prince William County, Weems’s life is remembered at the Weems-Botts Museum in Dumfries. The museum highlights the history of the oldest chartered town in Virginia as well as famous residents.  Incidentally, the museum is a frequent stop for ghost tour aficionados, as several spirits are rumored to inhabit the property. 

The subject of ghosts and possible reasons for haunting—if one believes—is relevant to the research I conducted over the course of two months on historic homes in our county. In thinking of the history of Bel Air and Parson Weems, I am somewhat reminded of the 1982 blockbuster horror film Poltergeist, which takes place in a new housing development built on a relocated cemetery. 

The bodies of Weems, his wife Frannie Ewell, and a few members of the Ewell family are buried on the property, yet sometime in the first half of the last century, when the home was left vacant for decades, their grave markers disappeared. Such is also the fate of several illustrious figures at : the Lee and Fairfax families are buried without headstones. 

The exact location of the Ewells’ bodies is unknown, a county controversy developed over the span of five years during the rezoning and construction of the Saratoga Hunt subdivision surrounding the property. The subdivision is built on land that was until then part of the plantation’s estate. According to the Fairfax Times, “The land and water had been violated, and, because no clear plan for archaeological study was completed beforehand, questionable practices were used. One Historic Commission member complained of how the graveyard was sliced away and graded lower than the cemetery.”

Kevin Stockdale August 09, 2011 at 03:04 PM
My understanding is the historic Bel Air Plantation is now for sale. Last time I checked it was a bargain at one million dollars. What a treasure for the Park Authority/ Historical Commision to pick up. Can you follow up this article to see if the County is attempting to purchase this property?
Lauren Jost August 09, 2011 at 03:52 PM
Hi Kevin, I will definitely look into it. Thank you for your comments. Lauren
Stephanie Dupal-Demartin August 09, 2011 at 07:38 PM
Kevin: I mention the fact that Bel Air is currently for sale in part two of the article. The interior and exterior have been meticulously restored to its Revolutionary-era glory by a dedicated couple who were laid to rest on the property. I do hope that a preservation society or county authorities will purchase the property. Thanks for you comment and for reading the article!
Emmanuelle Dupal August 09, 2011 at 11:23 PM
Very interesting... Cant't wait for Part II !
George Washington LIVE August 11, 2011 at 04:22 AM
The too-oft-repeated "cherry tree" fable of Parson Weems needs to be addressed. First, some historians say Weems is not to be trusted because he presented himself as the Rector of Mount Vernon Parish, and there is NO Mount Vernon Parish, HOWEVER, Weems WAS the Interim Rector of Pohick Church (Parish) in Mount Vernon, for a time longer than some non-interim, "regular" Rectors. Second, some historians say the story is not true because it did not appear in the first three editions, and that is true, HOWEVER, it was added. Why? The story was NOT made up by Weems, it FIRST appeared in February 1800 in a Eulogy by a RELATIVE of George Washington who lived near Philadelphia. Eventually, Weems added it because the origin from a family member and supporting information supported the story likely being true, rather than false as modern "hysterical" historians decry. For what it is worth, I have complied 3 books on Washington in 2005, 2008, and 2010, created and presided over parts of the C-SPAN televised George Washington Book Festival in 2000, and was appointed by Governor Gilmore to the Mount Vernon Board of Visitors.
Lauren Jost August 11, 2011 at 12:02 PM
As a reminder, we require all commenters to identify themselves with their real names. If you have questions about this, please refer to our Terms of Use: "Patch believes in transparency, and we ask that all your registration information be truthful. You may not use any aliases or other means to mask your true identity."
amy keller August 11, 2011 at 02:50 PM
i loved the articles. i recently moved to woodbridge and have been doing family geneology research for several years. my ancestors burr harrison and the several generations after him including the whiteledges lived in our great county in the mid 1650's thru the 1800's. it is awesome to know that i am living on land once owned by my 10great grandfather. just wish i didnt have to pay for it, but i did! oh well, hehe. where would you suggest i start y local research, bull run library, weems and botts muesem, somewhere else i dont know of? i really am looking for supporting documents of residence and really anything historical i can get my hands on! thanks again for the great history lesson, my favorite subject!
Stephanie Dupal-Demartin August 12, 2011 at 01:58 PM
Thank you Amy! Bull Run library is a great place to start since it's the repository for county archives and historical documents, most of which can only be perused on location. I am told that a branch of the Mananassas Museum contains the genealogy of prominent county families, but I need to verify this. I would also suggest that you join some of our local historical societies. I am certain you will be successful in your research!
Jan Cunard August 29, 2011 at 02:43 PM
AT $1M, the county just can't afford to buy BelAir Plantation at this point. But it certainly would be a wonderful centerpiece to add to our historic properties which are owned and managed by the Historic Preservation Division headed by Brendon Hanafin who has done a tremendous job in restoring these structures to their former beauty.
Connie Moser August 31, 2011 at 10:30 AM
I think perhaps that reminder about masked identities needs to pop up each time someone registers.
Connie Moser August 31, 2011 at 10:35 AM
Jan, perhaps we could suggest some of PWC surplus funds be used for the Bel Air Plantation...1 million is a bargain for that property. Would fees from tours of the plantation be enough to offset the upkeep? Adter all, that is definitely a new county focus...to develop tourism. You have more influence and expertise than I...put a bug in someone's ear. I'd definitely support your comments.
Lauren Jost August 31, 2011 at 12:44 PM
Thanks for the suggestion, Connie. I'll pass it up the appropriate channels. After a first warning, however, we'll start to delete. By signing up on Patch the user agrees to our Terms of Service.
Jan Cunard August 31, 2011 at 03:17 PM
I have just made that suggestion to our Chairman. It would be great as it doesn't need the usual restoration costs before it could be opened to the public.
Connie Moser September 01, 2011 at 01:35 AM
Let me know if I can help, Jan.
Jan Cunard September 01, 2011 at 03:08 AM
Want to start taking up a collection?
Elizabeth Vittori March 22, 2012 at 01:12 PM
On Wednesday, April 18, at 3:00 p.m., the historic manor home of George Washington's first biographer will be sold at auction. The oldest home in Prince William County, Bel Air is located at 14513 General Washington Drive in Woodbridge, Virginia. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the five bedroom, three bathroom home and the property's pastoral surrounding 25 acres have been impeccably and lovingly restored and maintained by one family for over 60 years. Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both guests at Bel Air. A rare find, this property combines modern conveniences with a rich provenance that spans three centuries. The property will be available to be previewed on Sunday, March 18, Saturday, March 31, and Saturday, April 14 from 1-4 p.m. Additional details about the property can be seen at www.tranzon.com/FX6815. The historic contents of the property will be auctioned online at www.ebidlocal.com. Content bidding begins Sunday, April 8.

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