5:11 PM / Monday March 20, 2023

6 Feb 2015

Fredericksburg, VA, In the Course of Human Events (1608-1800)

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February 6, 2015 Category: Travel Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO:  History Museum

By Renée S. Gordon

No city in colonial America has been more of a crossroad than Fredericksburg, Virginia. Situated in the Piedmont Region of Virginia, extending from the fall line of the Tidewater to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it showcases the 300 to 2,200-ft undulating hills the region is noted for.

Fredericksburg, located on the flattest land and One mile below the fall line of the Rappahannock River, has been an important area from the time of the earliest, nomadic, prehistoric natives around 13,000 years ago. Archeology points to permanent indigenous settlements approximately 1,000 years later.

John Smith explored as far as the future site of Fredericksburg in 1608. The Manahoack Indians whose name means “they are very merry,” met Smith with hostility. There were European settlements in the area as early as the late 1620s but the documented history of Fredericksburg usually begins in the 1670s. By the time Gov. William Berkeley gave a 2,000-acre patent (deed) to John Buckner and Thomas Royston on the shores of the river in 1676 the Manahoacks had all but vanished. Nevertheless, in 1681 Major Lawrence Smith built a fort to protect the settlers.

Tobacco was the earliest primary crop and because it was so labor-intensive slavery and indentured servitude were deemed necessary. As indentures grew scarcer and Virginia laws were enacted establishing the status of blacks as “slaves for life,” the market for black slaves exceeded the demand. The vast majority of the enslaved in Virginia were brought from the Caribbean not Africa. Slaves accompanied the first settlers into the region but the first documented slave is recorded in the 1690s. Fredericksburg does a zealous and comprehensive job of incorporating the African American story into the overall history of the city and the “African American History of Fredericksburg, Virginia” brochure is available in the visitor center.

Gov. Alexander Spotswood built Fort Germanna in 1714 as part of his establishment of an iron industry in the region and workers came from Germany in two waves. The colony served as impetus for other settlers to come to the area and highlighted a need for a port where goods could be collected and shipped for sale or trade. The logical location for such a place was Fredericksburg. Germanna, 20-miles from the city, has a Visitor Center Museum.

travel_02-08-15aSM01PHOTO:  Emancipation Proclamation Statue

Virginia’s General Assembly established Fredericksburg on 50-acres on the west side of the river in 1728. The city was named in honor of Frederick, Prince of Wales, son of George II of England and all but two of the original streets, Charles and Wolfe, were named after members of the royal family, the royal house or a German region. Warehouses and an inspection station were erected along the waterfront and Fredericksburg was designated the county seat in 1732.

Fredericksburg has a rich presidential legacy that begins in 1738 when Augustine Washington, father of George, moved his children and second wife Mary to the 150-acre Home Farm on the eastern bluffs of the Rappahannock River on the opposite shore from Fredericksburg. Their new home was near to the Accokeek Iron Furnace he owned and managed. A ferry provided transport across the river and much later the homestead became known as Ferry Farm. Augustine died there in 1743 and Mary never remarried.

George was 6-years-old when they moved there. He inherited the 280-acre farm and 10 slaves when his father died. He was home schooled but traveled often to Fredericksburg, at that time a thriving port town, where he interacted with people from all walks of life and it is widely held that in Fredericksburg his ideas and personality were formed. In 1748, he left home with a surveying party.

Ferry Farm is the site of an active archeological dig and to date more than 500,000 artifacts have been uncovered. The Visitor Center features an active lab and displays of objects found in the excavations. Self-guided tours include the gardens and the site of the Washington home, one of five on the property. Abraham Lincoln, an admirer of Washington, visited the farm in 1862.

Fredericksburg, the colonial frontier, quickly became an important inland port and vessels engaged in international trade were often seen on the Rappahannock. These ships carried Virginia products to foreign ports and exchanged them for foreign goods, including slaves. Because of the need for both agricultural and trade related labor the city always maintained a significant enslaved and free black population.

A marker indicates the site where slave ships moored along the City Dock. Slave pens, holding facilities for slaves awaiting sale, were located throughout the city. Sales took place in local taverns, hotels and on the courthouse steps.

On the corner of William and Charles Streets, in front of what was once the Planter’s Hotel, sits the slave auction block. The 2.5-ft. high, 2-ft. wide, sandstone block was used as a steppingstone from which to mount a horse and for the public display of slaves to be sold. Sales here have been documented

While there were numerous slaves there were also men like John DeBaptiste, a freeman who served on a Revolutionary War ship. He established a ferry service, owned land and several slaves. William DeBaptiste and his family owned properties on Charles Street and from their home they operated a covert school for black students.

Fredericksburg was an important site for the patriots both before and during the Revolutionary War. The Rising Sun Tavern was a meeting point and an outline of resolutions for proclaiming independence from Britain was written at the tavern. Charles Washington, younger brother of George, built the structure as a residence in 1760. It was purchased 32-years-later by the Wallace family and began operating as a tavern. The building has been restored but a large portion of the woodwork is original. Daily tours, guided by costumed docents, immerse you in the 18th-century tavern visitor experience. Included areas are the taproom and public and private rooms. The Rising Sun was a “proper” tavern because they never slept more than five to a bed.

Kenmore, built in the 1770s by Fielding and Betty Lewis, sister of George Washington, is arguably the most beautiful pre-revolutionary Georgian mansion in the country. This plantation house, once part of an 1100-acre estate, features the most exemplary colonial plasterwork in the nation.

Fielding was a benefactor of a pre-Revolutionary school that educated slaves in Fredericksburg from1765-70. As owner of the Fredericksburg Gun Manufactory and a ship owner, Fielding supported the patriot cause during the revolution with his personal funds. At the end of the war the new government had no money to repay him and upon his death he was nearly bankrupt.

Tours begin in the Crowninshield Museum building with galleries of furnishings and decorative arts from the period. House tours include the first floor and the kitchen.

George, like any good son, became concerned for his mother’s welfare as she grew older. In 1772, he purchased a Fredericksburg townhouse from Michael Robinson, close to Kenmore, for Mary Washington and two adjoining lots. She lived there until her death 17 years later. When Mary moved here she brought along with her six slaves and her most prized possessions some of which are on display. General Lafayette visited Mary here and in 1789 George visited just prior to his inauguration. Tours of the house include her gardens and detached original kitchen with slave quarters for her two cooks above. The floorboards are original as are the boxwoods planted by Mary in the garden.

Mary Washington enjoyed walking on the grounds of Kenmore. Her favorite place was Meditation Rock. She requested that she be buried there and in 1833 President Jackson laid the cornerstone for a monument. It was not completed because of lack of funding and in the late 1800s a campaign to raise funds was undertaken by women. In 1894 the 40-ft. obelisk was dedicated. It is the first monument to a woman funded by women in the nation.

Thomas Jefferson was a frequent visitor to Fredericksburg and in 1777 it was the setting for his drafting of the Statute for Religious Freedom. It clearly defines the principle of separation of church and state and is the basis for the protection of religious freedom as stated in the First Amendment. Virginia’s General Assembly passed it in 1785. The Thomas Jefferson Religious Freedom Monument honoring this achievement was originally dedicated in 1932.

Near the Religious Freedom Monument on Washington Avenue stands the General Hugh Mercer Monument sculpted by Edward Valentine. Doctor Hugh Mercer was a dashing Scotsman who fled his country and settled in Pennsylvania in 1747. He joined the army during the French and Indian War and established himself as both a hero and good friend of George Washington. In 1760; he moved to Fredericksburg, began practicing medicine and opened an apothecary shop. He joined the Continental Army and in January of 1776 becomes a colonel. He was severely wounded at Princeton, where he was mistaken for Washington, and died in 1777. He is buried in Laurel Hill in Philadelphia.

The Hugh Mercer Apothecary Shop dates from 1771. Tours highlight 18th-century medical practices and displays include common curatives, herbs and medical instruments from the time period.

Fifth president James Monroe also has a strong connection to the city. After serving in the Virginia House of Delegates and as a representative to the Continental Congress he established a law practice in a small brick building in Fredericksburg. He lived and worked there from 1786-90 at which time he left for the US Senate. The Monroe Museum and Memorial Library was founded in 1927 by members of the family and is housed inside three buildings erected later on the original site. The museum displays more than 10,000 objects all having belonged to the Monroe family. Highlights of the collection include two Peale portraits of Monroe and the Monroe Doctrine Desk. The capitol of Liberia, Monrovia, was named after Monroe because of his involvement in the colonization effort.

Town Hall/Market House was built in 1816 on the site where the Town Market was situated since 1765. The existing structure, with market stalls on the lower level and Town Hall above, was erected using slave labor but slaves were not allowed to trade in the marketplace. During Lafayette’s visit to Town Hall free blacks and slaves were told to stay off the streets. In the museum courtyard an Emancipation Proclamation Statue has been placed to commemorate its passage.

Today, the structure is part of the Fredericksburg Area Museum & Cultural Center complex that showcases the city’s history in 13 galleries in two buildings. The Catherine McKann Center tour of the seven permanent galleries includes Virginia Indians, the Colonial Era, he Civil and Revolutionary Wars and the African American Experience. One of the museum’s highlights is a history of US currency inside a large vault. Here you learn that the first paper money was issued in the colonies in 1690 and the only woman to be depicted on paper currency was Martha Washington. The exhibits can be viewed on a self-guided tour.

Fredericksburg has more than 270 original 18th and 19th-century buildings, 24 of which are individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Historic District is filled with architectural wonders, unique shopping and dining venues and celebrated sites. Your first stop in the Historic District should be the Fredericksburg Visitor Center. The center is filled with brochures, maps and guides and the staff will assist you in designing a personalized trip and making reservations. An excellent orientation film is shown on demand and provides background for your visit.

Trolley tours depart from the Visitor Center for daily 75-minute guided tours. The route includes all the significant sites and attractions within the area, including the Fredericksburg Battlefield. Trained guides present an informative, interesting and holistic view of the city’s history that is inclusive of all the people that shaped its story. Trolleys are climate-controlled and operate year round.

The Courtyard Fredericksburg Historic District on Caroline Street could not possibly be in a better location. It is directly across from the Visitor Center and all one need do is step outside the doors and into history. The rooms are spacious and include all the standard amenities and free WIFI. There is an indoor pool and fitness center and overnight parking for a fee.

You will never believe how much Fredericksburg has to offer. It is a destination that can be reached by car from Philadelphia on a single tank of gas. Immerse yourself in the experiences this small gem has to offer.

I wish you smooth travels!

Travel Tips:

The year 2015 will be an extraordinary year in Philadelphia. The 8th World Meeting of Families will take place September 22-27 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Events and activities will focus on the theme, “Love is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive.” The culminating event will be the first visit of Pope Francis to the United States and a public mass will be held on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Obtain more information on this singular event. and

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