The Fairfax Family

The Fairfax Family

Fairfax is certainly an important name in Northern Virginia. Fairfax County and Fairfax City top the list. The name appears everywhere in our daily lives — on car dealerships, restaurants, and schools; Fairfax This and Fairfax That. Why is everything named Fairfax around here?

It’s because an English peer, Thomas Lord Fairfax, once owned five million acres of Virginia and West Virginia. His holdings included all of the land between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers, stretching from the Chesapeake Bay to the Alleghany Mountains. Savvy lawyers and politicians making backroom deals factored in the Fairfax family’s acquisition and control of the vast parcel, business as usual in some real estate activity today. The story starts with a bit of English history— the Cavaliers, Roundheads, and Oliver Cromwell — and an odd twist of irony.


A 17th century rift between England’s King Charles and Parliament forced the king to sell peerages to raise the money that Parliament refused him. One of those transactions involved Sir Thomas Fairfax, who in 1627 bought a title. The king got the cash, and Fairfax became Baron of Cameron, an area in Fife, Scotland, and all the "regalities," or perks associated with nobility.

Parliament’s disenchantment with Charles ultimately resulted in the English Civil War (1642-51). Royalist cavaliers fought against Parliament and Oliver Cromwell, whose supporters cut their hair short, hence the name Roundhead. Sir Thomas Fairfax, grandson of the first Lord Fairfax, commanded the Parliamentary Army when Charles was beheaded in 1649. The late king’s son, Charles II, attempted to ascend to the throne, but fled to France when Parliament refused to recognize him.

While in exile, Charles II rewarded many of his father’s supporters. He gave John Lord Culpeper and six other cavaliers a huge tract of land in the Virginia colony. The grant became known as the Northern Neck Proprietary because that was the name of the peninsula that formed the southern boundary of the land between the Potomac and Rappahannock. Proprietors acted as middlemen between those on the land and the Crown, and similar enterprises existed then in other colonies. Proprietors either sold or rented parcels of land, with owners and tenants paying annual rents to the proprietor, who in turn, sent a percentage to the King.

Lord Culpeper’s son, Thomas, eventually gained control of all of the shares of the Northern Neck, but their value was minimal until Charles II was crowned in 1661. Culpeper’s daughter Catherine married Thomas, Fifth Lord Fairfax in 1690. (Historians refer to individual holders of the title by their number in the succession.) Following tradition of day, Fairfax gained control of the Culpeper proprietary through his wife’s dowry. Thomas and Catherine’s first son, also named Thomas — yet another reason to number these people — inherited both the proprietary and the title upon his father’s 1710 death. So the vast expanse of land that King Charles II gave to Culpeper for supporting the crown ended up in the Fairfax family, one that had helped defeat Charles II’s father.


Thomas, Sixth Lord Fairfax, was born in 1693 at Leeds Castle, England, the Culpeper family seat. After private tutoring, he had just started Oriel College, Oxford, when his father, the fifth Lord Fairfax, died. Two family members acted as guardians for the 16-year-old youth. The fact that Dad had squandered most of the family fortune made the guardians’ job difficult. The grieving widow, Catherine, reportedly said to her son, "Your father has destroyed all that can be for you and me both. But I will do all that is in my power to get something again."

An aristocratic dandy, young Thomas passed the time playing cards and hunting. After a brief stint as an army officer and an appointment in the King’s household, Thomas began active participation in proprietary activities. The first order of business was establishing the upper boundary of the tract. At issue was the exact location of the headsprings of the Potomac and Rappahannock.

Thomas appointed his cousin William Fairfax, as his agent in the colony. Thomas then traveled to Virginia in 1735 in an attempt to survey the proprietary and settle the boundary issue. In the colonial capital of Williamsburg, Thomas negotiated the commission of a joint survey with Gov. William Gooch. But the resulting expedition didn’t solve much because of continuing arguments about the rivers’ sources. The colonial government’s surveyors argued for a smaller definition of the grant, while Fairfax’s men defended a larger acreage. Sensing that he would do better dealing with the King’s Privy Council in London than Gooch, Thomas left for England in 1737.

A patient Lord Fairfax waited until allies had gained seats on the Council, and then brought them the matter of the proprietary’s limits for a decision. Eventually, the Council granted Fairfax rights to the expanded area. The additional land amounted to 576,000 acres and constituted the current Virginia counties of Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah, and Warren, as well as five counties in West Virginia. The new total land area amounted to 5,282,000 acres.

In Fairfax’s absence, the Virginia Assembly carved off the northern section of Prince William County in 1742 and created a new county. The Assembly named the jurisdiction Fairfax in honor of the Northern Neck proprietor. The county’s boundaries were the same as Church of England’s Truro Parish, reflecting a common practice then of drawing coincident secular and ecclesiastical districts.

In 1747, Thomas returned to Virginia to administer his enterprise. Throughout his lordship’s absence, William managed the proprietary from his home, Belvoir, a grand, riverfront home near Mount Vernon. Lord Fairfax initially lived there, but soon moved to the Shenandoah Valley to be closer to the remaining unpatented land. On a portion of the land that he appropriated for himself — over 100,000 acres — he built Greenway Court, a relatively humble manor. Named in honor of a Fairfax retreat in England, the house was near the current town of White Post, Va. (So named because Fairfax set out a series of white posts to mark the way to his home.) He also constructed a stone building in 1761 to serve as the land office. It is still standing, but the house is long gone. Fairfax also commissioned land surveys by young George Washington, who at age 17, had been appointed Culpeper County surveyor in 1749.

With the exception of disruptions wrought by the French and Indian War, Fairfax lived a simple life at Greenway Court. He minded the proprietary’s business, read extensively, and hunted. He also tended to local matters as the chief of Frederick County’s militia and justice of the peace. He supped well, drank fine Madeira and other spirits, and broke up the rustic routine by visiting Williamsburg and Belvoir. In 1768, for example, he joined George and John Washington, Daniel McCarty, and other gentlemen in a two-week fox hunt and dined at Mount Vernon. He was a good conversationalist and a pleasant companion during a hunt.

William Fairfax had groomed his eldest son, George William, to follow him as the proprietary agent. When Lord Fairfax moved to the Shenandoah, George William was reluctant to leave the relative sumptuousness of Belvoir for the land of the unwashed. He and his attractive wife, Sally — long the subject of George Washington’s infatuation — were more comfortable visiting England or enjoying plantation life on the Potomac. Lord Fairfax asked Denny Martin, the husband of his sister, to send his son Thomas Bryan Martin to Virginia to assist in the enterprise. The young man joined his uncle at Greenway Court and presided over the land office. The town of Martinsburg, W. Va., was later named for him.

Lord Fairfax found himself in a pinch as the colonies moved toward war with England. He considered himself a Virginian and did not intend to return to England; he was 82 in 1775. Were he too vocal in support of independence, the Crown would seize the Northern Neck, as well as his properties in England. Simultaneously, he felt threatened by the Virginia Assembly’s demand that all males over 16 swear an oath renouncing allegiance to King George III. As a result, he kept to Greenway Court and said nothing.

Later the Virginia Assembly recognized Lord Fairfax’s long residence in Virginia when it waived the requirement for loyalists to forego rents on Crown land patents.


The Revolution’s success pleased Lord Fairfax. Parson Weems, Washington’s 19th century biographer, quoted Lord Fairfax’s response to Cornwallis’s 1781 defeat. "Come, Joe!" Fairfax shouted to one of his slaves. "Carry me to my bed! For I am sure ‘tis high time for me to die!" Sadly true to his word, Thomas, Sixth Lord Fairfax, Baron of Cameron, died two months later at age 88. A life-long bachelor, he had no known children.

Thomas left five-sixths of the proprietary to his younger brother Robert, as well as the barony. He willed the remaining one-sixth to Denny Martin, the eldest living male heir to Lady Catherine Culpeper Fairfax. The land belonging to the proprietary at this point, that not yet been patented or claimed for family use, totaled about two million acres.

Upon the death of Robert, Seventh Lord Fairfax, his five-sixths share of the proprietary passed to Denny Martin. The new proprietor immediately faced the consequences of being on the wrong side of the Revolution.

After the war, the Commonwealth of Virginia attempted to confiscate the proprietary’s land. Martin, who lived in England, engaged Virginian John Marshall to fight the proposed seizure. Marshall negotiated a compromise in 1796. The deal recognized the Fairfax heirs’ claim to the "manor" lands, those claimed for family use, but permitted the transfer of all unassigned land to the Commonwealth.

Bryan Fairfax inherited the barony from Robert and became the Eighth Lord Fairfax in 1800. A younger son of William Fairfax of Belvoir, he later became rector of the Fairfax Parish, which then included both Christ Church and Falls Church. As a young man, he lived at Towlston Grange, a family property north of the present day Tysons Corner. The house still stands and is a private residence on Towlston Road north of Route Seven. Later in life, Bryan lived at Mount Eagle, which developers demolished in 1968 to make way for the Montebello condominiums on Route One in Alexandria.

Bryan’s son Thomas Fairfax was the ninth baron and lived at Ash Grove, a house built about 1790. It partially burned in 1960, but its owners, the Sherman family, rebuilt a replica. Now owned by Fairfax County, Ash Grove sits modestly amidst a flock of McMansions tucked behind the Sheraton Hotel near the intersection of Route Seven and the Dulles Toll Road.

The 10th baron, Charles Snowden Fairfax, inherited the title in 1846. Born in Prince Georges County, Md., Charles later moved to California, where he became speaker of the state assembly. Fairfax, a town in Marin County, Calif., is named in his honor.

Charles’s brother, John Contee Fairfax became the 11th Lord Fairfax, although the Maryland physician never claimed the title. Upon John’s 1900 death, his son Albert moved to England and ultimately gained the title and British citizenship. His grandson, Lord Nicholas John Albert Fairfax of Cameron is the current and 14th baron.

Nicholas, a London maritime lawyer, has visited the Washington area several times since the 1970s. On one visit, in 1987, he helped dedicate a new development in Prince Georges County — Lake Arbor — on what had been family land until 1959. Fairfax Savings Bank in Baltimore, one of the many entities that has borne the family name, helped finance the Lake Arbor project.