Arlington’s Oldest Families
Their ancestors came here centuries ago, some by choice and others by force.
Birches and Thomases
“[My mother] always said the twogreatest places on earth were Charlottesville and Arlington,” says Johnathan Thomas, president of the Arlington Historical Society and a ninth-generation Arlingtonian whose ancestors, over three centuries, have served as judges, public servants, local business owners and county board members. “Charlottesville is where she met my dad… but she fell in love with Arlington.”
Thomas’ genealogical research suggests that his family was in this area long before the Declaration of Independence. In the late 17th century, a group of Birches departed the English shores and settled on the southeast coast of Virginia. They later moved north, amassing land in what are now Fairfax and Arlington counties.
In 1770, Joseph Birch married Englishwoman Janet Bowmaker Robertson, daughter of sea captain James Robertson, a major land owner. The couple eventually inherited more than 3,280 acres in the areas that now make up Lyon Park, Columbia Gardens and Washington Golf & Country Club. Thomas estimates that at one point his forebears owned about one-fifth of the land that comprises Arlington County today.
Flash forward a generation or two and a family legend puts the Birches at the center of a historical footnote. As the cloud of civil war loomed, Randolph Birch, a grandson of Joseph Birch, lived on and owned a farm near the site of today’s Iwo Jima Memorial—making him a neighbor of the Arlington estate occupied by then-Col. Robert E. Lee. In the spring of 1861, Lee was contemplating a decision that would define history: Accept President Lincoln’s offer to command the Union Army, or remain loyal to his native Virginia and join the Confederacy.
The story goes that Lee was riding up and down his property on his horse (the famous “Traveller”) when he approached his neighbor’s fence. “Birch,” he said, “I’ve decided to fight with Virginia.”
“It makes sense that your next-door neighbor would be the first to know,” says Thomas, whose family artifacts dating back to this period include the brass dinner bell from Randolph Birch’s farm, and a picnic basket that his great-great-grandmother Margaret carried with her to the Battle of Bull Run in Manassas. (At the time, spectators expected the conflict between North and South to be short-lived; little did they realize the war would drag on for four long years and kill hundreds of thousands.)
In 1902, Birch’s grandson Harry R. Thomas married Julia Veitch at Mount Olivet United Methodist Church on Glebe Road (the same church where Johnathan Thomas would wed his wife, Leslie, 114 years later). Harry became the first of three consecutive county judges in the family.
Then came that fateful day in 1946, when Harry’s son, Harry Lee Thomas, a star football player at the University of Virginia, ended up at University Hospital in Charlottesville with an injured shoulder. Lois Johnston, a young X-ray technician, “thought he was a flirt and didn’t want to finish the job,” Johnathan Thomas laughs. “The head nurse said, ‘You get back in there and finish it.’ ” The couple married in 1954 and had four boys, including the youngest, Johnathan, in 1960.
Lois died six years ago and is buried alongside her husband at Columbia Gardens Cemetery on Arlington Boulevard—a resting place co-owned by other members of the Thomas clan. “She thought she was the lucky one,” Thomas says of his mom’s feelings toward his father, “but I’d say he was the lucky one.”
Matt Blitz also writes about Arlington’s failed attempts to land a Major League Baseball team in this issue.