Hidden in Plain Sight
From failed land deals to secret wartime hideaways, the ghosts of plantations past have many stories to tell.
Many of us joke about present-day Arlington being a small town, but it’s nothing compared with the Arlington of the late-18th and early-19th centuries, when the local landscape was dominated by a tangled web of Lees, Masons, Washingtons, Custises and Fairfaxes.
During that time, life was starting to change for these affluent families. As the beneficiaries of extensive Colonial land holdings, many were accustomed to trading Virginia tobacco and other commodities to British merchants in exchange for luxury goods. But as the value of tobacco declined (while their taste for finery did not) their debt grew.
Land-rich, but cash-poor, Virginia’s elite soon found themselves stuck between the growth of Northern industry and the rise of profitable, slave-labor-intensive crops like cotton in the Deep South. “This was a period when a lot of wealthy people were treading water,” says Matt Penrod, a National Park Service ranger for the past two decades at Arlington House, the former Custis family estate that now presides over Arlington National Cemetery. “People had a lot of respect for them, but they were basically being left behind in the new economy.”
As a result, many local plantation owners began treating their land as a liquid asset. “Suddenly, land speculation was all the rage,” Penrod says. Just as they do today, members of the upper class gave pieces of property to relatives, sold parcels to developers for roads and used land as collateral in business deals.
“Someone was always bartering land, speculating in land, or buying and selling it back and forth,” says Andy Galusha, a Fairfax County project manager who is overseeing plans for a new park in McLean at Salona, a plantation once owned by Robert E. Lee’s father. “[Many landowners] had gambling issues,” he adds.
And some went bust. Founding Father George Mason’s fourth son, John, whose grand estate on Analostan Island (the retreat we now know as Roosevelt Island) was famous for its lavish parties, eventually lost the property to foreclosure and reportedly spent time in debtors’ prison.
Financial pressures also forced the sales of Ash Grove (a plantation owned by the Fairfax family) and Salona—both of which had been part of historic land grants—to Northern farmers.
Arlington House, built by George Washington Parke Custis (step-grandson and adoptive son of George Washington) in 1802, might have suffered the same fate had the Union Army not seized the property during the Civil War. Mary Anna Custis Lee (wife of Robert E. Lee), who lived in the house with her children at the start of the war, had inherited the estate upon her father’s death. But she also inherited his debt.
“[George Washington Parke Custis] was relatively wealthy and certainly part of the 1 percent, but he was at the bottom end,” Penrod explains. “His wealth shows at Arlington, but it also hides that fact that he didn’t have a lot of money. He had a lot of expenses. By the time Custis died, he owed the equivalent of $1 million today.”
At the same time that upper-class landowners were losing their footing, life for the black slaves who worked the sprawling plantations was, in some ways, growing more stable. “African imports had largely stopped by the American Revolution, so Virginia slaves were becoming increasingly American-born, and developing their own culture,” says Douglas Sanford, a professor of historic preservation at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. “We see more demographic stability. There’s evidence of African-Americans really maintaining family practices, like naming children after grandparents. Their marriages were not considered legal by white society, but black society does recognize all this kinship.”
The dynamics between slave and master were also constantly shifting. In the early days of the American Colonies, “you had Africans of different cultures and languages coming together by force,” Sanford says. “Planters wanted them to learn how to speak English so they could communicate.
But as the enslaved became more Americanized, they [were] able to exploit the weaknesses in the system.” Slaves who knew how to read and write, for example, could portray themselves as free blacks and escape. They could sabotage their masters. They could organize other slaves to revolt.
Nervous legislatures across the South responded by enacting a series of increasingly stringent laws, known as “slave codes” or “black codes.” Educating slaves became illegal, and African-Americans—whether free or slave—were not allowed to gather in groups. Plantation owners who wanted to discipline unruly slaves without personally meting out the punishment could send them away to slave jails, where others handled the brutality.
Meanwhile, some slaves found more-subtle ways to assert themselves. “Slaves [weren’t] the willing partner that they were often portrayed [as],” Sanford says, noting that archaeology continues to reveal new insights into the lives, possessions and finances of slaves. “They found a means of accessing money; they were aware of fashion changes; and in some cases, they were making purchases of items [such as imported porcelain teacups] that were current and expensive.”
Though Alexandria (including the area we now know as Arlington) remained pro-slavery in the decades leading up to the Civil War, local landowners realized well before the war that the institution of slavery was bringing them more financial pressure than profit. The market for tobacco (a Virginia lifeline) was dwindling, whereas demand for Southern-grown cotton had skyrocketed with the invention of the cotton gin and the resulting demand for raw materials such as cotton for factory-made goods.
“The dependence on slavery [to produce cash crops such as cotton] was more to the South, so the county was largely pro-Union,” Penrod says. “Custis and Lee didn’t agree with the radical policies of the cotton planters in the South.”
In fact, Lee was in the middle of emancipating all of the Custis slaves—to comply with his father-in-law’s will—just as the Civil War broke out. Freeing them was a major undertaking, given that Custis owned 200 slaves across three properties at the time of his death in 1857. (In addition to Arlington House, he owned two Richmond-area plantations, known as Romancoke and White House.) His will dictated that all of his slaves must be freed by 1862.
Lee’s efforts would soon become irrelevant, however, as his home and other area plantations were seized for wartime use, leaving the landscape forever changed. But we can still glimpse what life was like for these early Virginians, white and black, in the legacies they left behind. The following estates, whether crumbled to ruins or impeccably preserved, shed light on the complex lives of those who came before us.
Abingdon Plantation (circa 1746)
Now: This easily overlooked site on the grounds of Reagan National Airport is located between parking garages A and B, where preoccupied travelers roll their bags past the brick ruins of the house and its outdoor kitchen/laundry.
Then: Like so many other Early American properties, Abingdon Plantation began its life as a Colonial land grant. Bestowed upon a ship captain in the late 1600s, the 6,000-acre parcel was sold to John Alexander in 1669 in exchange for 6,000 pounds of tobacco. But it would be years until anyone lived on the property.
Gerard Alexander I (John’s grandson) finally built a house on the land in 1746, shortly before the city of Alexandria was established and named after his family. But the Alexanders weren’t the only notable residents of this property. It also briefly belonged to John Parke Custis, the son of Martha Custis Washington by her first marriage. Wanting to be closer to his mother and stepfather (George Washington) at Mount Vernon, Custis agreed to buy the land in 1778. He named it Abingdon and lived there with his wife and two children until his death in 1781. After John’s widow and her new husband left Abingdon in the early 1790s, the property again belonged to the Alexanders until 1807, when the land was put up for sale.
Ash Grove (circa 1790)
Now: The original cream-colored, clapboard house (complete with an outdoor kitchen and meat house) is today surrounded by 20th-century brick town houses and condominiums. Owned by Fairfax County since 1997, it is one of the few surviving homes built by the Fairfax family, who, by some estimates, oversaw as much as 5 million acres of land in Colonial Virginia. The property sits about two miles west of Tysons Corner and less than a mile from the planned Tysons stop on Metro’s Silver Line.
Then: With so much land under their control, the Fairfaxes assigned different uses to their numerous holdings. Ash Grove was part of the 5,500-acre Towlston Grange plantation in Great Falls and was a spot that was initially reserved for hunting. In 1788, Ash Grove was deeded to Thomas Fairfax, then 26, by his father, Bryan Fairfax, a close friend of George Washington’s. Two years later, Thomas built the two-and-a-half-story house that remains today.
Educated and quirky, Thomas was full of ideas. He forged lightning rods for the roof of his home and invented a pulley-operated fan. But marriage and family were hard-won for him, despite his wealth and pedigree. His first two wives died within a year of their weddings. His third marriage, in 1800, brought him seven children. In 1833, Thomas gave Ash Grove and 4,000 acres to his son Henry, who lived there with his wife and, according to an 1835 newspaper article, opened a small school for girls.
After Henry’s death in 1847, Ash Grove was sold to the Shermans, a family from New York, who would own the property for the next 150 years. According to 1860 agricultural records, the Shermans ran a diversified farm on Ash Grove’s 241 acres, producing 500 pounds of butter, 150 pounds of honey, 55 tons of hay, 30 bushels of potatoes and 425 bushels of corn that year.
Analostan Island (circa 1792)
Now: Known today as Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Island, this 88.5-acre park in the middle of the Potomac is popular with runners, hikers and dog walkers who appreciate its wooded trails and diverse birdlife. Only a hard-to-find sign indicates where John Mason’s posh house once stood; its burned ruins were torn down in the 1930s.
Then: Who wouldn’t want to own a private summer retreat? John, the son of wealthy planter and Founding Father George Mason (proprietor of Gunston Hall in Lorton), inherited this island in 1792. He renamed it Analostan after the Necostins, the same Native American tribe that gave Anacostia its name.
Choosing a site within view of his Georgetown home, he built—with slaves and hired black labor—a Classical Revival-style house of brick and sandstone at the southern end of the island, surrounding it with fruit orchards, trees, shrubs, and culinary and formal gardens. After he married in 1796, John and his wife hosted festive parties on the island for high-profile guests, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and Louis-Philippe, the future king of France. Like his friend Jefferson, John was interested in agriculture. He planted experimental crops in cotton, as well as a variation of purple maize, whose leaves could be used to make purple dye. He also imported Merino sheep and raised a prized flock.
When he wasn’t gardening or entertaining, John was quite the entrepreneur. A merchant by trade, he operated a ferry between Virginia and Georgetown; pushed for the construction of a toll road to Alexandria; invested in the Patowmack Canal Company (George Washington’s venture to make the Potomac River more navigable); and served as president of the Bank of Columbia in Georgetown.
He also speculated in land, which would prove to be his downfall. In 1833, the Bank of the United States foreclosed on Analostan Island, forcing John and his family (they had 10 children) to move to Clermont, a family farm four miles west of Alexandria.
Arlington House and Estate (circa 1802)
Now: Encompassed by Arlington National Cemetery, this tourist attraction receives more than 4 million visitors each year. The restored house anchors 624 acres of hallowed ground, where more than 400,000 soldiers and their family members are buried. Home to the Robert E. Lee Memorial, the property offers today’s tourists the same panoramic views of Washington that awed residents and their guests in the early 1800s.
Then: Most Virginia plantations were remote, rural properties, but Arlington was not. Roads to Alexandria, Leesburg and the new capital city crisscrossed the 1,100-acre plantation, whose boundaries reached to the Potomac River. The house, built in honor of the first American president, welcomed everyone from nearby relations to curious travelers. A freshwater spring near the river was the ideal spot for picnics, dances and other gatherings.
The person behind all of this interaction? George Washington Parke Custis.
Adopted and raised by his paternal grandmother, Martha, and her famous second husband, Custis idolized his stepfather. When he failed in his bid to buy Mount Vernon after Washington’s death, Custis began to build Arlington House, with slave labor, on land that he had inherited from his biological father. Between his ambitious plans and periodic financial problems, though, the Greek Revival mansion would take 16 years to complete.
Once it was finished, the grand estate became home to multiple generations: Custis and his wife; their adult daughter Mary Anna and her husband, Robert E. Lee; and eventually, Mary and Robert’s seven children, six of whom were born there. Lee especially doted on his three youngest daughters, who had their own second-floor playroom next to their bedroom. (Ironically, Lee never owned Arlington—it always belonged to his wife’s family.)
In addition, an estimated 63 slaves lived at Arlington—tending its house, gardens, and corn, wheat and rye fields—although history suggests that Custis had reservations about the institution of slavery. He spoke publicly against it; supported the American Colonization Society (which sought to help blacks return to Africa); and allowed his family to teach their slaves to read and write, even after the Virginia Legislature outlawed the practice. He is also believed to be the father of Maria Carter Syphax, an Arlington slave whom he freed in 1826 and to whom he gave a 17-acre parcel of Arlington land, where she lived with her husband. In his will, he asked his descendants to free all his slaves within five years of his death.
Salona (circa 1812)
Now: This privately owned, thoughtfully restored home rests on 51 acres in McLean, off Dolley Madison Boulevard. Most of the property (41 acres) was protected by a conservation easement in 2005; Fairfax County is now developing a master plan for what will become Salona Park.
Then: While this parcel was originally owned by Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, Virginia’s ninth governor and father of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, it passed out of the family’s hands in the early 1800s because of financial difficulties. The buyer was William Maffitt, a Presbyterian minister and former teacher, who named it Salona.
Like Ash Grove, Salona became a working farm, using mostly slave labor to grow wheat, rye, corn, potatoes and hay. Maffitt owned 21 slaves in 1812, according to Virginia personal property tax records. Married twice, he had three children and three stepchildren.
The minister also had friends in high places. In 1814, President James Madison and first lady Dolley Madison fled to Salona and stayed the night (they were joined by John Mason of Analostan Island, who operated the ferry across the Potomac) to escape the British attack on Washington during the War of 1812. It’s said that Dolley brought with her the famous White House portrait of George Washington, to save it from fire.
But this event may have occurred at the peak of Maffitt’s fortune and influence. By the time of his death in 1828, he owned only 13 slaves, which suggests that he could no longer afford to feed and house the original 21 and their families.
- Martha Custis Washington: Mother of John Parke Custis. Married George Washington after the death of her first husband. Grandmother and adoptive mother of George Washington Parke Custis.
- John Parke Custis: Son of Martha Custis Washington from her first marriage. Bought the Alexander property and named it Abingdon. Father of George Washington Parke Custis of Arlington House.
- George Washington Parke Custis: Built Arlington House. Son of John Parke Custis of Abingdon. Grandson and adoptive son of Martha Custis Washington. Step-grandson and adoptive son of George Washington. Father-in-law of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
- Robert E. Lee : Son of Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, who originally owned the land that would become Salona. Son-in-law of G.W.P. Custis, who built Arlington House.
Caught in the Crossfire
What happened to these plantations during the Civil War?
- Abingdon: Occupied by Union soldiers from New Jersey, who called it Camp Princeton.
- Analostan Island: Known as Camp Greene, it held “contraband camps” where African-Americans were trained as soldiers for the Union Army.
- Arlington House: Occupied by the Union in 1861 to protect Washington. Used as a cemetery for Union soldiers starting in 1864.
- Ash Grove: Located in a no-man’s-land between Northern and Southern forces, it was owned by the Sherman family, who supported the Union during the Civil War.
- Salona: Occupied by Union soldiers from Vermont, who called it Camp Griffin.
Alison Rice, who researched an 1800s diary when she was a history major at William & Mary, completely geeked out on this story. She swears that a visit to Gunston Hall in Lorton is totally worth the traffic on I-95.