The estate and manor of the prominent Fairfax family of Virginia, Belvoir was located on a peninsula on the west bank of the Potomac River between Accotink Bay and Dogue Creek, four miles downstream from Mount Vernon. At Belvoir, the young George Washington developed lifelong friendships, made important social connections, and experienced what he described as some of the happiest times of his life.
In 1741, Colonel William Fairfax moved his family into their new home on the Potomac.1 The mansion house was, as described by George Washington, "of Brick, two Stories high, with four convenient Rooms and a large Passage on the lower Floor, five Rooms and a Passage on the second, and a Servants Hall and Cellars below, convenient Offices, Stables, and Coach House adjoining, as also a large and well furnished Garden, stored with a great Variety of valuable Fruits, in good Order."2 The name Belvoir translates from French to "beautiful to see" and George Washington would indeed remember it as "one of the most beautiful seats on the river."3
When Lawrence Washington married Ann Fairfax in 1743, his eleven year old half-brother George Washington became a welcome guest at Belvoir, where he became a steady foxhunting companion of the Colonel and his resident cousin, Lord Thomas Fairfax, the sixth Baron of Cameron.4 When Colonel Fairfax died at Belvoir on September 3, 1757, George Washington rode over from his military post at Winchester to attend the funeral. William Fairfax was interred beside his wife Deborah on the grounds of the estate.
After Colonel Fairfax's death, his eldest son George William Fairfax inherited Belvoir. There he and his wife Sally frequently hosted the Washingtons after George and Martha were married and settled next door at Mount Vernon in the spring of 1759. On July 9, 1773, George and Martha Washington visited the Fairfaxes at Belvoir for the last time. George William and his wife were returning to England to pursue a complex inheritance suit, leaving Washington with power of attorney to oversee their interests in Virginia.
By the following January, George William admitted in a letter to Washington that he did not expect to return to Virginia, and gave instructions regarding the sale of the furniture at Belvoir.5 At the auction on August 5, 1774, Washington spent £169 purchasing a variety of items, including furniture, carpets, curtains, candlesticks and "a bust of the Immortal shakespear."6 Following a second sale in December, the house was rented to the Reverend Andrew Morton for seven years.
In 1783, the mansion at Belvoir was destroyed in a fire. Two years later, Washington rode over from Mount Vernon to view the site. Writing to George William Fairfax, Washington informed his old friend of the state of the once beautiful home, wistfully reporting that "the whole are, or very soon will be a heap of ruin. When I viewed them, when I considered that the happiest moments of my life had been spent there, when I could not trace a room in the house (now all rubbish) that did not bring to mind the recollection of pleasing scenes, I was obliged to fly from them; and came home with painful sensations, and sorrowing for the contrast."7
Mason Faulkner Fields
Texas State University
3. "George Washington to Sir John Sinclair, 11 December 1796," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 35, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1970), 329.
7. "George Washington to George William Fairfax, 27 February 1785," The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, Vol. 2, eds. W.W. Abbot and Dorothy Twohig (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992), 387-8.
Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: The Penguin Press, 2010.
The Diaries of George Washington. ed. John C. Fitzpatrick. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1925.
The Writings of George Washington. ed. John C. Fitzpatrick. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1970.
Kilmer, Kenton and Donald Sweig. The Fairfax Family in Fairfax County: A Brief History. Fairfax, Virginia: Fairfax County Office of Comprehensive Planning, 1975.