Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Last Updated: Thursday, March 31, 2011
 

Belvoir in the Antebellum Period



When George William Fairfax left Belvoir for England in 1773, the estate was rented and its furnishings were sold. In 1783, the mansion and several of its outbuildings were destroyed by fire, and, as Washington noted, the plantation complex gradually deteriorated into ruins. Ferdinando Fairfax, who inherited the property, apparently did not live there. The bluffs below the former mansion site were quarried for building stone, but the house site itself was not developed. The subsequent history of the Belvoir estate was a microcosm of the fate of many of the large plantations that had graced southeastern Fairfax County during the eighteenth century.

Belvoir Plantation was devastated further during the War of 1812. In August 1814, as British land forces attacked and burned the City of Washington, a British naval squadron sailed up the Potomac River and forced the surrender of Alexandria. Loaded with loot, the fleet then began the 180-mile return trip downriver. On September 1, the British attempted to run the deep-water channel below the Belvoir house site, a position that previously had been identified as a strategic defensive location on the river. Here, a hastily assembled American force, composed of Virginia and Alexandria militia under the command of U.S. Navy Captain David Porter, hurriedly began to mount a battery on the bluffs above the river. For four days, British and American forces exchanged cannon and musket fire. The British fleet eventually passed the American positions, but British shells demolished what little was left of the old Belvoir Manor.

All of the great eighteenth century plantations in the Fort Belvoir area changed considerably in the years before the Civil War. Soil exhaustion and inheritance prompted the sale and sub-division of these formerly massive tracts of land. As a new generation of landowners took up residence in southeastern Fairfax County, patterns of land use and ownership were altered. The association of Belvoir Plantation with the Fairfax family ended with the death of Ferdinando Fairfax in 1820. During the next decade, William Herbert of Alexandria acquired the property, which he quickly used as collateral for a loan. During the 1830s, Thomas Irwin, Herbert’s creditor, operated the shad fisheries at White House Point. However, Herbert’s continued inability to pay his debts eventually led to the sale of Belvoir at public auction in 1838.


This artist's rendering shows American forces building gun emplacements
on the bluffs at Belvoir, in preparation for intercepting the British fleet.

 

The association of Belvoir Plantation with the Fairfax family ended with the death of Ferdinando Fairfax in 1820. During the next decade, William Herbert of Alexandria acquired the property, which he quickly used as collateral for a loan. During the 1830s, Thomas Irwin, Herbert's creditor, operated the shad fisheries at White House Point. However, Herbert's continued inability to pay his debts eventually led to the sale of Belvoir at public auction in 1838.


This auction notice in the Alexandria Gazette mistakenly called the old Fairfax plantation “Belview”.
In 1841, Philip Otterback of Washington, D.C. purchased the “Tract of land (and fisheries thereunto appertaining) called ‘Belvoir’ or the ‘White House’” for slightly over $12,000. The 1860 Federal agricultural census shows that Otterback raised wheat, corn, and oats on approximately one-third of his Belvoir tract. The remaining “unimproved” land, part of which was known as “Otterback’sWoods,” probably was used for timber and pasture, since he also owned considerable livestock, including horses, cattle, pigs, and substantial numbers of sheep.

Ownership and use of Dennis McCarty’s Mount Air and Cedar Grove properties also changed significantly during the early nineteenth century. By 1800, great-grandson Daniel McCarty “the younger” had incurred so much debt that the Fairfax County Court placed liens against all of his land, rental dwellings, slaves, farm animals, and crops. McCarty’s wife, Sarah, was allowed to keep Cedar Grove Plantation as her residence, but portions of McCarty’s property were mortgaged, sold, or leased within the first two decades of the nineteenth century. Parts of Mount Air, which included some of what is now Fort Belvoir’s North Post, were acquired in 1815 by Sarah McCarty Chichester, daughter of Daniel McCarty, and sister of Daniel McCarty, Jr. In 1804, several parcels around the intersection of Accotink Creek and the Colchester Road (U.S. Route 1) were transferred to the partnership of Gardner and Deane. These properties, which now form the lower part of Davison Army Airfield, Accotink, and the area around Tulley Gate, were developed into a grist mill complex. By the Civil War, the village of Accotink had coalesced around the mill site. Daniel McCarty’s sons, William and James, were left with only Cedar Grove and a large parcel of land west of upper Accotink Creek known as the “Whitemarsh Tract.”



This survey map, showing the Accotink grist mill area, was made in 1859 for a court case. Note the large marsh, which today is a prominent feature of the Accotink Wildlife Refuge.
By the beginning of the Civil War, all remaining McCarty property had passed from family control. Jonathan Roberts, a farmer and surveyor, with his wife Abigail, their five children and two male boarders, occupied the Cedar Grove property he bought from William McCarty in 1848. Roberts, who was originally from New Jersey, sub-divided portions of his property, selling the Accotink mill site to the partnership of Troth and Gillingham in 1849, and a 95-acre tract to Levi Stiles, also from New Jersey. The land east of the “Whitemarsh Tract” was purchased in 1856 by Samuel and Mary Denty, who raised livestock, wheat, corn, and five children on their 700-acre farm. In 1860, Mount Air and 452 surrounding acres, were purchased by Aristide C. Landstreet, who would later serve as a private in Company F, 6th Virginia Cavalry, CSA during the Civil War.

Roberts, Stiles, Troth, Gillingham, Denty and Otterback all represented the changes that had occurred in the Belvoir area. Large manorial holdings, manned by dozens of slaves, were a thing of the past. Tobacco, which had depleted the soils, no longer reigned supreme. The influence of the Tidewater aristocracy had waned. Instead, there appeared a new set of entrepreneurs and farmers who shepherded the Belvoir area into the twentieth century.

[ The Eighteenth Century: Fairfax County's "Golden Age" | Belvoir Enters the Twentieth Century ]



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