Friday, March 22, 2019

Belvoir Enters the Twentieth Century

Benjamin Otterback surveys the Potomac River from the shoreline of
his White House shad fishery, ca. 1900.

Chalkley Gillingham and Paul Troth, two of the partners who purchased the run-downWoodlawn estate in the 1840s were in the vanguard of the new arrivals in the Belvoir area.To them, Fairfax County’s depleted soils, low real estate prices, and general economic decline in the 1840s, presented an outstanding opportunity. Troth and Gillingham, who supplied lumber to Northern shipbuilders, were interested primarily in the vast timber resources of the Woodlawn property.

Many attributes distinguished these new residents from established Tidewater families. Many were from Northern states such as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maine, New Hampshire, and even New Brunswick, Canada. They represented a diverse assortment of occupations. Some were members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers, a religious sect that had been present in Virginia since the seventeenth century, and whose presence was strong in Alexandria. Quakers were committed to non-violence, education, the use of progressive farming methods, and opposition to slavery.

By 1850, theQuakers had created a thriving community in the emerging neighborhood in the Accotink/Woodlawn area. The 1860 Federal census showed that residents of Accotink worked as lawyers, doctors, millers, merchants, blacksmiths, boatmen nurserymen, laborers, wheelwrights, surveyors, carpenters, and farmers. Farm labor was provided by a family members or hired help, some of whom were immigrants from Europe and Canada. The Woodlawn and Accotink communities included a Quaker Meeting House and cemetery, the Accotink Mill, a school, and one or more stores.

The decline and subdivision of the great tobacco plantations brought about another profound demographic change in nineteenth century Fairfax. With smaller farms and the introductions of agricultural machinery, large numbers of slaves were no longer needed. Although many slaves were sold or taken by their owners to states in the Deep South, others were freed. The Quakers assisted many of these freed African-Americans to acquire land in the Woodlands/Accotink area.

Accotink Village, ca. 1900.

Archival sources show that these former slaves not only survived, but often prospered. Felix, Lewis, Philip and Ausa (Osman) Quander, probably related to Nancy Quander, a Washington slave who was freed in 1802, worked as laborers and apparently owned no property in 1850. But within a decade, all had acquired small tracts, located north and west of Woodlawn Plantation on what today is part of North Post. Other African-American property owners in the area before the Civil War included the Holland and Jasper families. The farms that these ex-slaves owned ranged in size from 3 to 28 acres.

During the Civil War, both Union and Confederate forces foraged in southeastern Fairfax, disrupting the daily lives of the Belvoir area’s residents. However, the closest major battles, First and Second Manassas, took place far to the south and west. Belvoir Neck also was too far from Washington, D.C to be included in the city’s perimeter defenses. Compared to other parts of Fairfax County the Accotink and Woodlawn communities continued to develop in relative stability.

The grave of Chalkley Gillingham, a leader of the two groups that developed the Belvoir area in the post-Civil War years.

A company street at Camp Belvoir, 1915.

The same families that had moved into the region before the war remained there during the post-war period. The children of many neighboring families intermarried, and farms became smaller as they were subdivided among increasing numbers of heirs. When the Army acquired the southwest peninsula in 1918 for use as a target range, 14 separate deeds were drawn up for properties that at one time had been part of McCarty’s Cedar Grove plantation. As one 1907 promotional brochure pointed out, “Old plantations here are fast being divided up into smaller acres, and practically where ‘One blade of grass grew before, two blades now grow.”

Decreasing farm sizes also meant that fewer people could support themselves solely by farming; more and more were employed in providing services. In general, whites tended to hold such skilled or salaried positions such as carpenter, miller, postmaster, salesman, schoolteacher, and blacksmith. P. Hillman Troth, who owned the Accotink Mill and several rental properties in the village, was one of Accotink’s most prominent citizens.

Both the black and the white communities developed strong social and cultural institutions in the post-Civil War years. The Woodlawn Methodist Church and cemetery, a school, and the Mount Vernon Enterprise Lodge of the Odd Fellows formed the physical and social nucleus of the area’s burgeoning African-American community. The social and cultural life of the area’s Euro-American residents revolved around the Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist, and Quaker churches at Woodlawn, Pohick, and Accotink, the schools at Potter’s Hill and in Accotink village, and the Woodlawn Farmer’s Club, which held annual agricultural fairs and published a journal on progressive farming.

As theWar Department prepared to acquire property in the area, Fort Belvoir’s eighteenth century sites lay forgotten and overgrown. One historian who visited the site of Belvoir Manor in 1888 wrote: “All was a tangle of brushwood and fallen trees: but such an enchanting view over the river! There were some heaps of bricks, and a poor old fig tree in the clearing, which I suppose, was once the garden.”

[ Belvoir in the Antebellum Period | 1917-1918: Establishment of Camp A.A Humphreys ]

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