Bodies of History: The Gravesites We Lost
Patch contributor muses on the gravesite locations of Parson Weems and the Mills family and their historical significance in the county.
During the years of his marriage to Martha Custis, General George Washington traveled from his beloved Mount Vernon home to several prominent Virginia plantations, including two Prince William County homesteads: Rippon Lodge and Bel Air. Both homes were key stops on routes to Richmond, Charlottesville, and Williamsburg (through famed King’s Highway), frequent destinations for the Washingtons.
Rippon Lodge is often credited as the “oldest standing house” in the county; although that architectural honor truly belongs to Bel Air, which was built in 1740, seven years before the lodge. Prominent historical figures were entertained there during decades preceding and following the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson and Washington are noted to have dined with both Blackburn and Ewell families, the respective owners of Rippon Lodge and Bel Air. Not to be confused with the Grayson family’s Belle Air in what is now Woodbridge’s Marmusco Hills.
Originally an 800-acre tract of land, the plantation at Bel Air covered much of what is now the western half of local zip code 22193. Over the course of two and half centuries, that land was slowly parceled and sold by generations of Ewells and the subsequent families that purchased the estate.
One of the best-known owners of Bel Air was Reverent Mason Locke Weems. Born in 1759 and known throughout his adult life as Parson Weems, he wrote Washington’s first biography, A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington (1800), a year after the president’s death. Although containing numerous fictitious anecdotes on the life of Washington—including the pervasive “cherry tree” incident, which depicted young George as a hatchet-wielding youth turned paragon of virtue—Weems’s work remained a classic for decades, second only to the Bible in popularity.
Today, in Prince William County, Weems’s life is remembered at the Weems-Botts Museum in Dumfries. The museum highlights the history of the oldest chartered town in Virginia as well as famous residents. Incidentally, the museum is a frequent stop for ghost tour aficionados, as several spirits are rumored to inhabit the property.
The subject of ghosts and possible reasons for haunting—if one believes—is relevant to the research I conducted over the course of two months on historic homes in our county. In thinking of the history of Bel Air and Parson Weems, I am somewhat reminded of the 1982 blockbuster horror film Poltergeist, which takes place in a new housing development built on a relocated cemetery.
The bodies of Weems, his wife Frannie Ewell, and a few members of the Ewell family are buried on the property, yet sometime in the first half of the last century, when the home was left vacant for decades, their grave markers disappeared. Such is also the fate of several illustrious figures at Leesylvania: the Lee and Fairfax families are buried without headstones.
The exact location of the Ewells’ bodies unknown, a county controversy developed over the span of five years during the rezoning and construction of the Saratoga Hunt subdivision surrounding the property. The subdivision is built on land that was until then part of the plantation’s estate. According to the Fairfax Times, “The land and water had been violated, and, because no clear plan for archaeological study was completed beforehand, questionable practices were used. One Historic Commission member complained of how the graveyard was sliced away and graded lower than the cemetery.”
In 2000, a Washington Post article cited archeological negligence on the part of HC Land Co., the land developers, stating that “local preservationists and county planners are concerned that slaves’ remains may be buried in the earth to be churned up for the Saratoga Hunt development.”
Save for a report that two unmarked graves were found on site during a spring 2000 study, nothing further has been written on the subject of historical findings; the developers continued to bulldoze the 130-acres listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As of this writing, Bel Air is listed for sale at $1,100,000.