History of Fairfax County, Virginia

The Revolutionary War | The Civil War | Late 19th Century | 20th Century | Fairfax County Today

In many ways the recorded history of Fairfax County, Virginia is a reflection of the history of the entire United States. Although the county was not formally created until 1742, the history of English settlement on the land that is now Fairfax County spans the early 1600s to the present. Such familiar Fairfax County names and places as George Washington, George Mason, Mount Vernon, Bull Run — even Washington Dulles International Airport — have played or are still playing important roles in the lives of Americans everywhere.

One of the first men to record life in what is now Fairfax County was English explorer Captain John Smith. In 1608 he journeyed up the Potomac River as far as present day Arlington County.

In 1649, King Charles II of England granted all of the land between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers to a group of seven Englishmen. Eventually, in 1719, this land came into the possession of Thomas, sixth Lord Fairfax, after whom Fairfax County was named. By 1732 there were attempts to form the land into a county, but it was not until 1741 that the Virginia Assembly, meeting in Williamsburg, created Fairfax County.

From around 1750 to the end of the 18th century, changes abounded in Fairfax County's lifestyle and character. Roads were built and mills and other forms of industry increased. Forests were cleared for additional farmland. Slaveholding increased, with 41 percent of the county's population in 1800 maintaining slaves, compared to only 28 percent in 1748.

When the Fairfax County Courthouse was moved from a location near present-day Tysons Corner to Alexandria in 1752, the county was still largely a wilderness. It had few roads and virtually no industry. The only wealth and commerce came from cultivation of tobacco with slave labor. Tobacco remained an important crop during the 18th century; indeed, tobacco notes were the main form of monetary exchange for paying debts. Tobacco cultivation eventually ruined the Fairfax and Virginia soil and helped to hasten an economic decline.


The Revolutionary War

More than just economic, commercial and demographic changes occurred in the late 1700s, however. Historic relationships were also altered, when Virginia ceased being part of the British Empire and became part of the new American nation.

The land area of the county was dramatically reduced by 60 percent in 1757, as Loudoun County was formed out of western Fairfax. In 1798, land in the northeastern part of Fairfax County (parts of present-day Arlington County and Alexandria City) was ceded to the new federal government as part of the national capital, the District of Columbia.

During the last half of the 18th century, two of the county's most prominent residents, George Washington and George Mason, became chief forces behind the formation of the new American nation. Both were wealthy businessmen and tobacco planters who believed strongly in commercial enterprise and the formation of capital.

Washington, who was arguably the single most important participant in the Revolutionary War, went on to become Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. He was able to keep his rag-tag force of soldiers going through the harsh, seven-year campaign. Later, in 1789, he assumed the office of the President of the United States.

While Washington was the chief physical force behind the American Revolution, Mason was a chief intellectual force, along with fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson. Mason's ideas on the rights of man surfaced in such important documents as the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Virginia Constitution of 1776, both of which were authored by him. His Virginia Declaration of Rights served as the model for both the American Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen, which was issued after the French Revolution.

As the 19th century dawned, it seemed that Fairfax County was on the verge of continuing economic prosperity and national recognition, especially with the new capital located next door. Instead, however, the years from 1800 to 1850 were harsh ones: the county's soil had been depleted from over-planting of tobacco, and the most prosperous economic area of the county, Alexandria City, was ceded to the federal government. Moreover, both Mason and Washington, the county's most prominent citizens, died during the 1790s, leaving a leadership void.

The population decline during this period reflected the harsh economic conditions in the area. At the turn of the century there were 13,317 people in the county; by 1830, this number had dropped to slightly more than 9,200. The county was not again inhabited by more than 10,000 residents until 1850, and it was not until 1870 that it even approached the population level of 1800.

In the early 1840s, however, the county's economic fortunes improved as people from the northeastern part of the country began to move into the area. They brought with them improved farming techniques, which allowed them to use land thought impoverished by long-time county residents.


The American Civil War

The Virginia Secession Convention in Richmond took place in 1861. In Fairfax County, two men vied for the position of delegate to the convention: William H. Dulaney, who opposed secession, and Alfred Moss, who favored secession. The men debated their positions before a large crowd at the Fairfax County Court House on January 21, 1861, and Dulaney was elected delegate.

After President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to occupy the seven states then in secession, public sentiment in the county shifted and Dulaney voted for secession at the state convention. Virginia voted to secede from the union on May 23, and Fairfax County supported the position 945 to 289.

Early in the Civil War, Confederate troops held much of the county but Union troops were positioned in the northern and eastern areas, especially near Alexandria. Troops from both sides crisscrossed the county, often wreaking havoc and destruction on private property. Raiders from both sides, the most notable of whom was the Confederate John Singleton Mosby, used the county as a staging ground for many forays.

Several minor engagements occurred in Fairfax County early in the war. On June 1, 1861, a Union cavalry raid at Fairfax County Court House (which still stands on Chain Bridge Road in Fairfax) produced several casualties. John Quincy Marr became the first Confederate officer to be killed in the war. ( John Marr Drive in Annandale is named for him.) Later that month fighting broke out between Union and Rebel troops at the Town of Vienna. Skirmishes were also fought near Dranesville and Centreville.

Two major battles, First and Second Manassas, took place just south and adjacent to the county, near a quiet stream called Bull Run. The first battle, in July 1861, ended with a rout of the Union army, which withdrew to the safety of Washington, D.C. This served notice to the federal government that the war would last much longer than anyone expected.

After the Union defeat at First Manassas, President Lincoln appointed General George McClellan as commander of the demoralized Union army. McClellan rebuilt the army and staged a formal military review down Leesburg Pike near Baileys Crossroads. Lincoln and his entire cabinet attended to watch 50,000 troops parade. At that point it was considered the largest military review ever held.

More experienced soldiers fought in the second battle of Manassas, in late August 1862. Confederate General Robert E. Lee defeated Union forces led by Generals McClellan and Pope, and opened the North to later attacks by Confederate troops.

On September 1, 1862, following Second Manassas, the Battle of Ox Hill (also called the Battle of Chantilly), the only major Civil War battle to take place in Fairfax County, was waged across 500 acres of farmland near where West Ox Road and Fair Oaks Mall are today. Two Union generals, Philip Kearny and Isaac Stevens, lost their lives during the fierce battle in which Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson participated. Information about the battle, and monuments commemorating Kearny and Stevens, are located at Ox Hill Battlefield Park at the intersection of West Ox Road and Monument Drive. 

After Second Manassas and the Battle of Chantilly, Union and Confederate wounded were brought to St. Mary's Church in Fairfax Station to be cared for by Clara Barton, who later founded the American Red Cross.

Two of the most famous raids of the war happened in Fairfax County. In late December 1862, Confederate General James Ewell Brown (Jeb) Stuart led 1,800 men who captured supply wagons, Union prisoners and mules at Burke Station. The rebels also cut telegraph lines and tore up railroad tracks. Stuart fired off a telegram to Union Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs to complain about the quality of the mules he captured.

In a daring midnight raid on March 8-9, 1863, Confederate ranger John S. Mosby and 30 Virginia troopers rode into Fairfax Court House and captured Union General Edwin Stoughton as he lay asleep. A marker describing the event stands in front of the William P. Gunnell home (now part of Truro Episcopal Church in the City of Fairfax), where General Stoughton was spending the night. The episode heightened the reputation of Mosby, a lawyer before the war who won the nickname Gray Ghost.

The war greatly disrupted commercial activities in the county. Both sides seized railroads and businesses, raided and burned farms. Troops shut down business establishments depending upon the proprietors' sympathies and the troops involved. Even the Alexandria Gazette, a daily newspaper serving part of the county, ceased publication until the war ended in 1865. Railroad and telegraph services were disrupted and, at times, halted. Destitute whites and blacks wandered county roads. Discarded military hardware was a common sight.

Amid the fighting and the hardships of the war, however, bloomed one of the more interesting romances in Fairfax County history. Antonia Ford, the 19-year-old daughter of a prosperous merchant, was arrested by Union troops and accused of spying for Mosby (he later denied it). While imprisoned in Washington, she developed a relationship with a young Union officer named Joseph Willard. He sought her release and the two married. She died soon after the war but he lived on to run the elegant family-owned Willard Hotel in downtown Washington.


Late 19th Century

Once the war came to an end in April 1865, the economic rebuilding of the county began quickly; but the traditional lifestyle of pre-Civil War Fairfax County never returned. In its place was a society where black citizens were given the right to vote and own property. Many owned small farms. The large plantations that existed before the war lay in ruin. Northerners who had moved to the county in the 1840s and 1850s had fled.

In 1870, Virginia was readmitted to the Union. By that time the economy of the county had substantially recovered from the war. Schools and churches were functioning again, as were the railroads and canals. Telegraph lines had been rebuilt and old businesses began anew. The Town of Clifton also had been founded in 1869.

Despite such growth, Fairfax County in 1870 was still mainly a rural, farm-oriented society. Although its population would almost double by 1930, the county would remain largely removed from the rest of the world until that time.


The 20th Century

The county's history from 1930 to the present can be summarized with one word: growth. During this time period, the county literally exploded, as first people, and later businesses, began calling Fairfax County home.

Demographic numbers tell the story. It took 140 years (1790-1930) for the county's population to double, from 12,300 to 25,000 residents. From 1930-1950, only 20 years, the population had nearly quadrupled from 25,000 to almost 99,000 people. Currently, the county's population has increased 10 times more than that of 1950, to more than 1 million people.

The start of this fundamental shift in the county's population began in the early 1930s, when Franklin D. Roosevelt swept into the Presidency of the United States. With Roosevelt's election came increases in federal programs and bureaus. Concurrently with those increases came the additional employees to administer the new programs and to staff the new bureaus. Since the automobile provided increased mobility and Fairfax County offered a less hectic lifestyle than the inner city, it became inevitable that the new federal bureaucrats would be anxious to call the county their home. In the 1930s, the county's population leapt forward by 16,000 from 25,000 at the start of the decade to almost 41,000 residents by 1940.

The pace of growth picked up in the 1940s during World War II, as the federal government expanded employment to meet the war emergency. When the war was over, the federal government expanded again to meet the job needs of veterans.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, federal government expansion increased at a more rapid rate than ever before, as more programs and bureaus were created. By 1970, Fairfax County's total population stood at over 454,000. This growth was directly attributable to federal employment expansion and the service industries needed to assist such expansion. Indeed, the business of the county was the business of government.


Fairfax County Today

Although federal employment growth still continued in the 1970s and 1980s, providing some population and economic growth, much of the county's growth during this period can be attributed to private economic interests.

Due to private industry's increasing need to understand and monitor federal actions aimed at the marketplace, many corporations and industry groups began to feel a need for a presence in the Washington, D.C., area during the 1970s. Encouraged by Fairfax County's growth, many firms and organizations located offices here.

All of this meant continuing economic and demographic growth for the county. Today, Fairfax County is home to approximately 300 trade associations, 289 foreign-owned companies, many corporate and regional headquarters facilities, a booming information technology sector and a growing professional services community. Six Fortune 500 firms call Fairfax County home: General Dynamics, Capital One Financial, Nextel Communications, Sallie Mae, NVR and Gannett Company. The county has 29,000 businesses, a growing number of which are in the information technology field.

Such phenomenal growth during the past 70 years has caused broad changes in Fairfax County. The county has changed from a rural, agriculturally oriented society to an urban, business-oriented one.

While this growth has altered the county's lifestyle, it has also provided county residents with one of the highest standards of living in the world. Fairfax County residents now enjoy the highest median family income in the nation. They also enjoy one of the best public school systems in the country, beautiful parks, an international airport, numerous recreational facilities and fine cultural opportunities.

From the time Captain John Smith sailed up the Potomac River in the early 1600s until the present, the history of Fairfax County has been a rich and fascinating one. It has been one of wars and peace, crashing economic depressions and soaring economic expansions. In fact, the history of Fairfax County is truly an accurate and poignant reflection of the history of the American nation.