and a History of Its Neighborhoods

Chapter 2 of a Series
A SLOW BEGINNING:  1728-1732

By Paula S. Felder



 First Description of Fredericksburg

“It is pleasantly situated on the South Shore of Rappahannock River, about a Mile below the Falls.  Sloops may come up and ly close to the Wharf, within 30 yards of the Public Warehouses... Just by the wharf is a quarry of  white stone... There are several other quarries in the River Bank, within the limits of the town, sufficient to build a great City.  The only edifice of Stone yet built is the Prison Tho’ this be a commodious and beautiful situation for a Town with the advantages of a Navigable River, and wholesome air, yet the inhabitants are very few.  Besides Colo Willis, who is the top man of the place, there are only a Merchant, a Taylor, a Smith, and an Ordinary keeper; though I must not forget Mrs. Levingstone, who acts here in the Double Capacity of a Doctress and Coffee Woman”.
                            Col. William Byrd of Westover Plantation, Oct. 3, 1732
 A Progress to the Mines.”  The Prose Works of William Byrd of Westover

John Gordon, the Ordinary Keeper

John Gordon immigrated to Virginia from Scotland in 1721. He was a tavern keeper at Germanna when it was the county seat. Henry Willis recruited him to move to the still-empty town of Fredericksburg as his ordinary keeper when the court was relocated.

By 1735, Willis had set Gordon up in his own establishment on Lot 26 at the corner of William and Caroline streets. His tavern was a lively center that Col. William Byrd patronized on more than one occasion.

After Gordon’s death in 1749, his widow, Margaret, continued to operate the tavern. Among her loyal customers was Col. John Waller, the most prominent leader of Spotsylvania County’s during its early years - senior vestryman of the parish and clerk of the county court. Wailer kept a desk at Mrs. Gordon’s for use during his many stays in town.

In 1764, her daughter, Catherine, married George Weedon, a veteran of the French and Indian War, who assumed the management of the tavern. He bought his mother-in-law out in 1773, and the tavern continued to be the region’s most popular male gathering place. Weedon’s tavern ledger survives in the custody of the Fredericksburg Circuit Court, and on microfilm in the Virginiana Room of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library.

The Livingstons

John Royston was not successful in saving the riverfront of his patent by importing William and Susanna Livingston from Williamsburg. But he inadvertently created a beginning population for the town.

In May 1727, William Livingston had been issued a license to keep an ordinary (or tavern) “at his dwelling house and kitchen.” Thanks to the legislation enacted the following year that displaced him, we know the couple resided on the acre of land awarded to John Royston, specifically Lots 27 and 28.

The Livingstons then relocated across Amelia Street on Lots 29 and 31. Their ordinary contained several tables, 20 old chairs, 16 spoons, 17 cups and saucers, a parcel of knives and forks, two pewter salvers, and numerous pieces of cooking equipment.

William Livingston died in 1729, and after the court moved from Germanna, Susanna ran a coffee house and stabled the justices’ horses. She was also frequently reimbursed by the parish vestry for her services as a nurse and as a sexton (custodian) at the parish church.

First Merchants, Humphrey and Thomas Hill

Thomas and Humphrey Hill were brothers from King and Queen County who both acquired property in Spotsylvania. Humphrey was the agent for Humphrey Bell of London for whom he also acquired land (including the sites of present-day Spotsylvania Mall and Central Park). The brothers bought the entire block across from the public lot. Thomas Hill was the merchant in residence when Col. William Byrd visited in the fall of 1732.

The other residents in 1732 identified by Col. Byrd were William Frazier, a tailor, whose family lived here for many years, and James Sleet, a blacksmith, who was enjoying a profitable few months supplying ironwork for the court and the cellar prison.

‘The Top Man of the Place’
                   - Col. William Byrd’s Journal

 Fredericksburg’s early years were lean, indeed. Its existence was not assured until a colorful entrepreneur from Gloucester County took charge of its future.

 Henry Willis was a man of near legendary proportions. (His grandsons were said to have weighed 300 pounds.) He also had vast ambitions and a steamroller personality.

 Efficiency was not his forte, and he was always overextended in too many directions. But although he was a constant source of frustration to his fellow justices on the court, he was the only one willing to undertake the building of the town’s public facilities. His shortcomings were tolerated by the other justices, who tried to rein him in on occasion and keep him on schedule.

As a younger son in a prominent Gloucester County family, Willis could not expect to inherit the family estate, and so he became the first of several younger sons of the Tidewater gentry to try his hands at frontier commerce. (Fielding Lewis and Benjamin Grymes followed him in the next generation.)

A year after its creation, Fredericksburg was about to disappear. So few lots had been sold that there were insufficient funds to pay the required sum of 50 pounds to each of the patent’s co-owners, who also were from Gloucester County. Under the terms of the act, the land should have reverted to them after six months.

Before Henry WiIlis had even moved to Spotsylva­nia, he already had won a seat on the county court, election as one of Spotsylvania’s representatives in the House of Burgesses, and appointment as a trustee in the founding legislation.

Now, in 1729, he was at last a county resident, with his second wife and numerous children, living on 400 acres encompassing today’s Hugh Mercer School.

At the court at Germanna in May 1729, Willis appeared with receipts from the two patent owners affirming that they had been paid in full the amount due them. (The details of this transaction were not identified; very likely, it was personally negotiated by Willis on a visit to his home county.)

Although the town site was now secure, lot sales did not improve. By 1734, there had been only 19 sales, and six of those were resales, with only one showing an appreciated value. (Willis himself     accounted for several of the sales.)

The Buckner-Royston heirs had been awarded a compensatory block of four lots (Lots 25-28 bounded by Caroline, Sophia, Amelia and William streets).  They had not developed their property.  But better times were on the way, and Henry Willis already had laid the groundwork.



The Port of Fredericksburg
(Today the Foot of Wolfe Street)

Henry Willis bought a triangular acre adjoining the lower town line (now Wolfe Street), where he built the first public tobacco warehouses, the public wharf and ferry, and a tavern.  The wharf was about 12 feet across and extended down river.  The warehouses were 20-by-60-foot wooden structures, reinforced with bulkheads to contain the hogs-heads being rolled inside.  Willis’ holdings spread out onto two town lots as well.  The house now blocking Wolfe Street at Sophia seems to be sited along Willis’ property line.  It sits on an old foundation that may be that of the original tavern.  The path beside it leading down to the river  may have served the ferry landing, which was in use well into the 19th century.











Good Fortune and Good Timing

In 1730, a major reform was initiated by the Crown to improve the quality of tobacco being sent to England.  All tobacco must be shipped through 70 designated inspection stations.

Henry Willis obtained the appointment as proprietor of the Fredericksburg station and acquired an acre of land next to the lower town line (now the foot of Wolfe Street), on which he erected two warehous­es. (The facilities were privately owned by Willis but under the jurisdiction of the court.)

For both Henry Willis and Fredericksburg, 1732 was a banner year. The warehouses were in place, and the inspection station opened, which meant that all tobacco must now be carried there. This arbitrarily terminated the old arrangement with Gov. Alexander Spotswood and required an adaptation of the rolling roads leading to the Massaponax wharves.

In Spotsylvania, the new arrangement was not too difficult to achieve, as the roads could be turned west onto the River Road, which became a satisfactory rolling road with the building of a bridge over Hazel Run in 1732. A spur was then ordered by the court that extended from the main road “to the inspecting houses.” In other counties, there was protest; someone burned down one of the new public warehouses across the river in Falmouth.

Building the Church

In 1732, the vestry of St. George’s Parish let the contract for building a church on Princess Anne Street on the public lot.  It went, of course, to Henry Willis. While this was the designated site for a church in the upper half of the parish, it, too, was fraught with friction.


The first St.George’s Church, sketched from the description
in the
vestry minutes.

The parish vestry of 12 county leaders had total autonomy and power to impose taxes equal to the court. Its annual expenses (called the levy) to maintain the church and care for the poor and infirm were often higher than the county court’s.  There already was a church on the Ta River for the lower half of the parish. But the new church ordered for Fredericksburg was much more elaborate.

The senior members of the vestry were from the southern part of the parish. And, in fact, the lower  half of Spotsylvania had a larger population than the upper half for the entire Colonial period.

Status concerns overtook common sense, and the vestry voted for duplicate churches. And this occurred right after St. George’s Parish had been reduced by the Assembly to the size of present-day Spotsylvania County and had lost one third of its parishioners to the newly-created St. Mark’s Parish (the future Orange County). 

No modern taxpayer suffered as our Colonial predecessors did at the bands of an arbitrary vestry! With no warning, the individual tithe doubled for three years. (There was no sinking fund for capital expenditures.) And the head of each household was taxable for all the able-bodied males in his household, including slaves and indentured servants.

Outraged Spotsylvanians took their protest toWilliamsburg and tried to have their vestry dissolved so that they could choose a new one. But it was of no avail.

Through the following decades, the differences between north and south grew, accentuated by the increasingly urban interests and problems of the town and the continuing conservatism of the southern leaders, who still had seniority.

After half a century of unified boundaries and shared leadership, it was a wrenching experience that required four votes. But the vestry, after the passing of the most senior southern leaders, finally voted to divide the parish in two at the Po River in 1769.

It was a costly choice for the upper parish leaders because the town created many problems; but it was one of their own choosing. And they would prove to be the rising county leadership as well in the next decade.

Moving the Court

The resourceful Henry Willis was, no doubt, behind the move to relocate the county seat from Germanna, which also took place in 1732. The move was accomplished in July. John Waller, the clerk of the court, was in charge of transporting the furniture and books.

The town was ready with temporary facilities, courtesy of Henry Willis. He had erected a stone building on Caroline Street (Lot 45), which he rented to the court as quarters, with a prison in the cellar.

There was a heavy backlog of court business in August and September, and the justices had to sit for several days each month, stabling their horses at Susanna Livingston’s.

During his October visit, Col. William Byrd lodged with Henry Willis (“my landlord, whose constitution requires him to swallow a beefsteak before the sun blesses the world with its genial rays”), as did Col. John Waller (who “after a score of loud hems to clear his throat, broke his fast with us”).

The weather had turned bad, Col. Byrd noted in his diary, and “rain hindered all but the most quarrelsome people from coming.” Three justices came also to dine, and in the evening, the parish minister. Willis’ innkeeper was undoubtedly John Gordon, newly arrived from Germanna.

 The court remained in these temporary quarters for several years, principally because the town was a very unpopular choice for a county seat, which traditionally was in the center of a county. It was not until 1736, when the protesting Spotsylvanians lost their petition to the Assembly, by one vote, that the justices resignedly assigned the court to Lots 42 and 44 in town, where its replacement stands today. The building contract went, naturally, to Henry Willis.  In 1778, Spotsylvanians finally won a central location for their courthouse, authorized by the assembly of the new state of Virginia.

Come Back for Chapter 3 – Henry Willis’ Fredericksburg 
     To Be Published On or Before February 15, 2003.



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