Since before the colonists and early settlers first landed on Lancaster’s shores, she has mesmerized and captivated those who have come in contact with her rich fertile land, deep waters, tranquil bays, meandering tidal waterways and sandy beaches. She is the product of natural beauty, abundant resources and the visionaries who have called her home. Once the ancestral lands of ancient American Indian tribes whose names live on today as Corrotoman, Wicomico, and Morattico—the coastal character and regal tidewater charm of Lancaster County remains undeniable, to this very day.
The Moraughacund’s and Captain John Smith
John Smith made his first landfall in Lancaster County sometime during the summer of 1608 when he met with members of the Moraughtacund tribe near present day Morattico. With the aid of one of the tribe’s members, named Moscoe, John Smith was successful in mediating an Indian dispute between the Moraughtacund and Rappahannock Indians. These two tribes were part of the great Powhatan Confederacy.
In another event, it was John Smith who would be the recipient of vital, life-saving assistance and medical care. It is recorded that Smith was badly wounded by a stingray that pierced his flesh near Stingray Point in the waters off of Middlesex County. Were it not for the special mud found at the bottom of Antipoison Creek in Lancaster County and Smith’s Native American friends who knew to apply it as a poultice to the wound, he might have expired of life. How tragic that would have been for John Smith, his contemporaries and for us today.
Early Beginnings and Lancaster’s First County Seat
Lancaster County was formed in 1651 from Northumberland and named for Lancaster, England. The first county seat was at Queenstown—created in 1692 by the Virginia General Assembly’s passage of the Act of Ports. This legislation, for lack of a better word, was passed as a way to encourage and establish the creation of port towns that would centralize trade for the purpose of regulation, taxation and settlement of the frontier. Robert “King” Carter and Captain David Fox served as the first trustees of Queenstown.
The original town was created on fifty acres that belonged to Captain William Ball, on Towns Creek, near the mouth of the Corrotoman. As the county became more populated it became necessary to relocate the courthouse to a more centralized location. This led to the demise of Queenstown, which has faded away without leaving a trace. Lancaster Courthouse has been the county seat ever since.
The Mary Ball Museum is located here, which is a vital genealogical, historic and cultural resource for the entire area. The modern village of Lancaster Courthouse retains its ages old feel and is a designated historic landmark in its own right, complete with its own tavern, inn and more.
Today’s Lancaster at a Glance
When we think of Lancaster County, Virginia the first thing that usually comes to mind is Historic Christ Church, The Tides Inn, Kilmarnock, Irvington, White Stone and Windmill Point. Without question Lancaster is a dynamic and “happening” place with business, resort, boutique, retirement, medical, and residential amenities. It is true that everything you might need is here, but there is so much more to Lancaster County than just its commercial and resort areas.
As I was preparing myself to write this article, I decided to take a self-guided tour through the county. I covered every major corridor and a host of side roads, villages and towns. I was captivated by the amazing rural beauty of Lancaster’s shared border with Richmond and Northumberland Counties and the historic landmarks and villages that still remain. As I made my way down Route 3, from Warsaw toward Lancaster, I was reacquainted with the pristine beauty of Chinn’s Mill Pond on my left and the western branch of the Corrotoman River, as it meandered its way through this part of Lancaster—far from the vast and wide Rappahannock River.
I passed lush fields in cultivation that went on for as far as the eye could see. Here and there I was struck with the size of mighty oaks and the great towering trees that graced the landscape and adorned the gently rolling topography. I was reminded how little has changed in this part of the county through the years.
This ride of enlightenment revealed an interesting contrast between the rural and the developed resort, business and residential areas of Lancaster County. This great awakening of sorts revealed the marriage of two worlds—the more cosmopolitan, chic and uptown areas with the serene and pristine countryside. As I made my way throughout the county, I was amazed at how much I had never really noticed before.
High, Deep and Wide
As a girl, I remember crossing the high and very narrow Norris Bridge on our way to Windmill Point, White Stone or Kilmarnock. Looking down I could scarcely believe how high we were off of the water. My emotions would run the gamut between excitement and apprehension. I still get that same feeling today when I drive cross that bridge, although now it is not quite as exciting as it was back then. The Rappahannock River, at this point, is vast and wide as she dances her way to the great open waters of the Chesapeake Bay and beyond. On any given day, when the wind is just right, the horizon is dotted with a myriad of sailboats, fishing boats and yachts, as they slice their way through the open waters of the Rappahannock River toward the Chesapeake Bay.
Most Notable Historic Figures
Like all places, Lancaster County is the sum of her people and her history. She is the birthplace of the richest man that colonial Virginia ever produced. She is also the home of two of the earliest colonial churches in America, who both survived the turbulent disestablishment period in Virginia church history. If that wasn’t already enough to lay claim to, the maternal home and family roots of the first President of the United States of America is also found in Lancaster County.
All in all, Lancaster is the birthplace and chosen home to people just like you and me, from every age, who went on by choice or by chance to accomplish extraordinary dreams and goals. Lancaster is and has been home to intriguing, resilient and determined individuals, who through courage or necessity blazed their own trail in this life. Oh, if only I could write about them all!
Mary Ball Washington
The first historical figure that comes to my mind when I think of Lancaster County is Mary Ball who would become the wife of Augustine Washington and the mother of the first President of the United States. She was born around 1708 at Epping Forest, near Lively. Her father (Joseph Ball) served as a ranking Justice on the Lancaster County Court, was a leader of the Lancaster militia and served in the House of Burgesses from 1695–1702. When Mary was only three years old he passed away, leaving her an inheritance that included 400 acres of land on the Rappahannock River, in Stafford County.
As a small child, Mary attended St. Mary’s Whitechapel Parish, which endures today as one of the few active colonial churches still in use in Virginia. This church was built on land owned by David Fox. He and other founding members named the church after St. Mary’s Whitechapel in England. Mary Ball’s ancestors are buried in the church cemetery which dates back well over 300 years.
At the age of twelve, Mary endured the loss of her mother, who had appointed George Eskridge as her daughter’s guardian before her death. As the mother of a young daughter, I cannot imagine how heart wrenching it was for her to know she would have to leave Mary behind and not be able to guide her through life. It must have been a great comfort to know that her daughter would be cared for and protected by a man of such noble character and integrity. It is written that George Eskridge was a very capable, astute and thoughtful man who concerned himself with the affairs of others. He served, in a distinguished capacity, in the House of Burgesses from 1705–1735 and was vital to the development of Virginia as a colony. The respect and trust that Mary’s mother had for Mr. Eskridge was evident by her selection of him as a guardian for her beloved daughter. He handled all of Mary’s affairs with absolute integrity and provided for her every need while she lived with family members at nearby Cherry Point.
When Mary was fourteen, she inherited another 600 acres of land from the passing of her half-brother, making her a young woman of considerable means. She had been through many changes throughout her young life and had experienced how precarious life could be. This produced the resilience, depth, graciousness and dignity that she was known for throughout her life.
It’s a Small World, After All
In all of our lives there are those special moments when we find out what a small world it really is. It is a delightful experience to meet a new friend only to realize the commonalities and connections that immediately bind you together! As fate would have it, Augustine Washington and the much younger Mary Ball shared common bonds and mutual associations on more than one front. The one man who was aware of the significance of these connections was none other than Mary’s guardian, George Eskridge. At just the right moment he introduced Mary to his good friend Augustine Washington, knowing that it was destined to be a good match from the outset.
Ironically, Washington owned a significant amount of land and a mining operation adjacent to the land holdings that Mary had inherited years before. In another strange twist of fate, Washington had previously been married to George Eskridge’s sister-in-law, who had passed away suddenly in 1729, while he was away on business in England.
In 1731, Augustine and Mary were married and moved to Wakefield, which was Washington’s plantation at Pope’s Creek in Westmoreland County. It is said that Mary was “blonde and beautiful” and that Augustine was “a noble looking man, of distinguished bearing, tall and athletic, with a fair complexion, brown hair and fine grey eyes.” They must have made a very handsome couple and George Eskridge (as a guardian, father figure and friend) must have been delighted with his part in all of this!
The Birth of a President
In 1732 Mary Ball Washington gave birth to her first born child. Surely, George Eskridge must have made quite an impression upon the fatherless Mary Ball and also upon the previously widowed Augustine Washington. Together, they named their firstborn son George— in honor of the man who had brought them together. George Eskridge passed away in 1735. He never lived long enough to know what greatness would become of this union that he had such a hand in arranging and that his namesake would one day take the oath of office as the very first President of the United States of America in 1789.
In 1743, Augustine Washington passed away, leaving Mary a widow of considerable means. Although it was highly unconventional for the time, she blazed her own trail and never remarried. She raised her four surviving children alone and imparted a strong value system to them. Her tireless devotion to her family and to her community at large has left a legacy that lives on today in Lancaster County through the Mary Ball Museum and in Fredericksburg through Mary Washington College.
Robert “King” Carter of Corrotoman
One of the most ambitious and intriguing individuals in Lancaster County history and in Colonial Virginia was Robert “King” Carter (1663–1732). He acquired his vast land holdings and fortune through political alliances, skilled negotiation and well mastered ambition. I suppose in today’s world he could be compared to real estate mogul Donald Trump. Obviously pragmatic as well as a visionary, he was surely larger than life during his time, just as “The Donald” is today.
The Northern Neck of Virginia presented unique opportunities for this enterprising and astute cavalier. The “King” was born around 1663 at Corrotoman to John Carter I and his fourth wife Sarah Ludlow Carter. Between 1642 and 1665, John Carter I patented 6,150 acres of land at Corrotoman and made his home here, which is where Robert Carter would have grown up when he wasn’t being educated.
John Carter I was married five times—outliving all but his last wife, who left for England with their son Charles, upon his death in 1669. In typical English tradition, John Carter I left the lion share of his inheritance to his eldest son John II.
In 1690 Robert Carter inherited these same lands, known as Corrotoman from his elder half-brother John II, who died. At this point, Corrotoman became the command and control center for the highly ambitious and driven Robert “King” Carter—who would eventually expand his conglomeration of land holdings to over 300,000 acres and 48 plantations. The triumphs and tragedy of his almost unbelievable life and career are astounding to ponder and could fill volumes. Almost all of the Northern Neck and most of Virginia felt his influence in one way or another. He was a man of endless and immeasurable talents, contrasts and facets, which included being a writer, land baron, Speaker of the House of Burgesses, Treasurer of the Colony, acting Governor of Virginia, businessman, planter, architect, builder and benefactor.
Having suffered the loss of his second wife in 1720, Robert Carter began the construction of a grand manor house at Corrotoman. We can only wonder why he might have built such a magnificent house of this scale at such a time in his life. Was it to fulfill a promise to a dying wife or to overcome intense grief? Had it been in the planning phase for years or was it built to fill an empty spot in his heart? Was it built to exhibit his mighty power and vast wealth in the great Colony of Virginia or could it be that all of these things might have contributed to the building of this truly great manor house at Corrotoman?
Robert Carter’s monumental mansion was completed in 1725. From written accounts of it, we know that the mansion was 90’ long x 40’ wide and featured a grand entrance hall that was paved with exquisite black and white marble imported from England. Grand pediments, pavilions and a water facing gallery that ran the entire length of the house were notable features that have been mentioned in written accounts. We can only imagine the interior and exterior embellishments that set this great house apart from the rest. The furnishing, textiles, woodwork, plaster moldings and opulent silks used throughout this grand monument were by all accounts able to hold their own against even the grandest houses in the Virginia colony.
The house fit for the “King” (as he was called by his contemporaries) was unfortunately short lived and succumbed to fire in 1729. The news of its tragic demise was carried in newspapers far and wide and was a great architectural loss. The ruins of Corrotoman and her associated lands were later sold out of family hands. The APVA now owns the site of Robert “King” Carter’s grand manor house. Archaeological excavations over the years have revealed numerous artifacts from his time that are now on display at Historic Christ Church.
Historic Christ Church
The circumstances of life are often the catalyst for enduring and life changing work. Many of our greatest goals are accomplished when we least expect it. The loss of his great house at Corrotoman after the other losses in Robert Carter’s life must have seemed stunning to him, at the very least. He was the man who could make things happen, yet these life altering events must have forced him to face his own powerlessness. It would have been utterly human and appropriate to look back at his life and evaluate what to do after such great personal losses. What exactly caused Robert Carter to change the course of his life and turn his attention toward the building of a new Christ Church is unknown. Perhaps he needed something to accomplish that would somehow redeem the losses that he had suffered in recent years. Perhaps, he sensed his own mortality and turned to more heavenly minded and meaningful pursuits, with his remaining days at hand. Whatever the motivation was, Christ Church is his most enduring hands-on legacy that endures to the present day.
In 1730, Carter began (at his own expense) the construction of the new Christ Church with the full support of the church vestry. Over 500,000 hand-made and hand rubbed bricks were made and fired in kilns on site. Christ Church was undoubtedly the fulfillment of Carter’s vision for a house of worship. It contains many architectural elements never before seen on a colonial church of this period in Virginia. With its exquisite brick work and attention to the smallest detail, Christ Church remains to this very day a testimony to the life and work of Robert “King” Carter—who passed away in 1732 at the age of 69. He now rests in peace at Historic Christ Church, along with his two wives. His final and most enduring work was fully completed in 1735.
The Enlightenment and Changing times
An evolving colony began to entertain new ideas with regard to the freedom to exercise one’s own faith. In 1739, the great Methodist minister George Whitefield visited and preached in Virginia’s Colonial Capital of Williamsburg. In 1752, Christ Church and St. Mary’s Whitechapel were designated as one parish by the Virginia General Assembly. In 1757, Presbyterians began preaching in Lancaster County and in 1776 the Virginia Declaration of Rights—Article 16 guaranteed all Virginians the right to the “free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of their own conscience.” This opened the door for new ideas, new churches and new denominations to flourish.
The First Woman Missionary to China
Henrietta Hall Shuck was born October 28, 1817 in Kilmarnock, Virginia. She was the daughter of Baptist Minister Colonel Addison Hall. At the age of thirteen, she was “converted” at a camp meeting and was baptized at Morattico Baptist Church, which still stands today off of Route 200. It is as lovely a church today as it ever was. A portrait of Henrietta that I uncovered while doing my research reveals a beautiful and elegant young woman.
On September 8th, 1835, at the age of seventeen, Henrietta married Reverend J. Lewis Shuck. With a heart for missions, they set sail together for China, just two weeks after their wedding. It was sink or swim for the young couple who were sailing into the great unknown and a sea of human need. They finally arrived in Singapore on March 31, 1836. Henrietta Hall Shuck paved the way for all other women missionaries to China—from Virginia and beyond.
Although her story is often over-shadowed by those with lesser accomplishments, she faced the great unknown with courage and a loving heart. She is the only woman able to bear the distinction as the first female missionary to China—period! During her life in China she bore one daughter and four sons. She was a devoted wife, mother and missionary. It is recorded that she and her husband housed and nurtured over thirty-two Chinese children and adopted several babies. This truly amazing woman helped to organize and start two large Baptist Churches. She also started a school for Chinese children that is still ongoing today. Although she never returned to her native Kilmarnock, she lived a productive life that effected change where it was needed. With a strong maternal instinct and the heart of an adventurer, she went where no other woman had ever gone before.
Mr. and Mrs. E. A. Stephens and the Tides Inn
No article about the “best” of Lancaster County and her remarkable history could possibly be complete without mentioning the world renowned Tides Inn at Irvington. What started as the dream of Lancaster County natives Ennolls Albert Stephens and Ann Lee Stephens has now become one of the leading small hotels and resorts in the entire world. It was their vision, drive, attention to detail and the creation of a world class dining and resort experience at Irvington, that remains without equal in Virginia. Together they transformed a remote location with commanding views of Carter’s Creek and the Rappahannock River beyond into a world renowned destination. Today’s the Tides Inn, under the ownership of the Enchantment Group of fine resorts and hotels, has upheld and expanded the tradition of excellence started by the Stephen’s family over half a century ago.
Place Names and a Few More Notable People in Lancaster
White Stone—Today White Stone greets natives, tourists, come-here’s and travelers as the gateway to the Northern Neck. Trendy shops, gourmet foods, wine, insurance, real estate, interior design, antique shops, fine art, a pharmacy, landscaping supplies, caterers and more can all be found within walking distance of each other in White Stone. According to historians, White Stone derived its place-name from the discarded white ballast stones that British ships would throw overboard before loading up their cargo hold with hogsheads of tobacco for the return voyage to England.
The first public African-American High School in the entire Northern Neck of Virginia was located in White Stone, Virginia and named for Albert Terry Wright, who came to Lancaster County in 1908 to teach. The high school also offered vocational training and was built with funds from private donors, the county public school system and the Rosenwald Foundation. The Lancaster County Historical Commission has forever memorialized the work of Albert Terry Wright and the legacy of the school’s importance for future generations to remember. A historical marker, erected in 1991, stands on James Wharf Road in White Stone to mark the site of this school that was replaced in 1959 and later demolished in 1978.
Lancaster native Dorothy Norris Cox Cowling was born in Lancaster County on September 17, 1913. She graduated from A. T. Wright High School and went on to earn a Bachelor of Science Degree in Elementary Education and Library Science from Virginia State College and a Masters Degree in Child Psychology and Counseling from Columbia University. She was the first African American to receive a Doctorate in Linguistics and Foundations in Education from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA. After returning to Virginia, she joined the Virginia Union University faculty in 1955 and was appointed as Vice President for Administrative Affairs in 1971. In 1979 she served as the University’s first acting female President. Dr. Cowling was later appointed to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia by two Republican Governors. They were Governor Linwood Holton (a current Lancaster County resident) and Governor Mills E. Godwin. She has been the recipient of countless honors which include scholarships that bear her name. Although she passed away in 2009, there is no doubt that she inspired young people by her exemplary life, which started in White Stone, Virginia.
Windmill Point— Centuries ago, Windmill Point was populated by windmills that operated here in the 1800s. They were once so common that sailors used them as landmarks and recorded them on the nautical maps of the day. Tide mills were also used throughout the region, which enabled the Chesapeake Bay and tidewater region of Virginia to maintain a competitive edge over other agricultural areas in Virginia and beyond. The last surviving stone windmill in Virginia was destroyed in the early 20th century. During the war of 1812, British forces raided the creeks and rivers of Lancaster County and the entire Chesapeake Bay Region. A look-out was stationed at Windmill Point for as long as these raids continued. The final British raid of the Revolutionary War took place in Lancaster County on April 23, 1814.
Fleet’s Harbor is here and named for Henry Fleete. Born in Kent, England in 1602, he migrated to the colonies via Jamestown in 1621 and continued on to Maryland where he eventually became an Indian negotiator, which is a story in itself. After helping to establish Maryland as a colony, he served in their General Assembly from 1634–1638. This interesting trader, explorer, interpreter, landowner, legislator and gentleman, eventually settled in Lancaster County, Virginia. It was he who established its boundaries in 1651 and served in the Virginia House of Burgesses from 1652 until his death in 1661. He was buried at his home, in Lancaster County, on Fleet’s Island.
Windmill Point is now primarily an affluent residential community with a beach, yacht club, marina and even its own tiki bar. When I was ten years old I lost my prized birthstone ring, that my grandmother had given to me, in the waters at Windmill Point. I cried for days and often wondered if anyone ever found it.
Irvington— From 1873–1891, the bustling port town of Irvington was actually known as Carter’s Creek Wharf or Carter’s Creek. It was poor mail delivery that facilitated a name change. The story goes that mail destined for Center Cross, near Bowler’s Wharf in Essex County, repeatedly made its way to Carter’s Creek and mail intended for Carter’s Creek was often delivered to Center Cross, instead. How this happened I cannot imagine except that the writing was either illegible or those loading the sacks of mail could not read well enough to know the difference. It became such a problem that the exasperated residents of Carter’s Creek Wharf opted for a name change as a solution to their problem. In 1891, the town voted to change its name to “Irvington” in honor of Captain Levin H. Irving, who had migrated here from Baltimore in 1866. In 1917, a tragic fire raged through Irvington.
Until about 1933, Irvington had a very active steamboat wharf and a number of resorts that greeted visitors in the summer months. Wharton Grove was one of these favorite summer destinations. The Steamboat Era Museum has recorded personal histories of those who lived and visited here, as well as an unrivaled collection of steamboat artifacts, photos and history. Several homes from Irvington’s earlier era still stand as witness to Irvington’s founding families and its prominence during the 19th and early 20th century.
Today, Irvington is known as one of the premier waterfront resort communities in the nation. It is home of one of the top luxury and family resorts in the entire world and also one of the Top 10 Country Inns in America. Deep water marinas and a snug harbor await you by boat—as well as world class lodging, dining, tennis, spa therapy, professional services, boutique shopping, a private school and two world class golf courses—by land. Irvington truly is a welcoming place that has cultivated its own distinctive brand of comfortable tidewater charm with a touch of uptown country chic.
Kilmarnock— At one time Kilmarnock was known as “the Crossroads.” As its name implies, it was primitive at best and little more than intersecting paths that included a tavern and a few support buildings. Today’s Kilmarnock is a well established residential and business community with almost every amenity and service available. Whether you live in or near Lancaster County or are vacationing close by—you’ll find everything you need or want right here. Kilmarnock offers some of the very best and most diverse shopping on the Northern Neck. It is also home to Rappahannock General Hospital which is a celebrated full service non-profit hospital.
A monumental “Main Street” revitalization was undertaken in 2006, which has added boat loads of charm to Kilmarnock’s downtown areas. “Steptoe’s District” was also formally designated during this time and derives its name from the original tavern district in Kilmarnock. An assortment of boutiques, clothing stores, jewelers, grocers, gourmet foods and wine, oriental rugs, lighting showrooms, fine home décor, restaurants, a host of professional services and more abound in Kilmarnock. Virtually anything at all pertaining to life and living well can be obtained here.
The surnames of Kilmarnock’s earliest entrepreneurs, distinguished citizens and educators are names we still recognize to this very day as their descendents have carried on their family legacies. The first recorded use of the name Kilmarnock was in 1778. It was officially incorporated as a town in 1930 and continues as a dynamic community with its own Scottish festival and Farmer’s Market.
It is impossible to detail all that Lancaster County is and has to offer visitors and residents alike. People who are from here and people who have come here, all share the love of community and the quality of life that they have cultivated together. It is evident to me and I hope to you, by now, that Lancaster County is a place of “firsts.” A host of historic sites, fabulous museums, world class resorts, sporting activities of every sort, seafood festivals, farmers markets, fresh local seafood, a rich agricultural legacy, wineries, Virginia’s first state park and more await you! If you haven’t already, you should definitely make the trek to Lancaster County and find out why it still remains a favorite gathering place for friends and family from far and wide, after all these years. Here, we are all Kings!