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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.

Editor's note: this is the first of a two-part series originally published on Woodbridge Patch. You can read the first part as published on Woodbridge Patch , and read the .

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 : 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.

Jan Cunard August 12, 2011 at 03:35 PM
I coined the phrase "flying cemetery" based on the conditions of one of the cemeteries at Bel Air Plantation.
Stephanie Dupal-Demartin August 13, 2011 at 02:51 PM
Jan: I am truly honored that you read this article. I know of your key role in voicing opposition to the development practices at Saratoga Hunt. In the second to last paragraph, you will find a link to the Washington Post article in which your statements appeared. Please do not hesitate to contact me. I will be writing new photo essays on our local history in the fall and would love your input.
Nathan Curby August 13, 2011 at 02:53 PM
That's very interesting, Jan. Can you explain a bit further? What were the conditions like?
Jan Cunard August 19, 2011 at 04:49 AM
Sorry, I thought I responded to this earlier. On occasion, a developer wants to change the level of the land, sometimes to make a walk out basement, or sometimes to put in a road. He then cuts deeply into the landscape leaving a deep cut next to a high hill. The problem arises as settlers preferred to bury their "kin" on top of the hill rather than at the bottom. When the developer cuts the hill down, bones often get exposed and graves are desecrated. Even if the bones aren't exposed at the time, runoff from the hill will eventually erode the soil and those bones are going to go slowly sliding down the hill. Another phrase I coined was "heavenly poles". This also occurred on BelAir Plantation. Developers cut down 8-12' into the ground around a telephone phone which was then left way up into the heavens as compared to the surrounding landscape. Now this wouldn't have been quite so bad, but they were supposed to have allowed archeologists to do their work BEFORE the grading was done. Thus, I had to coin an additional phrase -- "archeology by bulldozer". if you have additional questions, I think I am the only Cunard in the phone book. I'll help if I can.

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