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The Proprietors of the Northern Neck

Chapters of Culpeper Genealogy

By Fairfax Harrison (1926)


When, on October 19, 1759, the Virginia Gazette announced that 'Yesterday arrived in town the Rt. Hon. Thos. L'd Fairfax,' the news was read with interest by a young English clergyman, the Rev. Andrew Burnaby, then sojourning in Williamsburg at the beginning of an enterprising tour 'through the middle settlements in North America.' His imagination was captured by the idea of a peer, who was reputed to have associated with the wits of the London of Queen Anne and actually himself to have contributed to the Spectator, living now aloof in the wilderness of a vast proprietary, the Northern Neck of Virginia.

A few days later, as he records, Mr. Burnaby had the opportunity of meeting Lord Fairfax at 'The Palace' on the occasion of a reception by Governor Fauquier and then accepted an invitation to call at Greenway Court, when, during the following spring, he should make an intended journey across the Blue Ridge. The result of this meeting was a lively sketch1 which has not only afforded to all subsequent historians of the most agreeable period of American colonial life a welcome detail of local colour, but has made of the proprietors of the Northern Neck favorites of Virginia historical romance.

Little that measures up to Professor Freeman's estimate of genealogy2 has, however, been recorded for the Culpepers, and so what is after all of the greatest significance about them in America has been missed: that Burnaby's Lord Fairfax looked back on no less than four generations of his ancestors who during more than a century had successively maintained interests and risks in the Virginian Commonwealth.3

The immediate concern of the present genealogical study has therefore been in the evidence for the participation of the Culpepers and their descendents in the planting of Virginia. It will be found to demonstrate that it was no improvisation of interest which sent Lord Fairfax to reside beyond the Atlantic; which prompted his mother to set tip at Leeds Castle a sundial to mark simultaneously the time of day on the Thames and the Potomac; which sent her father out as Governor; or even which moved the Governor's father to solicit inclusion in the earliest of the Northern Neck charters; for the fact was that Lord Fairfax's Culpeper great grandfather had been an active member of the Virginia Company, and his great great grandfather one of the adventurers named in the original grants of 1609 and 1610.

The Culpepers were, too, implicit of that closely knit family connection which contributed a St. Leger to be one of Raleigh's captains; Argalls, Auchers, Filmers, Sandys' and Wyatts to the beginnings of Virginia affairs at home and abroad, and later sent out to the colony Brents, Byrds, Codds, Clarkes, Darrells, Digges, Fleets, Honeywoods, Lovelaces, Norwoods and Spencers.

It has required spade work to collect and array the proofs of these statements. Not only are the Culpepers now figures of a dead past in America (where, as Dr. Moncure Conway picturesquely said, 'Fairfax-land is lost in Washington-land'), but in England also. Their heyday was in the times of the Stuarts, since when, as the hard saying is, they 'have gone down in the world;3 and their traditions have remained unfurbished.

Moreover, as a family they afford a minor illustration of the historical fact that the continuity of social life was rudely shaken by the civil wars of the seventeenth century. From the time of the Angevin kings until the 'Troubles' under Charles 1, the Culpepers recorded the detail of their pedigrees as convincingly as any Englishmen. Generation after generation, they preserved their muniments within the confines of a few small, safe, conservative parishes. But in the twilight of the modern world the branch of the family with which we are here concerned abandoned the tradition of marriage among hereditary neighbours, and as a consequence many of their representatives were born, lived and died beyond their ancestral boundaries. In this characteristically modern practice they failed to assemble their vital statistics, and disappeared from the historical scene before genealogy was recognised to be a handmaid of history.4

When, in this lack of evidence, the pedigree of the Wigsell Culpepers became of practical importance to all the landholders within the Northern Neck, the post-revolutionary Virginia lawyers were sadly to seek in interpreting the documents which came into their hands. It is a curious commentary on the completeness of their recent separation from the mother country that they did not then have recourse, as their fathers and grandfathers would have had, to the English wills. They cited Burnaby in the law courts (a dignity which would have astonished the Archdeacon considering the uncritical form of his narrative) and were content with mutual stipulations of fact, which, in some cases, they recognised to be inconsistent with the face of the record before them, and in others prove to have been premature. So convinced a detractor of the proprietary title as judge Spencer Roane was thus lead to admissions which he would have rejoiced to be able to deny; and we find in England the traces of diligent work, silently carried on by John Marshall, to confirm nunc pro tunc facts which, on such admissions, had already been adjudged by the American courts.

For all these considerations it seems fitting to array the generations of the proprietors of the Northern Neck, not in mere glittering heraldry, nor yet, in the contemptuous phrase of the post-revolutionary historians, as 'unworthy favorites of a profligate king,' but to prove their title to be included in the honourable company which Alexander Brown enrolled as the Founders of America.

Continued in: A Key Chart of the Pedigree of the Wigsell Culpepers to Illustrate their Relationship with Virginia

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1 Appendix No. 4 to Travels through the Middle Settlements in North America in the years 1759 and 1760 with Observations upon the State Of the Colonies, 3d ed., 1798. (Return)

2 Freeman says (Methods of Historical Study. PP. 49, 105), 'the study of genealogy . . . has its place in the comitatus of our Lady Kleio . . . I can see Macaulay's great and obvious faults as well as any man . . . but . . . scan well his minute accuracy in every name and phrase and title. (Return)

3 They were all Culpepers, for no Fairfax was a member of the Virginia Company. The lure of that adventure did not find its way into the manor houses of Yorkshire as it did among the men of Kent and the South of England generally. But the Culpeper marriage did not introduce the name upon the Virginia scene. In 1618 a 'Mr. Farfax' was living near Jamestown and had several children killed by the 'saluages' while he was absent at church (John Smith's Works ed. Arber, ii, 538). He probably was the William Fairfax who was himself a sacrifice in the indian massacre of 1622, as appears from the subsequent enumeration of 'Archers Hope,' where he had been a landholder (Brown, First Republic, 622; Hotten, Original Lists, 271). Again, in 1690 one James Fairfax was living in Accomac (Wise, Eastern Shore, 322).

These have not been identified, but in 1659 Ferdinando Fairfax (1636-1664), one of the numerous issue of Charles Fairfax of Menston, was resident in Northumberland County, Virginia (Va. Mag., vii, 73). He was a factor for Nicholas Hayward, the Virginia merchant who was Fitzhugh's correspondent, and afterwards returned to London.

Again, in 1676, Capt. Thomas Fairfax (1633-1712), the second son of the gallant Sir William Fairfax of Steeton, who gave his life for the Parliament before Montgomery Castle, commanded a company of guards in the detachment sent to Virginia after Bacon's Rebellion, and was then designated 'Lieutenant Deputy Governor of Virginia' (Cal. State Papers, Am. & W. 1., 1675-76, Nos, 331, 1032, 1036, 1055). As a lad this Thomas had been at the conquest of Jamaica in Cromwell's 'Western Design' and later served in the government there. He died a general in the army, and Governor of Limerick in Ireland (See Her. & Gen., vi, 614, and his letters in Markham's Admiral Robert Fairfax). Finally, in 1679, Nicholas Fairfax, of the Gilling Castle family, commanded the ship 'Fairfax' in the Virginia trade (Hotten, P. 375).(Return)

4 The lack of such readily available testimony for the Wigsell Culpepers as the seventeenth-century heralds recorded for most of the long established families of Kent and Sussex is a curious consequence of their family history. They do not appear in the Visitation of Kent, 1619 (Harl. Soc., vol. xlii) because they were then of Sussex, and they do not appear in the Visitation of Sussex, 1633-34 (ibid., vol. Iiii) because they were then of Kent; finally, they do not appear in the Visitation of Kent, 1663 (ibid., vol. liv) because they had not then reestablished the territorial relations which had been uprooted by the civil wars. (Return)

Last Revised: 02 Jan 2015


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