Leedstown: First Sparks of Liberty

June 2018

Laura Emery, Field Editor

Resolutions author and signer, Richard Henry Lee, as portrayed by Ted Borek, Living History interpreter with the NNVHS. Inset: Richard Henry Lee

Resolutions author and signer, Richard Henry Lee, as portrayed by Ted Borek, Living History interpreter with the NNVHS. Inset: Richard Henry Lee

Westmoreland County community has unique place in nation’s history.

America’s dream of independence from British rule did not begin July 4, 1776, with the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. Nor did it begin with the first military engagements April 19, 1775, in the battles of Lexington and Concord. Or on Dec. 16, 1773, when tea was dumped into Boston Harbor.

While the desire for freedom was taking shape throughout the colonies, the first spark of resistance came much earlier, on a tobacco plantation in the isolated backcountry of the Northern Neck, in the bustling port of Leedstown.

“Only in the Northern Neck did so many step forward so early to lay down their lives and fortunes on the line for the cause of independence,” wrote Carl F. Flemer, Jr., in his book, Birthplace of the Nation: A Story Worth Telling. Flemer profiles many of the nation’s first patriots with roots in Westmoreland County.

On Feb. 27, 1766, in Leedstown on the shores of the Rappahannock River, several prominent colonists gathered in Bray’s Church to voice opposition to an assortment of intolerable acts British Parliament had imposed on them: the Navigation Act, Sugar Act, Currency Act, Quartering Act. But it was the Stamp Act that provided the catalyst, imposing a tax on most printed materials used in the colonies, including legal documents, publications, playing cards — all required to bear tax stamps to show their corresponding levy had been paid. Parliament’s goal was to retire the heavy debt it had incurred in waging the French and Indian War to secure the American territories.

The added financial burden came at a bad time for Westmoreland landowners, who were already shouldering a tax to cover Virginia’s war debts while trying to survive a tobacco recession. They saw taxation without representation as a violation of their rights as English subjects.

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According to Cathy Gouldman Perry, Leedstown resident and member of Leedstown Resolutions Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Thomas Ludwell Lee wrote his brother, Richard Henry Lee: “We propose to be in Leedstown in the afternoon of the 27th, where we expect to meet those who will come from your way. This would be a fine opportunity to effect the scheme of an association, and I should be glad if you would think of a plan.”

Who were these men who dared to stand up to King George III?

About half were descendants of British immigrants to Westmoreland County. Prominent families included five Washingtons and six Lees, the father of James Monroe, a Madison and a Marshall. Others were from surrounding counties. All knew the Crown would consider the action treasonous.

The resolve was written by fiery orator Richard Henry Lee. It is believed by some historians to have laid the foundation for the Declaration. Indeed, Lee was the man who introduced the resolution for independence in the Second Continental Congress.

“The six articles had to do with preserving the laws, the peace and good order of the colony, taxation without representation, the Stamp Act, and the protection of liberty and property,” says Perry.

The document bound them together to protect “fundamental Rights” and each other in the event of reprisal … “at the risk of our lives and fortunes.” It was the first organized resistance to English aggression on American liberties, making Westmoreland County the hotbed of resistance.

“Their prominence and their numbers exceeded those from any other small geographical area in the colonies,” wrote Flemer.

The resolution worked. The Stamp Act was withdrawn. But the first fire of independence had ignited and the flames of resistance began to spread.

Ten years later, many of those courageous signers would step up again to sign the Declaration of Independence.

Few remnants of the colonial past remain in Leedstown today. What remains of the signer’s gathering place — Bray’s Church — is located in Leedstown Campground. The once-busy shipping center on the upper Rappahannock River is gone. So is the public warehouse and tobacco-inspection point.

The river channel is 60 feet deep here, the community some 70 miles from the Chesapeake Bay. A couple dozen homes dot the shoreline Farmland abounds. Years ago, Perry’s Tomato Cannery was converted to a vehicle-safety-testing site.

Ingleside Plantation is a few miles away on Leedstown Road. Owned by the Flemer family, Carl’s sons, Fletch, Doug and Chris, now run the 3,000-acre farm cultivating trees and plants for a number of regional nurseries. Rows of grapevines crisscross gently sloping hills, producing a variety of award-winning wines that have made Ingleside one of the commonwealth’s most notable wineries. An on-site museum displays prehistoric finds and ancient arrowheads from the area’s earliest inhabitants.

The area has reason to be proud of its contributions to building this nation. No other county in America has fostered more statesmen than Westmoreland, resulting in plenty of historic sites to visit.

Commanding General of the Continental Army, General George Washington, was born in 1732 at Popes Creek on the Potomac River. The park-like setting offers a visitor’s center, nature trail, memorial house and beach.

President James Monroe was born in 1758 on a farm near Monroe Bay. His birthplace is located off Rte. 205 at Colonial Beach.

Stratford Hall Plantation, the ancestral home of the Lee family, was the boyhood home of Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee, brothers who signed the Declaration of Independence. General Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee was a Revolutionary War hero and General Washington’s most trusted officer. His son, Confederate General Robert E. Lee, was born at Stratford Hall in 1807. The working plantation, grist mill, slave quarters and rental cottages make this a great educational stop.

Menokin is the home of Francis Lightfoot Lee in nearby Richmond County. It has been preserved with innovative conservation efforts.

Two other founding fathers with family roots in Westmoreland include our fourth president, James Madison, and John Marshall, the longest-serving chief justice of the nation’s highest court. His 34-year term as chief justice shaped our legal system.

“The Leedstown Resolutions had failed to reach its rightful place in history books probably because the author, Richard Henry Lee, became a man of such importance after its inception that this document paled by comparison to the many other distinguished services rendered by him to our county in later years,” says Perry.

In 1955, 13 founding members of the Leedstown Resolutions Chapter DAR, led by Florienette Knight, set out to educate the public on the existence and importance of the Resolutions. They succeeded in passage of a bill that encouraged inclusion in Virginia history books, a highway marker, and recognition by the historical society.

For the past 11 years, the Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Society has honored the 115 Leedstown Resolutions colonists with a commemoration ceremony around the Feb. 27 anniversary. This year, Ingleside hosted a reenactment portrayed by residents, some descendants of the signers.

The significance of the 115’s resolve has been nearly forgotten by bigger, louder events that overshadowed them. But by no means were those acts any more courageous than what started in Leedstown.  