Thomas Lee of Stratford, 1690-1750
Founder of a Virginia Dynasty
Jeanne A. Calhoun, Research Scholar
Robert E. Lee Memorial Association
Thomas Lee was born in 1690 at his father’s plantation on the Machodoc River in Westmoreland County, Virginia. The fourth surviving son of Richard and Laetitia Lee, Thomas was a member of one of the colony’s most prominent families.1 As a younger son, his inheritance would be small. A wealth of intelligence, determination, and influential connections, however, resulted in his becoming one of the most powerful men in early eighteenth century Virginia.
Around 1700, Thomas Lee became a student at the newly formed College of William and Mary, where he received the grammar school education expected of a gentleman’s son – writing, arithmetic, and the classical languages. 2 This was the extent of his formal education. Equipped with the basic skills needed to manage a plantation, he returned to his home in Westmoreland for tutelage in their practical application.
During this time, Thomas Lee discovered the complexities involved in managing a tobacco plantation. He was also instructed in the duties of the Naval Officer of the Potomac River, a position which he assumed on the resignation of his father in 1710.3
Richard Lee, Thomas’ eldest brother, sailed for England to enter a partnership with their maternal uncle Thomas Corbin, who was a well established Virginia merchant in London.4 Thomas Lee, left at home, also became a merchant, probably working with his relatives in commissioning sales of tobacco and arranging purchases of goods for his neighbors. He must have impressed his uncle for, in 1711, Corbin was influential in securing a prized position for his twenty-one year old nephew, that of Virginia agent for the Northern Neck Proprietary. Although his uncle Edmund Jenings was the titular head of the agency, and assumed that power on his return to the colony in 1715, the office remained at the Lee family plantation under Thomas’ supervision.5
The unsatisfactory management of the agency by Edmund Jennings Lee resulted in its reversion to Robert “King” Carter in 1720. Thomas Lee had learned a great deal, however, during his involvement with this vast property of the Fairfax family. His appetite for land was whetted by the acquisition of some 16,000 acres, much of it highly desirable tracts along the Potomac River. 6 Thomas also began gaining his lifelong reputation for acumen in both his business and political dealings. A somewhat disgruntled contemporary later described him as:
As Thomas Lee became increasingly well established, he began to turn his thoughts towards marriage. Marriage among the upper class in eighteenth century Virginia was not solely a personal matter between a man and a woman, but an alliance of two families. It was an excellent, and widely practiced, means of increasing one’s fortune and position in society. Thomas, himself the product of one such union, was well aware of the potential benefits of a “good” marriage. A nephew, echoing his advice, wrote in 1758:
Thomas Lee was successful in his dealings with his brother. He, his brother Henry, and Reuben Welch, who was to act as agent for the London Lees, were deeded a ninety-nine-year lease on the Machodoc property. The agreement stipulated that, at the death of Richard Lee’s wife, the estate was to be for the use of Thomas and Henry Lee for five hundred years, at the conclusion of which the property was to descend to the male heirs of George Lee, eldest son of their brother Richard.9 Thomas wrote Henry from London:
Unfortunately, during his absence Thomas Lee’s fiancee, Jenny, married another suitor. William Byrd, then living in London, learned of the circumstances from a correspondent in Virginia. He recorded in his diary:
Thomas Lee was extremely busy with both business and public affairs. Although very little is known about his mercantile activities, he apparently remained active in tobacco consignments and shipping. He continued to acquire land, amassing large tracts throughout Virginia. Thomas was also involved in the thriving slave trade from 1728 to 1737, years of heavy importation into the colony.14
As a prominent member of the gentry, Thomas Lee was appointed to the vestry of Cople Parish and made a Justice of the Peace for Westmoreland County.15 He became a member of the House of Burgesses in 1723 and retained his seat until he was appointed to the Council of State of Virginia in 1733.16
Despite his heavy responsibilities, Thomas and his wife Hannah had started a family. Their first child, Richard, who was born in 1723, died at an unknown, although assuredly young, age. He was followed by Philip Ludwell in 1727 and, the following year, Hannah. Mrs. Lee became pregnant again almost immediately, but tragedy unexpectedly struck.
On 29 January 1729, the Lees’ home at Machodoc was destroyed by fire. Thomas, his wife, and three children barely escaped the flames; an indentured servant girl was burned to death. The Maryland Gazette reported:
Last Wednesday Night, Col. Thomas Lee’s fine House in Virginia was burnt, his Office, barns, and Out-houses: His Plate, Cash (to the Sum of 1000 L) Papers, and every Thing intirely lost ….17
Governor William Gooch of Virginia was convinced that the fire had been set by “a pernicious crew of transported felons,” whom Thomas Lee had antagonized in his role as Justice of the Peace. In an indignant letter to the Council of Trade and Plantations in London, the outraged Governor described the catastrophe and requested an appropriation for Thomas Lee:
Fortunately, the English Commissioners agreed with Governor Gooch and granted Thomas Lee three hundred pounds.19 Virginia was in the midst of a severe depression, which lasted from 1725 to 1734. 20 Although the sum could not replace their loss, it undoubtedly was of some comfort to the Lees. Thomas and his wife Hannah also suffered a more personal tragedy. As flames threatened her life, the pregnant Mrs. Lee had been thrown from a window to safety. Some two months later, on 28 March 1729, she gave birth to a son, John, who died the same day.
It appears that transported convicts were indeed to blame for the destruction of the Lee family home at Machodoc. In 1730, John Davis and Robert Brooks were indicted for the crime in Richmond County court. Davis and Brooks had been sentenced to transportation in England in 1727 and seem to have sailed together to Virginia in June 1728.21 Mary McCarty, cited as an accomplice, also stood trial. A witness testified:
Thomas Lee probably began building a new house on the plantation at Machodoc as soon as weather permitted. In March 1729 he requested permission:
In 1733, forty-three year old Thomas Lee was appointed to the Council of State of Virginia. The appointment for life to the twelve member Council was a great honor. Character, ability, wealth, and social station were characteristics demanded in a member of the Council. Governor Gooch, who recommended Thomas Lee for the position, described him as, “a Gentleman of good Parts, of singular Probity and Character … of good Interest & Esteem in his neighborhood.”24
The Councillors had many responsibilities. They served as an advisory board to the governor, judges in the General Court of the colony, and composed the upper house of the Assembly. Their various duties required that they spend approximately a third of the year attending to public affairs in the capital.25
The Councillors were, however, handsomely rewarded for their services. They and their families monopolized the important government posts in the colony. The Councillors received a considerable income from the interest on the public funds which they handled for the colony. They were in control of Virginia’s land policy, which enabled them to profitably engage in land speculation. Each member of the Council also served as a colonel of the militia, a military rank second only to that of the governor.
Thomas Lee’s frequent trips to Williamsburg and many young children created heavy responsibilities for his wife. It appears that they maintained separate households – one in Westmoreland County and another in Williamsburg. The direction for a 1734 bill of exchange has, written separately, the names Hannah Lee and Thomas Lee. 26 This is unusual for the eighteenth century and indicates that she handled at least local financial matters during her husband’s many absences.
Thomas Lee was serious about his new obligations and reluctant to miss meetings of the Council. He seems, however, to have considered his family equally important. Thomas apparently travelled from the capital during recesses to be with his wife and their young family. Throughout the 1730s and 1740, he also appears to have been at Hannah’s side during the births of their children. The arrivals of Francis Lightfoot (1734), Alice (1736), William (1739), and Arthur (1740) all called him from public business in Williamsburg. 27 Thomas Lee’s absences at the Council during these times illustrate not only a sincere love for his family but also the extent of the journey which he undertook. It was approximately eighty miles from the Westmoreland County courthouse to Williamsburg and the round trip usually lasted from eight to twelve days. 28
In the 1730s, Thomas Lee began the construction of a magnificent new mansion for his family. His decision to build was undoubtedly influenced by a number of factors. In a society marked by conspicuous displays of wealth, architecture was one of the more obvious confirmations of status. Thomas’ appointment to the Council in 1733 coincided with the end of a severe depression, which had plagued Virginia’s planters for almost a decade. His enhanced power and influence virtually demanded an imposing setting which would inspire his equals with respect, and his social inferiors with awe. The house which he had built on the plantation at Machodoc in 1729 was apparently intended as a temporary structure. Certainly, Thomas did not consider it an appropriate monument to his triumph.
Around 1737, Thomas Lee’s nephew George Lee, the son of his eldest brother, Richard, emigrated to Virginia from England. In his early twenties, George probably became a guest of his uncle, who was living on the family plantation leased from George’s father. George Lee was married in 1738. Following Thomas Lee’s move to Stratford, he and his wife assumed possession of the house and later named the plantation Mount Pleasant. They apparently also found the existing structure inadequate and built a new dwelling on the property. In the inventory of George Lee’s estate, there is a reference to “the old house” as well as Mount Pleasant. 29 It is possible that the older structure was the one built by Thomas Lee in 1729.
Despite his departure from the plantation at Machodoc, Thomas Lee continued to be identified with the Machodoc property. He remained a member of the Cople Parish Vestry until his death, although Stratford was located in Washington Parish. In 1744, one of the boundaries cited during processioning in the Machodoc area was “at a Red Oak opposite ag[ains]t Colo[nel] Thomas Lee’s old landing ….” 30 He also apparently retained control of the farming aspects of the plantation at Machodoc, which he still held under a five- hundred-year lease from his brother. In 1746, he requested permission of the county court to:
Thomas Lee decided upon The Clifts Plantation as the site of his new home. He may have selected this location as early as 1716, when he was wooing Jenny Willson and purchased the property. It is probable that definite plans for construction were drawn up soon after his appointment to the Council in 1733. Although the property had been surveyed in 1721, this was only formally recorded in 1734, indicating a lack of serious intentions until that time. 32 Throughout the 1730s, he purchased several other tracts of land in the vicinity.
The Clifts Plantation was a logical location for Thomas Lee’s new home. It is understandable that he would have preferred to remain in Westmoreland County, where he had lived since birth. With his appointment to the Council, he resigned his profitable position as Naval Officer, as it was preferred that the same individual not hold both posts. This removed one obstacle to leaving the immediate Machodoc area. Possession of the plantation at Machodoc would eventually revert to the heirs of his nephew George. Thomas Lee, building for future generations, would have undoubtedly preferred land which could remain in the ownership of his direct descendants and, indeed, attempted to ensure this through the use of entail. Majestic by nature, The Clifts also boasted a landing on the Potomac River, roads, and probably quarters in which supervisors and laborers could be lodged while construction was underway. Thomas Lee, casting about for a convenient and appropriate setting for his home, must have readily recognized the potential of The Clifts Plantation.
Thomas and, according to family tradition, the strong-willed Hannah were both undoubtedly involved in planning their new house. A nineteenth century descendant wrote that the couple’s eldest son, Philip Ludwell, used to complain of the design of Stratford. Showing his visitors a picture of the house his father had intended to build, he would exclaim:
Although a specific architect or builder and date of construction for Stratford have yet to be definitively established, recent research has revealed a connection between Thomas Lee and master builder William Walker of Stafford County. Little is known about Walker’s background. His first documented appearance in the Northern Neck is in 1728, when he was involved with the Carter family. 34 In 1731, Walker married Elizabeth Netherton, the daughter of a Westmoreland County gentleman and probably a neighbor of Thomas Lee.35 The marriage of William Walker into the local gentry may have been the beginning of their friendship.
William Walker built a number of private and public buildings throughout Virginia, including Cleve, the plantation home of Charles Carter, and the brick mansion Marlborough for John Mercer. 36 Both of these men were acquaintances of Thomas Lee. In 1739, Walker advertised for the capture of two indentured servants, both of whom were carpenters, who had run away from him in Westmoreland County. They escaped in a small boat belonging to Thomas Lee.37
Later, Thomas Lee was almost certainly influential in engaging William Walker to repair the Capitol in Williamsburg. 38 When he wrote in 1749, “The Governor’s House, gardens, etc., has been Viewed and Examined by our most Skillful Architect,” he may have been referring to Walker. 39 Unfortunately, the builder died in February 1750 before he could undertake the work in Williamsburg. In his will, he named his “worthy Friends” Thomas and Philip Ludwell Lee as two of his executors. 40
Dendrochronology studies indicate that construction on the ceiling and roof of the Great House at Stratford was begun in 1738 with timber cut the previous year and left to season. The shell of the house was probably completed around 1740. The construction of the ceiling and roof of the dependency apparently used by the Lees as a plantation kitchen was not begun until 1739, suggesting that they were under no pressure to leave their residence on the plantation at Machodoc. 41
The earliest written reference which has been discovered, as of this point, to Thomas Lee of Stratford is dated February 1742. 42 As it is unlikely that the Lees would have moved during the snow and ice of a Virginia winter, they were probably in residence by, at latest, the fall of 1741.
By the early 1740s, Thomas and Hannah Lee were the parents of eight children – Philip Ludwell (b.1727), Hannah (b.1728), Thomas Ludwell (b.1730), Richard Henry (b.1732), Francis Lightfoot (b.1734), Alice (b.1736), William (b.1739), and Arthur (b.1740). Although Philip Ludwell was probably still at Eton and Thomas Ludwell may have been a student at the same or a similar institution, the rest of the children must have kept their parents busy. One of the family anecdotes from this period gives an indication of the mischief high-spirited boys could scarcely resist:
Wealthy and powerful, Thomas Lee was an object of both respect and dread to his less prosperous neighbors. In 1745, Edmund Partington was accused of bartering with Thomas’ servants for two kersey jackets, one pair of breeches, some white and scotch plaid, and leather. As these goods belonged to Thomas Lee, this was considered stealing and Partington was summoned to court. He explained:
Two years later, in the fall of 1749, Governor William Gooch of Virginia was recalled to England. As senior member of the Council, Thomas Lee was named President of the Council and acting Governor of Virginia.52
Hannah Ludwell Lee died on 25 January 1750. She was buried in the family graveyard on the land known since the destruction of the Lee home at Machodoc as “Burnt House Field.” About a month after her death, a grief-stricken Thomas composed his will, leaving instructions that he:
Thomas Lee directed that the remainder of his 500-year lease on the plantation at Machodoc be sold to his nephew George Lee, who was living on the property. He reserved from the sale the one acre family burial plot.
In November 1750, Thomas Lee died at the age of sixty. Thomas and Hannah’s eldest son, Philip Ludwell, inherited the bulk of the estate.53 Following the news of his father’s death, Philip Ludwell sailed home from London and became the second Lee master of Stratford.
2. Thomas Lee was a student at the College of William and Mary before 1725. A Catalogue of the College of William and Mary in Virginia From its Foundation to the Present Time (Williamsburg, 1859).
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11. John Custis to William Byrd 11, 30 March 1717, in Marion Tinling, ed., The Correspondence of the Three William Byrds of Westover. Virginia 1684-1776, 1 (Charlottesville, 1977), pp.297298.
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16. Wilmer L. Hall, ed., Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, V (945; reprint, Richmond, 1967), p.xii; Benjamin J. Hillman, ed., Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, VI (1966, Richmond), p.32.
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21. Index to Old Bailey Sessions Records: Middlesex, Mcrofilm, GD 2489, Greater London Record Office- Peter Wilson Coldham ed., English Convicts in Colonial America, Middlesex: 1 17-1775, 1 (New Orleans, 1974), pp.35;73.
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27. Henry Read McIlwaine, ed., Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, IV (Richmond, 1930)- Wilmer L. Hall, ed., Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia, V (Richmond, 1967).
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28. Carl Bridenbaugh, Seat of Empire: The Political Role of Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg (Williamsburg, 1950), p. 18; Westmoreland County Court Orders, 1731-1739, Part 1, p.46A, Westmoreland County Courthouse.
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34. Carl Lounsbury, Research Architect, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, personal communication, 25 Aug. 1987. Mr. Lounsbury was the first to recognize the possible architectural link between William Walker and Stratford. He has very generously shared his own research on Walker.
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41. Herman J. Heikkenen, “Final Report: The Last Year of Tree Growth for Selected Timbers Within the Buildings of Stratford Hall Plantation as Derived by the Key-Year Dendrochronology Technique” (Blacksburg, 1987), p. 1.
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The author would like to thank J. Michael Hurley for his unfailing moral support, assistance, and editorial advice. Mrs. Richard P. Gravely graciously permitted the author to use the Charles Carter Lee Papers. The first year of research for this article was funded by the Councillors of the Robert E. Lee Memorial Association. None of this would have been possible without the support of the Directors of the Association, who have steadfastly proven their support of research and the pursuit of historical accuracy.
Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Magazine, December 1991, vol. XLI, no. 1.