Thomas Lee’s Vision for Virginia

Where were you born?  A simple question with many different answers, but, if Thomas Lee had had his way, many more of us would be answering “ Virginia.”

Thomas Lee, President of Virginia

Thomas Lee, President of Virginia (yes, that’s what he called himself),  reported to the British Lords of Trade on September 29, 1750:

Since I have had the Honour to serve His Majesty as President of Virginia, I have travelled into the several parts of it, in order to inform myself, that I might be better enabled to Answer Your Lordships Querys.  Virginia is Bounded by the Great Atlantick Ocean to the East, By North Carolina to the South, By Maryland and Pensylvania to the North, and by the South Sea to the West, including California.

He assured them that his Virginia colony reached the Pacific Ocean!

Thomas Lee, a loyal British subject who purchased and settled on land that he named Stratford for his grandfather’s home in England, was ambitious.  As a member of Virginia’s Council, Thomas Lee headed Virginia’s delegation to “treat” with the Six Nations of Iroquois at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1744.  The treaty would eventually allow westward expansion from the settled eastern part of Virginia.

In 1745, a powerful political group living along the James River, led by John Robinson, formed the Greenbrier Company (afterwards renamed the Loyal Company) in order to sell a grant of 100,000 acres along the Greenbrier River.    Critical of the Greerbrier venture, which was aimed to put money in the pockets of investors, Thomas Lee and other Northern Neck gentlemen (namely Lawrence and George Washington, Robert and Landon Carter, and George Mason) proposed securing a 500,000-acre grant north of the Ohio River which, in addition to potential profits for investors, would produce new trade avenues for British manufactured goods, offer personal profits for settlers, provide new land for raising tobacco, and extend British control over the area.  Lee was afraid that the Loyal Company’s efforts to extract profits without investing the time and energy to build trade and trust with the Indians would result in war with the native populations and a French-Indian alliance.

Undeterred by Governor Gooch’s initial rejection of his proposal, Thomas Lee appealed to the British Board of Trade, who granted the Ohio Company of Virginia 200,000 acres—with 300,000 more to be added when the company settled 100 families and built a fort and trading post.  Thomas became the first president of the Ohio Company and, when he died in 1750, the company had already begun building up the Indian trade in the region.  Thomas willed his two shares of Ohio Company stock to his sons: one full share to his oldest son Philip Ludwell, and one-third share among sons Thomas Ludwell, Richard Henry, and Francis Lightfoot.

However, the two land companies remained at odds with each other and Thomas Lee’s young sons were no match for the established, powerful politicians along the James.  The Loyal Company had lost momentum when Thomas Lee had been appointed President of the Council and acting governor of the colony, and now they wasted no time in trying to weaken the Lees’ influence throughout the Northern Neck.  However, when Robert Dinwiddie was appointed to the governor’s office following Lee’s death, the Loyal Company received another blow since the new governor favored the Ohio Company’s mission. Dinwiddie’s new 1752 treaty with the Six Nations extended the Ohio Company’s boundaries southward, further jeopardizing Loyal Company holdings.  The rift between John Robinson and the new governor of Virginia grew and the Lee brothers united to support their father’s vision. 

When Christopher Gist was hired to survey the Ohio Company land, he found the French trying to occupy the land claimed by England.  Governor Dinwiddie then sent George Washington, another Ohio Company surveyor, to order the French to evacuate the land claimed by the Ohio Company…a futile effort since the French had already constructed a fort there.  The outcome of this English-French stand-off was the French & Indian War, a war that Thomas Lee had tried to prevent.