Thomas Lee possessed a keen mind and a remarkably enterprising spirit. At 21, he was appointed agent for the Proprietary of the Northern Neck by Lady Catherine Fairfax, succeeding the most powerful man in Virginia, Robert “King” Carter of Corotoman. Two years later, he became a Justice of Westmoreland, a member of the House of Burgesses, and Naval Officer of the Potomac.
Thomas inherited his family’s talent for acquiring valuable land and began in early life to take advantage of situations that arose. He had long had his eye on the high bluffs overlooking the Potomac, an area called the “Clifts.” Always mindful of the commercial possibilities that the Potomac River would one day provide, he felt that the “Clifts” would give him a great advantage. In 1717, he purchased the 1443-acre tract from the widow of Nathaniel Pope and her sons.
Thomas found himself enjoying more than ever the time he was required to spend in Williamsburg as a member of the House of Burgesses. He courted Hannah Ludwell of nearby Greenspring on the James River and in 1722 they were married. Never did he offer sounder proof of his good judgement than in his marriage. It was a love match to be sure, but it also united two distinguished families and brought Thomas additional wealth and property. With his new bride, he returned to the family home on Machodoc Creek to raise his family.
The Lees remained at Machodoc, where Hannah gave birth to two children, Philip and Hannah. In January 1729, however, disaster struck. The house at Machodoc was destroyed in a fire assumed to have been set by indentured servants. The Lees and their two children escaped through second story windows, but a visiting young servant girl burned in her bed. The Lees escaped with only their lives; everything else was destroyed. The financial loss was staggering – at least 50,000 pounds sterling, 10,000 of it in cash. The greatest loss was the library of Thomas’ father, Richard the Scholar. The perpetrators were caught, and although the court records have been destroyed, they were probably hanged. Ever since, the site where Machodoc house once stood has been known as “Burnt House Field.”
With the destruction of the house at Machodoc, Thomas and his family probably took refuge at his brother Henry’s estate – Lee Hall. Undeterred by the loss of his home, Thomas began to involve himself deeply in the affairs of the colony. In 1733, he resigned his lucrative position as Naval Officer of the Potomac to fill the Council of State seat left vacant by the death of Robert “King” Carter.
It was not until 1734 that Thomas finally took the legal steps necessary to record his ownership of the “Clifts.” He renamed it Stratford, after his grandfather’s estate in England and began construction. No records exist to indicate when Stratford was built, though construction is generally thought to have commenced in the late 1730s. Materials were readily at hand. From the surrounding woods came timber. The bricks were fired on-site from the plentiful clay underfoot, and the Potomac yielded oyster shells for mortar. From these simple elements, English craftsmen, with local labor hired by Thomas Lee, and enslaved Africans created a house that, after 250 years, remains strong and elegant.
In 1744, as one of the representatives of Virginia, Thomas and his eldest son, Philip, sailed from Stratford to negotiate with the Six Nations of the Iroquois. Thomas was the chief spokesman in the parleys that resulted in the Treaty of Lancaster. This famous agreement secured the loyalties of the Iroquois to the Crown and paved the way for the English settlement of the Ohio Valley. Three years later, Thomas Lee initiated the founding of the Ohio Company. Though never a financial success, the company was testimony to his sure vision of the westward expansion of America.
In 1749, Thomas’ beloved Hannah died, leaving him with eight children. He did not, however, spare himself from the execution of his duties and was appointed President of the Council, at the time the highest position in the Colony of Virginia. The following year, Thomas Lee died at Stratford.
For more information, go to Thomas Lee of Stratford, 1690-1750: Founder of a Virginia Dynasty.