October 24, 2010

The Rest of the Story

The Rest of the Story
Post-1846 history of Woodlawn gets a closer look.

By Robert Fulton | October 19, 2010

Woodlawn, the 126-acre National Trust for Historic Preservation site located off Richmond Highway near Ft. Belvoir, has a long history. But while the first 40 years of Woodlawn's existence is well-known, details of the estate's history that follow its sale in 1846 have been incomplete.

Until now.

The history of Woodlawn from 1846 on is getting a much-needed closer look.

"In the past, the main focus of the interpretative tour here has been the original owners of the house," said Susan Hellman, Deputy Director of Woodlawn and the Pope-Leighey House. "While people have known some about the later owners, just general information, they haven't known very much about them. I've done more in-depth research on the people who lived here."

The original owners were George Washington's nephew Major Lawrence Lewis and his wife Eleanor "Nelly" Custis Lewis. The property was originally part of Mt. Vernon, which can be seen from Woodlawn. In 1846, the Lewis's son sold the property to two families that were members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers. Opposed to slavery, the families established a free labor colony at Woodlawn.

According to Hellman, during the Civil War, Woodlawn and the surrounding area was raided by both the Union and the Confederacy – the North figuring the estate owners were southerners and part of the rebellion, the South knowing the group was made up of Union sympathizers.

"We're finding that it's really a very fascinating story," Hellman said. "We're going deeper into that, into some of these post-Lewis owners because they're really more interesting than you think they are.

The renewed focus on the history of Woodlawn from 1846 on is due to Woodlawn's Director Laurie Ossman. She secured a grant from the National Trust Interpretation and Education Fund to hire researchers to explore the era in question.

Ossman wanted to learn more about Woodlawn beyond the Washington-related family that first lived there.

"It was a logical next question," the director said, before adding, "The focus with George Washington is hard to get past."

Hellman worked as a historian for Fairfax County for five years before taking over as Deputy Director at Woodlawn in April. In May of 2009, Hellman, along with genealogist Maddy McCoy, started work on tackling Woodlawn's history.

Born and raised in the area and now living in Herndon, Hellman combed through a wealth of information, including land records, tax records, census records, family archives, old photographs and local newspapers.

The plan is to offer a lecture on the findings sometime next year, and dedicate a room to the house to the post-1846 era.

"You can't tell the whole story of a site with just focusing on one part," Hellman said. "That's part of what preservation is all about, is the entire history of the structure or the site, not just this one microcosm in time.

"To us it's more interesting to tell the story of the house through time, not just this one static period."


Maddy McCoy
Fairfax County, Virginia
Slavery Inventory Database