"The family of Lee has more men of merit in it than any
- John Adams, 1779.
As one Lee Family biographer, Burton J. Hendrick, observed in his The Lees of Virginia: Biography of a Family (Boston, 1935), "From the landing of the first Lee in 1640 to the rise of the Confederacy in 1861, there were few crises that did not find Lees in the foremost ranks."
The Jamestown colony was only a little over three decades old when Richard Lee (c.1613 - 1664) first crossed the Atlantic to explore the bounties of the Virginia countryside. Although not much is known of his life in England - Lee's ancestors were seen as hailing from Shropshire until recently, when researchers turned their attention toward Worcester - Lee apparently had already set himself up as a London merchant in the tobacco trade. Interested in seeing first hand how the lucrative crop was grown and shipped, as well as what other opportunities the New World offered, he sailed for Virginia in late 1639 or early 1640. He liked what he saw, and not long after his arrival, he acquired his first lands, in 1640, at Tindal's Point in present-day Gloucester County, on the north side of the York River directly across from where Yorktown was later established. Two years later, in 1642, Lee patented a thousand-acre tract on Poropotank Creek, a tributary of the York about twenty miles above the river's mouth. The region on the north side of the York River was still controlled by natives inhospitable to the English, but Lee, exhibiting the adventurous spirit that came to characterize his descendents, discarded any fears that he may have held of Indians, not only cultivating his fields in their midst but trading furs and skins with them directly. Lee's land contained virgin soil, its richness was perfect for the planting of tobacco, and he soon saw the wisdom in adding to it. After the Indian Massacre of 1644 Lee moved to the south side of the York, where he remained for nearly a decade, but in 1653 he resettled on Poropotank Creek, establishing a trading post and tobacco warehouse. He called this estate "Paradise."
Richard Lee and his young wife, Anne Constable, who was born in London and may have come to America at the same time as Richard, were parents to an ever-increasing brood of children. In quick succession, between 1645 and 1656, Anne delivered at least ten children, including two girls and six boys that survived infancy - John, Richard, Francis, William, Hancock, Elizabeth, Anne, and Charles. In a short time Lee began to prosper; with prosperity came the ability to cultivate more tobacco fields; with increased cultivation came more prosperity and the ability to supplement his land holdings. His tobacco plantation eventually grew to 1,500 acres and became home to seventeen laborers - indentured servants who paid for their voyage from England to Virginia with seven years of service in Lee's tobacco fields. More importantly, prosperity brought Lee prestige, and with it political appointments: Clerk of the Quarter Court in 1641; Attorney General in 1643; Sheriff and Burgess of York County in 1646 and 1647; Secretary of State in 1649; and the Governor's Council in 1651. As Secretary of State, Lee was the most valuable assistant to the colony's royal governor, Sir William Berkeley (whose estate Green Spring was later inherited by one of Lee's descendants), and the most powerful man in the colony after Berkeley. As a member of the Governor's Council Lee set a precedent for his offspring, who in succeeding generations occupied a seat on the Council until it was dissolved in 1776.
Richard Lee led an active life, one of much hustle and bustle as he kept the official records at Jamestown, issuing marriage and travel and hunting licenses, recording wills and land titles, and making trans-Atlantic trips in the governor's name - all the while managing his tobacco fields; he also entered the shipping business, becoming part owner of at least two ships, the Susan and the Elizabeth and Mary. Lee was, along with Governor Berkeley, a loyal supporter of the Crown, and with Berkeley his career as a public official ended with Cromwell's seizure of power in England. Lee retired quietly to land on Virginia's Northern Neck, four days distance from Jamestown, to wait out the Interregnum on land that was not his, that had been given to the Indians in treaty. He began to amass more tracts of land, in present-day Northumberland County, where he lived out the rest of his life (when he was not in England), and in present-day Fairfax County, including the plantation later inherited by George Washington, known as Mount Vernon. At the Restoration, Governor Berkeley returned to power in Virginia and Lee returned to his seat on the Governor's Council, although for Lee the colony's politics no longer held any interest. At his death in 1664, which took place at his home on Dividing Creek (near present-day Kilmarnock, Virginia), Richard Lee owned 13,000 acres of land, more than anyone else in the colony, making him probably the richest man in Virginia. Lee also owned a large estate outside of London, at Stratford-Langton. At the village an important road (or street) crossed the River Lea by a ford - and hence originally was known as "Strat by the ford" - which in Virginia became the name that Lee's grandson Thomas Lee attached to the most famous of all Lee Family homes when he built it in the 1700s - Stratford Hall.
The success of Richard Lee the Virginia immigrant destined his children for a life consistent with their father's fortune and status. John, the eldest, attended Oxford University, taking a medical degree; Richard, the second born and his father's namesake, also attended Oxford; Francis, the third born child, became the family's factor in London. The fourth son, William, died in his mid-forties, apparently without marrying or issue. The fifth son of the family founder, Hancock, married (the second time) Sarah Allerton, a granddaughter of Isaac Allerton who was a passenger on the Mayflower. Charles, the youngest of all the children, inherited the part of his father's Dividing Creek lands that came to be known as Cobbs Hall, the name also given to Charles's line of descendants. Hancock Lee built a mansion house called Ditchley, after which his descendants are known to history, and the illustrious line includes a descendant who was a surveyor for the Ohio Company and the founder of Leestown on the Kentucky River and the mother of President Zachary Taylor. John Lee, the physician, although he died before marrying at age twenty-eight, managed to build a mansion on the Potomac River, Mount Pleasant, and to serve as high sheriff and burgess from Westmoreland County.
Richard the second, said family biographer Burton Hendrick, was "a man thoughtful, serious, quiet, devoted to the domestic virtues, deeply loyal in his political convictions, prepared, at times, to sacrifice personal fortune for things in which believed." If Hendrick can be believed, Richard, sometimes called "the Scholar," was given to melancholy, and even despair. Richard's management of his inheritance, claimed his grandson, William, was one of lost opportunities, despite the fact that his quite abundant estate was diminished in no respect. Richard the younger nevertheless held public office, including sitting on the Governor's Council, serving as a burgess, a naval officer, receiver of duties on the Potomac River, and colonel of the Westmoreland militia (his father had been a militia colonel as well). During Bacon's Rebellion in 1676, it was the younger Richard's fate to be labeled by Nathaniel Bacon as one of the "wicked and pernitious" culprits responsible for having "sucked up the public Treasury"; Richard was captured by Bacon, hauled a hundred miles distance from his home, and held for seven weeks. Bacon's Rebellion, rightly or wrongly, has been interpreted by some to presage the popular uprising that took place a hundred years later in the American War for Independence, and, ironically, given the Lee Family's prominent role in that rebellion, Richard Lee was firmly on the side of the established order.
The eighteenth century brought changes to Virginia, and to its families of Lees. Virginia was entering its "Golden Age," and perhaps no one in the colony represented more the changes and the splendor of the age than Richard the elder's grandson, Thomas Lee, the builder of Stratford Hall. Although Paradise on the York was still in family hands - occupied by the younger Richard Lee's third son, Francis, a physician - its day was giving way to the estates that the founder had settled in the Northern Neck, especially to the one upon which Thomas built his great brick Georgian mansion. Thomas was the fourth son of Richard the younger (or the fifth if you count the eldest, John, who died in infancy), not the eldest, nor the second or even the third eldest, a fact that reveals clearly just how much opportunity Virginia still offered men of enterprising spirit. (The eldest surviving son, Richard, left Virginia for London where he entered his uncle's tobacco merchant firm; the next son, Philip, settled a prosperous estate in Maryland, Blenheim, where he fathered eighteen children; the youngest son, Henry, married Mary Bland and settled at Lee Hall; daughter Ann Lee married William Fitzhugh; both Henry and his sister Ann became great-grandparents of Robert E. Lee.) Thomas's education was inferior to his brothers - Thomas was not sent to Oxford and his inherited lands were of lesser size and value (both defects of course hurt his marriage prospects) - but he was given his father's office as receiver of shipping duties. Yet the father of the Stratford Lees was intelligent and ambitious, and he mustered his family connections and business acumen to great effect.
Recognizing, that the future of American lay to the west, Thomas Lee secured (with help from his father) an important appointment as agent to the Fairfax family, the proprietors of the Northern Neck. It was the boost he needed: over time he amassed nearly 30,000 acres of land; his interest in the frontier led to his becoming the guiding spirit and first president of the Ohio Company. Lee was named to the Governor's Council in 1732, and sixteen years later became that body's president, earning him the title of "President of Virginia." For a time Thomas served as the colony's acting governor, and in that capacity had to deal with French "intruders" on the Ohio frontier, which he did by successfully treating with chiefs of the Six Nations. Lee also became a slave holder, and a large one - the numbers eventually grew to five hundred souls. Tobacco was king in Virginia; slavery was its servant; and Thomas Lee and his descendents were part of the royal entourage.
Thomas Lee married Hannah Harrison Ludwell in 1722, and to them were born six sons - Philip Ludwell, Thomas Ludwell, Richard Henry, Arthur, Francis Lightfoot, and William - all prominent players in the coming Revolution against Great Britain. Like their father, these boys were educated on the tobacco plantation, although the first four were later sent to England for additional schooling. Both Thomas and Hannah died before seeing their sons' illustrious political careers; in fact both died even before the French and Indian War. Here the branches of the family tree become too numerous to trace, other than to mention the barest of an outline: Philip Ludwell Lee, although a Patriot, died in 1775; Thomas Ludwell Lee signed the Westmoreland Resolutions, an early Patriot Association, and was one of the radicals who called for Virginia to support independence; Richard Henry Lee became a great statesman and influential member of the Continental Congress; Arthur Lee, perhaps the best educated of the lot who was trained as a physician and a lawyer, and who idolized his brother Richard Henry, became a pamphleteer of the Patriot Cause and an American diplomat; Francis Lightfoot Lee was an early behind-the-scenes promoter of independence and a delegate to the Continental Congress; William Lee, intelligent and self-educated and ensconced in the tobacco trade on the old side of the Atlantic, served as one of the two sheriffs of London in 1773 and 1774 and was elected alderman in the city in Mary 1775; nevertheless, William championed American independence in England, and was also appointed to diplomatic posts.
At the same time that Thomas Lee's sons were engaged in the fight for American independence, so was the offspring of Thomas's younger brother Henry Lee. Henry's home was Lee Hall, a Potomac River estate near Stratford. Henry and his wife Mary Bland were the parents of four children, sons John, Richard, and Henry, and daughter Laetitia. The elder Henry's son and namesake was a burgess along with his cousins, and emerged as a Patriot during the stamp act crisis. Henry the second in turn named his youngest son Henry, and Henry Lee the third by that name - but known as Henry Lee, Jr., - became famous for two reasons: for the conspicuous role he played as a Revolutionary War cavalry officer, which earned him the name "Light-Horse Harry," and for being the father of the most famous of all the Lee progeny, Robert Edward Lee the great Confederate general. Perhaps Light-Horse Harry has one other claim to fame, that of authoring the eulogy of George Washington that John Marshall delivered on the floor of the U.S. Congress, which included the immortal line, "First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of His Countrymen."