The Early 1800s
The death of George Washington in 1799 marked the end of an era, as well as ushered in a number of significant changes in Fairfax County.
While the War of 1812 had little impact on the county in terms of actual fighting, a number of residents served in the militia and were called upon to help protect Washington, DC including moving wagon loads of gun powder from the navy magazine to the Dulaney farm near the Falls Church. However, what most people remember about the war was Dolley Madison fleeing the capital city with important papers and other treasures she saved from the White House. When the British were marching to the capital city, she crossed over into Virginia where she spent the night of Aug. 25, 2014 at Rokeby in Loudoun County, the home of a friend instead of going to Salona near Little Falls where the President expected to meet her. They reunited there the following day.
The loss to county residents was more economic than anything when the British seized massive amounts of their tobacco, flour and cotton waiting to be shipped from Alexandria warehouses.
From a demographic viewpoint, if your frame of reference about the county is based on the 20th and 21st centuries where population has only been on the increase, you might be surprised to learn that in the first few decades of the 1800s, that was not the case. From a high of 13,654 in 1810 (U.S. Census), the county’s population decreased by a third to 9,206 in 1830.
Intensive tobacco farming exhausted the soil so agricultural productivity fell and it became difficult to maintain the standard of living at plantations. Furthermore, with the abolishment of the primogeniture law (where the first-born inherited the estate), family land began to be divided among multiple offspring of large landholders on properties that then could not support their households, particularly given the depleted soil.
Many residents began to migrate westward, especially to Kentucky and Ohio, where land was plentiful. In addition, it had become more commonplace after the War of Independence to free slaves when the owner died. However, a law was passed in Virginia beginning May 1, 1806 that prohibited former slaves from remaining in the state more than 12 months after freedom, so many left the area.
Yellow fever outbreaks in the early 1800s and in 1821, particularly near in the Alexandria area on the Potomac River where mosquitoes were prolific, also resulted in people leaving the area as well as hundreds dying of the disease.
By 1830, land in Fairfax County was selling at a loss. People began to farm on smaller plots than the earlier tobacco farmers did. By then though, having learned the lesson about exhausting the soil, they paid more attention to diversifying their crops and improving the soil with fertilizers, gypsum and lime, which had a beneficial impact on their yields.
There was also a gradual move to producing grains, especially wheat and corn. While milling had previously been done most often on plantations, merchant milling where an independent miller took in grain from many farms became increasingly important to the county’s economy in the early 19th century. The major exports from the area to Europe during this period were grain and flour with Portugal, Spain, England and the West Indies as the key markets for these products.
In addition, dairy farms and raising sheep for wool became fairly successful with cotton and wool mills established. While milling continued to develop into a solid component of the local economy, a body of skilled craftsmen and merchants also began to grow to meet the needs of residents.
The trend of population loss began to reverse during the 1830s with immigrants coming from Europe primarily to work on roads and bridges. In the next article of this series, we will look at those developments and events leading up to the Civil War.
Source: Fairfax County Virginia, a History (1978)