When he was sixteen years old Thomas Fairfax, Sixth Lord Fairfax of Cameron, inherited what Alexander Mackay Smith, in his definitive The American Foxhound 1747-1967, called “the most magnificent estate in the Colonies.” Five-million acres in Virginia between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers, the Northern Neck Proprietary, were originally granted to seven Englishmen, patrons of the exiled King Charles II in 1649.
By 1719, after a series of strategic deaths in the family Thomas came to hold all seven shares. Robert “King” Carter, then Governor of Virginia, acted as Fairfax’s land agent. As an absentee land holder—Carter amassed a fortune in land and cash—Lord Fairfax was not well represented. When Carter died, rather than appoint another agent, Fairfax sent his cousin, Colonel William Fairfax, to manage his land then followed him here permanently in 1747.
In 1749, in his mid-fifties, Lord Fairfax moved west to the Shenandoah Valley, becoming the only “resident peer” in the Colonies. There he established Greenway Court near White Post in what was then Frederick but is now Clarke County. Mackay Smith writes: “this part of the Shenandoah Valley was the only natural prairie land on the entire Atlantic seaboard, whose natural grasses made it a paradise for deer, elk and buffalo, and whose relatively small coverts and open galloping country made it also a paradise for foxhunters.” Greenway Court, where Lord Fairfax and his young friend George Washington hunted native grey and silver-grey fox, is on the National Register of Historic Places in the heart of Blue Ridge Hunt country.
Lord Fairfax had moved to what was then the western frontier of the English Colonies. One hundred and twenty-four years later, Willa Sibert Cather was born in Back Creek Valley just west of Winchester. Both her mother’s and father’s families had homesteaded west of the Blue Ridge since Lord Fairfax’s time and she lived here for the first decade of her life. When she was ten, in 1883, her parents moved her immediate and extended family to Red Cloud, Nebraska, on the new western frontier of the United States.
Though she is perhaps best known for her novels of prairie life in her trilogy Oh Pioneers!, Song of the Lark and My Antonia as well as her Pulitzer Prize winning novel One of Ours, the great influence on her writer’s sensibilities found in her Virginian roots cannot be denied. Eudora Welty once said of Willa Cather: “she did not come out of the south for nothing.” Two of Cather’s stories book-end her life’s work: Sapphira and the Slave Girl, her final novel written seven years before her death in 1947, and “A Night at Greenway Court,” an early short story published in Nebraska Literary Magazine in June, 1896.
Sapphira and the Slave Girl takes place in Back Creek Valley, Cather’s family home place not far from my house. Her descriptions of the valley just prior to the Civil War—the creek, the Northwestern Pike (now Route 50 West), trips west to Romney and east to Winchester (a day’s drive in a buggy requiring a night’s stay before returning home)—are striking for what is still present in the landscape, and for what is gone. Writing in 1940, Cather mourns the “denuding” of the landscape that took place at the turn of the twentieth century when timbering stripped Appalachia. “The winding country road which climbed from the post office to Timber Ridge was then, and for sixty years afterward, the most beautiful stretch on the northwestern turnpike.” From here Sapphira Doddridge Colbert’s slave girl, Nancy, escapes on the underground railroad to freedom in Canada and returns after the war to revisit her past. Cather was a mature novelist when she wrote Sapphira and the Slave Girl. Not a word is misplaced or without purpose.
“A Night at Greenway Court” is more obviously the work of a younger writer. It is a story of intrigue told from the point of view of a young man, “Richard Morgan of the town of Winchester, county of Frederick,” who idolized Lord Fairfax, “one of the most gracious gentlemen and foremost scholars of his time.” A French gentleman, M. Philip Marie Maurepas, is visiting Lord Fairfax on a evening in October, 1752, and the impressionable young Richard is invited to dine with “my Lord” and his guests.
Dinner is delayed until another guest, the Viscount Chillingham, returns from a day with Lord Fairfax’s hounds. In the mean time Richard and M. Maurepas tour the portrait hall at Greenway Court where they come upon a portrait of a woman made unrecognizable because her face has been gouged from the canvas. M. Maurepas, however, recognizes the emerald ring on her finger and becomes distraught.
When the Viscount returns for dinner, he complements Fairfax: “You’ve a good country here. You must sell me your deer hound, Fanny. I want to take her home with me and show ‘em what your dogs are made of over here.” To which Fairfax replies, “You are right welcome to her, or any of the pack.”
As dinner parties go, it was a disaster. During the course of the meal M. Maurepas becomes drunk on Fairfax’s fine wine, reveals himself an anarchist and insults the lady in the portrait. Fairfax is forced to kill poor hung-over M. Maurepas in a duel at dawn. The identity of the mysterious lady in the defaced portrait is revealed in the end
Who knew that the father of foxhunting in Virginia had inspired a great novelist one hundred years later? To read about Lord Fairfax in Alexander Mackay-Smith’s history book of foxhunting and to read a fictional account of his life by Willa Cather is to know history more intimately. And to ride across the same country that Fairfax, George Washington and Cather’s family did is to live history out loud.