Thomas Lee, an 18th century politician and businessman in colonial Virginia, knew the value of land and had an eye for opportunity. And the “clifts” on the south shore of the Potomac River had captured his attention.

Lee saw the advantages of this site long before he was able to purchase it. As the owner of a 2,600-acre plantation a short distance upstream, he was already reaping the rewards of a bountiful river, productive land, easy access to Chesapeake shipping routes and the indispensable labor of enslaved Africans and indentured servants. But he realized that these striking white cliffs, along with the fields and forests that pressed against them, offered a commanding view of the Potomac with strategic benefits that would only multiply as commerce increased along the river.

In 1717, opportunity arrived. Lee purchased the 1,443-acre tract from the widow of Nathaniel Pope and her sons. The Great House, christened Stratford Hall after his grandfather’s estate in England, rose from the ground during 1730-1738 using trees felled from the property and bricks formed from the clay in its soil. Shells from Potomac oysters provided the mortar.

Little did Lee know that the cliffs of Stratford Hall are part of an ancient geographic formation found in only three other locations worldwide. Nor could he know that this new Lee family seat would give birth to a remarkable number of men who would play vital roles in the emerging nation, including General Robert E. Lee, commander in chief of the Confederate army.

“A Towne in Itself”

Today, the approach to Stratford Hall, a pleasant drive through Virginia’s rural Northern Neck, provides an appropriate transition to this tranquil and expansive slice of history. Stratford now totals 1,700 acres, less than a third of its 6,600-acre heyday. Nevertheless, it offers a vast refuge of peaceful natural spaces, a scenic tapestry of open field and woodlands bounded by the Potomac River to the north and crowned by the clean, elegant lines of the Great House and its formal gardens.

The grounds of Stratford also include a working gristmill, reconstructed slave quarters, and numerous small outbuildings (each with a story to tell), along with a visitors center and seven well-mapped nature trails. Stratford also has a number of guest houses and meeting rooms, but these are nestled unobtrusively into the trees with decks and windows that immerse visitors in the woodland setting.

This tranquility, however, belies Stratford’s industrious past. At its height, Stratford was the realization of all the riches and opportunities the land could offer. It swelled with activity—agricultural, political, social and maritime. The land and river were rich in resources, and the Lees prospered through the labor of slaves and indentured servants who extracted them.

Stratford Hall’s relationship with its nearby resources and the roles its most famous residents played in the region’s history make it an ideal site for the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, which highlights the watershed’s resources, culture and history.

Like most colonial plantations, the enterprise at Stratford originally focused on tobacco. By the mid-18th century, though, tobacco had depleted the land and other crops moved to the forefront. The fields at Stratford produced grains and vegetables, while orchards yielded grapes, apples, pears, cherries, figs, pomegranates and more. Livestock included sheep, cattle, hogs and chickens. Marshes and forest abounded with game; the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay provided abundant seafood.

Countless skilled tasks supported life on the plantation. Daily operations included smithing, carpentry, coopering, tanning and shoemaking. Ships, bricks, furniture, clothes and liquor were produced on site, and the gristmill was a vital center of activity. At Stratford Landing, a steady stream of ships unloaded tea, textiles, metalware, tools and other goods from Europe. Apart from these manufactured supplies, Stratford was a world unto itself.

As one colonial visitor described it, the Stratford plantation was a “towne in itself.”

The Great House

The Great House at Stratford Hall commands a distinct and stately presence on the landscape. An early Georgian structure composed of more than 600,000 bricks, the symmetrical H-shaped building is unique in colonial domestic architecture. The identity of its designer is unknown.

The strongest exterior features of the Great House are its two great clusters of chimneys and a stone staircase that spills downward from a high main entrance with steadily lengthening treads. Each of the unusual chimney clusters contains four individual chimneys, bound together at the peak with brick arches and forming balustraded platforms at their base. The platforms offered cool sitting places for guests and a prime location for party musicians. At one time, a walkway spanned the space between them.

One unique aspect of the Great House is the use of vertical space. Instead of the more traditional arrangement of two equally divided stories, it consists of a raised main floor with a more compacted level beneath it—perhaps described best as an above-ground basement. The upper floor contains the formal living spaces of the manor house family, including the Great Hall, parlor, dining room, library and bedchambers. The lower floor contains storage rooms and service areas. Two wine cellars lie below ground.

The elegant Great Hall holds the central position on the main floor. It is an excellent example of 18th-century Georgian symmetry, with double-doors that open on two sides of the room. The southern doorway overlooks a long, grand approach from the land. Beyond the northern doorway is a broad, tree-lined field, nearly a mile in length, which culminates in a view of the Potomac River and its northern Maryland shore. In colonial times, this shore was five miles away. But the Potomac has claimed more land with each passing year, and the northern shore now lies seven miles away.

The Grounds

A fenced overlook, accessible by trail or car, provides a sweeping view of the white cliffs that first drew the attention of Stratford’s builder, Thomas Lee. Unfortunately, the cliffs are prone to landslides and, because of this danger, are closed to the public. Nevertheless, these cliffs are a unique and ancient formation, and the view alone is worth the visit. The cliffs were formed during the Miocene era, as rising land crushed and compacted sea matter from the earlier ocean floor.

Scientists have uncovered many rare fossils at Stratford, including the full skeleton of a 15-million-year-old whale and other long-extinct sea creatures. Portions of this Miocene formation exist at a few other spots in the Chesapeake region, such as Calvert Cliffs, on Maryland’s Patuxent River. Beyond the Chesapeake, though, similar cliffs can only be found in the Los Angeles basin, Austria and Belgium.

Nearly three miles of trails extend through the forestland of Stratford. They range from .1 mile to .8 mile in length, with terrain that varies from easy to difficult. The Silver Beech Trail and the Mill Overlook Trail hug the Potomac shoreline and connect with the Potomac Cliffs overlook. Eagle sightings are not uncommon, along with beaver, fox, raccoon, wild turkey and deer.

The Lees of Virginia

Stratford Hall offers visitors an experience rich with history, architecture and landscape. At its center is the industrious and expansive Lee family, whose impact is felt at nearly every critical juncture in U.S. history.

Thomas Lee, builder of Stratford Hall, was the third generation of Lees in the colonial Virginia. His father and grandfather before him were equally enterprising in both politics and business. Thomas’ grandfather, the English immigrant Richard Lee, vaulted from his position as political clerk at Jamestown to high political office and master of more than 16,000 acres of Virginia land. Thomas himself became a Justice of Westmoreland, a member of the House of Burgesses, naval officer of the Potomac, a member of the prestigious Council of State, and acting governor of Virginia.

The children of Thomas and Hannah Lee left indelible marks on both Stratford Hall and the history of the United States. Their eldest son, Philip, became master of Stratford. Under his guidance, the plantation grew to nearly 6,600 acres. He further developed the plantation’s river landing by building a productive gristmill and starting a shipbuilding business. He also imported an English racehorse, expanded the stables, and began breeding racehorses. Philip, loyal to Britain, died on the eve of the Revolution in 1775.

Philip’s younger brothers were passionate advocates for American independence. Together, they led Virginian resistance to the Stamp Act and issued resolves that threatened “danger and disgrace” to anyone who paid the tax.

Outspoken Richard Henry Lee proposed a systematic exchange of information between the colonies, which helped to shape and unite their combined resistance to the British crown. He then served on the Virginia delegation to the first Continental Congress and helped to smooth out differences between northern and southern perspectives. In 1776, Richard introduced the bill outlining the colonies’ intent to absolve all political ties with Britain.

Francis Lightfoot Lee was a close associate of Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry. He, too, became a delegate in the Continental Congress. Francis and Richard Lee both signed the Declaration of Independence, the only set of brothers to do so.

The youngest of the brothers, William and Arthur Lee, worked on the international scene as diplomats and spies. Prior to the revolution, both had ingratiated themselves with the political and social elite of London.

William, in fact, was elected sheriff of London in 1773 and became city alderman. He used his position to exert political influence in support of the colonies.

Arthur was an intellectual who became a secret agent for the Continental Congress, arranging for a flow of supplies between France and America.

Eventually, both Arthur and William were in Paris working for additional support from France, as well as other European nations.

The Lee family’s prominence continued beyond the war. Stratford’s new mistress was “the divine Matilda,” eldest daughter of Philip Lee. When the war came to a close, Matilda married her cousin Henry Lee III, known as “Light Horse Harry” for his horsemanship and recognized for many military accomplishments. They made their home at Stratford and welcomed three children to their family. Then, in 1790, Matilda died.

Two years later, Harry was elected governor of Virginia. While in Richmond, he met and married Ann Hill Carter and returned with her to Stratford when his third and final term as governor came to an end. There, on January 19, 1807. Ann gave birth to Robert E. Lee. His walnut cradle stands today in the room where he was born, with a spindle canopy frame draped in softly flowing cloth.

The nursery, a small adjoining room, contains a tiny fireplace with a cast-iron fireback. On the fireback is the date 1745, flanked by two winged cherubs. The significance of the date is unknown. It is said that when 3-year-old Robert was moving to Alexandria with his family, he was found kneeling by the fireplace to say his last goodbye to this pair of miniature angels.

More Info:

Stratford Hall is located along the Potomac River, two miles from Route 3 on Virginia’s Northern Neck peninsula. It is easily accessible from the south by Route 360 East to Warsaw, VA, or from the north via I-95 South or Maryland Route 301 South. George Washington’s birthplace, along with many other historic sites and recreational opportunities, are located nearby.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Guided tours of the Great House begin on the hour. The gristmill operates from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays April through September, weather permitting. The road to the mill and the Potomac cliffs overlook is open to vehicles 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., April 1 through mid-January, subject to weather and road conditions. Admission is $9 for adults; $5 for ages 6–11.

For information: Write Stratford Hall 485 Great House Road, Stratford, VA 22558, call 804-493-8038 or visit www.stratfordhall.org

Accommodations & Meeting Space: A number of modern guest rooms, reception rooms and meeting spaces are available on the grounds of Stratford Hall, along with the Log Cabin Dining Room and various catering options. Contact Stratford Hall at 804-493-8038 for prices and availability. Camping and log cabins are available at Westmoreland State Park, immediately adjacent to Stratford Hall plantation. Call the park at 800-933-7275 for information. A variety of bed-and-breakfasts and rental cottages are also available throughout the Northern Neck peninsula.

To learn about other sites in the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, visit www.baygateways.net