Dictionary of Virginia Biography


George William Fairfax (2 January 1724–3 April 1787), member of the governor's Council, was born on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas and was the eldest son of William Fairfax, a member of the governor's Council, and his second wife, Sarah Walker Fairfax, the possibly mixed-race daughter of a British army officer. His father was reassigned to Massachusetts late in the 1720s and to Virginia in 1733 and sent his son to England for schooling, trusting his family there to look after "a poor W[est] India Boy, especially as He has the Marks on his Visage that will always testifie his Parentage." This may be an early reference to "the strange claim," that Fairfax's widow later recorded, that the family in England had thought that her husband's mother "was a black woman," which necessitated his going to England to convince them that "he was not a negroe's son."

Following his educational sojourn in England, Fairfax rejoined his family in Virginia at his father's mansion, Belvoir, in Fairfax County. His father had prospered as land agent for his cousin, Thomas Fairfax, sixth baron Fairfax of Cameron, and served on the governor's Council from 1744 until he died in 1757. In 1746 and 1748, young Fairfax took part in expeditions to survey Lord Fairfax's western land. George Washington accompanied him on the second trip, and they became lifelong friends. On 17 December 1748, Fairfax married Sarah (Sally) Cary, whose sisters also married prominent Virginians and whose brother Wilson-Miles Cary was a member of the Convention of 1776. They had no children.

As the first son of a wealthy and influential Virginia gentleman, Fairfax assumed a prominent place in Virginia society and government. In 1745 he became a justice of the peace in Fairfax County. He represented Frederick County in the House of Burgesses in the assemblies of 1748–1749 and 1752–1755 and Fairfax County in the assembly of 1756–1758. A member of the influential Committee on Propositions and Grievances, he also sat on several select committees to draft bills of local or regional interest, such as establishing the town of Winchester. Named a justice of the peace for Frederick County in 1749, he was colonel of that county's militia during the Seven Years', or French and Indian, War. Fairfax served as a vestryman of Truro Parish beginning in 1757 and as a church warden from 1763 to 1764 and again from 1770 to 1771. He was active in building and furnishing the new church at Pohick. He also held the profitable post of royal collector of customs for the South Potomack district and succeeded his father in the influential and very lucrative position as agent for the Fairfax family in the Northern Neck Proprietary.

Fairfax owned land in both England and Virginia, as well as Belvoir, the imposing two-story, nine-room brick family seat in Fairfax County, with a servants hall and cellars, offices, stables, a coach house, gardens, and orchards on 2,000 acres of land. He was a member of the Ohio Company and owned and speculated in western land. Fairfax planted tobacco and also operated a commercial fishery and stone quarries, built an ironworks on his property in Frederick County, and invested in a vineyard. He traveled to England to look after inheritances in 1757 and for a three-year stay beginning in 1760.

On 22 May 1767 the king appointed Fairfax to the governor's Council. Fairfax took his seat on 31 March 1768 and remained a member until the royal government collapsed. He attended a Council meeting for the last time on 6 November 1772. He and his wife returned to England in August 1773 to pursue what turned out to be an unsuccessful lawsuit involving another inheritance. Realizing that the litigation would take years to settle and that they might never return to Virginia, they took up residence in York and made the decision to rent out Belvoir. George Washington, holding Fairfax's power of attorney, managed his friend's finances, and organized the lease of Belvoir and the auction of its furnishings in 1774. This was perhaps a way of returning a favor, as Fairfax had supervised the initial expansion of (and kept the key to) Mount Vernon, when Washington was in the field in 1758 during the French and Indian War. Washington looked after his friend's business concerns until the summer of 1775, when he took command of the American army. Belvoir burned in 1783.

During what Fairfax later described as Britain's "late diabolical war" against the United States, he moved to a country home near Bath, England, where he and his wife lived "in an humble, neat and comfortable way," commensurate with their diminished fortune. He complained that he often felt like a "marked Man and closely watched during the War" because British authorities viewed him with suspicion and intercepted his correspondence with family and friends in America, especially with Washington. Fairfax nevertheless continued to do favors and lend assistance to American friends and acquaintances. After several years of failing health, during which he displayed what a friend described to Washington as a "Firmness of Mind & christian patience," George William Fairfax died at his home in Bath on 3 April 1787. London merchant Samuel Athawes remarked that "where he was barely known he was honoured; where he was well known he was valued & venerated; & where Friendship had knot the Tie he was unreservedly beloved." Fairfax was buried at the parish church in nearby Writhlington, in Somerset.


Sources Consulted:
Birth date in "List of Christenings, Marriages, Burials and Communicants in Providence, Harbour Island, and Islethera, the Inhabited Islands of the Bahama Colony from the first Day of January 1723/4 to the Fourth Day of December 1724," Fulham Papers, Volume 15 (Bahamas), Items 25–28, Lambeth Palace Library, London, Eng.; family tree printed in Joseph Foster, comp., Pedigrees of the County Families of Yorkshire (1874), volume 1, West Riding, unpaginated; letters and family documents in collections at Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Va.; letters in Fairfax of Cameron MSS, Virginia Colonial Records Project microfilm, Library of Virginia (location of originals currently unknown), including William Fairfax to Anne Harrison Fairfax, 24 May 1731 (first quotation); Fairfax letters in George Washington Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., including Fairfax to Washington, 26 Mar. 1783 (third quotation), many of them printed in W. W. Abbot et al., eds., The Papers of George Washington: Colonial Series (1983–1995) and W. W. Abbot, Dorothy Twohig, et al., eds., The Papers of George Washington: Confederation Series (1992–1997), esp. 3:76 (fourth quotation), 4:451 (fifth quotation), and 5:263 (seventh quotation), 264 (sixth quotation); letters printed in Edward D. Neill, The Fairfaxes of England and America in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Including Letters from and to Hon. William Fairfax . . . (1868); numerous references in Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds., The Diaries of George Washington (1976–1979), esp. vols. 1–3; Wilson Miles Cary, Sally Cary, A Long Hidden Romance of Washington's Life (1916), marriage date on 22, second quotation on 50, and transcription of burial plaque in Saint Mary Magdalen Church, Writhlington, on 7; John F. Stegeman, "Lady of Belvoir: This Matter of Sally Fairfax," Virginia Cavalcade 34 (1984): 5–11 (portrait on 9); Fairfax records of the proprietary in Fairfax Family Northern Neck Proprietary Papers, 1688–1810, Acc. 24062, Library of Virginia and Northern Neck Proprietary Papers, Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.; appointment to Council in Colonial Office Papers 324/51, 322, Public Record Office, London, Eng.; Henry R. McIlwaine et al., eds., Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia (1925–1966), 6:288 (taking office) and 511 (final record of attendance); will in Prerogative Court of Canterbury Registered Wills, Major Quire 319, Principal Probate Registry, London, Eng., with photocopy of nineteenth century transcription at Library of Virginia, Accession 43792; death date and place in identical death notices in Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 5 Apr. 1787, and Bath Journal, 9 Apr. 1787.


Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Mary V. Thompson.

How to cite this page:
Mary V. Thompson,"George William Fairfax (1724–1787)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2016 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Fairfax_George_William, accessed [today's date]).


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