Dictionary of Virginia Biography

William Fairfax (bap. 30 October 1691–2 September 1757), member of the Council, was the son of Henry Fairfax and Anne Harrison Fairfax and was baptized on 30 October 1691 in the parish of Newton Kyme in the West Riding of Yorkshire (later North Yorkshire), where he was probably born. He attended school and then went to sea and later served in the army in Spain. When he was twenty-one Fairfax borrowed money from his mother while he unsuccessfully sought a position as assistant to the ambassador to France and considered travel to the Continent in search of an appointment. By 1716 he was residing on the island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic. Fairfax returned to England in 1717, probably in search of a new official position. He was at that time married to a woman whose name the family records do not disclose but whose own family may have resided in India. They evidently had no children who survived childhood.

In April 1718 Fairfax left his wife in England and sailed to the Bahamas as assistant to the new governor of the colony. He sat on the Council and as judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court and became the colony's secretary of state. On 27 March 1723, following the death of his wife on an unknown date, he married Sarah Walker, the possibly mixed-race daughter of a British army officer. Their two sons included George William Fairfax, who served on the governor's Council in Virginia. Their daughter Ann (or Anne) Fairfax, married two Virginians, Lawrence Washington and George Lee, and their daughter Sarah Fairfax married John Carlyle, of Alexandria.

Late in the 1720s Fairfax moved to Salem, Massachusetts, where his wife died on 18 January 1731. On the following 15 March the governor appointed him collector and deputy naval officer for the ports of Salem and Marblehead. Fairfax married Deborah Clark, of Salem, on 25 September 1731. They had one daughter and two, or possibly three, sons before her death in the summer of 1747.

Appointed collector of customs for the district of South Potomack in October 1733, Fairfax moved to Virginia during the summer of 1734. His cousin Thomas Fairfax, sixth baron Fairfax of Cameron, made him the agent for the Northern Neck Proprietary, which encompassed the land between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers. One of his early and most important responsibilities was to act with Charles Carter (ca. 1707–1764) and William Beverley under an order from the Privy Council to oversee on Lord Fairfax's behalf a survey of the proprietary's boundaries west beyond the Blue Ridge and to the southern-most branch of the Rappahannock River. As a consequence, the size of the proprietary land was significantly enlarged.

Although Fairfax could not personally grant proprietary land while Lord Fairfax was in Virginia from 1735 to about 1737, beginning in 1739 he granted land in the Northern Neck and greatly enriched his family's estate and those of associates. As agent of the proprietary, Fairfax was a very prominent regional official, and the governor's Council appointed him to the Westmoreland County Court in 1734, to the King George County Court in 1737, and to the Prince William County Court in 1741. By the time Fairfax won election to the House of Burgesses from Prince William County in 1742 he was residing at Belvoir, on the banks of the Potomac River in the part of the county that became Fairfax County later that year. He became a member of the new county's court, too, in November of that year and also served as county lieutenant in command of the militia in Fairfax. Later, in 1749, he was one of the original trustees of the town of Alexandria. When Lord Fairfax returned to Virginia in 1747, he lived at Belvoir for several years before moving to the part of Frederick County that later became Clarke County.

Fairfax joined in the commercial ventures of long-established regional planters of the Northern Neck, and in 1738 he and several other prominent men entered an unsuccessful scheme to sell Oronoco tobacco directly to representatives of the French Farmers-General. In 1745 he and his wife joined their son-in-law Lawrence Washington in prosecuting Charles Green, the rector of Truro Parish, for attempted sexual assaults on Ann Fairfax prior to her marriage. Fairfax and Washington had failed in their recent attempt to be elected to a new vestry in order to remove Green as rector. The governor intervened to settle the case in Green's favor but required him to pay court costs, which defendants normally paid if they lost a case. Despite the controversy, Fairfax was named to the Truro Parish vestry in 1754.

In the summer of 1743 the Board of Trade set aside a recommendation from Virginia's lieutenant governor to appoint another man and named Fairfax to fill a vacancy on the governor's Council. Fairfax took office on 16 April 1744 and served until his death, although he traveled to England for several months in 1750–1751. As a member of the Council, Fairfax led several efforts to negotiate with the French and to establish alliances with Indians on Virginia's frontier. He chaired the Council committee in October 1753 that drafted the letter that George Washington carried to the French commander in the upper Ohio Valley to demand that the French withdraw from land that English royal charters granted to Virginia. That episode led to the beginning of the Seven Years', or French and Indian, War between France and Great Britain. Fairfax's correspondence with Washington reflected the continued close ties that developed between the families following the marriage between Fairfax's daughter and Washington's half-brother and Washington's own work as a surveyor for the proprietary.

Early in 1757 Lieutenant Governor Robert Dinwiddie attended a conference in Philadelphia with the absentee royal governor, John Campbell, earl of Loudoun, who was then commander-in-chief of the British army in North America. As the senior member of the Council, Fairfax took the oath as president on 18 March 1757, making him in effect acting governor of Virginia until Dinwiddie returned on 31 March. William Fairfax attended a Council meeting for the last time on the following 8 June and then returned home to Belvoir, where he died on 2 September 1757 and was buried.

Sources Consulted:
Biographical data and some letters published 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), and in Fairfax Harrison, Landmarks of Old Prince William: A Study of Origins in Northern Virginia (1924), esp. 340–341; copy of baptismal record in Martin Name Act File, 2 Mar. 1797, Main Papers, Records of the House of Lords, Parliamentary Archives, Westminster, London, Eng.; second marriage in Richard Henry Spencer, "The Carlyle Family," William and Mary Quarterly, 1st ser., 18 (1910): 211; third marriage in Vital Records of Salem Massachusetts, to the End of the Year 1849 (1924), 344; Fairfax of Cameron MSS, Virginia Colonial Records Project microfilm, Library of Virginia (location of originals currently unknown); Charles Green Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; John C. Van Horne and George Reese, eds., The Letter Book of James Abercromby, Colonial Agent, 1751–1773 (1991), esp. 161–164, William Fairfax Papers, 1736–1784, Acc. 51220 and the Fairfax Family Northern Neck Proprietary Papers, 1688–1810, Acc. 24062, both Library of Virginia; Northern Neck Proprietary Papers, Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.; Correspondence of the Family of Fairfax, including the Fairfax Estate in Virginia, Add MS 30306, British Library, London, Eng.; W. W. Abbot et al., eds., The Papers of George Washington: Colonial Series (1983–1995), vols. 1–4; Fairfax's Album Amicorum recording his visitors, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Va.; Peter R. Henriques, "Major Lawrence Washington versus the Reverend Charles Green: A Case Study of the Squire and the Parson," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 100 (1992): 233–264; Council service documented in vols. 5 and 6 of Henry R. McIlwaine et al., eds., Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia (1925–1966), sworn in as a member 5:140 and as president 6:28–29; original will in Fairfax Co. Circuit Court with copy in Fairfax Co. Will Book B No. 1: 171–174; death notice with date in Annapolis Maryland Gazette, 15 Sept. 1757, reprinted in Boston News-Letter, 29 Sept.–6 Oct. 1757.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Bruce A. Ragsdale.

How to cite this page:
Bruce A. Ragsdale,"William Fairfax (1691–1757)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2016 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Fairfax_William, accessed [today's date]).

Return to the Dictionary of Virginia Biography Search page.

facebook twitter youtube instagram linkedin