Thomas Fairfax, sixth baron Fairfax of Cameron (22 October 1693–9 December 1781), proprietor of the Northern Neck, was born at Leeds Castle, in Kent, England, and was the eldest son of Thomas Fairfax, fifth baron Fairfax of Cameron (1657–1710), and Katherine Culpeper Fairfax. His mother was the only legitimate child of Thomas Culpeper, second baron Culpeper of Thoresway, who had served as governor of Virginia from 1677 to 1683 and who had settled on her his five-sixths interest in the valuable Northern Neck Proprietary, the land in Virginia lying between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers. Fairfax spent his boyhood in part at family properties in Yorkshire. When his father died early in January 1710, he became the sixth baron Fairfax of Cameron. A few days later Fairfax entered Oriel College at the University of Oxford. When his maternal grandmother died in the spring of that year, he inherited her one-sixth interest in the Northern Neck.
Fairfax remained at Oxford for about three years and then moved to London to pursue a career in public life. The 1707 Act of Union barred Scottish peers from holding hereditary seats in Parliament, and as the barony of Cameron lay in Scotland he settled for an appointment in 1715, early in the reign of George I, as treasurer of the household under the lord chamberlain. Six years later Fairfax lost that post and became a coronet in the Royal Regiment of Horse Guards. At some time he became engaged to a woman whose name is not now known. Shortly before the scheduled wedding she chose instead to marry a man who was, or would become, a duke. According to family tradition, that painful episode explained why Fairfax never married and perhaps why he later moved to Virginia.
Northern Neck Proprietary
When his mother died at the end of May 1719, Fairfax inherited her interest in the Northern Neck Proprietary and became the sole proprietor. Other than completing his father's planned sale of the family's Yorkshire properties in the 1710s, he displayed little personal interest in the management of his estate until years after his mother's death. Fairfax left administration of the Northern Neck in the hands of agents, a decision that consequently allowed Robert "King" Carter (ca. 1664–1732) to become the wealthiest man in the Virginia colony. Following Carter's death, Fairfax sent his cousin William Fairfax to Virginia to manage the proprietary, where he stayed for the rest of his life and became a member of the governor's Council.
The southern and western boundaries of the proprietary remained in dispute. The western boundary had not been surveyed, and agents of the proprietary and colonial officials disagreed on which of the rivers was the main channel of the Potomac, the headwaters of which under terms of the seventeenth-century charter marked its western border. To defend his interests in the west, Fairfax cooperated early in the 1730s with the proprietor of Maryland to prevent a proposed settlement of Swiss immigrants in the areas that they claimed. Fairfax also secured a Privy Council order for a moratorium on granting land in the disputed region and for the appointment of commissioners in Virginia to survey and mark the boundary. He traveled to Virginia in 1735 and remained for about two years to negotiate an agreement with the lieutenant governor and the General Assembly, which in 1736 passed an act confirming his title. After Fairfax returned to England, his negotiations with the Privy Council produced a 1745 decision that established the final boundaries of the proprietary and confirmed his most expansive claims. Under terms of the legislation and Privy Council order Fairfax had to recognize existing colonial grants within the proprietary boundaries, but he secured title to more than 5 million acres of land instead of the approximately 1.5 million acres that the colony had initially agreed was his.
Residence in Virginia
Fairfax returned to Virginia in 1747 and lived with William Fairfax and his family at Belvoir, in Fairfax County. By the end of the decade he had moved to the lower Shenandoah Valley and begun construction of a country house in the part of Frederick County that in 1836 became Clarke County. Although Fairfax sometimes returned to Belvoir, for the remainder of his life he lived at Greenway Court, where he hosted hunting parties and managed the proprietary from the land office that he built nearby. His nephew Thomas Bryan Martin resided with him and assisted him. Among the surveyors Fairfax employed were Joshua Fry, who with Peter Jefferson produced one of the best maps of Virginia executed during the colonial period, and George Washington, who late in the 1740s began his career as a surveyor for the proprietary and also a long and close relationship with members of the Fairfax family.
Fairfax fostered the development of Frederick County's principal town, Winchester, which he named probably for Charles Powlett, eighth marquess of Winchester and third duke of Bolton, under whom he had served in the Horse Guards. Other than several royal governors, Fairfax was the only resident nobleman in Virginia and as proprietor of the Northern Neck was one of the most important men in the colony. As a consequence, the governor's Council authorized him in 1749 to sit as a justice of the peace in all of the counties within the proprietary. He often presided over the Frederick County Court and beginning in 1749 also served as the county lieutenant, or commander of the militia, including during the Seven Years' War.
Fairfax otherwise remained aloof from politics, and he maintained an air of indifference to the American Revolution. He did not return to England, but he refused to swear an oath of allegiance to Virginia and consequently paid double taxes to the new state. In 1777 the General Assembly abolished quitrents, except for those paid to Fairfax in the Northern Neck Proprietary. Despite a Virginia statute confiscating the property of British subjects, Fairfax's ownership of proprietary land remained unchallenged until his death, after which lawsuits about surveys, taxes, and ownership proliferated for decades. A number of issues went before the Supreme Court of the United States in Martin v. Hunter's Lessee (1816), in which the justices upheld the constitutionality of federal appellate jurisdiction over the highest court of each state.
Thomas Fairfax, sixth baron Fairfax of Cameron, died at Greenway Court on 9 December 1781 and was buried within the communion rail in the church of Frederick Parish. His remains have been moved several times: in 1828 to beneath the chancel of the new Christ Episcopal Church in Winchester, in 1925 to a crypt on the west side of that church's basement, in 1955 to temporary storage, and in 1957 to a tomb in the church courtyard. Fairfax County, formed in 1742, bears his name, as does Lord Fairfax Community College, which opened in 1970.
Biographies in Andrew Burnaby, Travels through the Middle Settlements in North America, in the Years 1759 and 1760, 3d ed. (1798), 159–166 (with erroneous birth date "about the year 1691," erroneous death date "in January or February 1782," and other errors), Fairfax Harrison, The Proprietors of the Northern Neck: Chapters of Culpeper Genealogy (1926), 125–135, 148–152 (quoting the register of Bromfield Parish, Kent, Eng., for birth, baptism [31 Oct. 1693], and death dates), and Stuart E. Brown Jr., Virginia Baron: The Story of Thomas 6th Lord Fairfax (1965), with frontispiece portrait; Joseph Foster, Alumni Oxonienses (1891–1892), 2:481; letters in various collections in British Library, London, Eng., in Centre for Kentish Studies, Maidstone, Kent, Eng., in Papers Connected with the Fairfax Family, MSS Fairfax 35, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, in Public Record Office, Kew, Eng., and in Fairfax of Cameron MSS, Virginia Colonial Records Project microfilm (originals in private hands, 2009), Library of Virginia (LVA); deeds, legal documents, and some Fairfax correspondence in Northern Neck Proprietary Papers (1675–1843), Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, Calif., and (1688–1810), Accession 24062, LVA; numerous references in Henry R. McIlwaine, Wilmer L. Hall, and Benjamin J. Hillman, eds., Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia (1925–1966), vols. 4–6; William Waller Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large: Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619 . . . (1809–1823), 4:514–523, 9:359, 361; will and estate inventory in Frederick Co. Will Book, 4:583–595; estate materials in Correspondence of the Family of Fairfax including the Fairfax Estate in Virginia, Add. 30305 and 30306, British Library; death date in Thomas Bryan Martin to Bryan Fairfax, 3 Feb. 1782 (but with recipient's variant docket of 7 Dec. 1781), and Robert Fairfax, seventh baron Fairfax of Cameron, to Bryan Fairfax, 9 May 1783, both Fairfax of Cameron MSS, and in Thomas Bryan Martin to Denny Martin and to Robert Fairfax, seventh baron Fairfax of Cameron, both 10 Mar. 1782, both in Wykeham-Martin Papers, Centre for Kentish Studies; obituaries in Richmond Virginia Gazette, or Weekly Advertiser, 5 Jan. 1782 (with variant death date of 12 Dec. 1781), and Gentleman's Magazine 52 (1782): 149.
Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Warren R. Hofstra.
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