As Northern Virginia’s suburban sprawl continues its inexorable transformation of our communities and clogs local byways, it’s easy to whiz past those roadside historical markers with nary a glance.
It’s easy to forget that the county’s history predates the Revolutionary War when a new trendy eatery or coffee shop pops up somewhere almost every day.
The pace is increasingly hectic. Developers divide and subdivide, unfamiliar buildings rise above old farm fields, dust flies from construction sites, traffic thickens and it’s rush, rush, rush all the way to work and back.
Amid the hustle-bustle, recalling a little local history can help refresh modern residents’ sense of place, our bond with where we call home.
After all, Prince William County has a past it should be proud of. So do its neighbors, Manassas and Manassas Park. Here, Washington drank, Lincoln visited, Robert E. Lee planned, soldiers died and thousands of ordinary people lived lives that still fascinate.
Historians say this land was inhabited by Doeg Indians when Capt. John Smith roamed up the Potomac River for the English crown. Indeed, Smith and his men visited with members of the Doeg tribe during his exploration in 1608.
Settlers followed, pushing back the Indians and transforming what they viewed as a wilderness.
As the population grew, the settlers petitioned for a new county to be formed. In 1731, Prince William County was carved out of Stafford and would initially include present-day Loudoun, Fauquier, Arlington and Fairfax counties.
Prince William County was named for William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, the youngest son of King George II of England.
Many colonists came to Prince William to escape religious persecution. George Brent and three partners acquired 30,000 acres from Lord Culpeper in 1687 and were granted religious freedom by King James II. They created a town called Brenton, or Brent Town, and built a fort to monitor the American Indians.
Most of the land was quickly snapped up by a few wealthy men, known as the Barons of the Potomac. Englishmen immigrating to Virginia in hopes of owning their own land were often disappointed to find it already parceled out.
The treaty of Albany in 1722 opened more land as the Iroquois Confederacy of Indians agreed to move west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Also, Robert “King” Carter, agent for the proprietary company holding the Northern Neck, issued titles to small sections of land. Colonists from countries other than England also began to settle in Prince William, including French, German and Scottish people.
Prince William County’s first public buildings were constructed along an Occoquan River ferry landing owned by the George Mason family.
Settlement of what is now Woodbridge began in 1653, when the first land patent established 3,000 acres from the Occoquan River to Neabsco Creek. From that tract, a 534-acre plantation was cut and became known as the George Mason plantation.
That area bustled in the early 1700s after Col. John Tayloe collaborated with Presley Thornton and John Ballendine to build an iron furnace at Occoquan.
Dumfries became the first chartered town in 1749 as a result of the tobacco trade and its location along the Quantico Creek. This port town became the center of business and trade for much of Northern Virginia for the 18th century and was home to the county courthouse from 1759 to 1822. Prince William played a small part in the French and India War, which began in 1752.
A flour mill operated along the Occoquan River from 1793 to 1924, producing about 150 barrels per day. The town of Occoquan was founded in 1804 and incorporated in 1874, 46 years after one of Virginia’s first cotton mills began operating by the river.
The court sat at Dumfries from 1760 until 1820, roughly the period of the tobacco port’s heyday. At its height, some say Dumfries’ commerce rivaled that of Alexandria.
Tradition has it that George Washington, among other prominent planters, patronized the town’s taverns, stores and hostelries.
By 1880, silt from poorly managed farms had clogged Quantico Creek and killed Dumfries’ seafaring livelihood.
Establishment of the Manassas Gap Railroad was a key step in making Manassas the heart of Prince William County at the end of the 1800s. A small village evolved shortly after the railroad’s charter in 1850.
Two of the Civil War’s key battles were fought on Prince William soil.
The Battle of First Manassas in 1861 was the Civil War’s first major land battle. Fought for control of the railroads through Manassas Junction, it dashed Union dreams of a speedy end to the rebellion.
A second bloodier battle waged on the same ground 13 months later resulted in another Confederate victory, which many historians consider to be Gen. Robert E. Lee’s greatest success. Three days of fighting in Second Manassas opened the way for Lee’s invasion of the North, and ultimately, Gettysburg.
The railroad junction, still recovering from war, became a town in 1873. The county seat relocated there in 1892 and Manassas became a city in 1976.
The county’s existing limits were formed in 1748 by redivision of Stafford, Culpeper and Orange counties.
Even with today’s shrunken boundaries, Prince William is the only county in the state that crosses all four of Virginia’s geographic zones – from Tidewater, through the Piedmont and Triassic terrain to the Appalachians.