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Huntley Meadows Park

A Little History by Shirley Scalley

The Birth of a Wetland
From the First People to European Contact
From 1606 to 1657
From 1657 to the Modern Era
From the Early Twentieth Century to the Present


Today one can stand, in near perfect solitude, in the forests, meadows and wetlands of Huntley Meadows Park and imagine the land as it must have been in the seventeenth century. But the era that saw the arrival of European settlers on the shores of the new world is a late chapter in the history of the area.

The Birth of a Wetland

Huntley Meadows sits in an old ox bow (point bar) of the ancestral Potomac River. When the river down cut into a channel to the east, it left the ox bow high and "dry." Because it is in the Atlantic Coastal Plain, the ox bow is underlain by sand, clay and gravel from the Miocene Epoch (23.8-5.3 million years ago). Core samples taken from the area have yielded cypress wood more than 100,000 years old. The underlying clay deposits and a relatively flat topography that retards runoff are what make the park a wetland.

From the First People to European Contact

The first people to inhabit the region, the Paleoamericans (11000-9500 B.C.), were nomadic hunters, including big game, and gatherers. During the Archaic Period (9500-1000 B.C.), the people became more sedentary and territorial as riverine and estuarine environments developed. They established base camps along the rivers, to harvest fish and oysters, and seasonal hunting camps in the interior. The settlements of the Woodland people (1000 B.C. to A.D. 1600) were more permanent, sometimes even fortified. These people were agriculturists as well as collectors and were pottery makers.

Judging from the type of pottery they made, called Potomac Creek (see Map), Fairfax County archaeologists believe that the Dogue Indians migrated into the Middle Potomac Valley from the Maryland Piedmont around A.D. 1300. For some 400 years, they lived in Northern Virginia, mainly in today's Fairfax and Prince William Counties.

From 1606 to 1657

In 1606, Captain John Smith became actively involved in the Virginia Company of London, which King James I chartered to establish a settlement in Virginia. In December, 108 English gentlemen set sail from London. On May 13, 1607, they landed on an island in the James River and founded Jamestown. In July of 1608, Smith set out on the first of two voyages of discovery up the Chesapeake Bay and its tributary rivers. His resulting map and writings are rich sources of information and are still studied today.

When Smith encountered the Dogue on his trip up the Potomac River, they were a tribe of perhaps 280 people, assuming six dependents for each of the forty men Smith counted. They were independent of any other group, including the Powhatan Chiefdom. With respect to their language, Blair Rudes, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of North Carolina, says, "The Doeg [sic] are a truly interesting and mysterious group. … It is possible that [they] belong to one or another of the distinctive (i.e. non-Algonquian, non-Iroquoian, non-Siouan) ethnic/linguistic groups in the interior of Virginia and the Carolinas whose language was never documented by Europeans prior to their assimilation into other groups."

Their main town, which Smith called Tauxenent (see Artifacts) and the Indians called May-Umps, was on May-Umps Island, today's Mason Neck, near the mouth of the Occoquan River. Smith also noted on his map two hamlets on the Potomac that are attributable to the Dogue. They were probably seasonal fishing sites.

Another historic person that visited the Dogue was Wahunsunacock, the first Chief Powhatan. In early 1617, he relinquished control of his empire to his brother and went to "ye K[ing]. of May-umps." By May 1618, he had died. His remains may have stayed with the Dogue until removed in 1621 for ritual burial.

The adventurer Henry Fleete spent five years in captivity with the Nacotchtank Indians (Anacostans). After he regained his freedom, he became a trader. In August 1632, he "sailed down [the Potomac River] to Pascattowie, and so to a town on this side of it called Moyumpse. Here came three cannibals of Usserahak, Tohoga, and Mosticum; ..." Moyumpse was a Dogue town on the Maryland side of the Potomac opposite Moy-Umps (see Map).

By the 1650s, the Dogue had abandoned many of their fields and villages because of disease or some other reason. By 1675, some of the Dogue, along with some Susquehannock Indians, were roaming the countryside terrorizing the settlers (see Indian War). By the turn of the century, they had virtually disappeared. If any Dogue remained, they were probably absorbed into other tribes.

Meanwhile, John Rolfe's success in developing a market for tobacco and the colonists' inability to manage the land resulted in a gradual expansion northward as the soil on older farms became depleted and farmers looked for new land. Robert Turney was the first to patent (obtain a government grant of) land north of the Occoquan River. In 1651, he claimed 2,109 acres on Mason Neck on which stood a Dogue field of corn. In 1653, Thomas Speake claimed 1,000 acres on the Pohick Bay side of Mason Neck, and others followed.

In 1691, George Mason II (1660-1716), son of the George Mason (1628-1686) who emigrated from England, patented land on Mason Neck. By 1692, he had moved up from the Aquia Creek area and was living at Pohick on the Speake tract, and by 1704, he had acquired 8,000 acres in Stafford County, his "home seat of Doeg's Island being part thereof." (The Virginia Assembly created Fairfax County in 1742.)

From 1657 to the Modern Era

George Mason IV took up residence on Mason Neck between 1746 and 1750 and moved into Gunston Hall in 1758. In 1757, he increased his farmland holdings by obtaining a Northern Neck grant of 1,606 acres a few miles north of Mason Neck. Most of this land is now Huntley Meadows Park. Mason bequeathed the property to his son Thomson, who around 1817 divided it into two farms which he gave to two of his sons: Dogue Run Farm to Richard Chichester (1783-1869) and Hunting Creek Farm to Thomson Francis (1828-1897).

Richard, a physician, and his family began living on his farm in the house he built, Okeley Manor, sometime before 1834. After serving during the Civil War with the Confederate States Army in Richmond, he returned home at age seventy-two to find the house, used during the war as a hospital, burned to the ground to prevent the spread of smallpox and a negro and an Irishman in possession of the property. By 1880, his son, Beverley, had recovered the land and was living in a house he built on the hill.

Thomson Francis (see Biography) built the house known today as Historic Huntley Mansion in 1825. In early 1859, the eve of civil war, Thomson's widow, Betsey, tried to sell the house and farm (see Advertisement). Finding no buyer, she transferred ownership on November 7 to her two sons, John Francis ("Frank" 1829-1897) and Arthur Pendleton ("Pen" 1835-1893). On December 7, they obtained a $13,000 loan, due for repayment on January 1, 1862, from Dr. Benjamin King.

Frank rented the farm to George W. Johnson, a Union sympathizer, for two years beginning August 1, 1860, after which time, he told Johnson, they would sell the property and give Johnson $1,000 "for putting things in order." Johnson told the Southern Claims Commission that "A short time before the war commenced [Frank] Mason and his mother went South and left all the old servants and children and I had to take care of them. … I never had a settlement with any of the Mason heirs." (See Civil War.)

From December 1861 to February 1862, the 3rd Michigan Infantry camped at Huntley, and the quartermaster and his wife lived in the house. The Masons defaulted on the loan, and Dr. King purchased Huntley at auction on June 12, 1862. Johnson continued to live on and work the farm until February 1863. On November 21, 1868, King sold Huntley to Albert Harrison and Nathan Pierson of New Jersey. Richard's descendants sold Okeley in 1916, ending Mason ownership of any of the original parcel.

In 1871, Harrison and Pierson subdivided Huntley. Harrison took the house and outbuildings; Pierson took the rest. Thus began the fragmentation of the original tract into many parcels.

From the Early Twentieth Century to the Present

Most of the land was used for wheat or dairy farming until 1929, when entrepreneur Henry Woodhouse virtually reassembled the original Mason property with the intention of building an airfield. But his plans never materialized, and he lost the land by default. The Washington Air Terminal Corporation leased the land to dairy farmers until 1941, when the federal government purchased it for $60,000.

From 1943 to 1953, the Bureau of Public Roads used it to test road surfaces. Parts of an oval test track and three small buildings now used by Park maintenance personnel are all that remain of this project. During the 1950s, the U.S. Army operated an Air Defense Artillery unit on the site manned by four officers and 30 enlisted men. Remnants of this installation can be found at the head of the Hike-Bike Trail. In 1958, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory established two antenna fields, the larger on what is now the central wetland, and built the Hike-Bike Trail to provide access. This project was phased out in 1971.

In 1975, the Interior Department, under its "Land to Parks" program initiated during the Ford administration, sold 1,261 acres of surplus land to Fairfax County for $1. The land was to be used "… exclusively for public park or public recreation purposes in perpetuity." Beavers built a dam on Barnyard Run in 1978, thereby flooding the central meadow, and in 1980-81, the first boardwalk was constructed. The original Visitor Center opened in 1983; the addition was completed in 1990.

In 1989, the Park Authority purchased Historic Huntley Mansion. In 1992, 164 acres added to the southwest corner of the Park brought it to its present size of 1,425 acres. And in 1994, a new boardwalk replaced the old one.

After a fifteen year initiative by a group of dedicated Park volunteers, the National Park Service in 1990 denied Fairfax County a permit to construct a four-lane road through the Park. Thanks to these volunteers, the tranquility of the Park remains undisturbed.


Mastodon Kill by Dean Quigley. Arrival of the English: Engraving by Theodore De Bry, after a watercolor by John White. Gunston Hall photo courtesy Gunston Hall Plantation.

Contact Shirley

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