Stafford’s Historical Eras

One of America’s Most Historic Places

Prehistoric Era Stafford County Historical Society


During a lengthy prehistoric-era, the area roughly east of today’s I-95 highway was covered by ocean water. Prehistoric sharks and other sea life were found in abundance. As the waters receded and the shelf was exposed, prehistoric creatures and other life forms of many types emerged. Over 119 million years ago, new life was evident. Large dinosaurs, such as Astrodon, roamed the river beds and open spaces. Small prehistoric toads, called Anurans, were on the other end of the food chain. The first humans to arrive were Paleo-Indians, identified only by their tell-tale fluted projectile points. Over the course of about 10,000 years they developed into Woodland Amerindian societies which were quite sophisticated and ready to meet other peoples.

Prior to English Colonization

Prior to English colonization the Algonquin-speaking Patawomeck (Potomac) Band of the Powhatan Confederacy lived in the eastern part of what is now Stafford County. The villages visited by John Smith in 1608 as he explored the Virginia side of the Potomac River are thought to be Patawomeck. Native Americans in the western part of the county spoke Siouan, and were not part of the Powhatan Confederacy. Smith also encountered them during his exploration of the Rappahannock that same year.

During English Colonization

Stafford’s English Colonial population represented the full range of British society. The gentry class derived almost exclusively from Cavalier exiles and immigrants from the 1640s to 1670s. Unusually, the Catholic Brent’s were Stafford’s first permanent settlers. They opened the way for the arrival of French Huguenot Protestants to settle in their Brenton Tract. Stafford’s fisheries, tobacco plantations, iron works and flourmills were major suppliers to Great Britain in the Colonial era. George Washington, the father of our country, and George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), lived here as youngsters. James Hunter’s Iron Works (Rappahannock Forge) was one of the major industrial plants in the Revolutionary era and supplied the Continental Army with arms and equipment in its fight for independence. With the establishment of our new nation’s capital city, Government Island was chosen to provide the stone for the White House and the U.S. Capitol. Ironically, Hunter’s Works and the Government Island Quarry were manned by immigrant workers and African American slave-labor.

Antebellum Era (1830-1860)

During the Antebellum era (1830-1860), Stafford saw two of its young men come to national prominence around the issue of slavery in 1854. African American Anthony Burns escaped to Boston and, when recaptured, was featured in the first test case of the Fugitive Slave Law. When Burns was returned to slavery by a Boston court, some 50,000 Bostonians draped their city in mourning and watched silently as troops march Burns to a southbound ship. They would never return another escapee to slavery. Attending Harvard Divinity School was Staffordian Moncure Daniel Conway. Seeing his boyhood friend enslaved again finally convinced Conway of the necessity to end the institution in America. He went on to become the South’s most prominent abolitionist.

Civil War Era

During the Civil War era, Stafford was a logistical and transportation center, and a staging ground for many area campaigns. Chatham Manor, like many other homes in Stafford County, was utilized as a Union headquarters and hospital to treat the wounded. The bloody Battle of Fredericksburg took place across the banks of the Rappahannock River in December 1862. In January 1863 Union General Ambrose Burnside bogged down his army on the famous “Mud March”. Demonstrating that we still had to face up to the momentous issue of slavery, Stafford’s Anthony Burns was the subject of America’s first major fugitive slave case. Nationally known, Southern abolitionist Moncure Conway led his family slaves to freedom in Yellow Springs, Ohio in 1862. Observation balloons were first used in America for military surveillance in Stafford by the Union Forces.

Many military “first” and technological and technical innovations first surfaced in Stafford during the Civil War. These included the first: ship-to-shore naval engagement, which also employed naval mines; rapid construction (and means for expedient destruction) of railroad- and other-bridging; ship-to-rail logistical transfer operations; “all-source” intelligence analysis by the Union forces; “secret lines” of the Confederate Signal Corps and Secret Service (ultimately stretching to Canada); large scale emancipation of freed people; multiple-balloon reconnaissance operations; signal intercept and false/deceptive messaging; riverine combat assault; use of massed reserve artillery as a separate command; systematized troop care, feeding, training and inspections; distinctive badges identifying corps and divisions on personnel, wagons and equipment; color-coding logistics vehicles by branch of arms and unit; pack trains for immediate resupply of ammunition and food; ordnance reforms on ammunition handling and distribution; and tailored heavy artillery units with organic support for mobile offensive and siege support. Earlier innovations were also further developed; they included development of a thousand-vehicle ambulance corps and other medical sanitary improvements; improved standardized care for horses and mules; and improved military pay activities. The reorganization of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry into a single, unified corps, together with subsequent leadership, troop care, animal care, and weaponry improvements (especially wide deployment of the 7-shot Spencer repeating carbine) all proved decisive in gaining the eventual victory in the East.