Ann Fairfax Washington Lee’s life was better documented than many women of her era since she belonged to three notable families and was one of the central figures in a lurid scandal that rocked colonial Virginia.
Ann’s father, William Fairfax, was the nephew of the fifth Lord Fairfax. The Fairfax family was of immense wealth and influence on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Ann’s mother was Sarah Walker Fairfax. Sarah’s father was a major in the British Army in the Bahamas and her mother may have been of half or full African descent.
Ann was christened in Marblehead, Massachusetts, in 1730, shortly after her parents arrived there from the West Indies. Her name is alternately written “Anne,” as it was in the St. George Temple record, but her family and friends called her Nancy.
A year after Ann was christened, Sarah Walker Fairfax died giving birth to her next child, leaving forty-year-old William Fairfax with four children under the age of seven, including a one-year-old and an infant.
By the time Ann was two years old, her father had married Deborah Clarke, a young widow described as “excellently educated…haughty, proud…calculating… [and] of considerable influence and power.” Deborah and William Fairfax had three or four additional children.
The Fairfax family moved to Virginia in 1734, and Ann’s father quickly became one of the most influential men in the colony. The Fairfax plantation, Belvoir, was situated on the Potomac River, not far from the Washington family plantation later named Mount Vernon.
Ann grew up in a wealthy, privileged household, but it was not always a happy one. Her father and stepmother argued and used the children as pawns in their disagreements. From the time she met him when she was six years old, Ann came to rely more and more on a close family friend, the Rev. Charles Green, as a confidant and source of emotional support.
The Rev. Charles Green was a young, talented, ambitious man, a minister and a physician, a graduate of Balliol College at Oxford. When he arrived in Virginia he became close friends with William Fairfax and Augustine Washington, and they advanced his career in the ministry. Fairfax included Green in many land ventures, and William and Deborah Fairfax left their children in the care of Charles Green and his wife while travelling.
Augustine Washington’s son Lawrence, the beloved older half-brother of George Washington, had made a name for himself in land ventures and as a captain in the War of Jenkin’s Ear, and when he returned to Virginia, he courted and married fifteen-year-old Ann Fairfax with the strong encouragement of her parents.
Lawrence Washington may or may not have known before the marriage that his wife had been repeatedly abused by the Rev. Charles Green. Ann was nine when the abuse began, and when the Fairfax family had found out about it and confronted Green, he replied by letter that despite his attempts to seduce her, she was still “Virga Intacta” [sic]. The Fairfaxes responded by burning the letter in an attempt to preserve Ann’s reputation and marrying the fifteen-year-old girl to Lawrence Washington, a talented up-and-coming neighbor, ten years her senior, right when he returned from fighting in the war.
The year after the marriage, Lawrence wrote to the highest church official in Virginia, the Reverend William Dawson, with details of the abuse, asking that Charles Green be moved to another parish. Dawson responded by writing to Green, suggesting that he voluntarily leave his parish.
Green denied the charges and said he would fight for his parish and his reputation, and Lawrence Washington then decided to take the case to the Virginia ecclesiastical court.
The charges included the language that Green “did Sollicite allure and entice her with Wanton behaviour unchaste Dallyance and Immodest Speeches … And Instigated by the Devil did attempt and Endeavour to debauch and committ the foul Crime or Sin of adultery, fornication and Incontinence with the said Ann Washington.” The charges also included miscellaneous accusations related to Green’s family and business practices.
The trial took place at the College of William and Mary and must have been painful for everyone involved, particularly since the defense took the default tack of questioning the virtue of Ann Washington, who was only fourteen years old at the time of Green’s last reported attack.
The notes from the trial were misfiled for years and the entire event had been lost to history until a professor at George Mason University requested some Charles Green materials at the Library of Congress and library staff brought him the wrong folder. The trial is a fascinating look at power structures, family life, and crime in 18th century America. It paints a picture of a vibrant, charming, affectionate young girl who looked for affection from people who took advantage of her trust.
Part of the tragedy of the case is that it was not entirely about the abuse. It was a fight over elections and the struggle between ecclesiastical and landed and government power in early Virginia. Ann was a pawn in a case motivated by power and revenge, and she was the person who suffered the most from the abuse, the trial, and the loss of her reputation.
The trial ended with a settlement negotiated by Governor William Gooch. Green remained in his parish, but he paid the court expenses and had to promise to “behave himself for the future with general Decency & good manners toward Fairfax[,] Washington & their families.”
Green remained at Truro Parish for twenty years until his death. His reputation seemed to weather the attack. He was a friend and physician to George Washington, who was fourteen years old when the trial ended. Green died a wealthy man, well regarded in the community, often visited and invited to the homes of both Fairfax and Washington families.
Ann, meanwhile, suffered loss after loss. Her oldest child, Jane Washington, died the year the trial started. Her brother, Thomas Fairfax, died at sea the year the trial ended. Her stepmother, Deborah Fairfax, died a year later at age 39. One by one, Ann watched two or three more children die young. Meanwhile, her husband suffered from tuberculosis, and he died in 1752 at age 34, leaving Ann a very young widow with one daughter, Sarah Washington. Her father died in 1757.
Six months after Lawrence died, Ann remarried. She and her new husband, George Lee, rented Mount Vernon to George Washington and moved a hundred miles to Mount Pleasant on Chesapeake Bay. Two years later Ann’s daughter Sarah died. With the death of Lawrence’s last child, Ann kept a life interest in Mount Vernon, but the estate would pass to George Washington upon her death.
Ann and George Lee had three children: George Fairfax, Lancelot, and William, but Ann did not live to see any of them grow up. She died at the age of 33, shortly after receiving news of her sister Sarah’s death.
When Ann died, Mount Vernon became the property of George Washington, and Ann became largely remembered in history as the woman whose marriage to Lawrence Washington introduced George Washington into the influence of the Fairfax family, and then her inability to have children survive from the marriage and her eventual death provided George Washington his estate at Mount Vernon and contributed to his place in Virginia society and American history.
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When Ann’s temple work was done in St. George in 1877, the men and women who did it would have known very little about her besides her place in the Washington family. I have not yet been able to discover which biography of Washington Wilford Woodruff used to compile the list of Washington’s relatives, but I am continuing to look, since there are several distinctive details about the family included in the temple record.
The temple work was done for Ann Fairfax Washington Lee by Lucy Bigelow Young and Susanna Mehitable Rogers Sangiovanni Pickett Keate. Like Ann Fairfax, Susanna had her own history of amazing adventures and abuse. Her life is fascinating enough to deserve an entire post of its own, with its stories of Italian revolutionaries, an assassin, a locked room, a treasure chest, bigamists, polygamists, a gold miner, and the Marquis de Lafayette.
Note on the image: There is no known picture of Ann Fairfax. Belvoir was her family home.