Saturday, March 9, 2013

History of U.S. 1: Historic Churches of the Potomac Path, Part I

Back in 2005, the Mount Vernon Gazette ran a series of articles by local author Michael K. Bohn on the history of U.S. 1. They provide some interesting history on U.S. 1.

The following was written by Michael K. Bohn and ran in the Mt. Vernon Gazette, in June 2005:
Historic Churches of the Potomac Path

Michael K. Bohn
Mount Vernon Gazette, June 2005

As the population of colonial Virginia expanded beyond its Tidewater origins, the settlers built roads into the frontier to serve social and commercial needs.  One of the most important travel needs—one sanctioned by the colonial government—was getting to church on Sundays.  Before the Revolution, that mostly meant traveling to the King’s church, but as Virginia’s society became more diverse, other denominations built their churches along the Potomac Path.

Integral to the history of Route One is the history of religion along the road.  There are seven historic churches on or near the current highway, each with abundant and interesting lineages—Pohick Episcopal, Woodlawn Friends Meeting, Cranford Methodist, Woodlawn Baptist, Bethlehem Baptist, Woodlawn Methodist, and Accotink Methodist.  There are many more houses of worship along the highway, but space permits addressing only the most venerable.
This is the second installment in the Route One history series and it will appear in two parts—first Pohick, then the other churches.

Pohick Church, circa 1910.  Library of Congress.
Pohick Church
Route One and Telegraph Road
Often described as the “mother church” of Northern Virginia, not only because of its early creation, but also because it comforted the souls of the most prominent families—Washington, Masons, Fairfax, and others—during the years leading up to the birth of our nation.  Its history is as rich as any church in America.

Appreciating that history is both a physical and spiritual experience.  Watch the morning’s sunshine bathe the altar, touch the brick and stone, even run your fingers across the Civil War graffiti.  Kneel and sense the presence of God, as well as the families who created the United States of America.
Two hundred thirty-one years after its construction, Pohick Church
remains a solid as the faith of its members.  Michael K. Bohn
The Beginnings
In 1664, the Virginia Assembly created Stafford County, with its boundaries encompassing all lands of the colony drained by the Potomac River north of what is now Fredericksburg.  Within the county, there were two Church of England parishes—Chotank and the northernmost, Overwharton, which included all of what is now Prince William, Fairfax, and Loudon counties.  At this point in Virginian colonial times, the parish served both ecclesiastical and civic functions.  The secular responsibilities included “presentation of moral misdemeanors, the administration of poor relief, the discipline of vagrants, the education and apprenticing of bastards, and the processing of lands.”
Graffiti left by past visitors, mostly
during the Civil War, defaces the soft sandstone
around the doors. Michael K. Bohn
The most important parish religious responsibility was the establishment and maintenance of churches.  The first church in the Overwharton Parish, and thus the first in Northern Virginia, was a “chapel of ease” that appears to have been built about 1695 in what is now the Woodlawn area of Mount Vernon.  A 1715 land record had it located near the “county main road,” the Potomac Path, which ultimately became Route One.  In 1730, the parish relocated the chapel to a crossroads farther south on the Potomac Path, now the intersection of Gunston Road and Old Colchester Road, and called it the “church at Occoquan.”

The population north of the Occoquan River had grown by 1730 to the point that the Assembly created an additional parish—Hamilton—out of Overwharton, with the Occoquan chapel becoming its parish church.  This subdivision was quickly followed by another, the establishment of the Truro Parish in 1732.  It encompassed all of what became Fairfax County ten years later, as well as the future Loudon County.  The Truro vestry renamed the church at Occoquan “Pohick Church” in recognition of its location near Pohick Creek.  The origin of “Pohick” is the Algonquin Indian word for the hickory tree--“powcohicora,” which evolved first to “pohickory,” then finally hickory.  Truro was named for a parish in Cornwall, England.
The parish vestry was composed of twelve elected men—landed, prosperous men, who were at the center of social and civic activities in the colonial parish, as well as the corresponding county.  Luckily, the Truro Vestry Book records, dating from1732, survived, providing wonderful detail regarding the history of the parish and its churches, the acquisition and maintenance of the “glebe”—the parish rectory and accompanying land—and the selection of ministers.

Reverend Lawrence DeButts was the first to preach at Pohick in 1733.  The first permanent rector was Charles Green, who was nominated by George Washington’s father, Augustine, who had been elected to the vestry in 1735.  Green traveled to London in 1736 to be ordained, returning the following year to begin his duties.

Green, who also had the important patronage of Thomas, sixth Lord Fairfax, was the subject of an early scandal in Truro Parish.  In 1745, Major Lawrence Washington, George’s elder half-brother, accused Green of attempting to seduce Ann Fairfax prior to her 1743 marriage to Lawrence.  Ann, who was the daughter of Lord Fairfax’s cousin William, was fourteen at the time of the alleged attempted debauchery at Belvoir, the family home.  The subsequent trial continued through 1746, when the colonial governor, William Gooch, settled the matter, apparently without prejudice to either party.  Green was exonerated to the point that he remained in the good graces of the parish until his death in 1765; George Washington was the executor of his will.

Truro Parish established a second place of worship in 1733—the “upper church,” which became known as Falls Church because it was located at the intersection of the road from Great Hunting Creek to Difficult run (later Route 7 or Leesburg Pike) and the road to the ferry at Little Falls.  The first wooden church had deteriorated to the point in 1763 that the vestry ordered the construction of the brick building that still stands today.  As the population grew in the north, the Assembly carved Cameron Parish out of northern Truro in 1748, a jurisdiction that became Loudon County.  Truro built a chapel in the new town of Alexandria in 1753 that later became Christ Church, then spawned Fairfax Parish in 1764.

The first Pohick church, located on Mason Neck at the current site of Cranford United Methodist Church, was a 20’ x 40’ wooden frame building.  In 1767, the vestry decided to erect a new, larger church and its proposed location was the subject of debate between George Washington and George Mason.  Mason preferred the new church be built at the existing site, citing the need to keep the cemetery and church collocated.  Washington, however, argued that a site near the intersection of the river road—the Potomac Path—and the back road (now Telegraph Road) was a more central location for all of the parish’s members.  Washington prevailed and soon construction of today’s brick church began, finishing in 1774.

Prominent parishioners bought pews at the church in a 1772 auction as a means to not only raise money for construction, but also assert their status in the community.  George William Fairfax, son of William of Belvoir, and George Washington bought the two best pews at the highest price—₤16 each, with Mason, Cockburn, McCarty, and others buying less conspicuous pews for smaller amounts.  The pew sale raised twenty percent of the entire construction cost.  The remainder came from levies upon the parish “tithables”—tax-paying landowners.

Years of Despair
In keeping with the emotions and the reality of the Revolutionary War and its aftermath, the Virginia Assembly, by then a state institution rather than colonial, banned the Church of England in 1785; the U.S. Congress quickly followed suit.  Hard times fell on the Protestant Episcopal Church, as the former Anglicans began calling themselves in the 1780s.  Services at Pohick became intermittent and without a permanent rector.  One itinerant preacher at Pohick about 1800 was an Episcopal priest named Mason L. Weems.  Best known for his biography, Life of Washington, Parson Weems was the source of most of the stories about the general that we all learned as kids, especially George’s youthful attack with hatchet on a cherry tree.  Pohick’s current rector, The Reverend Donald D. Binder, PhD, views Weems as a positive force in the period, calling him one of America’s first popular moralists.  “He was concerned with the lack of morality at the time, especially with regard to dueling and alcoholism,” Binder explains.  “Weems wrote many of his tracts to combat these vices by focusing on virtuous individuals such as George Washington.”

Oral tradition holds that the British vandalized the church during the War of 1812, and within a few years both the building and the congregation fell to the physical and spiritual low point in the church’s history.  Reverend William Meade, who later became the Bishop of Virginia, wrote of his 1837 visit to the once grand, but then empty and forlorn church:  “Is this the house of God which was built by the Washingtons, the Masons, the McCartys, the Grahams, the Lewises, the Fairfaxes?  Is this also destined to moulder piecemeal away, or, when some signal is given, to become the prey of spoilers, and to be carried hither and thither and applied to every purpose under heaven?  Surely patriotism, or reverence for the greatest of patriots, if not religion, might be effectually appealed to in behalf of this one temple of God.”  Within a few years, supporters of the church including President Martin Van Buren and former President  John Quincy Adams, raised enough money to fix the leaking roof, but the doors to the Washington and Mason pews were lost to vandals.

During the Civil War, Pohick Church, as well as its remaining congregants, was smack in the middle of no man’s land between the opposing armies.  Occupying Union troops defaced the church with graffiti that is still visible, and they stripped bare the interior.  Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, the Federal Army’s “Chief Aeronaut,” brought his hydrogen-filled balloon to Pohick Church during the war.  Tethered at an altitude over one thousand feet, Lowe was able to observe nearby Confederate forces.  “I made two ascensions last evening,” he reported of his activities on March 6, 1862.  “Saw fires at Fairfax Station; some on the road near the Occoquan.  This morning cavalry scouts are visible on this side of the Occoquan below Sandy Run.”

Scattered by the winds of war, church members abandoned for a time the lifeless shell of a building.  Restoration began in 1874, but with no attempt to replicate the colonial furnishings.  Straight pews replaced the rectangular enclosures of Washington’s time, while other accoutrements had the look of Victorian Gothic.  Follow-on refurbishment, beginning in 1890 by the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, reverted to the original design that has been present since then.

Today, Pohick is a vibrant, active church with a membership of five hundred families.  “This is not a museum,” claims Dr. Binder.  “The history of the church does attract people, but that is not the main reason for the good health of the church.”

“I moved here from Kentucky in 1957 and joined Pohick Church,” recalled long-time member Bill Wrench, a businessman and civic activist.  “Every church always needs money, but I figured that any church as old as Pohick must be paid for,” Wrench joked, “but I found out it wasn’t.”

The marvelous pedigree of the church does, however, attract tourists.  “About five to ten people visit everyday,” Dr. Binder said.  Church members volunteer as docents and will conduct guided tours for groups if requested in advance.

Pohick Church’s place in local history is also well known to developers in the Mount Vernon area, according to Dr. Binder.  “If a builder finds unmarked graves during excavation in land that can be traced back to the founding members, they contact us for permission to re-inter the remains here by our Vestry House. We are usually happy to oblige them.”  The mother church, indeed.


  1. Scott,

    Excellent article, thanks!

    I’ve been thinking about the re-branding of the name for Route 1/Richmond Highway Corridor.

    The following names popped up in my mind. Inspired by your post, I’m adding "Potomac Path Corridor".

    All-American Corridor
    Colonial Corridor
    Unity Boulevard
    George Washington Boulevard

    Let’ brainstorm folks!

    1. Jay:

      Thanks for the comment.

      The General Assembly designed U.S. 1 as Historic Route 1 in legislation back in 2010. You may have noticed the brown Historic Route 1 signs that have gone up all up and down U.S. 1 throughout Virginia.

      This is also part of a broader multi-state marketing effort you can see at:


      Scott S.