John Kelly's Washington

What's in a Name? For This Area, a Lot of History.

This J.L.G. Ferris painting depicts George Washington beside a horse-drawn carriage in front of Old Christ Church in Alexandria at Easter services in 1795.
This J.L.G. Ferris painting depicts George Washington beside a horse-drawn carriage in front of Old Christ Church in Alexandria at Easter services in 1795. (Courtesy Of Library Of Congress)
By John Kelly
Thursday, April 26, 2007

How do you get a county named after you? Well, it helps if you're a noble. That's what I discovered when I looked into where our local names came from. I discovered a lot of other things, too.

Arlington County

Arlington County takes its name from George Washington Parke Custis's estate. As for Custis's estate, it took its name from an English nobleman who almost had his nose cut off by a saber.

That would be Henry Bennet, a noble loyal to King Charles I during the English Civil War. Bennet was so loyal that he volunteered for the monarch's side against the Parliamentarians. His loyalty was severely tested in 1644 when, during a skirmish with anti-Charles forces in Andover, England, he got a sword upside the head, a blow that cut right to the bone.

"This ended his volunteering," wrote one Bennet biographer.

Um, yeah.

But Bennet remained a staunch supporter of the monarchy, even after Charles I lost the war and was beheaded. Bennet traveled to the continent with Charles's son, and when the monarchy was restored, Charles II showed his appreciation by dubbing him Baron Arlington and later the Earl of Arlington. Charles II even named Arlington his secretary of state.

Besides his various palace intrigues, Arlington was best known for a distinctive bit of facial decoration: Until the day he died in 1685, he wore a black bandage across his nose to cover that unsightly saber scar.


We know whom Alexandria is named after. We just don't know much about the guy.

John Alexander was a Scottish planter who was living in Stafford County when he paid Robert Howson, an English ship captain, 6,000 pounds of tobacco for the land that would eventually take his family's name.

That was in 1669. Alexander died eight years later. From his will, we know he owned a horse named Black Beard and a "Colt that sucks of the Farling Mare" (whatever that means). He also slept in relative comfort. In his will he left a featherbed to Elizabeth Holmes, taking pains to note that "I do not mean the best bed but the Bed I brought out of England."

Fairfax County

Thomas, Lord Fairfax, didn't just talk the talk, he walked the walk. After inheriting enormous holdings in Virginia's Northern Neck from his mother, he twice traveled to America. The second time he stayed for good, even hiring a young man named George Washington to survey some of his land.

Loudoun County

John Campbell, the fourth Earl of Loudoun, was more a farmer than a fighter. That would have been perfectly fine, except that King George II sent him to the colonies to oversee the French and Indian War. He dithered and was recalled to England after less than two years.

Prince William County

Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, was George II's second son. A natural soldier, William was in command during the Battle of Culloden in Scotland in 1746 against forces loyal to Bonnie Prince Charlie. That battle earned William the nickname "the Butcher," after English troops under his command rampaged across the countryside, shooting and bayoneting thousands of Highlanders, burning their farms and stealing their cattle.

Fauquier County

No less a figure than Thomas Jefferson once called Francis Fauquier "the ablest governor who had ever served in Williamsburg." Fauquier technically never was governor. From 1758 to 1768, he was lieutenant governor, but he filled in regularly for his absent superiors.

Washington, D.C.

That's an easy one. The capital is named after our first president, George Washington, a onetime surveyor, a successful planter, a slave owner and the young nation's consummate soldier-politician.

As for the District of Columbia portion, that's named after the Italian who "discovered" the New World: Christopher Columbus, who, it is said, sunburned easily.

Julia Feldmeier helped research this essay. "John Kelly's Washington" appears Sunday through Thursday in the Metro section. To learn about whom other Washington area counties are named for, visit

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