What's in a Name? Plenty, When the Place Is Virginia

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.

Fairfax County

Thomas, Lord Fairfax, didn't just talk the talk, he walked the walk. How else to describe perhaps the only British peer who visited his holdings in America and was so enamored of them that he moved to Virginia and drew his last breath there?

Thomas Fairfax was born in 1692 at Leeds Castle, in Kent, England. Through his mother, Catherine Culpeper, he inherited enormous holdings in Virginia's Northern Neck.

Controversy over the boundaries of his estates, and reports of financial shenanigans on the part of his representatives, prompted him to visit Virginia in 1735. He stayed 2 1/2 years, personally surveying the land and cleaning up the books. He returned again to Virginia -- for good this time -- in 1747. A year later, Fairfax hired a young man named George Washington to survey some of his land.

Fairfax obviously didn't miss the opulence and intrigue of England. He set himself up near present-day Winchester in a country house called Greenway Court and surrounded himself with hunting dogs. And that's where he died on Dec. 12, 1781, two months after the British surrendered at Yorktown.

Arlington County

The county takes its name from George Washington Parke Custis's estate. As for Custis's estate, it took its name from an English nobleman named Henry Bennet, later Lord Arlington. During England's Civil War Bennet took a saber in the face, a blow that cut right to the bone. For the rest of his life he wore a black bandage across his nose to cover the unsightly scar.


We know whom Alexandria is named after. We just don't know much about the guy. John Alexander was a Scottish planter who in 1669 paid an English ship captain named Robert Howson 6,000 pounds of tobacco for the land that would eventually take his family's name.

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.

Loudoun County

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

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, visithttp://www.washingtonpost.com.

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