To the average
person, history is usually not interesting. People often are not interested
in things that happened a long time ago. I have found that there is at least
one exception to this. When history has a personal effect or tie, it
suddenly becomes fascinating.
The case of tracing
land ownership is one example. I have had two people ask me if I could trace
their property in the same manner I traced mine. I found that I, too, took
this attitude when I was writing this paper. Land deeds generally are far
from interesting reading. However, as I read through the deeds that I used
in my paper, and I thought about the fact that the Bush Hill farm that was
being bought and sold over two hundred years ago was now my home, my
interest in the deeds became much stronger than it would have been
While I have a
personal interest in this paper, I hope that it will prove to be interesting
to others, too. It was my intention not only to trace my land's history, but
to use a specific method. While the idea of doing research through land
records certainly is not new, I do not think it is done very often on such a
personal scale. In the end, though, I only hope that I have assembled an
interesting and complete history of my home.
of the results of the relatively long history of the Commonwealth of
Virginia is the existence of a wealth of records, dating back to the
settling of the colony in the seventeenth century. Among these are land
records detailing the transfer of property throughout the history of
Virginia. If a person so desires, he or she could choose any plot of land,
and trace the history of its ownership as far back as records exist.
this history, I will follow the ownership of the piece of land that my home
is situated on, starting from Thomas, Fifth Lord of Fairfax, and Catherine,
Lady Culpeper, proprietors of the Northern Neck Land Grant of Northern
Virginia after 1689. This will be done using the records from the deed books
of Fairfax County. The reader will see who owned the land in question at
every time for a period dating back three hundred years from the present, as
well as the circumstances of each land transfer.
As a compliment to this history, I will detail some of the changes in
deed writing that have occurred in the past two hundred years, such as the
conversion from English to American currency units, and in the surveying
methods used to describe tracts of land.
On December 23, 1706, Lord Fairfax and Lady
Culpeper made a grant of 4,639 acres to four men: William and
Thomas Harrison, Thomas Pearson, and Major John West.
On March 22, 1714, the grant was divided into
eight sections. West and the two Harrisons each got two eighths;
Pearson and Michael Reagan (or Ragan) each got one eighth. When Major West
died, among the things that he left his son, Roger West, was one of the
original grants, which was described as being, "situate lying and being upon
both sides of Holmes Run otherwise called the back lick run in the said
County of Fairfax containing 440 acres or thereabouts."
The portion of this land on the north side of
the run was sold by Roger West to Charles Lee, and, on December
10, 1787, West sold, for £1360, the 22 acres on the south side of the run to
James Hendricks of Alexandria. It is this southern tract that I am
interested in, for exactly 200 years later, my family purchased our house
which is situated on that very same land.
Unfortunately for Hendricks, his ownership of the southern tract lasted a
mere two years. This was because, on January 25, 1789, James, his wife, and
his brother, John "granted, bargained, sold, aliened, confirmed, assigned,
transferred, and made over" all their "lands, houses, tenements, and
hereditaments," as well as all other possessions, such as slaves, animal
stocks, farming utensils, goods, and public securities to Messrs. Benjamin
Stoddard, Josiah Watson, and William Hartshorne.
It appears that the Hendricks had gone so far into debt that, for a fee
of five shillings, they were required to transfer everything they owned to
the three said gentlemen. These men would then act as executors of the
Hendricks' estate, so that the family's creditors could be paid off. The
Hendricks' transfer of all their property was done without monetary
compensation other than the five shillings required for an official
transaction. However, in a subsequent deed dated August 25 of the same year,
the three executors gave the Hendricks £800 for the tract on the south side
of the Holmes Run.
Three years later, on June 19, 1790, the parcel of land "which was by
Roger West son of the said John West conveyed unto the same John Hendricks"
was granted by the three executors to John Rickter. There is no mention of
any transfer of money in this deed. No reason is indicated, but a possible
explanation is that Rickter was one of the Hendricks' creditors, and this
land was his compensation.
Included in each of these deeds is a very detailed description of the
tract of land being transferred. These descriptions are too long to include
in this paper, for they take up over a page in each deed.
However, let me pause at this point to make some observations about some
other items of interest. First, in the three deeds that I have looked at so
far, the currency was still in pounds,
albeit "current money of Virginia." It was not until the 1790's that the
dollar was used for payment.
A second item of importance is the method used
to describe tracts of land. Until the twentieth century,
distances were measured in poles, and angles were measured first to the
nearest half a degree, then to the quarter degree, as technology improved.
When landmarks were used as boundary corners, they were often natural
objects such as "a small marked hickory near a marked white oak."
Certain lines of a tract were also described as following some other
line, such as "the line of that land which was late the property of Michael
Reagan deceased," or "thence up the several meanders of the said run."
Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the reader will see that
surveying will become more modern at a very slow pace, with many old
practices being retained for a long time.
A third item that I would like to point out is the discussion in these
deeds of land, water, or other property rights.
In each of these early deeds, accompanying the tract was "right title use
and privilege of one half of said Holmes." After a certain time, water
rights were not something to be reserved by a single person, but there were
and are rights reserved to particular pieces of land, such as in the case of
right of ways.
A right of way is a strip of land, generally between 10 and 50 feet, on
either side of something not held by the owner of the tract. This is often
used by governments for such things as sidewalks and underground pipes or
The last item is that older deeds were not called deeds, but refer to
themselves as "indentures." It was not until the middle of the nineteenth
century that these documents start with "this deed."
On August 16, 1797, Josiah Watson sold to Richard Marshall Scott "a
certain piece [sic] parcel or tract of land situate lying and being in the
County of Fairfax on the waters of Holmes run, and called and known by the
name of Bush Hill..."
Although this land had been in the possession of Watson, it is in fact
the same piece of land that I have been looking at, for on October 6, 1791,
the "said piece, parcel or tract of land called
Bush Hill was purchased by the said Josiah Watson of a certain
John Rickter..." In other words, Rickter bought the land from the executors
of the Hendrickses estate, but sold it back after a year to Josiah Watson,
who sold it again a few years later to Richard Marshall Scott.
In one of the above transactions, some land was
added to the original tract, for in 1797, the tract contained 272
acres, which was an increase of 50 acres. I do not know for sure where the
additional land came from, but the additional acres were probably part of an
adjacent 197 acre tract that Watson had bought in 1794. In addition to "Bush
Hill," Watson sold to Scott an additional 82 acre tract adjacent to Bush
Hill. This tract was then assimilated into Bush Hill, as evidenced by later
The 1797 transaction is important for three reasons. The first is its use
of "Bush Hill" to describe the tract of land. In every deed from this point
on, the parcel that I am following is referred to as either Bush Hill or
"the farm called Bush Hill." In fact, the name is still used today, with a
subdivision, a street, and a school all bearing the name, Bush Hill.
The second reason is because included in the description of the 82 acre
plot is "Hepburn's Mill road." Although this road does not exist today, at
least not under the same name, this is the first use of such a landmark in
the deed that are being used for this paper.
The third reason this deed is important is because the man who bought
Bush Hill, Richard Marshall Scott, his son, Richard, Jr., and the latter's
widow kept a continuous journal between 1811 and 1859. This journal provides
an interesting history of Bush Hill, in addition to giving information about
the county in that period; it gives a better idea of what Bush Hill was used
for during this period.
Although there are only a few explicit references to
what exactly was grown at Bush Hill, it
was obvious that it was a full working family farm with several inhabitants
living on it. Several extended family members are mentioned as living on the
farm. Food items that are mentioned include grapes, apples, smoked salted
pork, and wheat.
One interesting entry is dated September 8, 1814. On that day, Scott
"began to haul in my tobacco from town to Bush Hill to keep it out of reach
of the enemy who of our 104 hogsheads only took one." This is a reference to
the occupation of the nearby port city of Alexandria by the British during
the War of 1812. The complete journal is available for public reading,
and serves as an interesting supplement to this paper.
While Richard Marshall Scott owned Bush Hill, he increased its size by 92
acres through the purchase of three pieces of land. The first was from R. D.
Butte on October 6, 1815. The second was from T. Swane on June 20, 1816. The
third was from Charles Love on July 5, 1819.
In 1833, Richard Marshall Scott died, and in 1846, six months before his
seventeenth birthday, Richard Marshall Scott, Jr. moved to his father's
farm. Soon after his birthday, he married Virginia Gunnell of Washington. He
followed in his father's footsteps by also adding to Bush Hill.
In a deed dated January 1, 1853, Scott, Jr. bought a 90 acre plot from
David Harrower. Note: This deed shows that by the 1850s,
surveying instruments had advanced to
the point where surveyors were capable of measuring angles in quarter
After staying in the Scott family for 73 years, Virginia Gunnell Scott
sold Bush Hill to two men. One hundred acres went to W. Willoughby and the
other 436 acres were sold on November 28 for $8,000 to Francis Gunnell.
Gunnell was the Surgeon General of the United
States Navy during the Civil War, and was a brother to Virginia
There are a few observations to be made about this deed. The first is
that, in the tract description, references are made not only to the 1853
deed, but to the 1797 deed discussed above. The second is that the body of
water adjacent to the land is referred to as "Cameron or Backlick Run," as
opposed to Holmes run. Today, the stream called Backlick Run is a tributary
of Holmes Run.
The third is that in this deed is the first
mention of Clermont farm as being the land on the east side of
Bush Hill. As with Bush Hill, today there is a Clermont subdivision, school
The fourth is that there is a discrepancy having to do with the size of
the farm. In the 1853 deed, several mentions are made of "the road." The
1870 deed (see below) makes references to
Backlick Road, and states that this is the same road discussed in
the previous deed.
problem with this is that the current day Backlick Road is several miles
from where the farm was located. Since there are 640 acres in a square mile,
it would not be physically possible for Bush Hill to be bounded by Backlick
Road. Either the farm was in a very different location than I think it was,
or, more probably, the Backlick Road of that day was in a different place
than it is now.
The 100 acres that were sold to Willoughby are also of interest. For a
second time, part of Bush Hill was sold as a way of
paying off debts, this time for the amounts of $2511.08 and
$705.55. These were the sums of money awarded to Eliza D. Scott in her case
against Virginia Scott, executrix of Richard Marshall Scott. Virginia Scott
conveyed the 100 acres to Willoughby as a means of obtaining the money to
pay Eliza Scott, but the land was not for him to keep.
On December 27, 1870, Willoughby, acting as trustee of this "part of the
Bush Hill Estate," transferred it for $3800 to Francis Gunnell. With this
transfer, Francis now owned all of Bush Hill.
This deed is also significant for two more reasons. For the first time,
corners were permanently marked by humans,
signifying the start of a departure from using only natural landmarks.
The second is because it has the first mention
of a right of way. In this case, the right of way was for the
Orange and Alexandria Railroad, which was built through Bush Hill starting
in 1850. The railroad bridge burned and was rebuilt in 1920.
Francis Gunnell held Bush Hill for many years after this, but not without
some problems. In order to secure this debt, he transferred Bush Hill to S.
Ferguson Beach in a deed dated May 30, 1871. Evidently, Francis earned
enough money to repay the debt, because on December 2, 1876, he reacquired
Unfortunately, this is all I know about the land that was transferred,
because "Bush Hill" was the only description given. This is in marked
contrast with most of the other deeds I have discussed, and especially with
the succeeding deed.
On May 23, 1881, Francis Gunnell sold Bush Hill for $13,000 to his
brother, James M. Gunnell, with the exception of the O&A's right of way, and
two small plots of land. The first was 13 acres "more or less" sold to Frank
Martin in July 1881. The second was three acres sold to Adam Martin in
the land that was transferred was accurately described as the land being
"that tract of land in Fairfax County, Virginia, some two or three miles
from Alexandria, known as Bush Hill, of which Richard M. Scott, late of said
County, died seized..."
This deed not only refers to Scott, but to Clermont, Josiah Watson, David
Harrower, Backlick Road, a second, unnamed road, and Cameron (or Backlick)
Run. Watson and Harrower are mentioned because certain points of the tract
are referred to as being the same point in previous deeds.
It seems that when Bush Hill was transferred between the brothers,
someone felt that it was necessary to redescribe the boundary of the tract
as accurately as possible. However, despite the fact that this transfer was
occurring near the end of the 19th century, most of the methods used to
describe the tract's boundaries were the same as they were over one hundred
In 1881, headings were only accurate to quarters of degrees, and
distances were still given in poles. In addition, landmarks such as trees
and stakes in ditches were still frequent use. There were some attempts at
permanency, though, such as the stone markers discussed above.
It is interesting to note that old deeds were continually referred to
after their writing. Many boundary lines and corners are described in such
terms as "being the corner D of the tract of land conveyed to R. M. Scott by
Josiah Watson and wife."
Starting in the latter half of the nineteenth century, if the boundaries
of the tract were not explicitly given, the tract would be described as
being the same piece of land conveyed in an older deed, with the exact deed
book and page being given. This practice has continued to this day.
On March 7, 1903, James Gunnell gave 63.5 acres of Bush Hill to Mary
Gunnell, with the legal "consideration" being $10. The ten dollar fee is one
that has continued to this day.
However, it is important to note that it is not the only consideration
given, but is the legal fee for a deed. For such things as deeds of "bargain
and sale," there is of course additional payment made.
This deed has additional significance because it makes mention of two
roads that were not mentioned in any previous deed. The first is a road
"opened by a decree of the Fairfax County Court in the December term of 1809
through Clermont and other farms from Bush Hill to the Little River Turnpike
The second is for a right of way "in a road thirty feet wide following
the east lines of the Bush Hill tract from the corner called...[illegible]
two white oaks to the Backlick Road. Presumably, these roads existed before
the deed, but I do not know why they were not previously referred to.
However, Little River Turnpike still exists today as a major road in the
The next deed is an especially important because it is the first deed
that I have examined for this paper that was typewritten. All previous deeds
were handwritten with varying degrees of legibility. (I would like to
state here that the typewriter is undoubtedly one of the greatest inventions
of all time.)
The transfer in question was made on April 30, 1907. On this date,
Francis Gunnell granted Bush Hill (excluding that part conveyed to Mary
Gunnell), as described in the deed of 1891 between Francis and James Gunnell
to Leonard G. Gunnell.
The reader may be wondering how Francis had the right to transfer Bush
Hill, since he had previously granted it to James. The simple explanation is
that the farm was "devised to [Francis] by [Jame's] will duly probated and
After Leonard Gunnell died, Bush Hill passed on to his wife, Emily Nelson
Gunnell. On February 26, 1946, Bush Hill was divided into Parcels 'A,' 'B,'
and 'C,' and sold to various family members "for and in consideration of the
sum of Ten Dollars ($10), and other good and valuable considerations in
law..." Unfortunately, the value of the "other considerations" is not given
anywhere in the deed.
In these deeds, Mary Gunnell Phillips and her husband, Donald B.; Bruce
Covington Gunnell and his wife, Virginia Burt; and Amenie Gunnell Boatner
and her husband Mark Mayo Jr., all served as parties of the third part,
except for the particular parcel that each of them received. While Emily had
primary control over the land, it appears that she did not have sole rights
The particular tract that my house was later built on was Parcel B, a
125.266 acre tract which was sold to Bruce Covington Gunnell. This tract was
the middle of the three, and was located "In the Mt. Vernon Magisterial
District in the County of Fairfax." This is somewhat more definite than "a
few miles from Alexandria." However, the tract can be placed even more
exactly than that, for the tract was bounded on the north by the railroad,
now the Washington-Southern, and on the south by Franconia Road.
Today, Bush Hill still is bordered by Franconia Road, although it has
increased from being a dirt lane to having five lanes. The railroad still
exists, although it has been joined by subway tracks.
There is one landmark mentioned in the deed that does not exist today in
quite the same form. Although she sold the land, Emily Gunnell reserved a
right of way for a road "30 feet wide, over the land hereby conveyed, the
said roadway being now in existence, extending from a crossing over the said
Washington-Southern Railway to the Franconia Road," so that she would be
able to access the part of the land north of the tracks. The road does not
extend to Franconia Road anymore, but there is a wide path through part of
the woods that comprise what was the northern part of this tract, with about
a quarter mile section still asphalted. This path is most likely the remnant
of the road in the deed.
Perhaps the most significant part of this deed is the units used to
describe the parcel. For the first time, distances
were measured in decimal feet, and angles were measured in degrees and
minutes, with accuracies of one one-hundredth of a foot, and
one-half of a minute.
This is the first record of such measurement techniques that I have,
which means that the change was made from using poles and quarter degrees
sometime between 1903 and 1946.
After World War II, as the population of Fairfax County rapidly grew, the
number of houses also grew. Because Bush Hill is
close to Alexandria, it was one of the earliest of the previously rural
areas of the county to be developed.
The process of selling Bush Hill to developers began in the 1950s, and on
October 18, 1961, the Wellington Construction Company, Inc. acquired title
to 8.105 acres of land from Bruce Gunnell. On November 6, of the same year
this tract was dedicated as Section 7 of the Bush Hill Woods subdivision.
Houses were subsequently built on this section, and Joseph Padgett and
his wife Teel bought the house on Lot 13 on July 27, 1962. They sold the
house on June 23, 1972, to Charles Briggs and his wife, Doris. Finally, on
March 20, 1987, the Briggs sold the house to my parents, Charney and