Family Stories

Bel Air, Home of the Ewell Family – Prince William County, Virginia

There is so much information on the Ewell family we have discussed in the last two posts. Let’s go back to Virginia, to Prince William County, where the family originated. This is where my Linton family lived in the early days. Ritchey and I visited several times and the following article makes the area come alive. And my question is – did any of my Linton family visit the Ewell’s?

Major Charles Ewell, who built the house about 1740, was the uncle of the Major Charles Ewell we have lately discussed. He didn’t live there, but must have visited often since it was the home of his uncle.

The Times Dispatch, Richmond, Virginia

Sunday, November 1, 1936

Life at Old Bel Air, by Alice Maude Ewell

The old Ewell mansion at “Bel Air,” near Dumfries, in Prince William County, has lately been pronounced “a charming Colonial derelict,” and so it is – for, in spite of a fine highroad not so many miles away, the tide of modern life seems to have left it stranded.

Bel Air was built probably in the 1740’s by Major Charles Ewell [uncle of our Charles Ewell] of what is called the “Old French War,” one of the two first Ewell settlers in Prince William, the other being his brother, Bertrand.

Charles Ewell is mentioned in Washington’s journal as a man of affairs and some military prominence.  He married first Sarah Ball, of “Bewdley” in Lancaster County, a relative of Mary Ball Washington, and secondly a Widow Grayson, who is said to have named Bel Air after her own old home.  Her son, William Grayson, who grew up at the Ewell Bel Air, was afterwards a leading man in Prince William and the first United States Senator from Virginia.  By Sarah Ball, Charles Ewell was the father of Colonel Jesse Ewell of the Revolution, of Colonel James Ewell of “Greenville,” Prince William, and of a daughter Marianne, who married Dr. James Craik, friend and Surgeon General to George Washington.  Fannie Ewell, daughter of Colonel Jesse, became Mrs. Mason Locke Weems.  Both these ladies were married at Bel Air, with all the merry making of old Virginia weddings.  The christenings there were also much honored.  There is record of one which lasted from Thursday till Sunday.

After the death of Colonel Jesse Ewell and wife (herself a Ewell and always known as “Madame Charlotte”), Parson Weems owned Bel Air, and lived there for some years.  In this time another notable wedding occurred.  One of the parson’s daughters, known as ”beautiful Fanny Weems,” married Lieutenant Robert Tansil of the United States Marines.  His best man was Richard Stoddert Ewell, Lieutenant of the United States Dragoons, a grandson of Colonel Jesse Ewell.  Both of these men were afterwards distinguished for gallantry in the Mexican War and the War-Between-the-States.  Colonel Tansill was once, for a while, military governor of San Francisco, and General Richard Ewell succeeded to the command of Stonewall Jackson.

Many interesting traditions of Bel Air have come down to Ewell and Weems descendants.  But both families gave up Bel Air when prosperity declined, and it remained for an appreciative outsider, George C. Round of Manassas, to rescue the old home from ruin.  He bought, repaired and restored it – even living there for awhile, and took great pleasure in finding out its history.  He ascertained that Parson Weems was one of many buried there, a fact which had become doubtful.

There also are the graves of Major Charles and Colonel Jesse Ewell, with their respective families.

Traditions Keep Old Place Alive in Memory

There are some traditions which help to keep the old place alive in the minds of Ewell and Weems descendants.  One is of the feast on the lawn there after the victory at Yorktown.  Colonel Jesse Ewell, in response to a call from the military authorities, advanced with his militia regiment to take part, if needed, in that memorable battle.  On the way they had news of the victory and the consequent surrender, and to save strain on the commissary department they were ordered back home.  After being disbanded they were feasted on the lawn at Bel Air, I have always thought in the shade of the giant catalpas, once a feature of the place.  These once formed an avenue, now only one is left.

The roasting and broiling of meats, lambs, pigs and fowls; the baking of bread, may be imagined.  Some of the cooking was probably done out-of-doors, though the big kitchen fireplace was equal to a good deal.  The queer cooking utensils of that time – the long spits, the saw-tooth potracks, the gridirons, the Dutch ovens, the smooth boards whereon Johnny Cakes were baked, were doubled in requisition.  The writer has a collection of these ancient things, some of which weigh at least 25 pounds, testifying to the herculean strength of some old Virginia cooks.

We may be sure that something stronger than either cider or small beer served the arms and sharpened the appetites of all at Bel Air that day, when toasts were drunk to the health of George Washington and those who fought with him and won.

In after years Colonel Jesse Ewell lingered in the memory of his grandson, Doctor Jesse Ewell, grandfather of the writer, as a very fat and lazy old gentleman, who spent most of his time reading, and writing to his dear old friend, Thomas Jefferson.  Both of them had some fine plans for making the world all over again.  The result of those plans we now see in this year of grace nineteen hundred and thirty-six.  Another tradition of Bel Air is that of Madame Galvan de Berneau, a sister of Mrs. Jesse Ewell, both being the daughters of Major Bertrand Ewell, first surveyor and mapmaker of Prince William County.

Frog Croakings Decided Courtship

This lady’s husband, Galvan de Berneau, was a French refugee who came to Dumfries after the great revolutionary upheaval in his own country.  When he courted Miss Ewell she hesitated long about accepting him, among other objections feeling herself to old to marry.  She was probably in her thirties, then equivalent to the fifties now.  She afterwards told the writer’s grandmother, then a young girl, “My dear, I could not make up my mind.  I had not known him long, and to marry at my age seemed so undignified.  But his suit was pressing.  I was walking alone one evening at twilight, thinking over the subject, when all at once a bull-frog in a pool said, over and over again, ‘Marry Galvan!  Marry Galvan!’  That decided me.  With the very bull-frogs telling me to take him, I had to do it!”

Madame Galvan de Berneau did not live at Bel Air, but is said to have spent much time there, and her portrait hung there later, a handsome woman wearing among other things a ruffled black silk apron, from the pocket of which peeped a pet squirrel.  Galvan de Berneau was described by my grandfather as a very charming and witty person.  Though learned in the classics, he never could speak very good English.  He and his wife lived at a place called ‘Rural Felicity’ which he always spoke of as ‘Federal City,’ doubtless suggested by the then often-used title of our new capital.  De Bearneau also composed some lines about the aforementioned squirrel and used to repeat them:

How sweet is de bunny, Who lives on de honey, (meaning his wife),

He eats in de pocket without distinction, His master’s gloves and is mistress’ apron!”

An old family servant born at Bel Air and well remembering the old place, used to tell us much about it, about the portraits and other glories of the parlor on which she used to gaze through two quaint windows between parlor and hall.  She spoke of the lower garden which contained a summerhouse made of four cedar trees trimmed and trained into regular shape, forming a square, thick shade above, columns below, with roses climbing on the latter.  She spoke of ‘ole Miss’ as a very stately and rather terrible person, of Miss Charlotte, a maiden lady and a sort of family saint, and of Marse Leroy Ewell who played the fiddle and made “such pretty music.”  Her mother, Aunt Sinah, very old when we were children, remembered seeing the pirate who was hanged in chains on Gallows Hill near Dumfries.

Greenville and ‘Stony Lonesome’

There were two other early Ewell homes in Prince William.  Greenville, near Nokesville, was a fine spacious old house, though only of wood, with handsome inside furnishings; and was built by Colonel James Ewell, brother of Colonel Jesse Ewell of Bel Air, sometime before 1750.  His daughter, Mary, married John Heath of Northumberland County, one of the earliest members of Congress and also of the Cincinnati Society.  He was also one of the four students who at William and Mary College started the Phi Beta Kappa Fraternity.  The grave of John Heath is thought to be at Greenville, though, alas! unmarked.  The Ewells of Greenville moved to Tennessee early in the nineteenth century, and some years since the old house was burned.  It had belonged for many years to the Meredith family, and was the birthplace of the Honorable Elisha Meredith, long member of Congress from the Eighth District.

“Stony Lonesome” belonged to Dr. Thomas Ewell, father of General Richard Stoddert Ewell.  It was the summer home of his children up to the time of the War Between the States.

The house being vacant at that time was seized by the Federals for headquarters.  Much fine old furniture was lost to the Ewells, then living in Williamsburg, and a fine library was stolen.  A small trunk full of letters written by Thomas Jefferson also disappeared.  “Stony Lonesome” house belonged to the late eighteenth century style of architecture, characterized by several high stories.  Like Greenville it has been burned – the fate of most old county homes. 

1 reply »

Any thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s