The Lee’s–a Historically Significant Virginia and Maryland Political Family


Colonial America and Prominent Lee Family Members

Many prominent members of the Lee Family are known for their accomplishments in politics and the military.  This family first became prominent in Colonial America when Richard Henry Lee I arrived in Virginia in 1639 and went on to become possibly the richest man in Virginia by the time of his death.

“The family of Lee has more men of merit in it than any other family.”  – John Adams, 1779 (Lawyer, Statesman, President)

Among Colonial Lee’s notable descendants were: Thomas Lee (1690–1750), a co-founder of the Ohio Company in 1747 (a land speculation company organized to trade with the Native Americans), and a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses; Francis Lightfoot Lee(1734–1797) and Richard Henry Lee II (1732–1794), signers of the United States Declaration of Independence; Thomas Sim Lee (1745–1819), Governor of Maryland and, most famous, General Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) Confederate States of America commander in the American Civil War. President Zachary Taylor and Chief Justice Edward Douglass White were also descendants of Richard Lee I. Confederate President Jefferson Davis married Sarah Knox Taylor, daughter of Zachary Taylor.

My interest and connection to the Lee Family dates back to July 1892 when Catherine Irene Bolling/Bowling married James Franklin Lee.  Catherine was my second great grand aunt, sister of my paternal great grandfather, Edward Bud Vincent Bowling Sr (1872 – 1946), and daughter of my paternal second great grandfather, Larwrence T. “Larl” Boling and Elizabeth “Betsy” Tapp, (of  the Widow Tapp Farm on the Wilderness Battlefield) in Spotsylvania, Virginia.  James Franklin Lee is the sixth great grandson of Colonel Richard Henry Lee I, and third great grandson of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

Richard Henry Lee arrives in Jamestown

Richard Henry LeeIn 1639,  at the age of 22, Colonel Richard Lee I, “The Immigrant” (1613–1664) was the first of England’s Lee Family to arrive in Virginia’s Tidewater Region of Jamestown (settled in 1607).  Richard had very little to his name when he arrived other than the patronage of an influential man, Sir Francis Wyatt, the 1st Governor of Virginia. Once in Jamestown, he became Attorney General of the Colony of Virginia, Colonial Secretary of State, and member of the King’s Council. He became Clerk of the Quarter Court at Jamestown, within the Secretary of State’s office. He was a loyal supporter of King Charles I of England, and his public offices ceased when Oliver Cromwell seized power in England in 1649. Additionally, Richard Henry Lee served as High Sheriff and was a Colonel in the Militia.  Richard was also a tobacco planter, trader, owner and trader of slaves, and employer and importer of indentured English servants (who paid for their passage to America with 7 years of labor). At the time of his death he was the largest landholder in the colony (13,000 acres) and perhaps the richest man in Virginia.

Marriage to Anne Owen Constable (1641)

Anne Constable LeeRecords show Richard Henry Lee and Anne Owen Constable met on their voyage from England to America in 1639. Anne Owen Constable was the sixth child of 15 born to her parents, Francis and Alice Owen Constable. Anne’s parents sent her away to the Americas as a ward of King Charles I through Sir Francis Wyatt, the 1st Governor of Virginia, so she could escape a certain death from the bubonic plague, also known as the “black death.” Both of Anne’s parents and all but two siblings died from the plaque shortly after her departure. Richard and Anne married in Jamestown in 1641 two years after Richard began courting her. Richard was 28 and Anne, 26. After their marriage, Richard sent for Anne’s only two remaining siblings who had not contracted or succumbed to the plague. It is believed that because of Anne’s family’s connections to the King that Richard Lee rapidly climbed the political ladder.  Richard and Anne had 10 children together, all of whom prospered and increased the prominence of the Lee family in the history of Maryland, Virginia, and the United States.

A Closer View at Richard’s Life In Virginia’s Tidewater Region

1The threat of Civil War hung over England for much of the 17th century. When the war officially broke out in 1642, England’s medieval and past traditions and King Charles I’s efforts to unify power, repress religious dissent, and head off what we might now call “free market reforms,” divided its people.  And the people of Maryland’s and Virginia’s Tidewater Regions remained loyal or “royalists,” to King Charles I, and later his son, King Charles II.

The then Governor of Jamestown, Sir William Berkeley, through various supporters, invited hundreds of England’s “distressed Cavaliers” to Virginia, granting them high offices and estates upon their arrival. Many who accepted his offer were the younger sons or grandsons of England’s aristocrats— and the founders of the majority of Tidewater’s leading families. Among them were Richard Lee (grandson of a Shropshire manor owner and great-great-great-grandfather to Robert E. Lee), John Washington (grandson of a Yorkshire manor owner and great-great-grandfather of George Washington), and George Mason (Royalist member of Parliament and great-great-grandfather of the namesake founding father). For these new elites in St. Mary’s City, Maryland and Jamestown, Virginia settlements along the Chesapeake. Whether highborn or self-made, the great planters had an extremely conservative vision for the future of their new country: they wished to re-create the genteel manor life of rural England in their new world and their succeeded beyond their expectations.   In the seventeenth century the English country gentlemen were, in effect, the kings of their domains. From their manor houses they directed the lives and labors of the tenant farmers and day laborers who lived in the villages associated with their manors. As justices of the peace, they presided over the local courts while their sons, nephews, and younger brothers often served as the parsons of the village churches, which belonged, of course, to the official Church of England (the “Anglican” church, rebranded “Episcopal” in America after the Revolution). It was expected of Jamestown’s gentlemen to show benevolence to their inferiors, host wedding parties for their servants, sponsor funerals for the poor, and display hospitality to their neighbors. They alone had the right to hunt, which was often one of their favorite pastimes. Their estates were largely self-sufficient, producing their own food, drink, livestock feed, leather, and handicrafts. (Surpluses were sold to England’s towns and cities.)

In England, upon the lord’s death, almost everything passed to his firstborn son, who had been groomed to rule; daughters married the best prospects; younger sons received a small sum of money and dispatched to make their own way as soldiers, priests, or merchants.

Tidewater’s successful tobacco planters copied from the world they grew up in.  They built graceful brick manors and housed their indentured tenants in cottages modeled on those in England, clustered in village-like residential areas. They bought servants who could build and run mills, breweries, smokehouses, and bakeries so that their plantations could meet all of their needs. They drove the construction of tidy Anglican churches and stately courthouses at convenient crossroads and the governor and his council appointed “commissioners,” that by 1661 were called “justices of the peace.”   Justices of the Peace presided over the courts.  In many respects, the justice of the peace was the local governing authority. In Virginia they set up an analog to the English Parliament called the House of Burgesses, which required that all members be wealthy. (Maryland’s General Assembly had similar stipulations.) They, too, were expected to assume the role of benign patriarch toward ordinary residents, and they also sent their surpluses to England’s cities. But in one key respect they deviated from English practice: they did not disinherit their younger sons, with whom Tidewater gentlemen often felt a special bond; most had come to America precisely because they were themselves the disinherited younger sons of country gentlemen.

Tidewater’s aspiring gentry created a thoroughly rural society without towns or even villages. It had no need for commercial ports and thus for cities, because the land was riven with navigable fingers of the Chesapeake, allowing the great planters to build their own docks. On clearing customs, oceangoing ships could sail directly to a plantation, unload the latest books, fashions, and furniture from London, and load barrels of tobacco. (Later, slaves would also arrive in this way.) Few local manufacturers could compete with cheaply sourced English goods, discouraging craftsmen and industry. So, they built no towns, other than the twin capitals mentioned above, until late in the 17th century.

From the 1670s on, the tidewater region gentry had an increasingly difficult time finding enough poor Englishmen servants. Those who completed their indentures often could not support themselves in an agricultural export economy increasingly dominated by great plantations, and ex-servants led or joined rebellions in 1663, 1675, and 1683. Unfortunately, this is when slave trading became the plantation owners’ solution.

1Woodard, Colin (2011-09-29). American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (Kindle Locations 814-928). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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