"When they laid him to rest, he was revered and sorely mourned by Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hancock, and the other American icons of his day…” - Peter H. Michael, “Remembering John Hanson”
Annoyed, but pleased.
That’s the best way to describe my reaction whenever I discover there’s an historic home or residential museum located in our vicinity. Annoyed, because we’ve been here 16 years now and have our eyes on such things. Pleased, because there’s great joy in discovering these jewels of the past.
Not that it happens a lot. But on the heels of finding out about Collingwood, just three miles south of our house and looking down to the Potomac River, I now have stumbled upon Oxon Hill Manor. It too takes in views of the Potomac, and lies just three miles east (eerie music fades up..)
Last week, when I was writing the piece on National Harbor, I had the notion to mention what history had taken place there. I knew that wagon coach travelers using colonial roads crossed the Potomac on ferries that ran to and from Alexandria. Searching for more information led me to the Oxon Hill Manor. My initial thought was, Oxon Hill Manor? There’s no manor there.
Yes Virginia, there is a manor there. Open to the public, the manicured estate is tucked away in a grove of trees near Oxon Hill Road, about halfway between National Harbor and the Beltway/Indian Head Highway interchange. Built in the Georgian-style in 1928, it’s easy to see why the owner chose this quiet location.
The wait for finding out about this historic home was a long one, but in the end, well worth the wait. I learned that in addition to the current Oxon Hill Manor, another mansion also called Oxon Hill Manor once graced another nearby hill.
This look into the magnifying glass takes us back to the early 1700s, the earliest days of Prince George’s County, a time of colonial expansion by those who had fled religious persecution or had seen a sibling inherit the family wealth. Alexandria was still a handful of decades from its founding. St. Mary’s served as the seat of the colonial government in Maryland. What we now know as the District was unspoiled wetlands belonging to Maryland.
Further exploring on the web revealed “Harmony Hall,” another 18th Century mansion built near the Potomac River in Prince George’s County and still standing.
We’ll save that bonus surprise for another day. Instead let’s use our commanding view from the Oxon Hill heights to look back to a Maryland dynasty, a forgotten figure from the dawning days of our nation, and an influential diplomat who helped a U.S. President shape foreign policy.
Oxon Hill Manor (Addison Plantation), 1710-1895
In the 1980s, subscribers to the Washington Post began to read about a proposed new development between the Potomac River and Oxon Hill Road. Ultimately, National Harbor would land here. Initially, the ambitious project was called the “Bay of America,” and included plans for a World Trade Center. Renderings for a 52-story tower drew some interest in Prince George’s County, but ultimately the idea was rejected due to aviation and proportional concerns. In 1986, the project was re-branded as “Port America.” All the work and momentum came to a halt when a poor economy deep-sixed the plans.
As required by law, archaeologists had worked the hilly ground. Their excavations began in 1980 and continued until 1988. In his immaculately researched booklet, “Oxon Hill Manor: The Archaeology and History of “A World They Made Together,” John McCarthy tells the story of the digs and what they tell us about plantation life in Maryland’s early years.
By looking at the property today, there’s nary a hint of the old manor except the knowledge wealthy plantation owners desired to build on such commanding heights, their high social status proudly proclaimed.
One such man was John Addison. With the blessings of the King of England, he emigrated from Westmorland and settled in southern Maryland in 1674. Addison wore many hats as an English planter, Colonel in the militia, merchant, clergyman and holder of public office. His property holdings reached over 6,500 acres. In 1687, he purchased the parcel of land we know today as National Harbor’s huge parking lots that run parallel to the Beltway, and, “The Plateau,” currently occupied by Cirque du Soleil’s Grand Chapiteau tents for their “TOTEM” show.
Before he passed away in 1705, Addison built an “earthfast” house on the property, a house framed on posts set in the ground. McCarthy notes the discovery of a pair of fireplaces suggests Addison lived in the house, rather than his overseer. He also adds that Addison gave the area its name, probably taken from Oxford University. Oxon is short for Oxford and members of his family attended the university.
His son Thomas inherited the property and built a two-story house. Work done by the archaeologists revealed the time was around 1710. The manor was known as the “Addison Plantation,” and later as Oxon Hill Manor. In the coming years, admirers would compare it to the Carlyle House in Alexandria and Washington’s Mount Vernon. Four generations of the Addison family would reside there until ownership passed hands. McCarthy describes their dynasty as, “one of the most economically, socially, politically prominent families of early Maryland.”
In 1749, Alexandria was founded on the opposite shore of the Potomac. Thomas Addison’s widow and her husband Thomas Hanson would have seen the boats sailing to and from the growing seaport, and read newspaper reports about George Washington’s visits to the town.
One such visit came in December 1783, after he had served his country as Commander-in-Chief during the Revolutionary War. A month prior, the Addison’s had received Thomas’s uncle, John Hanson to their home. Hanson had served as the first president elected by the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation. One can imagine the two quaffing a beer at a tavern in Alexandria, the elder statesman talking leadership of the country, the tall general listening intently. The two were friends and had many conversations at Mount Vernon.
Unfortunately, Hanson never had a chance to extend his hand to Washington upon his return. Hanson was ill and passed away at the Oxon Hill Manor on November 15.
Historians have argued about the importance of the first leaders of the country. Some have reduced that role to a mere figurehead or just a presiding office. Not agreeing with such marginalization of Hanson’s body of work and the eight-year period before Washington took office, Peter H. Michael, a relative of his subject, wrote, “Remembering John Hanson.” His 2011 biography not only brings to life the story of this forgotten leader, he also documents his search for Hanson’s final resting place. It is a story he calls, “one of the most astounding turns in American history.”
Oxon Hill Manor (1928-Present)
The Addison family controlled Oxon Hill Manor from 1710 to 1810. After ownership passed hands a few times, once to Nathaniel Washington, the sagging structure was destroyed by fire in 1895. 32 years later, Sumner Welles, a hard-jawed and influential diplomat during the FDR administration, purchased the property.
He chose that secluded location approximately 400 yards south of the previous one, and hired Count Jules Henri de Sibour, who designed a neo-Georgian-style brick manor. A biographer notes Welles and his wife Mathilde drove out each morning to supervise construction. The result was a “showcase.” The Washington press corps surely loved the quick escape and easy access to the policy shapers. President Roosevelt retreated there during the hot summers.
In 1978, the home received the cherished honor of being place on the National Register of Historical Places. Visitors today find a lovely setting overlooking National Harbor and free admission to the manor. Walking up from the parking lot, a small monument to Hanson comes into view. A brochure provides a brief history on the history on both manors.
John Hanson (1715-1783)
On April 14, 1715, ten years after John Addison passed away at Oxon Hill, John Hanson was born about 20 miles south in Mulberry Grove, Maryland. Like it did for the Addisons, tobacco brought wealth and prestige to the family. When he was 28, Hanson moved to Frederick, where he parlayed the move into a career in politics. From there he went on to become the first President of the United States during that eight- year period before George Washington was elected as the first President.
Yes, it is confusing. Was Hanson the first President or was Washington?
Regardless of where one stands in that debate, one will hopefully agree that what has happened to Hanson’s final resting place (as well as some of the Addison family) of this great American and son of Maryland is a cruel twist of fate. In fact, it is tragic.
When the Addison house burned down in 1895, a piece of local history was lost. The family cemetery, holding the remains of some of the Addison family, remained and is still there. The family mausoleum, crypt and burial vault, and the coffins of John Addison and others, as well as Hanson, were also still there until around 1985.
What happened to this sacred piece of land was a mystery until Michael began to search for answers. In his biography of Hanson, he details his full search. Assuming nothing, he started with the handful of possibilities of where Hanson would have been buried. The challenge one faces in these situations is compounded by a lack of documentation and accurate reporting, poorly marked and faded tombs, and the possibility of re-interment to join a loved one.
Like so many other searchers, he ran into one false lead after another. He finally hit pay dirt when he struck up a conversation with a member of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission who provided him with maps and documents.
One of the archaeological surveys done in 1985 revealed the crypt and vault were there and the vault was sealed. Two years later, the John Milner Associates dig discovered the vault “robbed and empty.” Not long after, the crypt and vault were also no longer there.
A detective in this situation would ask, who would want to see these things gone? By inference, one can wonder if the developer would be tempted to not notify the proper authorities, in this case the Prince George’s County Planning Department.
Many developers have forged excellent relationships with the preservation community. You see it here in Alexandria, a model for the country. When it comes to the Oxon Hill Manor site, however, it appears there was little desire to do the right thing. Knowing this, Michael tired to contact James T. Lewis, CEO of Lewis Enterprises and owner of the land from 1984-1993. Unfortunately, he came up empty-handed.
All that remains of the Addison property is the graveyard itself, although it is possible the coffins and vault lie somewhere under a heap of dirt. The land is protected as a Prince George’s County Historic Site, and the Peterson companies are contractually obliged to “tend the cemetery.”
Michael, however, noted on his 2011 visit that the sacred ground wasn’t getting much care. When I went to see it for the first time the other day, I could see his point. I’ve read Peterson has a very good reputation for doing the right thing, so there’s some hope in this regard. Having said that, don’t bet against progress when it has gained momentum.
Peter Michael has done everything he possibly can to right the wrongs associated with John Hanson, and re-introduce him to the public on the state, regional and national level. Recently, one of his efforts came to fruition with the unveiling of a statue and commemorative marker for Hanson in downtown Frederick. He is currently sponsoring an effort to establish a John Hanson Memorial in Mulberry Grove. And, of course, he continues to look for his lost descendant and this great American.
If you know of the whereabouts of his remains, please contact him via his website. Otherwise, those who care will keep searching. Sometimes it’s the only way.
History of Oxon Hill Manor (Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission)
“Remembering John Hanson,” Peter Michaels
Oxon Hill Manor: The Archaeology and History of “A World They Made Together,” by John P. McCarthy, Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum, Maryland Historical Trust Press
Images of America: Oxon Hill
Survey documents provided by Peter Michael
Washington Post, articles by Eugene L. Meyer
Vanished: Discovering John Hanson’s Grave, Six reports by Peter Michael, Specials to the Frederick News-Post.