In our series on people and places that don’t have an historical marker in Old Town and Parker Gray, we have looked at Benjamin Hallowell, Benjamin Dulany (601 Duke Street), four sites in the "Bottoms" neighborhood, Union Station, City Hall and Parker-Gray as a protected historical district.
Let us now turn the pages all the way back to the beginning of Alexandria, and glimpse into the life of the Ramsay family.
Note: There are two markers that touch on William Ramsay and his son Dennis.
Alexandria celebrates its Scottish heritage every year and rightly so. Scotsmen like William Ramsay (1716-1785) helped found and form the seaport town and guided it into prosperity. Born in Scotland in 1716, he immigrated to Dumfries, Virginia in 1744 and moved to Alexandria shortly thereafter. In the sale of first lots in 1749, Ramsay purchased one of the prime spots at the southeast corner King and North Fairfax. The shops and restaurants you see on the north side of 100 and 200 King Street are where he extended a wharf from his property to the Potomac River.
Ramsay, a close friend of Washington and business partner with John Carlyle, wore many hats in Alexandria, including trustee, treasurer, shipping merchant, and superintendent of the building of Fairfax County Courthouse.
In 1761, the townfolk bestowed a high honor upon Ramsay, a knighting of sorts that made him “Lord Mayor of Alexandria.” One newspaper reported the event included “a grand procession with drums, trumpets and a band.”
In her book, “The History of Old Alexandria Virginia,” Mary G. Powell notes William Ramsay was “probably at that time the most popular citizen in Alexandria.”
Ramsay passed away in Alexandria in 1785. Washington walked in his funeral and attended his burial at Christ Church. The precise site is unknown. An article in the Alexandria Packett by Sarah Harrison (1978) quotes the late Clement E. Conger: “He is convinced that Ramsay is buried under the Palladian windows.” Bushes cover this portion. It’s unknown if a headstone was ever made.
Ann McCarthy (1730-1785) was born to Denis McCarty and Sarah Ball McCarty. Mary Ball Washington, mother of George Washington, was her second cousin. Ann married William Ramsay. They lived at the lot he purchased, 221 King Street, an address used today for the Visitors Center.
Much less is known about Ann. The Ramsay’s had five daughters and three sons. The most famous was Dennis Ramsay. Born in Alexandria, he served as a Captain in the Revolutionary War. His leadership earned him the rank of Colonel. Dennis was mayor of Alexandria from 1789 to 1793. He delivered the farewell address to George Washington at Wise’s Tavern in 1789. Ten years later, he was one of the honorary pallbearer’s at the President’s funeral. When Ramsay passed away, he was buried behind the Old Presbyterian Meeting House.
Ann lived in a world that suppressed the ambitions of women. Nevertheless, she became the Treasurer of Alexandria and Fairfax County. Her leadership during the Revolutionary War helped raised thousands of dollars for the Continental Army. This achievement alone gave her a sterling reputation in the growing seaport city.
Ann also earned the respect of Alexandrians by helping orphaned children of the Revolutionary War soldiers. In her book, “Seaport in Virginia,” Gay Montague Moore writes:
Yet when this retiring, gentle person was called upon to raise funds in Alexandria and Fairfax County, no modern matron working for bond drives or Red Cross ever did a more successful work.
The Children of the American Revolution named one of their chapters after her.
The footprints of the Ramsay’s and their descendants are found in places one would never guess. One such spot is the northeast corner of North Pitt and Cameron. Now a parking lot, a handsome brick Greek Revival house stood there for many years. Smith and Miller (“A Seaport Saga”) note that G.W.D. Ramsay, great grandson of William and Ann, died at the age of 91 at this house in 1900.
In later years, Mrs. G. William Ramsay and her daughter Rebecca Ramsay Reese (great great granddaughter of William and Ann) managed the property as a boarding house. Rebecca became a preservationist at a critical time when aging and sagging homes and businesses were targeted for destruction. She was one of the original members of the Board of Trustees for the Historic Alexandria Foundation, an organization which created and manages the oval marker program for the Early Buildings Survey.
When the City of Alexandria erected an historical marker at the Ramsay House, they dedicated it to her memory.
"First Family of Alexandria, Virginia : Descendants of William Ramsay" William T. Ramsay, 1999 (Vertical File, Special Collections, Barrett Branch)
"The Saga of Saving and Reconstructing Ramsay House," Peter H. Smith, Winter Spring 1998/1999