In terms of its historical landscape, Stafford County, split in half by I-95 and sandwiched in between Quantico and Fredericksburg, has an interesting situation. Typically, county seats have, however small, an historic district. Stafford (forty miles south of Washington) has no such place. Its main attractions (George Washington’s childhood home, Belmont, Falmouth, Chatham) as well as its visitor’s center, are located in the southern-most part of the county. They are not far from Stafford, the county seat, but they lie next to Fredericksburg, which is not in the county.
Nevertheless, Stafford County, which is celebrating its 350th birthday, is rich in history. One of its most important historical site, and arguably the most significant is near Stafford and lies mid-county. A short distance from Stafford flows Aquia Creek, a nearly 30-miles long tributary that widens dramatically near the town (2010 pop. 4,239) before emptying into the Potomac River. Jutting out at that point is a fin-shaped peninsula. Aquia Creek Landing is a recreation destination, but it also holds interpretive markers that tell the important stories.
The history of Aquia Landing breaks down into four categories: Transportation, Civil War, African-American Freedom Route.
In the early part of the 19th century, travel between Richmond and Washington/Alexandria meant taking a boat to Aquia Landing and then a stagecoach. In 1846, the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad extended to Aquia Landing. Travel time was significantly reduced, to say nothing of the good riddance to the bumpy rides.
In a wooded area before you enter the park, four interpretive markers discuss the role of Aquia Landing during the Civil War. As one notes:
Because of its location on the Potomac River and its proximity to Fredericksburg, Aquia Landing was destined to play an important role in the Civil War. It was the site of one of the war’s earliest military engagements and became a major supply base for the Army of the Potomac in three separate campaigns.
In the park, along the water’s edge lies four markers. Three are a part of the “Trail to Freedom.”
Before the start of the Civil War, thousands of enslaved humans arrived at Aquia Landing. Transferred from the steamships, they were sent further south. One such person was Solomon Northup. In his book, 12 Years a Slave, he writes:
In the forenoon the steamer reached Aquia Creek. There the passengers took stages—Burch and his five slaves occupying one exclusively. He laughed with the children, and at one stopping place went so far as to purchase them a piece of gingerbread. He told me to hold up my head and look smart. That I might, perhaps, get a good master if I behaved myself. I made him no reply. His face was hateful to me, and I could not bear to look upon it. I sat in the corner, cherishing in my heart the hope, not yet extinct, of some day meeting the tyrant on the soil of my native State.
At Fredericksburgh we were transferred from the stage coach to a car, and before dark arrived in Richmond, the chief city of Virginia.
As noted before, Stafford itself lacks historical character but a must see stop there is Aquia Church. A National Historic Landmark, it was built in the 1750s. When we arrived, the parking lot was full of church goers. Its "Statement of Significance" points out it is:
one of the finest and least-altered examples of Virginia's rural Georgian churches. Constructed of brick with quoins and door frames of locally quarried Aquia Creek sandstone, the Greek Cross plan and architectural embellishments are derived from contemporary English pattern books. The finely crafted interior contains its original Ionic altarpiece and three-level pulpit with sounding board high above.
Stafford County has even more history than mentioned here, so perhaps we can return for one of the 350 events. We also wish to see Falmouth and Chatham. Whether or not the latter visit includes Stafford remains to be seen.