A while back, Fairfax, California came across my radar. I remember thinking - Um, wonder if the name of the town, located north of San Francisco in Marin County, came from one of the Lord Fairfax's who lived in northern Virginia before, during and after the American Revolution?
We know gold rush fever struck the nation in 1849, drawing westward many a hopeful prospector and panhandler to the mother lode veins east of Sacramento in northern California. It was also the lure of gold that had sent the early English colonists on their voyages to the New World.
But would a lord baron leave his family and a comfortable life in Virginia for an uncertain one a continent away?
The answer is yes. The town is named after Charles Snowden Fairfax, Tenth Lord Fairfax.
Wanting to know more about him, I turned to “The Fairfax Family in Fairfax County, A Brief History” by Kenton Kilmer and Donald Sweig. It’s an oldie, but goodie. Unfortunately, but rightfully so, they spent most of their time on the other Lords who came before Charles.
Let’s see what we can cobble together on this lost figure.
Thomas Snowden Fairfax was born on March 8, 1829. Some sources say he was born in Prince George’s County Maryland. Others have Vaucluse written down.
While it is uncertain where he was born, there’s no question about his forebears. The Fairfax clan were of Saxon blood who established themselves in Leeds, England. The early Lords of the seventeenth century held positions equivalent to today’s generals, senators and judges. They were knights and held the noble rank of Baron of Cameron, a Scottish peerage that entitled them to all the rights and privileges held therein.
Arriving to stay in 1747, Thomas, Sixth Lord Fairfax, was the first Lord Fairfax to come to the New World. He owned proprietary rights to the staggering sum of over five million acres of land we know today as Northern Virginia. His actions created a new county that bore his name. His cousin and land agent, Colonel William Fairfax, built Belvoir in 1741. Before Alexandria was founded in 1749, the brick Georgian Manor was arguably the center of the universe in the northern part of the colony. For George Washington, Belvoir was like a second home.
When Thomas, Sixth Lord Fairfax passed away in 1781, the peerage passed to his younger brother Robert. He became Seventh Lord Fairfax, but by then, the Virginia Assembly had passed acts which prohibited British subjects from holding land. The title might have meant a little something to Robert, but for all intents and purposes it had become an empty one.
When Robert, Seventh Lord Fairfax died in 1793, the title devolved to Bryan Fairfax (Charles Snowden Fairfax’s great grandfather). At age 62, six years before his death, Bryan made the trip to England to claim the title.
Bryan’s father was Colonel Fairfax who raised him at Belvoir. Bryan added to the Fairfax dynasty by building Mount Eagle, a country home that overlooked Alexandria from 1790 to 1968.
When Bryan passed away in 1802, his son, Thomas, became Ninth Lord Fairfax. Thomas (Charles Snowden Fairfax’s grandfather) might have been born at Belvoir. He was more of a country gentleman than a Lord of Cameron.
Around 1790, Thomas built a country home he called Ash Grove. Fire destroyed some of it but the rebuild stands today near the intersection of Route 7 and the Dulles Toll Road. In 1827, Thomas purchased Vaucluse, a country home perched on a high point two miles west of Alexandria and not too far from Mount Eagle. He also owned a summer town home at 607 Cameron Street in the seaport, a Georgian beauty the Alexandria Times said, “is one of the city’s most treasured.”
Thomas sired seven children with his third wife Margaret. One of them was Albert Fairfax, Charles Snowden Fairfax’s father. In 1828, Albert married Caroline E. Snowden. She was the daughter of Richard Snowden (1775-1823) and his second wife, Louisa V. Warfield (1790-1820). A year later, Caroline brought Charles Snowden Fairfax into the world, possibly at Vaucluse. John Contee Fairfax followed in 1830. Sadly, Albert passed away in 1835.
In 1846, Thomas Ninth Lord Fairfax died. Upon his death, Charles Snowden Fairfax inherited the title, Tenth Lord Fairfax, Baron of Cameron.
Not a lot is known about Charles Snowden Fairfax’s childhood. One source said he grew up in Washington. It’s possible he lived at or visited Northampton, whose site is near Largo, Maryland. In his book, “Black Men Built the Capitol,” Jesse Holland described it as a “classic Gone with the Wind-style Southern plantation.” Fairfax’s brother, John Contee Fairfax, bought Northampton in 1865.
It’s also possible Charles Snowden Fairfax grew up in Vaucluse. In her memoir, Constance Cary Harrison gives us a glimpse into life at the country seat of the Fairfax family. Harrison, who would become a novelist of some fame in New York, describes Vaucluse as “the rallying place of the Fairfax clan, a center of cheerful hospitality.”
“Time glided by peacefully,” she wrote.
For Charles Snowden Fairfax, he might have had a different point of view. On visits to Alexandria, he would have watched ships slip in and out of Alexandria’s port. From the heights on which Vaucluse was built, he could look down to the Cameron Valley and see stage coaches and horses kicking up dust along the Little River turnpike. Perhaps these sights planted the seeds of wanderlust.
What is certain is that Charles Snowden Fairfax, like so many others in the country, heard the siren songs in 1849.
It took a while for the news of the discovery of gold (January 24, 1848) at a sawmill John Sutter had built west of Sacramento.
“To California!” the headlines in the Alexandria Gazette screamed later that year.
It was too much for Fairfax, whose empty title probably meant little to him. Even though the journey involved a six-month voyage on the high seas, the young man of twenty years could not resist. Perhaps he desired distancing himself from his royal blood connections, or like others, wanted to re-invent himself.
On April 6, 1849, Fairfax and a group of young men who had formed the Madison Mining and Trading Company, loaded up their luggage and big dreams on the steamship Glenmore. Colonel John D. Munford of Richmond was their leader. Joining the hopefuls were men from Lynchburg, Louisa, Gloucester, Hampton and Washington, D.C. Also climbing on board was Dr. Alfred Taliaferro (1825-1885), who would become a friend of Fairfax. A doctor by trade, Taliaferro hailed from Culpepper, where he owned a flour mill and farm. He also dabbled in politics, representing Culpepper on the Democratic Committee of Vigilance.
From the port on the James River in Richmond, these Virginia argonauts waved goodbye. For Charles Snowden Fairfax, he was turning his back on a potentially easy life in Virginia.
The Maritime Heritage Project tells us the Glenmore sailed around Cape Horn in South America. No doubt worn and weary, Fairfax and company finally arrived in San Francisco in October.
In their book, David Hackett Fischer and James C. Kelly tell us (“Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement”) Fairfax “became a famous character in the West — not quite a Lord but very much a Virginian gentleman with lordly ways.”
Of course, it took some time for his story to unfold.
Although there is no biography on Charles Snowden Fairfax, some of his story is told by Rich Samuels (Richard Snowden Samuels). He recently ended a 35-year run in the Windy City, as a broadcast journalist on “Chicago Tonight.”
Samuels traced the lives of three of his Snowden forebears —Richard N. Snowden, Sr., Richard N. Snowden, Jr., Gustavus Warfield Snowden — and Charles Snowden Fairfax.
The author writes that Snowden was raised in the District of Columbia. His widowed mother Caroline married a Captain William Sanders, a career officer in the U.S. Army.
By his footnoted account, Samuels tells us Fairfax first went to a point some fifty miles east of Marysville. Marysville stands about 40 miles north of Sacramento.
This area was where the flat lands east of Sacramento give way to the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Small towns like Colfax, and Placerville were put on the maps during a time when California’s population exploded from 92,000 in 1850 to 379,000 in 1860.
On their mule-assisted trek to the foothills, Fairfax was accompanied by his uncle Richard Snowden, and Philip Keyser, a Baltimore lawyer who would win election to the California State Senate and serve as a Superior Court Judge.
The three built a make shift log cabin. After things did not pan out (sorry I couldn’t resist), Fairfax retreated to Marysville. In 1851, he was selected to be Chairman of the Marysville Vigilance delegation to a Yuba County Democratic Convention. A year later he moved up to Marysville Justice of the Peace and then a county Judge with an array of duties. In 1853, the ballot box majority elected him to Democratic State Assemblyman from the Marysville District of Yuba County. The pulpit of the Speaker of the House of California followed. Fairfax (Californians called him “Lord Charlie”) had no formal training, but Samuels points out he had what we would call great people skills.
A growing issue at the time was slavery. The Democrats in that part of the state were divided over the issue. Some of the gold seekers who came from the South brought their slaves with them. Those who wanted slavery in California were called the “Chivalry” wing.
Charles Snowden Fairfax grew up in a world where slavery was the norm. Harrison called them “servants,” but they were indeed enslaved.
In 1854, African Americans filed a petition, asking the assembly to overturn a law that excluded blacks from testifying in court. The judicial body of white men rejected the petition.
Fairfax said — “This is all wrong, the petition should have been received.”
Oral histories usually come with the knowledge that memory can be a flickering light and a one pound fish can turn into a whopping ten-pounder. But the memoir of Stephen J. Field, who also left the East Coast for California during the Gold Rush, has credibility.
Field served as Chief Justice of California, followed by donning the robes of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He co-wrote a memoir titled, “Personal Reminiscences of Early Days in California, with Other Sketches.”
I found him possessed of a noble and chivalric spirit. With great gentleness of manner, he had the most intrepid courage.
Fairfax displayed some of that courage in 1859.
The Daily Independent Journal (San Rafael) reported the story.
On March 25, 1859, a political rival, Harvey Lee, put a sword into Fairfax’s chest on Fourth Street in San Rafael. Seriously wounded, Fairfax pulled out a derringer and told Lee — “Recollect, I have your life in my hands. I spare you not on your worthless account, for you are an assassin and a coward, but because of your wife and children.”
Fairfax was not the first person from Alexandria to pick up a tin pan in California. James H. Carson (1821-1853), who spent at least a year in Alexandria, led a regiment of men who sailed to Monterey in 1846. They had been given orders after the United States declared war on Mexico.
Carson Hill, about a dozen miles east of Stockton, is named after him. A bronze historical marker notes a 195-pound nugget was found there in 1854. Another one says:
James H. Carson (1821-1853). Soldier, gold prospector and miner, writer and sportsman. Discovered gold at Carson’s Creek. Inspired a mutual confidence between man and man.
While Fairfax had headed for the veins in the lower Sierra Nevada Mountains, Taliaferro set up a practice on 4th Street in San Rafael. The small community lies on the western banks of San Francisco Bay, about ten miles north of San Francisco. In addition to his practices, Taliaferro became a State Assemblyman in 1851-1852. Enchanted by a narrow valley in Marin County, he obtained 32 acres from Domingo Sais. Sais (1806-1853) served in the San Francisco militia in 1837 and was given Rancho Canada de Herrera, a land grant encompassing over 6,000 acres.
In their surf song, Jan & Dean sang there were “two girls for every boy.” During the early years of the Gold Rush, the ratio was much more depressing for the men there.
In 1855, Fairfax struck gold and married Ada Benham, described as an attractive belle from Cincinnati. The couple then moved to Marin County. Taliaferro gave them a wedding gift — an estate they named Bird’s Nest Glen.
The couple built a house and lived there from 1855 to 1868. In their book, “Images of America: Fairfax,” William and Brian Sagar tell us it was a social center among their many friends. Charles and Ada heaped Southern hospitality on all who visited.
It could be apocryphal, but they also give us the origin of the town name. “Let’s go over to the Fairfax's," became "Let’s go to Fairfax.”
Sadly, a fire destroyed their home. Pastori Restaurant rose up on the spot and had a long run. According to DirectMarin, their home became a hotel and Pastori’s restaurant in the 1890s.
Sadly, a fire in 1911 destroyed the restaurant and “the last vestige of the Fairfax home.” Madame Pastori rebuilt and reopened the restaurant.
According to a historical marker, the Bird Nest’s Glen hosted a Country Club, a School, and a private colony of cottages.
Charles Snowden Fairfax survived the Wild West, only to die at the age of 40 in Baltimore. The Baltimore Sun published his obit, noting he passed away at Barnum’s City Hotel. Snowden had traveled to New York for the Democratic Convention.
Fields notes he spent some time visiting friends and relatives at “the old family residence in Maryland.” This is probably Northampton, acquired by his brother John Contee Fairfax in 1865.
We certainly know Charles Snowden Fairfax did not visit Vaucluse. As part of constructing forts around Washington in the first part of the Civil Way, the Union army leveled the home in 1861. The Fairfax and Cary clans had left that spring, an exodus that led Harrison to Richmond and others to points southward. With Belvoir sitting nearby in ruins, an era of the Fairfax family had passed.
Charles’s widow Ada moved to Washington, D.C. where she worked for the Treasury Department. Ada passed away in 1888. Her obituary in The Washington Post reported she had lived at 2108 G Street Northwest. Like her husband, Ada was laid to rest at Rock Creek Church Cemetery. More than a dozen other souls rest there with the Fairfax name etched on their grave stones.
In 1931, the community where Charles Snowden Fairfax and his wife had made their home, sat down to choose a name for they newly incorporated town of 2,250 people.
They did so not so much because they wished to honor its first resident. Rather, that was what they had always called the place.
In 1959, the California State Park Commission in cooperation with Marin County Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West erected a historical landmark plaque.
The home of 'Lord' Charles Snowden Fairfax, pioneer and political leader of the 1850s, who served California as an Assemblyman (1853), Speaker of Assembly (1854), and Clerk of the State Supreme Court (1856). A descendant of Scottish barons of the Cameron Fairfax family of Virginia, Fairfax was involved in the last of California's historic political duels as host to the principals and friend of the two antagonists.
Through place and street names, historical markers and a few homes in Alexandria, the history of the Fairfax Lords has been kept alive. But specific memories have been mostly for Thomas, Sixth and Thomas, Ninth. Remembered more on the West Coast, the memory of Charles Snowden Fairfax has faded and disappeared here in Fairfax County.
In the summer of 1985, Jack Eisen, a Washington Post staff writer, jogged some memories. He wrote a column titled “A World Away, in Fairfax.”
Eisen gave a brief summary of the life of Charles Snowden Fairfax, and pointed out that although Fairfax County, Virginia and Marin County, California are 3,000 miles apart, “there are few counties more closely linked.” In addition to the Charles Snowden Fairfax connection, Risen drew the parallels of both being commuter bedroom communities and having similar per capita incomes. Today, both places are diverse and progressive.
Eisen also penned another piece titled, “Lord Fairfax Lives.” Patricia Arrigoni, of Fairfax, California, had written an article in the Marin Independent Journal. She recounted her search for Nicholas John Albert Fairfax, 14th Lord Fairfax who was living in Holyport, a town north of London. Unable to hook up with him, she then mailed him a local guidebook that had some info on Charles Snowden Fairfax. The two exchanged letters. The 14th knew about Fairfax County, Virginia, but not its west coast counterpart.
Fairfax County is celebrating its 275th anniversary this year. Among the events is an evening lecture to celebrate the county’s rich history. The featured speaker will be Nicolas Fairfax, the 14th Lord Fairfax, who will make the trip across the pond from London. (Nicolas, the 14th, Thomas, the 13th and Albert the 12th each took the title from their father. Charles Snowden Fairfax had no children. The title went to his brother John Contee Fairfax, 11th).
Of course, traveling to a far away land is nothing new for these barons and their descendants. Whether it’s seeking a new way of life or helping to recall a past one, the Fairfax lords have always been up for the journey.