Early Years and Public Career
Fielding Lewis was born on July 7, 1725, at Warner Hall in Gloucester County, the third of seven children of John Lewis IV (also known as Colonel John Lewis) and Frances Fielding Lewis. His mother died in 1731 from complications related to childbirth, and during the winter of 1734–1735 John Lewis married Priscilla Churchhill Carter, the widow of Robert Carter II and inheritor of £2,500 from his will. Her son, Robert Carter III, spent two years at Warner Hall before attending school.
On April 6, 1742, John Lewis bought 406 acres of land in Fredericksburg, a growing port town on the Rappahannock River in Spotsylvania County and the site of a state tobacco inspection station. Soon he established a store that sold a wide variety of items—including clothing, rum, sugar, and writing supplies—that were likely imported from abroad on Lewis-owned ships. In 1744, John Thornton, who previously owned a tavern in Fredericksburg, became the factor, or manager, of Lewis’s business. By April 1747, Fielding Lewis lived in Fredericksburg and helped with the store’s management. John Lewis died in 1754, and in February 1757 Fielding Lewis sold the store to Thornton.
On October 18, 1746, Lewis married Catharine Washington, his own second cousin and a cousin of George Washington. Their marriage produced three children, two of whom survived into adulthood. The third child died in infancy, followed a few months later, on February 19, 1750, by his mother. On May 7, 1750, Lewis married Elizabeth (Betty) Washington, the sister of George Washington. The pair had eleven children, six of whom survived to adulthood. Fielding Lewis and George Washington were familiar, if not close, throughout their lives. When Washington passed through Fredericksburg, he often stayed with Lewis. Lewis conducted business on behalf of Washington in Fredericksburg, and also advised his younger brother-in-law on other matters, from finance to agriculture.
Lewis was often entrusted with financial affairs, selling other peoples’ lands, executing wills, ensuring that members of the county militia were paid, or, on one occasion, helping to determine the worth of tobacco that was lost in a flood. His judgment of markets was trusted enough, at least, that the colonial government used him as a resource in diplomatic affairs. In December 1751, the governor’s Council asked him and two other Fredericksburg merchants, Charles Dick and Robert Jackson, to determine the value of goods that were to be given in a treaty ceremony to Indians in Ohio. Both Lewis and Washington were investors in the Dismal Swamp Company, an unsuccessful venture to drain and develop swampland along the border of Virginia and North Carolina. On November 3, 1763, they signed the “Articles of Agreement of the Dismal Swamp Company,” but the venture was not successful. Lewis, who contributed more than £587 with Anthony Bacon, was later sued by Bacon for their losses.
Lewis’s public career began in February 1749, when he was sworn in as a justice of the peace for Spotsylvania County. He held the court position until his death and from 1769, after the removal of Benjamin Grymes, presided as chief magistrate, or the court’s senior member. On November 8, 1753, he won election to the vestry of Saint George’s Parish, with records indicating his presence at meetings for sixteen non-continuous years between 1754 and 1781. In October 1757, Fielding was named county lieutenant, a position that put him in command of Spotsylvania County’s militia, with the rank of colonel. (He took the oath of office in February 1758.) He likely replaced John Spotswood, who was dismissed for unprofessional conduct, including drunkenness. A letter recommending Lewis for the position praised him as “a Gent: of fortune & Character in that County” who was “much esteemed by the people.” In 1760, after the death in office of William Waller, Lewis won election to the House of Burgesses from Spotsylvania County, serving until 1769. He sat on the prestigious Committee of Propositions and Grievances with Edmund Pendleton, George Wythe, and Richard Henry Lee.
About this time Lewis began construction on his nearly 1,300-acre estate just outside Fredericksburg. A Georgian brick manor house, possibly designed by John Ariss and not given a name, was finished by 1775. In 1819 a later owner, Samuel Gordon, named the house Kenmore and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.
On December 14, 1774, Lewis was elected chairman of the forty-five-member Spotsylvania County Committee. One of his first tasks was “to contract for” necessary materials, such as lead, gunflints, and gunpowder. Fredericksburg’s position halfway between Alexandria and Williamsburg made it a fitting supply depot, and Lewis was often ordered to send supplies such as salt, lead, and gunpowder either to the Continental army or the state militia. Lewis also was involved in the early formation of Virginia’s navy, helping to finance, equip, and staff several ships to patrol the Rappahannock River.
On August 26, 1775, its last day in session, Virginia’s third Revolutionary Convention ordered that “a manufactory of arms be erected at or near Fredericksburg,” and that “Fielding Lewis, Charles Dick, Mann Page, jun. William Fitzhugh, and Samuel Selden, gentlemen, or any three of them” be appointed its commissioners. The task fell entirely to Lewis and his longtime friend Charles Dick. The convention appropriated £2,000 to Lewis, who, with Dick, leased a millhouse and, in early November, purchased ten acres of land. Lewis wrote to George Washington on November 14 that “Our Gunn Manufactory is now beginning & expect by New Years day to have near fifty Men imploy’d who will make about Twelve Gunns compleat a Day,” although on March 6, 1776, another letter to Washington admitted that “Our Manufactory has not yet made one Musquet.” Gun barrels were in production, however, and older guns were being repaired. By then the complex consisted of a factory, a powder magazine, a cartridge works, and repair shops.
Early on, Dick projected that the manufactory would be able to make 100 muskets per month. Ebenezer Hazard, a visitor to Fredericksburg, reported that in May 1777 the factory produced 20 muskets per week, each costing £4 of Virginia currency to make. Whatever the average output of the factory may have been, the project was increasingly plagued for money as the years passed. On January 4, 1781, Dick wrote to Governor Thomas Jefferson: “I shall continue to direct the Factory and Keep the Workmen together if possible, which I find pretty difficult to do without money and Provisions.” A few weeks later, on January 23, he wrote to Jefferson that, because of currency depreciation, the real value of the £1,000 payment he and Lewis had received in 1779 for their services was just £43.
On February 9, 1781, Lewis informed the state treasurer, George Brooke, that he had borrowed between £30,000 and £40,000 for the manufactory on the state’s orders, and that he had used £7,000 of his own money to keep it running. Lewis’s own resources were so depleted, he wrote, that he was “not able to pay the collector my taxes and continue my business in the usual manner.” At the time, hoarding and speculation were widespread problems that often frustrated state officials. The fact that Lewis spent so much of his own money to fund a state enterprise, when he likely suspected repayment was doubtful, speaks to his devotion to the Revolutionary cause.
As early as January 1780, Lewis mentioned his failing health in a letter to George Washington, and the stress of managing the factory and his own debt likely were contributing factors. His will was drafted on October 19, 1781, and divided his assets—including land in and near Fredericksburg and in Kentucky, in addition to 102 slaves—between his wife and six sons. Lewis died sometime late in 1781 or early in 1782; his will was proved on January 17, 1782. He is buried at an unrecorded site in Frederick County. The state never repaid its debt to Lewis and the manufactory closed in 1783. Betty Lewis died on March 31, 1797. The estate she left behind was valued at £245.