Fielding Lewis (1725–1781 or 1782)


Fielding Lewis was a merchant, justice of the peace for Spotsylvania County (1749–1781), and member of the House of Burgesses (1760–1769) who helped to found the Fredericksburg Gun Manufactory during the American Revolution (1775–1783). Born at Warner Hall, his family’s Gloucester County estate, he moved to Fredericksburg in the 1740s, helping to manage his father’s store there. Lewis married George Washington‘s cousin and, after her death, Washington’s sister, serving in the General Assembly and as a justice of the peace. He was known, in particular, for his financial acumen and sometimes advised his brother-in-law on investments. Early in the 1770s Lewis built for his family a large Georgian mansion (later named Kenmore) that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. In 1775, the third Revolutionary Convention tasked Lewis and his fellow merchant Charles Dick with establishing a weapons factory in Fredericksburg; by May 1777 the Fredericksburg Gun Manufactory produced about twenty muskets per week. The enterprise cost Lewis £7,000 of his own money, which the state never repaid. He died sometime late in 1781 or early in 1782.

Early Years and Public Career

Robert Carter III

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.

Betty Washington Lewis

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.

Benjamin and Ludwell Grymes

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.

Kenmore Mansion

For a time Lewis helped to administer a school for the children of enslaved African Americans. It served sixteen students and was built with money loaned to Saint George’s Parish by the Associates of Dr. Bray, a group formed in 1724 by the Anglican clergyman Thomas Bray to proselytize and educate enslaved African Americans. The school opened in April 1765, but there was opposition from slaveholders, many of whom believed literacy among slaves to be “rather a disadvantage,” as Lewis explained in a letter to the Associates of Dr. Bray. In October 1768 Lewis reported that enrollment had dropped to nine students, with only four attending that summer. Lewis closed the school sometime during the winter of 1769–1770.

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.

American Revolution

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.

Miniature Portrait of George Washington

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.

Later Years

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.

July 7, 1725
Fielding Lewis is born at Warner Hall in Gloucester County.
Frances Fielding Lewis, the wife of John Lewis IV, dies from complications related to childbirth.
Winter 1734—1735
John Lewis IV and Priscilla Churchhill Carter are married.
April 6, 1742
John Lewis IV purchases 406 acres of land in Fredericksburg. He soon establishes a store there.
John Lewis IV hires John Thornton as the factor, or manager, of his store in Fredericksburg.
October 18, 1746
Fielding Lewis and Catherine Washington marry in Gloucester County.
April 1747
By this date Fielding Lewis is living in Fredericksburg and learning to manage his father's store there.
February 1749
Fielding Lewis is sworn in as a justice of the peace for Spotsylvania County.
February 19, 1750
Catharine Washington Lewis, the wife of Fielding Lewis, dies from complications related to childbirth.
May 7, 1750
Fielding Lewis and Elizabeth (Betty) Washington marry.
December 1751
The governor's Council asks Fielding Lewis, Charles Dick, and Robert Jackson to determine the value of goods that are to be given in a treaty ceremony to Indians in Ohio.
November 8, 1753
Fielding Lewis wins election to the vestry of Saint George's Parish.
January 17, 1754
John Lewis IV dies at Warner Hall, his plantation in Gloucester County.
February 1757
Fielding Lewis sells his store in Fredericksburg to the manager, John Thornton.
October 1757
Fielding Lewis is named county lieutenant, a position that put him in command of Spotsylvania County's militia, with the rank of colonel.
February 1758
Fielding Lewis, the new commander of the Spotsylvania County militia, takes the oath of office.
Fielding Lewis represents Spotsylvania County in the House of Burgesses.
November 3, 1763
Fielding Lewis signs the Dismal Swamp Land Company Articles of Agreement.
April 1765
The Associates of Dr. Bray opens a school in Fredericksburg for the education of slaves.
October 31, 1768
Fielding Lewis reports an enrollment of nine students at the Bray school in Fredericksburg.
After the removal of Benjamin Grymes, Fielding Lewis becomes the ranking justice of the Spotsylvania County court.
Winter 1769—1770
Fielding Lewis closes the Bray school in Fredericksburg.
December 14, 1774
Fielding Lewis is elected chairman of the forty-five member Spotsylvania County Committee.
Construction is completed on a Georgian brick manor house built by Fielding Lewis on the outskirts of Fredericksburg. A later owner will name it Kenmore.
August 26, 1775
The third Revolutionary Convention orders that "a manufactory of arms be erected at or near Fredericksburg."
November 14, 1775
In a letter to George Washington, Fielding Lewis writes that progress has been made in establishing a gun factory in Fredericksburg.
February 9, 1781
In a letter to the state treasurer, George Brooke, Fielding Lewis explains that he has borrowed considerable sums for the gun factory in Fredericksburg.
October 19, 1781
Fielding Lewis drafts a will, dividing his assets between his wife and six sons.
January 17, 1782
The will of Fielding Lewis is proved in Spotsylvania County.
March 31, 1797
Elizabeth "Betty" Washington Lewis, the widow of Fielding Lewis, dies.
Samuel Gordon names his brick Georgian manor house in Fredericksburg, built in the 1770s by Fielding Lewis, Kenmore.
Kenmore, a brick Georgian manor house in Fredericksburg, built in the 1770s by Fielding Lewis, is added to the National Register of Historic Places.
  • Bruce, Kathleen. Reprints of Economic Classics: Virginia Iron Manufacture in the Slave Era. New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1968.
  • Cromwell, Giles. The Virginia Manufactory of Arms. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1975.
  • Duke, Jane Taylor. Kenmore and the Lewises. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., 1949.
  • Felder, Paula. Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family: A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg. Fredericksburg, Virginia: American History Company, 1999.
  • Felder, Paula. Forgotten Companions: The First Settlers of Spotsylvania County and Fredericksburgh Town (With Notes on Early Land Use). Fredericksburg, Virginia: Historic Publications of Fredericksburg, 1982.
  • Felder, Paula, ed. George Washington’s Relations and Relationships in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Fredericksburg, Virginia: Historic Publications of Fredericksburg, 1981.
  • Sorely, Merrow Egerton. Lewis of Warner Hall: The History of a Family. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1979.
APA Citation:
Hoppe, Geoff. Fielding Lewis (1725–1781 or 1782). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/lewis-fielding-1725-1781-or-1782.
MLA Citation:
Hoppe, Geoff. "Fielding Lewis (1725–1781 or 1782)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 17 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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