An archeological project now underway at the site of the town of Colchester near the mouth of the Occoquan River will undoubtedly produce some very interesting information about what life was like in that colonial port.
But surprisingly, there is already a wealth of knowledge on the area assembled in a book written by the late historian and author Edith Moore Sprouse and published by Fairfax County in 1975. Sprouse’s love of history, her unbounded curiosity and her ability to ferret out the most miniscule of details makes this meticulously researched book, "Colchester: Colonial Port on the Potomac," a treasure for those seeking to know more about the history of Colchester.
First explored in 1608 by Captain John Smith, this area along the Occoquan was home to the Dogue Indians. An early trail, known as Potomac Path, ran in a north-south direction near what would later become the Town of Colchester. It was not until the 1650s that land in the area of present-day Mason Neck was patented by speculators. Indian hostilities discouraged settlers from the south and to protect those that did arrive, the English constructed a fort along Potomac Path on the south side of the Occoquan River.
By 1729 there was a ferry, tavern and blacksmith shop to accommodate travelers along Potomac Path, later known as Kings Highway. At this site, in 1753, the Virginia Assembly granted a charter to Peter Wagener, Clerk of the Fairfax County Court, for the yet unnamed town. The Assembly specified that the town “would be very convenient for trade and navigation” and “greatly to the ease and advantage of the frontier inhabitants.” It is thought that Wagener chose the name Colchester because his home in England had been near a town of the same name.
The surveyed town contained 42 lots of half an acre, although some contained less due to the configuration of the town boundaries, and four streets. The town was governed by five trustees. Lots were sold and numerous business establishments were founded including a tanyard, stores, salt house, stable, smokehouse, taverns and other commercial endeavors. A vineyard was even planted by a German immigrant named Maurice Pound. Homes were built and colonial merchants and their families settled in the town.
Ready water access made Colchester a prime port for the shipment of tobacco and several large warehouses to store that commodity were erected within the town. The ferry landing was at the end of Essex Street and the public wharf was on Fairfax Street. There was also a market place. Tobacco remained a major export from Colchester for many years.
During the Revolutionary War, the Colchester ferry was used to transport General George Washington and Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau and their troops across the Occoquan on their march from Newport, Rhode Island to Yorktown, Virginia. The ferry master for that crossing was William Lindsay of Laurel Hill Plantation.
After the Revolutionary War, John Hooe began operating a ferry further upstream near the falls of the Occoquan. Still later, a bridge was constructed by mill owner Nathaniel Ellicott who also managed to acquire the stagecoach and mail contracts along the new public road running between Alexandria and Dumfries. Not to be outdone, Thomas Mason, in 1795, proposed to build a toll bridge from Colchester to his land in Prince William County and obtained approval from the legislature to do so. The bridge was in use by 1798 but unfortunately, was washed away in a heavy rainstorm in 1807 and was not rebuilt as most river crossings were taking place near the Town of Occoquan by then.
After the loss of the bridge, Colchester became a town in decline, helped along by the closing of the post office, loss of traffic to the river crossing at Occoquan, river sedimentation and new routes of transport for flour and other produce. The town subsequently suffered a decrease in population. A devastating fire in 1815 just about sounded the death knell for the town as an entity.
Colchester and the surrounding area experienced little in the way of action during the Civil War. There were a few skirmishes and early in the war a pontoon bridge was constructed near the site of the old Colchester ferry. Scouting parties occasionally passed through the area but any activity of note was generally associated with Pohick Church, the village of Accotink or the Town of Occoquan.
The construction of the last link of missing railroad track between Alexandria and Fredericksburg, on a line that ran between New York City and Tallahassee, Fla., was begun in 1871. The line passed just to the west of Colchester and did little to revitalize the town. Later, construction of US Route 1 bypassed the town altogether adding to its further decline.
Only one structure dating from the colonial period, Fairfax Arms, exists today.
In more recent times, some new homes have been constructed along with a marina. Only faint traces of a few of the town’s original buildings are evident. But that is about to change.
An archeological study began in 2010 by Fairfax County Park Authority’s Cultural Resources Management and Protection Services has already begun to yield supporting fragments to accompany some of the things that we already know. Pottery fragments, pieces of porcelain, metal fittings and portions of stone and brick foundations are just a few of the treasures produced so far.
Who knows what may make its way to the surface before the project is completed in 2012? Thanks to the work of historian Edith Moore Sprouse they know a little bit more about what they are looking for.