If you live anywhere between the intersection of Rtes. 28 and 29 in Centreville and the Town of Herndon you have seen that word: Sully District, Sully Station, Sully Road, Sullyfield Road, Sully Elementary, Sully’s Restaurant and Lounge, Sully Carpet and Interiors…and on and on. You can’t go a day without seeing it somewhere.
So where did this name come from? Why are there so many places with that short little word in their titles?
Well, in fact the name comes from the Sully Historic Site (or Sully Plantation to you old-timers). It’s the place along Rt. 28 most of you have probably passed while rushing to the airport. It’s the place that, as you pass, probably induces you to say to yourself, “I really need to check that out someday.”
Sully is the ancestral home of a man, and member of a Virginia family you just may have heard of—the Lees (queue triumphant fanfare). That man—Richard Bland Lee, of the Leesylvania Lees—was Northern Virginia’s first congressman, the brother of Henry ‘Light-Horse Harry’ Lee III, and uncle to Confederate General Robert E. Lee (queue genuflecting…ok, kidding about that. I am a transplanted northerner and can’t help myself sometimes).
Richard Bland Lee had two distinct phases to his life and career. Like many in his class, including prominent Virginians such as George Washington and his own father, Henry Lee II, Richard aspired to wealth through the acquisition of land and its productive cultivation. As Mount Vernon was to Washington, and Leesylvania was to his father, Sully was to be to Richard Bland Lee; the hub of a growing network of productive land holdings that would increase his wealth and prominence and that would enable him to pursue public service.
In 1781, Richard Bland Lee, then a student at William & Mary, left school along with most of his classmates, when British warships ferrying newly minted Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, anchored off Jamestown on their way, it was thought, to attack Richmond. At his father’s request, Richard moved to his “Salisbury Plain” estate, as it was known then, to manage the property on which a quarter of tobacco had been established. Six years later while visiting his property, Henry Lee II died, leaving the land and population of slaves, to two of his sons: Richard Bland and Theodorick (now there is a name you don't see too often). Richard, being the older of the two was given the choice of which half he wanted and so chose the more alluvial northern half on which Sully now sits.
Shortly after taking ownership, and understanding how difficult it was making a profit from tobacco, he shifted to growing staple crops; primarily wheat, corn, barley, and timothy. In 1793, while a member of Congress, he began construction on the main house which still stands, along with outbuildings including a kitchen, laundry, smokehouse, barns, slave quarters and a dairy constructed of red Seneca stone completed in 1801. After returning from Congress in 1795 with his new bride, Elizabeth Collins of Philadelphia, Lee continued successfully farming at Sully until extreme debt, brought on primarily through his efforts to help two brothers retire theirs, forced him to sell the property in 1811 to a cousin, Francis Lightfoot Lee II (son of Richard Henry Lee). Thus ended any hope he had of life as a member of the Virginia landed gentry. He would however, resume a public career begun in 1784.
Richard Bland Lee's public career encompassed many different phases. He served as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates from 1784 to 1788, 1796, and again from 1799 to 1806. During his second term he was involved in debates surrounding ratification of the new Constitution, often finding himself on the losing end of debates in which Patrick Henry led the opposition. This clearly annoyed him as he related in a letter to James Madison: "Our Assembly is weak. Mr. [Patrick] Henry is the only orator we have against us and the friends to the new government being all young and inexperienced, form a feeble bond against him”
In 1789 he decided to stand for election to the new federal congress established in the recently ratified Constitution. With the support of George Washington, Lee overwhelmingly defeated State Senator John Pope. He served three terms as a Pro-Administration (Federalist), member of Congress, usually supporting President Washington's efforts at establishing a strong central government, including as a party to the "Compromise of 1790," by which in exchange for the support of southern delegates for federal assumption of state Revolutionary War debt, northern delegates voted to move the Federal City to a location in the south. That vote, and his Federalist leanings cost him reelection in 1794.
Following the sale of Sully in 1811, and after a four year residence at a country home in what is now Tyson's Corner, Va., Richard and his wife Elizabeth moved permanently to Washington DC, where they lived in what is known as the Thomas Law House. There, through his friendship with President James Madison, Lee was able to secure a position as one of three commissioners appointed by Madison, to oversee the repair and restoration of the federal buildings burned by the British in the attack on Washington during the War of 1812.
After expiration of that commission's charter, Richard was appointed as a commissioner to adjudicate claims arising out of the loss or destruction of private property during the war, and his last position was as a judge on the Orphan's Court in Washington DC; the job he held when he passed away in 1827. His wife Elizabeth followed him thirty years later, living to the eve of the Civil War. Both were buried in Congressional Cemetery, and re-interred at Sully after it became a historic site.
Sully is one of the crown jewels of Fairfax County. Not only was it the home of an important member of one of the most prominent families in Virginia, but was witness to the evolution of Fairfax County; surviving the Civil War, an attempt to raze it as part of Dulles Airport, and the increasing urban sprawl that surrounds it.
The story of Richard Bland Lee, while central to its history, is only one of hundreds of stories that you can learn through a visit there. Many fascinating people have lived and worked there in its 218 year history, from the Lee's, to the slaves that built the house and toiled on its farms, to a northern family that lived there during the Civil War. It was the home of the famous, the not so famous, and even the infamous. The property today looks much the way it did when the Lees lived there. The house and most of the outbuildings are original, and in the year 2000 a replica slave quarter was constructed on the site of an original.
All of this is available for you to visit...so instead of whizzing by on your way to the airport, you will need to slow down and take that exit where you will find yourself quickly transported back to the late 18th century. Hope to see you there.
Sully is located at 3650 Historic Sully Way, Chantilly, VA 20151. Take the same exit (Air & Space Pkwy) as the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum and just follow the signs into the site. You can get more information here
Note: I am a part-time employee at Sully Historic Site.
This information is my personal opinion and does not reflect the views of Sully Historic Site or the Fairfax County Park Authority.