Take a trip to Westmoreland County and let your imagination carry you to the 1600 and 1700s when English settlers first invested in the American dream. They planted America’s roots here near the Chesapeake Bay.
If you’re an outdoor recreation enthusiast or a pick-your-own berries and wine lover, you can spend days here in heaven. The well-mapped John Smith Water Trail guides boaters to spots the early settlers learned of from native Indians. It follows Captain Smith’s early accounts of his trips. Pleasure options include beach swimming, birding, hiking, kayaking, cycling and wine-tasting as well as gallery hopping and antiquing. Fresh and saltwater fish and shellfish are plentiful in quaint local restaurants. State, national and local parks offer many recreational options.
Just a little more than an hour southeast of Washington, the Northern Neck of Virginia and Westmoreland County pack more American heritage into farmland and rivers than virtually any place in the U.S. Three of the first five American presidents were born here — George Washington, James Madison and James Monroe. Two brothers who signed the Declaration of Independence lived here and their fiery efforts to protest British rule became the basis for the very Declaration we attribute to Thomas Jefferson. The brothers had very different personalities — one, Francis Lightfoot Lee, was quietly influential (in raising money to fund the early patriots) — the other, Richard Henry Lee, was very vocal and even theatrical, (and anti-slavery). Hear their stories at Stratford Hall Plantation, their birthplace, and Menokin, further south near Warsaw. Stratford Hall may be best known as the birthplace of Robert E. Lee, who led the Army of Northern Virginia in the Civil War, but the stories of his ancestors give a foundational perspective on how we became the nation we know today.
Start your visit to Westmoreland County at Montross where you’ll find local artifacts and family belongings in three different buildings — an old courthouse, a reproduction manor house and a former auto garage turned general store. America’s leading family’s heirlooms are exhibited here to welcome people and to share the love locals have of their community.
Begin at the visitor center, now housed in the mid 20th-century courthouse building. Currently, an exhibit honors World War II and World War I veterans from Westmoreland. The record books include 1,400 WWII veterans and 450 WWI veterans and includes extensive research that began with a book about African American soldiers written by local resident Daisy Howard-Douglas, who serves on the library’s leadership committee.
“In 2018, people came to Westmoreland from 38 states to visit and explore their genealogical backgrounds,” said Walt Heyer, director of tourism for Westmoreland County.
African Americans built much of this county’s success and officials are working hand-in-glove with residents of diverse backgrounds to tell the stories of valor and contributions of many generations of residents, including Native Americans, according to Karen Lewis, assistant county administrator.
A tribute event is planned at the visitor’s center to honor WWII veterans the first weekend in June. Two of the three buildings that make up the small-town museum complex are open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The general store is open on weekends.
The American dream is taught in allegory in the Westmoreland Museum through a larger-than-life painting by famous portrait artist Charles Wilson Peale. Then-struggling Peale was commissioned by the “Gentlemen of Westmoreland,” the 115 men who signed the Leedstown Resolves before America declared independence. These Virginians wanted a painting to represent their advocates in British Parliament who supported repeal of the Stamp Act. William Pitt, Lord Chatham, who became known as a defender of the colonies, was chosen. The painting was shipped from London to Virginia in 1769 and hung in many private and public places until the current building was created with money raised by local Westmoreland County women’s groups.
The museum contains heirlooms from the Washington and Monroe families, local curiosities of nature such as a massive ancient shark’s tooth and oversized crustaceans and a tribute case to a generous local philanthropist. In rooms whose walls are adorned with woodwork from historic homes of the area, 11 portraits painted by four artists depict King Charles I, Lord Fairfax, three U.S. presidents, John Marshall, a man of servitude and more. They were commissioned by Westmoreland County’s Ingleside Plantation Winery owner Carl Flemer. The fireplace here even holds a fire back owned by British land grantee Lord Fairfax that’s engraved with his family coat of arms. In a friendly and unintimidating way, the museum tells the stories of how we as Americans came to be.