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Merrimac Farm Once a Sought-After Haven for Religious Freedom

By JEFF IRWIN
Prince William Conservation Alliance

As reported in a previous article, the history of the Merrimac Farm Wildlife Management Area in southeastern Prince William County is being revealed through the collaborative efforts of volunteers. This search for the past began with the investigation and improvement of a forgotten little cemetery in the woods.

Merrimac Farm was known by a different name for several generations, extending back into the 18th century. It was called Green Level, a plantation that was part of a rural agrarian community of farms that formed in the backwoods of Prince William around the time of the Revolution. The area had been targeted as a potential religious haven in a late 1687 land grant, wherein King James II granted 30,000 acres to a handful of men to establish a Bent Town.

Nearly a century later the town had failed to materialize and the land was divided. Several small plantations emerged in southeastern Prince William County, between the little crossroad of Aden and Cedar Run creek. These plantations included Effingham (ca. 1777), Fleetwood (ca. 1775) and Green Level (ca. 1770).

Lynaugh Helm developed Green Level first. Probate and property records suggest a substantial estate in the late 1700s. Helm owned 1000 acres of land, a large amount of livestock (53 horses, 63 sheep, 47 hogs), and a long list of furniture, tools and household items that undoubtedly filled a large farm house. In addition to the Helm family, fifteen slaves lived and worked at Green Level. Some of their names are recorded, including Old James, David, Moses, Ephraim, and Jenny.

After Helm’s death, the farm changed hands a couple of times, ultimately being acquired by Helm’s grandson, William French ca.1818. The Helm and French families not only shared a common interest in Green Level, they were also connected through marriage. Lynaugh Helm’s daughter Elizabeth married Stephen French, William’s father, and the two were married at Green Level in 1790. Stephen French lived nearby on his own estate. Enough French family lived in the area to warrant the location of “Frenchville” on some birth records.

What was Green Level like? While little evidence of structures remains, we can surmise some things from the existing records and nearby estates that lasted into the 20th century. The plantation likely included a large two story wood frame main house with brick chimneys, farm fields and pastures, slave quarters, a barn and possibly additional structures, e.g. a blacksmith shop. In the late 1700s, tobacco was likely the dominant crop but it was quickly replaced by grains and livestock.

By the time of the French family, if not earlier, a cemetery was established. The restricted area and limited number of stones that survive today suggest a small family plot, however the Helm tenure and the presence of slaves for decades makes one wonder if there is more than we currently see.

One tantalizing reminder of our limited knowledge came when a mysterious marker was discovered in recent work at the cemetery. In addition to the French gravestones, which are clearly the commercial product of skilled masons, a small fragmented red fieldstone marker was found with the initials “CTT” only. The identity and connection of this individual to the French family remains unknown.

Through the rediscovery of a small, forgotten cemetery, Merrimac Farm is better recognized as a place of history. A handful of graves serve as direct tribute to the lives of a few persons, but as indirect clues to the lives of many, the history of a historic plantation. As Merrimac Farm is appreciated by the public in its new role for recreation and conservation, its part of Prince William County history can be valued as well.

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  • Shannon

    Thank you for your insightful article. I am a descendant of Betsy Helm, Stephen and William French, and this brings them to life. Records indicate that Stephen and his brother James French participated in the siege at Yorktown, witnessed the surrender of the British, and were also reputed to have also served at Valley Forge. After his marriage to Elizabeth Helm, he built a plantation home, “Brentown” near Brentsville, VA.



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