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Blame cursive confusion for multiple spellings of Bristow

Photo: Civil Warscapes

Why, Potomac Local, why? 

Have you ever been walking, driving, or riding along and asked: “why?”

Why does this road only have two lanes when it could be better with four? Why does this school have so many trailers classrooms while others don’t?

We always like to hear your questions to our local community, and if you send us a question to potomaclocal@gmail.com, we promise to do our best to find an answer.

Here’s one: Why is Bristow spelled with a “W” on maps and road signs but with an “E” at Bristoe Station Battlefield Heritage Park?

We asked Rob Orrison at the Prince William Historic Preservation Division for an answer:

“The original spelling is Bristow with a “W,” Robert Bristow was a large landowner in the area (he owned part of the Brent Town tract that covered most of southern PWC, northern Stafford, and eastern Fauquier counties). Bristow was an absentee landowner during the American Revolution (he lived in England) and since he could not pay his taxes to the state (and he was a Loyalist), the state confiscated his land. The state owned this large swath of land for a long time, some portions up to the Civil War. Brentsville was created in 1820 from state land in the Bristow Tract.

Anyway, when the Orange and Alexandria Rail Road comes through the area in the 1850s, they refer to the train station in the area as “Bristoe Station” – there are various reasons given (none are known to be THE reason). Some say they changed it to remove the British version of the name/spelling. I just think they went with it as an Americanization spelling of the name. But no one is sure.

As the mail starts to run on the railroad, they were having problems with mail getting mixed up between Bristoe and Bristol (if you spell BRistoe in longhand/cursive, the “e” can look like an “l”). So, at some poi, t they went back to the “W” and spelled it “Bristow” which is what it is today.”

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  • MacAuley

    In summary… the spelling of Bristow always ended with a “w”, except for a decade or two after 1857 when the railroad spelled it Bristoe Station. The Civil War (1861-65) happened during that period when the name ended with an “e”. Two battles were fought at Bristoe Station, so that is the spelling that appears in the Civil War records and history books.

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