(The following is a condensation of a history project of Collingwood Library and Museum on Americanism by LTC Peter W. Pedrotti, Curator Emeritus. His diligent research has uncovered many interesting facts about the origins of Collingwood)
The footsteps of George Washington, Captain John Smith and Jim Bowie have walked this land. A small two-room house, now enlarged to a colonial palatial mansion has been occupied by a ferry operator, farmers, airline crew members, Intelligence School students and one of the better area restaurants. A member of the British forces at the Battle of Bunker Hill, later in 1805 an Admiral commanding a portion of the British fleet in the Battle of Trafalgar, has had his name associated with the property. An overgrown, neglected land and a much-vandalized building held a vision for a group of dedicated National Sojourners; and in April 1977, they took possession of the property. Now known by most by the one word, Collingwood, it has a history of Indians, George Washington’s life as a plantation owner, duels, a dairy farm and elegant tearoom and the fulfillment of a vision. Today the Foundation for Collingwood Library and Museum on Americanism, with offices for the headquarters of the National Sojourners, occupies the property. This then is the Collingwood Story.
Prior to the colonization of America, a tribe of the Iroquois nation had a village near a fresh water spring on the upper Potomac River. European settlers began settling in the area. Captain John Smith is reported to have used the spring. When the settlements became a bone of contention between the settlers and the Indians, the Indian village was wiped out in a massacre. A ferry across the Potomac was established at the site of the spring serving as a link between Baltimore and Williamsburg, and an inn was erected.
Giles Brent had laid claim to much of the land on the Virginia side of the Potomac between Alexandria and Occoquan in the 17th century. William Clifton married into the Brent family and was given title to 1806 acres, which was then referred to as “Clifton’s Neck.” It was north of land that was owned by George Washington’s father. On George’s father’s death, a 2126-acre plantation had been left to his oldest son, George’s half-brother Lawrence. Lawrence had named his plantation Mount Vernon in honor of a British Admiral under whom he had served in his youth. Lawrence died when George was 22 years of age and George became owner of the plantation.
When George married Martha Dandridge Custis in 1759, she brought 50 farm slaves she had inherited to the marriage. Not having work for the 50 bodies, George started negotiations for Clifton’s land. Negotiations lasted from February to May of 1760 and involved not only Brent family members, but also the General Court of Chancery in Alexandria and the Privy Council in Loudon.
Once title was acquired, Washington had a small two-room house built for his overseer, Sam Johnson and his family. Johnson was responsible for not only the farm but also collecting for water drawn from the spring and running the ferry. The area now received a second name, Johnson’s Spring and Johnson’s Ferry.
Maryland from early colonial days frowned on duels. Marylanders crossed to Virginia to settle arguments and the area between Johnson’s house and the river became a popular dueling ground. A man made slurring remarks about Thomas Jefferson’s relations with his maidservant Sally Hemmings and Jim Bowie challenged him to a duel. Bowie killed the man and the public outcry caused Virginia to outlaw dueling.
Washington found a need for a Secretary and a person to keep his finances straight. He hired the nephew of his former military aide, Tobias Lear. Lear also tutored Martha’s children. When Lear’s wife died, he married Fannie Bassett Washington, a niece of Martha and the widow of George’s nephew. George referred to Clifton’s land he had purchased as River Farm, a third name for the land. George left the River Farm to Lear’s stepsons, Fannie’s children, but because they were under age, gave Lear a life tenancy to the land.
George Washington died in 1799. It is reported the last person to whom he spoke was Tobias Lear. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Lear Council General in Algiers, a post he served for 9 years. It was while serving as Council General the Bashaw of Tripoli captured the American naval vessel “USS Philadelphia...” Lear negotiated the release of the 307 crew at $200.00 per head but America reacted with such anger it gave rise to the slogan “Millions for Defense but not One Cent for Tribute.” Lear was recalled from Algiers in 1812 while the War of 1812 was being fought between America and England. He was in “House Arrest in Gibralta” for a short period. The “USS Philadelphia” affair caused him to be ostracized in America on his return and he committed suicide in 1816.
Lear entertained lavishly in Algiers. Admiral Lord Cuthbert Collingwood was second in command to Admiral Horatio Nelson, commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet and was invited to Lear’s parties. Collingwood was the kind of person for whom Lear would have had great admiration.
The name for the building and land, Collingwood, is less well documented than Clifton’s Neck, Johnson’s Spring, Johnson’s Ferry and River Farm. A Fairfax County history states that the name was brought by Stacy Snowden in 1858 when he and his brothers Isaac and William bought 900 acres of River Farm from the stepson of Lear. They came from Collingswood, a suburb of Camden, New Jersey. Collingswood was also the name of a Quaker meeting house in New Jersey. Peter Pedrotti, the founding curator of Collingwood and the author of a paper “Collingwood” has done extensive research on the subject. His research is very thorough, extensive, well documented and his conclusion has been appropriately accepted. Not only did Lear have a friendship with Admiral Collingwood, but also British sailors replenished their water supply at Johnson’s spring in 1814 and alled the property Collingwood after their hero of the Battle of Trafalgar. Writings published by the Washington Bicentennial Commission in 1932 refer to Lear’s home as Collingwood. A portrait of Admiral Collingwood hung in the building when it was purchased by its present owners. It is the well-supported opinion of Peter Pedrotti; Collingwood is named for Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood.
Stacy Snowden operated the land as a dairy farm. In 1894, his widow Sara sold the land to LeRoy Delaney. At about this time, a street railroad was built to Mount Vernon that went through the farm making moving a herd of milk cows impossible. LeRoy Delaney’s widow sold the farm to Clayton Emig who sold it to Mark Reid Yates in 1922.
Yates widow Natalie married Edmond Montgomery. In 1930, the street line was the Mount Vernon Memorial Parkway. With the land bisected by the Parkway, Mrs. Montgomery sold one side of the farm to housing developers; on the other side, she opened an elegant tearoom. It was named “Collingwood on the Potomac.” With gas rationing during World War II, restaurant business suffered and Mrs. Montgomery provided overnight quarters for airline crews. In early 1944, the Army took over the building and operated an Intelligence School on the property. They added 4 rooms up and down stairs on the north and east sides of the building. In 1968, the Montgomery’s sold the land to Daniel Cohen, a restaurateur and William Eacho, a wholesale food distributor. Peter Pedrotti has been informed on good authority that the US Navy had built houses on or near the property for personnel of a Hydrographic Station, which had been established in 1876 and continued until 1912. He also recalls a 4-foot square building in 1978, which he was told, was where people bought tickets for an outdoor theater that put on plays in the lower meadow. He has playbills of several productions from 1950 and 1951 for the “Summer Theatre on Washington Farm.”
In 1976, a Foundation composed entirely of members of National Sojourners was established; in 1977, the property was purchased; in 1978 the headquarters for the National Sojourners moved into the building; later in 1978, the library was dedicated and in 1990, the mortgage was retired.
National Sojourners, Inc. Website