Home to the Fairfax County courthouse, Providence was known as Fairfax Court House throughout much of the 19th century and particularly during the Civil War. Providence evolved to become today’s City of Fairfax and is its Old Town center. Historic Fairfax City Inc. (HFCI) helps preserve and promote the city’s historic resources.

Richard Ratcliffe sought legislation in the Virginia General Assembly to establish a town on former Ravensworth land he bought in 1798 (Parcel The proposed site adjoined the new Fairfax County Courthouse, which he had successfully promoted, provided land for, and that opened for business in March 1800.

“The legislation was approved and the Town of Providence was created on January 14, 1805… There were to be 19 lots of a half-acre each. All lots were to be sold at public auction except for lot No. 1, which was retained by Richard Ratcliffe.”1

Providence Town Survey Plat: "The Lotts are all 8 by 10 poles [132 by 165 feet] - the Streets 50 feet wide - and the whole laid down by a scale of 10 poles to an inch." (Fairfax Deed Book M2:135)

Providence Town Survey Plat: “The Lotts are all 8 by 10 poles [132 by 165 feet] – the Streets 50 feet wide – and the whole laid down by a scale of 10 poles to an inch.” (Fairfax Deed Book M2:135, survey by deputy county surveyor Robert Ratcliffe, Richard’s son)

Today’s View (in Google Maps)

The grid overlay is a tracing of the survey plat that Richard Ratcliffe’s son Robert prepared. The 19 lots are labeled with a colored circle and lot number. A 2nd overlay marks the northwest (NW) corner boundary of Ravensworth/Parcel The north half of the 4-acre Court House lot, which Richard sold to Fairfax County in 1799, fills the rectangle in the grid overlay’s lower left corner. The original historic courthouse building is at the top edge of that rectangle.

Trustee David Stuart served in a similar capacity on a much larger scale in 1791-94. He was one of the orginal three Commissioners who guided the creation of Washington, DC, overseeing Pierre L’Enfant’s implementation of his plan for the new United States Capital city.)


Fourteen trustees, including three Ravensworth landowners, were appointed to administer the new town: Charles Little, William Payne, Richard Bland Lee, John Jackson, John C. Hunter, Richard Coleman, Daniel McCarty Chichester, Henry Gunnell, Jr., Marmaduke B. Beckwith, Daniel Lewis, Francis Coffer, David Stuart, William Middleton, and Richard Fitzhugh.2

Development of the Town

It wasn’t until 1812 that the town trustees sold the remaining lots at public auction. Richard Ratcliffe bought them all for $4,530 in a deed dated December 7, 1812. Apparently, lots 2 and 3 were earlier merged with lot 1, which Richard already owned, as they weren’t included in the sale.3

As the principal institution of local government, the court’s new courthouse became the primary destination for those doing public business. Additional business came to the area after 1806 when the Little River Turnpike was extended through Providence, connecting farms to the west with Alexandria and its Potomac River port.

The deed states that lots 8 through 15 were already built upon and improved. So the town’s development was already well underway. In fact, Ratcliffe had started advertising property for rent in 1800 when the courthouse opened. He continued doing so at least through 1819.4

Lots 4 through 7 and 16 to 19 were unimproved. The deed required that within 14 years Ratcliffe must “build on each and every Lott now unimproved one dwelling House sixteen feet square at least with a stone or brick chimney to be finished fit for habitation.” Otherwise, they would revert to the trustees for resale. 5

Rental Income Rather Than Sales

“Leases, or rentals, of the houses and lots in the town were an important source of income for Richard Ratcliffe and his heirs.” When he died in 1825, Ratcliffe had sold just one half of one lot (#10), and had added eight new lots, 20-27. His will divided the lots among his daughters and their heirs; except lot 8 went to his sons.6

Civil War

Known as Fairfax Court House during the war, the Town of Providence changed hands five times. Notable events include:

  • On June 1, 1861, Captain John Quincy Marr, 17th Virginia Infantry, was killed by Union cavalry in a skirmish near the courthouse – the first Confederate officer to die in the war.7
  • In perhaps his most famous endeavor, Confederate partisan leader John C. Mosby with 29 men slipped past Union pickets into town about midnight on March 9, 1863. Without firing a shot, they captured Union general Edward Stoughton, 30 other prisoners and 58 horses.

  1. William Page Johnson, II, “Richard Ratcliffe: The Founder,” The Fare Facs Gazette: The Newsletter of Historic Fairfax City, Inc., Volume 3, Issue 1 Winter 2005, 1-5.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Constance K. Ring, Town of Fairfax Lot Histories to Ca. 1900, Archives, Circuit Court, Fairfax, Va., 1989, 2. Ring states: “The trustees must have disbanded after the sale. No later mention of them appears in the records.” Note: By 1812, the number and composition of trustees had changed. The deed lists just seven trustees: William Payne, Richard Fitzhugh, Joseph Powell, John W. Ashton, Edward Dulin, Stephen Daniel and Daniel McCarty Chichester
  4. Johnson.
  5. Fairfax Deed Book M2:135
  6. Ring, 3-5
  7. “John Quincy Marr and the Skirmish at Fairfax C. H.,” accessed November 28, 2014, http://www.fairfaxrifles.org/marr.html.