Mitch Diamond, Unison

Editor: Several weeks ago, Loudoun Now published a column about William Benton, the great 19th century Loudoun builder, as part of the In Our Backyard series. Recently, I got a note from Marc Leepson, the historian and author. In his note, Marc describes a number of facts that he says based on his own recent research were incorrect in my piece.

            This is how history works and it is great. I used a wide variety of available sources on Mr. Benton, but Marc has the ability and the time to dig deeper, go to primary sources, question long held beliefs and uncover new truths. His revelations do not alter our mutual admiration for Mr. Benton’s many important projects and his impact on the Loudoun County throughout the 19th century, but they reveal more about the man himself—and they particularly reveal more about the danger of relying on old family stories, secondary sources and tales told many times in many places based on those original faulty family legends.

            Here is what Marc uncovered in his research done while exploring the history of Huntland, Dr. Betsee Parker’s house and one of Benton’s most important works. By the way, Marc also pointed out that the farm is called Huntland (with no “s”}, which error is entirely on me and not my many sources.

1. “He came to Alexandria”— There is no evidence of this other than family stories; the earliest info on him has him in Fredericksburg. And the exact year is not known; more likely it is 1801

2. “Traveled to Loudoun County on horseback and became friends with… Monroe”— He met Monroe in Fredericksburg while in the employ of Bird Willis after 1814. The earliest known contact is an 1817 letter from Monroe to Willis asking if he can hire Benton

3. “He came to know the future president in the War of 1812” —No evidence of this as Monroe was the Secretary of State and briefly Secretary of War then and Benton served just a few months near the end of the war stationed in Stafford County.

4. Eight children – He had six children

5 “Receiving an inheritance—There is no evidence for this other than one granddaughter repeating a family story. Nor is there any evidence he had relatives in Wales. He likely bought all that property with the money he earned working for Willis and Monroe and his construction business.

6. He had “mixed feelings” about slavery. No evidence of this, nor that he “taught his slaves to read and write” other than a family story. Same with “wrote that he was not a supporter” of slavery. If that writing exists, I couldn’t find it. His descendants with whom I’ve worked do not have it and they have many of his papers. His son, James Monroe Benton, served in the CSA, and the likelihood is that the entire family supported the Confederate cause (as did nearly everyone around here–white people, that is) and the institution of slavery as William Benton depended on slave labor for his farms and construction business. 

7.  This (the tunnel ) was built in the early 20th century by Joe Thomas when he remodeled New Lisbon (and renamed it Huntland) as either a delivery system from the road or some kind of heating system. There’s detailed info on that in the National Register nomination, which you can read on line https://www.dhr.virginia.gov/VLR_to_transfer/PDFNoms/053-0487_Huntland_2013_NRHP_final.pdf  Go to Section 8, p. 26.

            As I said, I used many published sources for my own article, but when deeper research was done by Marc, some of them proved faulty, or at least no concrete evidence could be uncovered to support them.

            I expect this kind of examination and correction of our understanding will continue and others will reveal something new—or verify something old.  But it is valuable and important that the life and works of this important person in our own history be explored and understood.  He is someone who made a difference and whose works and ideas shaped the place we live.  The more we know, the better we understand—both our actual history, and the reality that things we think we know well and are based on careful study, can be found to be wrong. 

Mitch Diamond, Unison

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