Who was Tankerville? Part VI:  The Slow but Certain End of the Feudal Land System in North Loudoun

By Edward Spannaus

At the end of the American War of Independence, the Earl of Tankerville’s family was still anxious.  Land was everything for the British nobility, yet the Tankerville land holdings in America were still in jeopardy.  They had “dodged the bullet,” so to speak, in avoiding outright confiscation of their lands under Virginia’s war-time laws targeting Loyalist property.  And they did have friends in high places in Virginia: they were being advised by Virginia’s Attorney General, later Governor, Edmund Randolph, to whom they had been referred by none other than General George Washington himself.

But even after the 1783 Treaty of Paris formally ended the “American War” – as it was known across the Atlantic – Randolph was advising the Tankervilles and their land agents in Virginia,  that the danger of confiscation was not over. 

On the other hand, Tankerville’s tenants in northern Loudoun County were anxious too. The War of Independence did not bring independence from their British landlords:  in fact, things got worse.  They were being hauled into court in Leesburg over claims of back rents being due, and Tankerville’s agents were seizing and selling off their essential personal property such as livestock and furniture.  And, as we saw in Part IV of this series, the court in Leesburg was not very sympathetic to the tenants’ side of the story.

It look another 13 years after the Treaty of Paris for the Tankervilles to safely divest themselves of their Loudoun landholdings, and for their tenants to finally obtain the right to purchase the land which they had been improving and farming for decades. How this played out, is the subject of this concluding article of this series.  

A full twenty years after the Declaration of Independence, the British feudal land system finally came to an end.

(For the earlier articles, see Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IV, and Part V.)

In our most recent article, we noted that the Tankervilles  (the Eart of Tankerville, a.k.a. Charles Bennett, and his brother Henry Ashtey Bennett) had been compelled to grant formal leases to about 30 of their tenants in 1789, and to 11 more in 1790-91. This was a result of settlements in lawsuits and court orders.

It is striking that in many of these court actions initiated by the Tankervilles and their agents, the court orders show that the defendants (the tenants) did not appear in court. Whether this was due to lack of proper notification, or ignorance on the part of these non-English speakers as to what they should or could do, we can’t tell. But what we do know, is that in many of these cases, the tenants’ personal property such as livestock, crops, and furniture, was seized and sold, forcing the tenants to either accept the losses, or go into court after the fact, to try to recover their property.

Clearing the land titles

Robert Hooe, the Tankerville’s land agent in Virginia, had advised the Tankerville family in 1787-88 to dispose of their lands as quickly as possible, warning them that the danger of confiscation was still looming despite the Treaty of Paris. Hooe was relying on the behind-the-scenes recommendation coming from the then-Governor of Virginia, Edmund Randolph.  Randolph had also urged that the Earl’s brother Henry A. Bennett, “repair to this country” as quickly as possible. (This advice was ignored, and neither the Earl nor his brother ever set foot in the new United States of America.)

Hooe also insisted that he needed the proper documents to be able to sell the lands, or even to properly defend the Tankervilles in court. In response to Hooe’s demands, the Dowager Tankerville took matters into her own hands, and sent off some of the needed documentation to Hooe in March of 1789.  But it wasn’t sufficient, and in late 1789, Hooe wrote to Lord Tankerville complaining that without the properly-authenticated Will of the 3rd Earl of Tankerville, in which he granted the Virginia lands to his sons Charles and Henry, he (Hooe) could not say what the consequences would be.  He warned that for lack of the Will, they might see the whole title to the estate destroyed.

Hooe apparently got their attention. On February 9, 1790, a notary public in London, William Newton, certified a true copy of the 1762 Will of the 3rd Earl of Tankerville.  The copy of the Will was described as an Exemplification of the probate granted by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1768.  

The certified copy of the Will was then immediately dispatched to Virginia by Lady Tankerville, and was filed with the District Court in Dumfries in May.[i]  

Along with the Will, Lady Tankerville sent a revised Power of Attorney which had been executed by her two sons on December 22, 1789, which stated (as required by their father’s 1762 Will), that they had mutually agreed to sell the lands which their father had acquired from John Colville under the terms of Colville’s 1755. They further appointed Robert Townsend Hooe and Charles Little as their attorneys in fact, to dispose of and convey the lands and estates to which John Colville, deceased, might have had any right, title, or claim.  In other words, they authorized Hooe and Little to sell off the Tankerville estate in Virginia. 

The first sale of the Tankerville lands since 1765 took place on November 11, 1790.  This was a “Bargain and Sale,” for two tracts of land totaling 211 acres being sold to Joseph Braden by Henry A. Bennett.

The deed to Braden, as with all the Tankerville/Bennett deeds issued until the last one in 1796, devotes approximately two pages out of four, to “whereas” clauses reciting how the lands came into the possession of the Tankerville/Bennetts. It begins by recounting how John Colville, during his life, and at the time of his death in 1755, was “seized” of several tracts of land in Fairfax County, Virginia, and in Frederick County, Maryland, and how in his Last Will and Testament, he “devised” some of these lands to his brother Thomas and to John West, Jr.  The remainder, together with two-ninths of a copper mine and tract of land lying on Difficult Run [Fairfax County], “and all his negroes & personal Estate [went] unto the then-Earl of Tankerville, his heirs & assigns forever,” in payment of debts owed by John Colville, as stated in Colville’s Last Will and Testament recorded in Fairfax County, Virginia. It then recounts how the 3rd Earl of Tankerville did leave to his eldest son, Charles, the share of the copper mine and the Difficult Run tract of land, and the remainder of the (Colville) lands and “negroes stocks and personal Estate” he did bequeath to his son Henry Ashtey Bennett, both of them to hold the lands as tenants in common.  And that he did give his sons the power to sell the lands if they mutually agreed to this, under the terms of the Will of Record filed in the Dumfries District Court.  And that “the said Charles, the Earl of Tankerville, and the honorable Henry Ashtey Bennett, have mutually agreed to sell the aforesaid lands,” and by their Letter of Attorney, dated December 22, 1789, they did nominate and appoint Robert Townsend and Charles to sell and dispose of all their lands.  The documents stresses that this gives the agents the basis to acknowledge “proper and sufficient Deeds” for conveying and disposing of the Tankerville lands.

There was a lot more verbiage than that, but this same recital of facts and events from 1755 to 1789, is essentially repeated in the 100 or so transactions up through 1796, when the Tankervilles seem to have sold off most or all of their Virginia lands.[ii]

For this time period, this writer has found 98 deeds of Bargain and Sale recorded in the Loudoun County Court.  Was this everything? It seems unlikely, but these are the last transactions recorded under either the Tankerville or Bennett names. They had essentially divested themselves of their American lands, although it seems probable that there were some residual lands which remained unsold – such as those being occupied by tenants under the “lease for lives” system which, in many cases, involved three lives of family members, including young children.  More research is needed to determine this.

But what we can know for sure, is that the British Manor System was at an end – at least as far as the Tankervilles were concerned.  

What had been an estate of in excess of 16,000 acres, the “Catoctin Manor,” where the tenants farmed and improved the land while having no legal rights in it, had been transformed by the mid-1790s into a land of freeholders, with full ownership of the land now being vested in its former tenants and squatters, and others.

The Revolution had come to North Loudoun.


Once the Tankervilles had the legal documentation in hand to prove their title to the land, not only did their agents in Virginia take steps to dispose of the properties, but they did something else significant, in an attempt to alleviate their losses during the Revolutionary War.  

On October 21, 1790, the Tankerville land agents, Hooe and Little, lodged a petition with the Virginia House of Delegates, seeking to recover the funds that had been paid into the Treasury of Virginia under the Act for sequestering British property.  The reader will recall that Charles Little, as Commissioner of the sequestered Tankerville estates, had paid at least ₤1219 into the Treasury, which funds were to be used for the support of the Revolutionary cause, rather than to “strengthen the hands of our enemies” with whom we were at war.[iii]  (In Virginia currency, the ₤1219 seems to have amounted to about $4,064 current money.)

Two days later, on October 23, Mr. Richard Lee, from the Committee of Claims, reported to the House as follows:

It appears to your committee, that the petitioners are the agents of Henry Astley Bennett, of the Kingdom of Britain, who under the will of his father Charles Earl of Tankerville, became possessed of a considerable real and personal estate within this Commonwealth; that under the act, entitled “an act, for sequestering British property, enabling those indebted to British subjects to pay off such debts, and directing the proceedings in suits where such are parties,” the said estate of the said Henry Astley Bennett was sequestered; and that Charles Little, one of petitioners, was appointed pursuant to the directions of the said act, a commissioner of sequestration, for the particular estate of the said Bennett. 

It further appears to your committee that on the 14th day of May in the year 1779, there was paid into the loan office of this State, by the aforesaid Charles Little, the sum of four thousand and sixty four dollars, and two seventy-seconds of a dollar, accruing from the estate of the said Henry Astley Bennett, of the Kingdom of Great Britain, and sequestered according to the above recited act.

            Resolved that it is the opinion of this committee, That the petition of Robert Townshend Hooe and Charles Little, agents for Henry Astley Bennett, of the Kingdom of Great Britain, praying to be paid the sum of four thousand sixty-four dollars and two seventy-seconds of a dollar, according to the scale of depreciation at the time the same was carried into the loan office of this Commonwealth, is reasonable.

Now, it is well known, probably then as well as now, that legislative committees tend to be composed of persons most interested in the subject matter at hand—i.e., cronyism.  So while the Committee on Claims seemed to be sympathetic to Hooe’s and Little’s request, when it was taken under consideration by the Committee of the Whole, that is, the entire House of Delegates, that body was somewhat less sympathetic to the claims of the British land-owner.  The Committee of the Whole reported out its finding on Monday, October 25, 1790:

Resolved, that it is the opinion of this committee, That the petition of the said Robert Townshend Hooe, and Charles Little, agents for Henry Astley Bennett, of the Kingdom of Great Britain, praying to be paid the sum of four thousand and sixty-four dollars and two seventy seconds of a dollar, according to the scale of depreciation, at time the same was carried into the loan office of this Commonwealth, be rejected.[iv]

[i] A handwritten copy of the Tankerville Will, as certified by the Prince William County Clerk in 1814,  is now held by the Thomas Balch Library in Leesburg, having been transferred to Balch from the Loudoun County Library in 1978.  The Balch Library’s description of the document states: “It is not clear how this copy of the will came into the possession of Loudoun County Public Libraries.”

[ii] The last Bargain & Sale by Henry Bennett was executed recorded in 1794, and the last Bargain & Sale by Charles, Earl of Tankerville, appears to have executed in 1796.  However, since both were aliens, the deed had to be “proved” (i.e. approved) by the court, with Hooe and/or Litte appearing in court and swearing to the accuracy of the deed, and to the legitimacy of the transaction;  this sometimes took as long as two years before the deed could be recorded.  The last instances in which the deeds were proven, in 1798, were that of Josias Clapham and Anthony Souder.

[iii] Hening, Statutes, IX, 378.

[iv] Journal of the House of Delegates, Thursday, October 21, 1790 (p. 7); Saturday, October 23, 1790 (p. 12), and Monday, October 25, 1790 (p. 15).