Though most know that the Fredericksburg region is rich with Colonial- and Civil War-era history, many may find it surprising to learn that the city and its surrounding counties have a long and fascinating barbecue history that started in the 17th century.
As we welcome cookout season, now is a good time to recount Virginia’s barbecue story.
SEASONS OF FOOD
For centuries, Virginians organized their activities around the production and preservation of food.
November through January was hog-killing time. That’s when the weather is cold enough to protect pork from spoiling while it cures in salt before being smoked in a smokehouse.
In March and April, fields were prepared for planting. Farmers organized great squirrel hunts in order to rid their farms of the pests, which hoped to grow fat on the bounty of seeds found in newly planted fields. Consequently, community events featuring huge kettles of Brunswick stew made with squirrel meat were frequent occurrences.
As the weather warmed and the hard work of tilling, sowing and tending crops started, Virginians found rest and diversion in weekend barbecues.
In fact, the months of May through October were called “the barbecue season” in Virginia for several centuries. In 2016, the Virginia Legislature unanimously passing a proclamation formally declaring this period the state’s official barbecue season.
A LONG TRADITION
In many parts of the state, families would hold community barbecues each weekend during the season. Barbecuing whole carcasses and inviting the neighborhood to partake meant there would be no leftovers, which was important in times before ubiquitous refrigeration.
By the end of the season, everyone who provided livestock had been paid back with barbecued meats from a neighbor’s stock.
Fredericksburg-area plantations, such as Kenmore, Hazel Hill, Ferry Farm, Marmion, Hopyard, Spring Hill, Belle Grove, Montpelier and others, participated in the summertime barbecue cycle.
Tradition holds that barbecues, fish fries and fox hunts often took place near the famous “Indian Punch Bowl” on Riverside Drive in Fredericksburg, beginning before the city was established.
After the Revolutionary War, barbecues were often held in Culpeper County at places such as Dade’s Mill, Waugh’s Ford, Wood’s Spring, Leather’s Spring and Herndon’s Spring.
Virginians Hay Taliaferro, James Madison and the celebrated Major “Jack” Willis of the Revolution attended some of those events.
Before the start of the Civil War, barbecues were popular among enslaved people in the Fredericksburg area.
In the 1790s, slaveholders were fearful that reports of slave revolts in the Caribbean might inspire such events in Virginia.
In 1792, the Fredericksburg Advertiser urged slaveholders to stop allowing enslaved people to hold barbecues because they might be planning insurrections at the events. That fear wasn’t unfounded. Both Gabriel Prosser of Richmond and Nat Turner of Southhampton planned and organized their revolts at barbecues.
On Independence Day 1809, a large gathering assembled at St. George’s Church on Princess Anne Street in Fredericksburg for a July Fourth celebration. That afternoon, everyone converged at Marmion in King George County for a barbecue.
Marmion was a plantation owned by George Washington’s favorite nephew, George Washington Lewis. From the time it was first built in 1670, barbecues were common at Marmion, with guests such as George Washington and Col. Fielding Lewis in attendance.
FOOD OF PRESIDENTS
In 1738, 6-year-old George Washington moved with his parents to Ferry Farm in Stafford County. Augustine and Mary Washington, who celebrated their wedding by hosting several barbecues, didn’t give up the practice when they moved to Ferry Farm. They passed the tradition on to their son, who hosted and attended barbecues all around Virginia.
U.S. Presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Herbert Hoover and William Taft also enjoyed local offerings.
In 1833, Fredericksburg rolled out the red carpet to welcome President Jackson, who visited the city to oversee the laying of the cornerstone of the Mary Washington Monument.
A 500-pound ox was barbecued “old Virginia style” at Hazel Hill plantation. A grand parade marched through the town before a crowd of thousands enjoyed an open-air feast.
In his 1904 autobiography, American abolitionist Moncure Daniel Conway wrote about the many barbecues held before the Civil War in and around Fredericksburg.
From Colonial times until well into the 20th century, Falmouth was nicknamed “Hogtown” because of the multitude of free-roaming hogs in the area.
When local distilleries emptied spent mash into fields, the hogs feasted on it. As a result, inebriated swine frequently made their way across the bridge to Fredericksburg.
Disturbed by the inconvenience caused by the throngs of hogs roaming about town, the City Council passed an ordinance in 1796 that required authorities to arrest all hogs found wandering around the city. If the owner failed to claim a hog within 10 days, it was sold at auction. Of course, that meant more barbecues, thanks to the abundance of low-cost pork for the pits.
Scott’s Island (sometimes called Brown’s Island) sits in the Rappahannock River under the Chatham Bridge. Before being purchased by the City of Fredericksburg, the 2-acre island was a popular location for old-fashioned barbecues.
In June 1855, a barbecue on “Mr. C. S. Scott’s beautiful island” billed as “The Fredericksburg Jubilee.” It was attended by 800 people, including some of the state’s political leaders.
After the Civil War, the island was transformed into “a beautiful green spot” with “a fine willow grove and swings” for the enjoyment of summertime barbecue attendees, according to reports.
During the Reconstruction era, members of the local chapter of the Conservative Colored Men’s Club hosted barbecues on the island in order to “harmonize the conflicting interests of the white and black people.”
John T. Goolrick and other dignitaries were invited to speak to the group.
In 1877, a barbecue on the island celebrated the opening of a new railroad.
Those who witnessed the barbecue from the bridge above described a picturesque scene of a band, a military parade and a crowd of 600 enjoying the Virginia-style barbecue sitting at large tables under the shade of the island’s trees.
On Independence Day 1855, people from all around the Fredericksburg area celebrated Independence Day with another huge barbecue.
Two hundred pounds of beef, 20 hogs and numerous lambs were barbecued for the crowd to enjoy. In addition to the barbecued meats, gallons of Virginia-style barbecue hash, 30 Virginia smoked hams and 750 loaves of bread were also served. The grand event required 12 cooks to prepare the meal and 150 waiters to serve it.
Isaac Williams was born enslaved in King George County in 1821. When he was about 33, he escaped to freedom. In his memoirs published in 1885, he wrote of a huge barbecue that he attended in Bowling Green. Eight oxen were barbecued over hot coals. Hundreds of waiters served the hungry crowd. Williams wrote that the Virginia-style beef barbecue was “as toothsome as the best fried beefsteak with butter.”
BEST BARBECUE COOK?
After the Civil War ended, Spotsylvania-native William Haislip—or, as his friends called him “Black Hawk”—became known as the best barbecue cook in the state and was often the master of ceremonies at large barbecues in the Fredericksburg region.
Like so many other barbecue cooks, he was proud of his skill at the pits and boasted that he was “the only man in the state competent to cook a whole ox properly.”
In 1900, when he was 79, Black Hawk’s barbecuing expertise earned him a visit to the White House to personally invite President William McKinley to a Virginia barbecue that was held in Spotsylvania County later that year.
Black Hawk reportedly said, “I jest knows that if ther President comes down to Spotsylvania to our barbecue he’ll eat ther finest grub he ever had in his life.”
A newspaper account said he “had no trouble seeing the president.”