Writing a brief story about the Birch family of Arlington was a challenging task because the Birch’s are so entangled in Arlington history and the family was splintered in many directions with their offspring. There are quite a few families in the area who can share rich stories of their Birch ancestors. Among them are the Shreve, Veitch, Marcey, Donaldson, Fields, Herrity and Thomas families, but for this article we’ll limit it to the memorabilia which my family has collected. The following information came from various sources, including family bibles, scrapbooks, Mary Herrity, my cousin Rex Thomas’ Ancestry.com genealogy tree, Mary Davis Swann’s account report, Frank Ball’s Mount Olivet Methodist – Arlington’s Pioneer Church, and Eleanor Lee Templeman’s, Arlington Heritage: Vignettes of a Virginia County.
In order to connect Birch dots leading to descendants we must first discover how the Birch’s arrived in the Arlington area. John Birch, Sr.’s family came from Lancashire, England, and he is believed to be the first American born family member. The year was 1680 and his birth was in King and Queen County, Virginia, in the Northern Neck, north of the York River and near the headwaters of Tindall Creek. John’s son, John Birch, Jr., was born in 1704 and he’s listed as passing away in 1746 in Stafford County where his will probated June 9, 1747. Here the story is a little gray since it’s believed John, Jr. had a son, Joseph Birch, with one record showing he was born March 29, 1749. This means one of the dates is incorrect or maybe something scandalous occurred in the Birch family. Regardless, Joseph became the first connection to the Arlington area.
He owned a large plantation in Fairfax County but we’re not sure of the location (note Fairfax County was established in 1742 and at that time included what would much later become Arlington County). It’s been written Joseph spent much of his time living in a row house in Alexandria City. In 1770, he married Janet [Jenett] Bowmaker Robertson, daughter of James Robertson, the largest land owner in the Arlington area by virtue of being awarded original land grants beginning in 1724 from Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron. Janet inherited much of her father’s land holdings. To complicate the Robertson land research, one would need to search the Northern Neck Land Book B-191 and C-117 for verification since the Arlington area was included in the numerous county name changes beginning in 1648 with Northumberland County, at the “mouth of the Potomac River”.
Over the years, Col. Joseph and Janet Birch added substantially to their land ownership which included property from Glebe Road running east through the area known today as Lyon Park. The intersection of Glebe Road and Wilson Blvd was once known as Birch’s Cross Roads until Moses Ball bought the southeast corner and built a saloon, the area then became known as Ball’s Cross [X] Roads. Joseph and Janet also added substantially to their family with thirteen children. One of those children was Caleb Birch whose name should be known to Arlington historians since he “rebuilt” his Birchwood Cabin about 1836; it’s believed the structure was relocated many years ago and sits on 26th Street North today.
For this story, we’re going to continue the lineage with two other sons of Joseph and Janet, John Thornton Birch and Col. Samuel Birch.
John T. Birch is listed as being born in Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland, presumably during a family visit to his mother’s homeland. Following the family’s return to America, John eventually began to acquire land of his own and in 1842 purchased 58 acres from a financially struggling John Mason, once owner of Analostan Island (known today as Theodore Roosevelt Island). John Mason was the son of the famous Virginian George Mason. The 58-acre tract John T. Birch purchased is the land where the Iwo Jima Memorial and Netherlands Carillon stand today.
John T.’s brother, Col. Samuel Birch, was born January 30, 1790, and served in the War of 1812 under Captain William Minor, another well-known name in Arlington history and brought to life in Arlington resident George Axiotis’ fine book, Two Hills. Samuel was married twice, first to Kary (or Carey) Ann Richards and later to Ann Cleveland. He bought his own large tract of land which today would have spanned from Lee Highway to Little Falls Road, and from North Sycamore Street to North Lexington Street in the northwest area of Arlington. He was buried on this estate in 1873.
This is where it gets interesting – tying the brothers, John T. Birch and Col. Samuel Birch, family descendants together.
John T. had five children and evenly divided his 58 acres in Rosslyn among them. With some help from my late historian friend Dudley Chapman, we learned that one of John T.’s sons, Randolph Birch, lived on his inherited lot where the Netherlands Carillon sits today. This land was adjacent to the Custis-Lee property and there is a family story handed down that Robert E. Lee rode up to Randolph Birch’s fence and hollered, “Well, Birch, I’ve decided to go with Virginia.” It makes sense a next-door neighbor would be one of the first to learn which side of a war one will fight for.
A little further west, where the area later became known as Ballston, John T.’s brother Samuel, and his first wife Kary Ann Richards, had a son named William John Richards Birch who was born in 1816 near the intersection of what became Glebe Road and Wilson Blvd. Part of this land would eventually be the location of the old Bob Peck Chevrolet site, now referred to as the “blue diamond building”. William J.R. Birch spent most of his 100 years on earth living in the Ballston area. He married Julia Ann Shreve, granddaughter of the famous Revolutionary War hero Col. Samuel Shreve who moved to Arlington from New Jersey in 1784. The colonel purchased 600 acres known as Waycroft (or Springfield Farm in some records) also near the intersection of what became Glebe Road and Wilson Blvd.
William J.R. and Julia had seven children and among them was a daughter named Margaret Johanna Birch who married George Washington Veitch. George and Margaret lived in a home George built just after the Civil War, about 1865, which still stands on North Jefferson Street in Arlington, not far from Ballston. Among their six children, they had a daughter named Julia A. Veitch. Julia inherited much of the land as well as the home in the early 1900’s.
Back to William J.R. Birch’s cousin Randolph Birch, son of John T. Birch. He and his wife, Mary Francis Ellis, had a daughter named Sarah Allace and she married Albert G. Thomas. Among the couple’s five children was Harry Randolph Thomas, who was born on his grandfather Randolph Birch’s farm, the aforementioned Netherlands Carillon location. Harry R. Thomas would grow up to be the first of three generations of Thomas judges in Arlington.
Judge Harry R. Thomas married Julia A. Veitch on June 16, 1902 at Mount Olivet Methodist Church and they had one child, a son named Homer Randolph Thomas who became the second Thomas family judge in Arlington. Homer was born in the old Veitch home on North Jefferson Street in 1903, and would die in that same home seventy-two years later.
Judge Homer R. Thomas married Claudine Clark from Coudersport, PA, and they had four sons; Ned Randolph, Harry Lee, Homer Rex (Chip) and Clark Gale. All grew up in Arlington on North Adams Street.
As for the writer of this story, my father, listed above, was Judge Harry Lee Thomas, the third generation of Thomas family judges in Arlington. Doing the math, I’m a proud ninth generation Arlingtonian loaded with Birch blood.