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Robert Adam: Masonic Leader and Fairfax Resolves Signer in Alexandria

A Scottish Upbringing Sets the Stage

Born in 1731 in Kilbride, Scotland, Robert Adam was the eldest son of Rev. John Adam and Janet Campbell Adam. His father, a Doctor of Divinity, likely instilled in Robert a spirit of scholarship and civic duty that would guide his future actions. This solid Scottish upbringing planted the early seeds for his eventual influential role in America.

Seeking Opportunity in the New World

In 1753, a bold 22-year-old Adam set sail from his native Scotland, landing in the bustling port of Alexandria, Virginia. This fateful journey marked a new chapter as he sought to establish his fortune in the thriving colonial settlement. Alexandria in the mid-18th century was experiencing rapid growth in both population and prominence. The ambitious young Adam quickly recognized the bountiful opportunities in this energetic community.

This is George Washington’s 1749 Map of Alexandria, Virginia. The mud bank in front of the town on the Potomac is visible on the map. Alexandria later ‘banked out’ the mud flats by filling them with dirt anchored by sinking old merchant vessels, which moved the shoreline closer to the Potomac shipping channel.

Laying Business Foundations

Wasting no time, Adam pursued a variety of entrepreneurial ventures to secure his foothold. He partnered with fellow businessman John Carlyle, focusing first on wheat and flour trading through their firm Carlyle & Adam. Displaying the business diversity that would become his hallmark, Adam also constructed and operated a grist mill along Four Mile Run around 1763, establishing himself as an integral player in Alexandria’s mercantile scene.

John Carlyle (1720–1780) was Alexandria, Virginia’s distinguished Scottish merchant and co-founder. He was a partner in Carlyle & Adam and Carlyle & Dalton firms. He was involved with merchant William Ramsay. Sr. Carlyle played military and political roles during the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War. As a major and colonel in the Fairfax County, VA militia, he supplied troops, managed GW’s personal affairs, and served on the Fairfax Committee of Safety from 1774 to 1775.

Expanding his business horizon, Adam also entered into a trading partnership in 1770 with Matthew Campbell and James Adam under the firm Robert Adam & Company, though this partnership dissolved in 1776. His business acumen was further displayed through his involvement in various industries, including a tannery and a flour mill.

Beyond his entrepreneurial ventures, Adam’s dealings with George Washington dated back to at least 1760, solidifying a relationship that was both personal and professional. He was a major buyer of flour from Washington’s mill, indicating their close business interactions

Cultivating Bonds with the Washingtons

As a rising community leader, Adam built productive relationships with other power figures like the prominent Washington family. Adam once dwelled in a home originally owned by William Fairfax of Belvoir Plantation. The deed’s transfer to Adam was witnessed by none other than George Washington, illustrating early connections between the two men.

The Adam and Washington families also socialized together frequently. George and other Washington relations were regular guests at Adam’s residence on Fairfax Street, which likely served as a hub for Alexandria’s social and political elites.

The commercial collaboration between Robert Adam and George Washington notably included Adam’s purchase of Washington’s annual fish yield from Posey’s Landing. This venture was incredibly lucrative for Washington, surpassing the earnings from his farming efforts. Washington skillfully managed three commercial fishing areas along the 10-mile shoreline of his estate, showcasing his entrepreneurial acumen. The largest was located about a mile south of the Mansion at Union Farm. The transaction with Adam likely occurred at one key site, Posey’s Ferry, also known as the Fish Landing.

Additionally, Washington operated a fishery near the estate’s wharf, called the Landing, and another approximately a mile above Sheridan Point in the River Farm area. These fisheries significantly contributed to Washington’s economic pursuits. For more information and a detailed map of these locations, visit Washington’s Five Fisheries.

Adam and Washington’s relationship extended beyond business into shared leisure pursuits, notably as hunting companions. Their participation in fox hunts was a source of recreation and a platform for valuable networking with other influential colonial leaders. These activities underscored Adam’s integration into the prominent Virginia social circle and highlighted his close ties with Washington.

Activism and Political Leadership

As tensions escalated with Great Britain, Adam joined the ranks of vocal opponents to British tyranny. In 1774, he took the bold step of signing the Fairfax Resolves, demanding colonial self-governance and protesting British aggression against Boston. His involvement in this dramatic early statement of American liberty demonstrated Adam’s convictions and cemented his status as a local patriot leader.

When war finally erupted, Adam utilized his resources to provide supplies and provisions for the colonial war effort. His vessels carried ammunition and weapons to General Washington’s Continental Army.

To read a PDF copy of the Fairfax Resolves, click here: Fairfax Resolves PDF.

(1774) George Washington Papers, Series 4, General Correspondence: Fairfax County, Virginia, Citizens, Resolutions and Abstract. [Manuscript/Mixed Material] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/mgw443504/.

In addition to his role as a merchant and community leader, Adam also dedicated himself to public service. He served as the sheriff of Fairfax County and took an active role as a militia officer, furthering his engagement in local governance.

Community Builder

Beyond high-stakes politics, Adam sought to shape the fabric of early Alexandria through civic and business leadership. He held prominent roles in various community organizations including his position as founding Master of Alexandria’s prominent Masonic Lodge.

Adam also invested in projects to provide key local infrastructure and institutions. He helped manage lotteries to finance construction endeavors including a market house and the city’s first schoolhouse.

The enterprising businessman also expanded his commercial reach with interests spanning iron foundries to bakeries to tanneries. The diversity of his business portfolio reflected his capacity for innovation and progress.

Family Life

In addition to his prolific professional life, Robert Adam also enjoyed a loving marriage to his wife Anna and raised a family in their Alexandria home. Anna bore him several children, though their firstborn son John would prove to carry on his father’s legacy most prominently.

John Adam

Following in his entrepreneurial father’s footsteps, John Adam became an established businessman, contractor and architect in Alexandria. He too showed versatility in his commercial dealings that included tobacco trading, banking, toll roads and canal systems.

Like his civic-minded father who was a Masonic Lodge founder, John also had deep Masonic ties as a member of Masonic Lodge No. 22 and holding the revered title of Worshipful Master.

John was also associated with the St. Andrew’s Society, a fraternal society for Scots promoting charity and mutual assistance. This nod to his Scottish heritage reflected the influence of his immigrant father Robert.

Like his father, John also invested heavily in community advancement, serving on Alexandria’s Common Council for years. The Council, recognizing his dedication, appointed him as a trustee of the Poor House in 1820.

On September 30th, 1843, John Adam passed away at 62, abruptly cutting short the life of a pillar of the Alexandria community.

Worshipful Master of Alexandria-Washington Lodge No. 22 (1833-1834). Image sourced from Alexandria-Washington Lodge No. 22 Archives.
The Adam Legacy

Before his abrupt death, John had already established himself as a leading voice in Alexandria, much as his father had done before him. John played his own role in shaping early Alexandria as he honored the family name. Though the Adam family has now faded from memory, during their era the Adam name was once synonymous with Alexandria’s emergence and ascent as a colonial center of industry and influence.

Robert Adam: A Lasting Legacy and a Mysterious Resting Place

Robert Adam, who passed away in 1792, was instrumental in shaping the early development of Alexandria. The mystery of his final resting place adds a layer of intrigue to his story. While Adam does not have a dedicated headstone, his name is commemorated on his son John Adam’s obelisk, honoring his memory.

Adam’s impact on Alexandria was significant, spanning business, community, and politics, firmly establishing him as a pivotal figure in the town’s history. This contrast between his substantial contributions and the uncertainty surrounding his burial site highlights the lasting fascination with his legacy. Despite the enigma of his final resting place, Robert Adam’s influence continues to be felt in the historical narrative of Northern Virginia.

The Adam Family Obelisk is situated in plot 41:14 of the historic Presbyterian Cemetery in Alexandria.

In memoriam 
within these sacred 
precints lie the 
departed members of 
the ADAM
family 
ELIZA CAMPBELL ADAM 
beloved daughter of 
JOHN and MARY 
DUNLAP ADAM 
born Sept. 12, 1819 
died May 29, 1909 
JANE DADE 
daughter of ROBERT 
and ANNA ADAM 
died Jan. 23, 1873 
aged 89 years 
widow of CHARLES 
STUART DADE who was 
lost at sea July 1811 
CHARLES IRVIN 
son of 
JOHN and MARY ADAM 
died Jan. 1823 
aged 5 years 
THOMAS IRWIN 
son of 
JOHN and MARY ADAM 
died Jan. 19, 1879 
JOHN ADAM 
eldest son of 
ROBERT ADAM 
First Wor. Master of 
the Alexandria 
Washington Lodge 
of Masons 
Grandson of the 
Rev. JOHN and JANET 
CAMPBELL ADAM 
of Kilbride, Scotland 
died Sept. 30, 1843 
aged 62 years 
MARY DUNLAP 
widow of JOHN ADAM 
died Jan. 29, 1873 
JAMES IRWIN 
of Belfast, Ireland 
The faithful 
guardian of JOHN ADAM 
died Sept. 5, 1822 

Sources of Information

Pippenger, W. E. (1992). Tombstone Inscriptions of Alexandria, Virginia: Volume 1. Westminster, MD: Family Line Publications.

Miller, T. M. (1991). Artisans and Merchants of Alexandria, Virginia 1780 – 1820 Volume 1. Heritage Books, Inc.

Miller, T. M. (1992). Artisans and Merchants of Alexandria, Virginia 1780 – 1820 Volume 2. Heritage Books, Inc.

Madison, R. L. (2005). Walking with Washington. Gateway Press, Inc.

Wright, F. E., & Pippenger, W. E. (2012). Early Church Records of Alexandria City and Fairfax County, Virginia. Heritage Books, Inc.

Dahmann, D. C. (2022). The Roster of Historic Congregational Members of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House. Unpublished manuscript.

Alexandria-Washington Lodge No. 22. (n.d.). AW22 History. Retrieved from https://aw22.org/aw22-history/

Society for the Preservation of Old Mills, Mid-Atlantic Chapter. (2009). Fairfax County & D.C. Mills. Retrieved from https://spoommidatlantic.org/uploads/editor/files/Mid-Atlantic_Mills/Fairfax_County%2526_DC_Mills-Book-5-8-2009.pdf

The Papers of George Washington, Financial Papers Project. (n.d.). Adam, Robert. Retrieved from http://financial.gwpapers.org/?q=content/adam-robert

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By David

Hello, with a passion for bringing history to life, I serve my community as a public historian and cemetery superintendent. My journey has led me to own businesses, conduct Civil War battlefield tours and research Alexandria’s cemeteries.

Since 2015, I have had the privilege of serving as Superintendent of the historic Presbyterian Cemetery and Columbarium within Alexandria's Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex. This cemetery is owned by the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, located one mile east, where my family has worshipped for two generations. My parents are laid to rest in the Presbyterian Cemetery.

Most weekends, you can find me leading tours of the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex, where thirteen cemeteries are located, with over 35,000 buried. Considered one of the most historic cluster of cemeteries in the United States, I weave my enthusiasm for teaching with the stories of those interred there. I also manage a blog focused on all the cemeteries in Alexandria where the many souls buried across the city are memorialized.

In addition, I'm an active Board Member of both the Alexandria Historical Society and Lee-Fendall House Museum. As part of the Northern Virginia Cemetery Consortium, I diligently preserve endangered burial sites throughout the region.

If Alexandria’s history captivates you, I invite you to join one of my cemetery tours, read my blog on memorializing souls buried across the city’s cemeteries, or connect with me on social media. I find joy and purpose in bringing Alexandria’s rich past to life and serving my community.

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