In the spring of 2014, when the Trust announced its fundraising campaign to purchase 665 acres of the Jericho Mills Battlefield along the North Anna River — the landmark acquisition that would eventually push the organization past 40,000 acres protected — particular emphasis was paid not just to the property’s size, but to its remarkable condition. Surrounding woods had thickened in the intervening years since the May 1864 Overland Campaign battle, but the topography of the land was unchanged, even boasting a host of archaeological traces — from the foundations of antebellum buildings to vestiges of military roads and artillery emplacements.
The achievement of such remarkable continuity in appearance across a century and a half requires a certain measure of luck. But, more critically, it requires a steady presence of thoughtful owners and stewards who recognize the historic nature of the site and are committed to its perpetuation and protection.
In the case of the Jericho Mills Battlefield, that unbroken chain culminated with Jeffrey T. McKinney, although it began hundreds of years earlier with a royal land grant to members of one of the most notable clans of colonial and early republic Virginia.
“I grew up on this land from birth. I have experienced almost my entire life cycle on this land. My grandparents lived and died here, my parents raised our family and, when it became time for someone to take the helm, I was eager to carry on the legacy. This land is me, and I am it.”
Although he demurs that the careful stewardship he practiced was anything special, McKinney spent decades pouring his passion and knowledge into the property’s landscape and historic structures. Respect for the history — and the sheer beauty — of the land was instilled in him from childhood as a family value.
“My parents and grandparents believed the intended purpose of the property was agricultural in the most natural state possible and never to be sold for any other reason — a vision for stewardship of the property I shared,” said McKinney. “A property can live on in its most natural state when generations agree on the goal.”
In college, McKinney studied real estate and urban planning, developing a strategic view of property as a resource for more than revenue production. With this in mind, he and his brother Philip were able to structure farm operations to fit the profile of the land, rather than forcing the property to support a particular business model. In recognition of his interest and expertise in agricultural best practices, McKinney was invited to serve nine consecutive terms with the Hanover-Caroline Soil and Water Conservation District Board.
Respect for military service is also deeply ingrained within the McKinney clan: Jeff is a third-generation veteran of the U.S. Navy, and an uncle holds membership in the Society of the Cincinnati — the hereditary organization formed by the officers of the Continental Army and their French counterparts at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War.
“Our family has a deep appreciation and participation in historic preservation from this country’s early beginnings,” McKinney said. “This property is historic through connections to families that were part of the colonization of Virginia, as well as the rebellion against the British throne. Its role as a battlefield in the Civil War only further highlights its need to be preserved as ‘hallowed ground.’”
Capt. Cecil McKinney (USN, Ret.) — Jeff’s grandfather — purchased the property along the North Anna River in 1947, but research by his son Charles traces the land’s history much further back. In the mid-18th century, the area was known as Rock Castle and was associated with the Fontaine family, one of the most prominent lines in colonial Virginia.
“The earliest structure on our property (constructed around 1823) was at one time the dwelling of Col. John Fontaine (1750–1792) and his wife Martha — who was Virginia governor Patrick Henry’s oldest daughter. This site has been authenticated by archaeological digs involving VCU [Virginia Commonwealth University] students over a span of 20 years that finally yielded a piece of a wine bottle with the Fontaine seal. Our property was not the primary residence but a summer house for the Fontaine family.”
For all this indisputable history, the path to seeing the land protected was long, as is frequently the case when multiple members of an extended family hold an interest in the property. McKinney and others within his family took the prospect very seriously and spent years attending seminars, working with attorneys, examining easement options, tracking legislative initiatives and reviewing proposals from conservation groups and developers alike. Eventually, with a controlling interest in property, McKinney was ready to preserve the property.
“It was clear from the beginning that the Civil War Trust approached the land with a similar type of reverence and understood our end goals. They had the talent and resources to forge the coalition it would take to get the deal done,” said McKinney. “We are very grateful for the Civil War Trust and their partner organizations who value and continue to ensure history endures.”
The tremendous outpouring of positive public response when the Trust announced its fundraising campaign to acquire the North Anna property was deeply gratifying to McKinney. But in addition to recognizing the individual donors who contributed to the property’s protection, he also praises two otherwise unsung champions of the project, his children.
“I’ve always known in my heart that the property would need to be preserved,” he said “But the real heroes are my twin daughters, who gave the sale a thumbs-up — eliminating any possibility of inheriting their home. It is not possible for me to express the depth of my admiration and respect for them.”