Reverend James Keith and the Elk Run Church
When the young James Keith arrived on the Virginia shore, he could not have known that he would marry a daughter of the Randolphs, one of the most extended and influential families of the Old Dominion, nor that several among his descendents would be distinguished in county, colonial, and, most famously, federal courts of law.
It is believed that Keith came from Scotland but there are scant records of his life before his arrival in Virginia. Family legend claims he was born in direct descent of the noble Earls Marischal of Scotland, but examination of genealogical records of Scots peerage shows that this is not possible. James Keith was ordained a priest in the Church of England in January 1729 and in March 1729 obtained the King’s Bounty that secured his passage to Virginia. His first ministry was at Curle’s (later St. John’s) Church, located on Richard Randolph’s plantation in Henrico Parish, where he served from 1729 until resigning in October 1733. At the time of his resignation, Rev. Keith was romancing Mary Isham Randolph, daughter of Thomas Randolph of Tuckahoe. Two other Randolphs were active in the administration of Henrico Parish: Richard Randolph, Mary Isham’s uncle, was a vestryman and William Randolph, her brother, was Church Warden. In his later report to the Bishop of London, Commissary Blair wrote of Keith and Mary Isham that family and “friends did so dislike his character that they would not let her marry him,” so it may well be that Keith’s resignation was forced by the Randolphs. Whatever the case, Keith left the county and Mary Isham apparently went with him.
In the meantime, Virginia’s parishes continued their re-organization to accommodate the population’s westward migration. In 1730, Hamilton Parish was formed from the northern portion of Overwharton Parish and an old Overwharton chapel ‘above the Occoquan Ferry’ was taken as Hamilton’s parish church. In 1732, when the new Truro Parish was taken from Hamilton’s eastern flank along the Potomac, that church at Occoquan went with Truro. Hamilton then took an old church on the Quantico near the future town of Dumfries as its parish church and started building a chapel closer to the hub of parish activity in the area near Shenandoah Hunting Path and Elk Run. In 1744, with the act that divided Hamilton Parish yet again, the old Quantico church was assigned to the new (Dettingen) parish and the wooden chapel was designated Hamilton’s parish church, thereafter called Elk Run Church.
By 1755, the parish had grown sufficiently to require a second church, St. Mary’s (“the Turkey Run Church”), near the crossing of the Marsh and Rappahannock roads just south of what would become the neighborhood (now Warrenton) around the Fauquier Court House, first established when Fauquier County was carved out of Prince William in 1759. The wooden church at Elk Run was eventually replaced by a brick cruciform structure, the subject of this preservation project.
Itinerant preachers may have served Hamilton Parish at these several early sites, but Rev. James Keith was Hamilton’s first permanent minister. Although ministering to the Elk Run congregation was chief among Keith’s responsibilities, he also performed services at other parish sites – preaching at Quantico until that church was transferred to Dettingen Parish, for example, as well as officiating and baptizing at Truro Parish when that parish had no minister.
By the time he arrived in late 1733 or early 1734, he and Mary Isham had married, and the first of their eight children was born in 1734. It seems safe to assume that during his Hamilton ministry in the 1730s and 1740s, Rev. Keith and his growing family lived at the parsonage on the original glebe near Elk Run church.
In 1744, defining the formation of Dettingen Parish, the Virginia General Assembly required that after September 1746 the original Hamilton glebe be put up for sale . . . and that “the money arising by such sale be equally paid and divided between the said two parishes of Dettingen and Hamilton, to be applied towards the purchase of glebes, more convenient to each.” The General Assembly further stipulated that until it was sold, the original glebe was to be used by “the present minister” of Hamilton Parish – and in 1744, that would have been Rev. James Keith. In 1746, Hamilton Parish Church Wardens John Wright and Joseph Blackwell purchased two parcels of land on Licking Run in Germantown for the parish’s new glebe. The old glebe did not sell until 1748, but Keith had purchased adjoining parcels of land south of Pignut Ridge in the summer of 1747, and he could well have moved his family there in anticipation of the old glebe’s sale before a new parsonage could be constructed. The new parsonage, “about eight and a half miles” north of Elk Run Church, was not finished until the 1750s, and it is unlikely that the Keith family ever took residence there.
James Keith died sometime in the winter of 1752 – his will was proved in June 1753 at Prince William County Court, but there is no known documentation of his death date – leaving Mary Isham with eight children between the ages of 18 and 4 years. Of their five sons, one was to spend his life as a lawyer and the other four were to fight in the Revolutionary War.
James Keith Jr., born about 1734, was admitted to the law in Frederick County in 1757, where he served as County Clerk for over 60 years. John Keith, born in 1735, served as a Lieutenant in the Revolutionary War. Thomas Randolph Keith, born in 1736, married Judith Blackwell, daughter of Joseph Blackwell, in a wedding officiated by soon-to-be Justice John Marshall. Keith served as Captain in the Revolutionary War, living first in Leeds Parish then moving to Georgia in 1800 where he was buried in the Keith Burying Ground in Columbia several years later. Many of his descendents returned to Fauquier County. His grandson James Keith (1839-1918) studied at the University of Virginia and began a law practice in Warrenton, interrupted during the Civil War by several years in the Black Horse Troop. On returning after the war, he began rehabilitation of “Woodbourne,” his birthplace home, and resumed his law practice. He was elected to the House of Delegates and, as Judge in the 11th Circuit Court, later served many years as President of the Virginia Appellate Court (today the Supreme Court of Virginia) where he is reputed to have “shed luster on the bench and bar.”
The first of three daughters, Mary Randolph Keith, was born in 1737. She married Thomas Marshall of Westmoreland County and bore him fifteen children. Their firstborn son, John Marshall (1755-1835), was schooled at home, then studied law at the College of William and Mary before moving to Richmond where he became a member of the Virginia Assembly, working on ratification of the United States Constitution. He served as Secretary of State in President John Adams’ cabinet and, most famously, as fourth Chief Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court, shaping constitutional law for over thirty years. A second daughter, Judith Keith, was born in 1738, and a third, Elizabeth Keith, in 1745.
Isham Keith, born in 1739, served as a Lieutenant, 3rd Virginia State Regiment, in the Revolutionary War. Rev. James Keith’s and Mary Isham’s eighth child, Alexander, born in 1748, served in several Virginia regiments in the Revolutionary War, moving later to Tennessee and finally to Mississippi.
Mary Isham lived into old age, residing in Leeds Parish under the guardianship of her son Thomas who, with his wife Judith, was then residing on a portion of the Pignut Ridge land inherited from his father.
© Gail Raney Fleischaker
[an 8th-generation Keith, down the Ford-Swetnam-Raney line from Elizabeth Keith]