In March 1807, William Clark confided to Meriwether Lewis that he had asked for the hand of young Julia Hancock in marriage. “I have made an attacked most vigorously, we have come to terms, and a delivery is to be made first of January,” Clark wrote proudly. He expressed surprise that his future father-in-law, Colonel George Hancock, had turned out to have anti-Jeffersonian political leanings. Clark wrote that Hancock was “a Fed which I did not know untill the other day. I took him to be a good plain republican.”
Perhaps Clark shouldn’t have been surprised about Hancock being a Federalist, as Hancock came from one of the wealthiest and most influential families in the country. His father, also named George Hancock, owned large possessions in the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Accompanied by a large number of slaves, the elder George Hancock fled South Carolina during the early days of the Revolution, when the British took possession of the seacoast. Ill with gout, the old man faltered and died on the road.
Young George Hancock entered the Revolutionary Was as an ensign from Chesterfield County, Va., in 1776, at the age of 22. He served on the staff of Count Kasimir Pulaski and was said to have been one of the officers who caught Pulaski’s body in his arms when the count fell mortally wounded from his horse during the siege of Savannah in October 1779. Captured by the British, Hancock survived the war, went home to Virginia, married a wealthy young lady, and became a successful lawyer. Together he and his wife had five children. One biographical sketch of Hancock says that he “had a splendid presence, being six feet three inches in height, and possessed much of the personal beauty that distinguished his daughters as among the most beautiful women in Virginia.”
Hancock was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates from 1784 – 1792 and represented Botetourt County as a federalist member of the Third and Fourth United States Congress. He received his title as “colonel” in 1785 by appointment to the Virginia militia. Hancock was also a highly successful planter. He owned at least two beautiful houses on fine estates. One was “Santillane” in Fincastle, where William Clark first met Hancock’s 11-year old daughter Julia, who would later become the first Mrs. Clark. The other home was “Fotheringay” in Botetourt County. Fotheringay took its name from the castle in England where the imprisonment, trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, took place. Fotheringay was also home to a number of slaves, and Hancock was known as a strict slave-master.
Fotheringay and Colonel Hancock are at the center of one of the most bizarre burial stories in Virginia history. According to tradition, following his death in 1820, Hancock was interred in the family tomb on a mountainside at Fotheringay either standing or sitting in a marble chair.
In 1886, a member of a subsequent family who owned the estate, a Miss Anne Beale Edmundson, went into the vault in 1886 in preparation to having it repaired and to investigate whether or not Hancock was, indeed, “buried standing up.” According to a 1935 article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, this is what she found: “On the floor a mass of crumbled bones and stones were found. Near the top of the heap was the skull of what she supposed was the last of the earthly remains of Colonel Hancock. At the bottom of the pile were other bones identified as the legs and trunk. The position of the bones and the fact that they were intermingled with the disintegrated stone led to the belief that the body had rested upon some kind of support in a sitting position.”
In an interview, Miss Edmundson reported:
I can hardly believe he was placed in the vault in a standing position. If that were true, it would have been necessary to support his body with a chain or some other device to prevent it from falling down. When I examined the interior of the vault I found no chain nor other supports which could have been used for this purpose.
The theory as to Colonel Hancock’s burial in a sitting position is further substantiated by the fact that the tomb contains three other bodies, all laid to rest in the usual way. These are his daughter, Julia, who married General William Clark, brother of George Rogers Clark, conqueror of the Northwest Territory; a son, John Strother Hancock, who died at the age of 8, and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Patrick Lockhart, who was the former Mrs. George Strother, mother of Margaret Strother, wife of Colonel Hancock. When I entered the vault I found the bones of all three of these bodies intact in their niches in the walls of the tomb. If Colonel Hancock had not been buried in an unusual way, why didn’t his bones occupy a niche in the wall like the others?
According to tradition, the colonel wished to be buried sitting up so he could look down into the valley (dubbed with the misnomer “Happy Valley”) and make sure his slaves were hard at work. Which pretty much tells you all you need to know about the kind of guy Colonel Hancock was—definitely not a man who would subscribe to a crazy notion like “all men are created equal.”