Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Historian's Note Footnotes

The History of Falls Church

Shedding Light on the Stories and Struggles that Shaped Our Community

Chapter 1.

Pre-colonial Roots and Indigenous Presence

The area around Falls Church is believed to have been inhabited by people for at least 10,000 years1. In 1985, during construction of the Marriott Hotel at Fairview Park near Routes 50 and 495, Fairfax County archaeologists recovered Native American artifacts dating between A.D. 200 and 1500. Artifacts from another site located on present-day Crossman Farm provide evidence for a permanent Native American settlement2.

Several Algonquian-speaking tribes, including the Doeg (or Dogue) Indians, Tauxenents, Patawomekes (Potomacs), and Matchotics, lived in the region and established their settlements along the rivers and coastlines, particularly the Potomac River. The Powhatan Confederacy, the most powerful chiefdom in the area, controlled 28-32 groups or tribes that occupied riverside towns and villages, with their influence extending throughout the region and up to the Fall Line, a geological boundary where waterfalls or rapids limited river navigation and marked the transition between the Coastal Plain and the Piedmont Plateau3.

The falls of the Potomac River, including the Little Falls, were known to offer abundant fishing opportunities for the tribes, providing sustenance, resources, and a meeting place for trade and cultural exchange4. The falls also acted as a barrier to river navigation and overland transportation, leading to the formation of trails and early settlements5.

Local indigenous tribes had rich cultural traditions, with unique customs for marriage, divorce, education, and punishment of wrongdoers. The priests, or kwiocosuk, played a significant role in their society, advising the chiefs on important actions, including war6.

The First, Second, and Third Anglo-Powhatan Wars, the Susquehannock War, along with treaties between Native Americans and English colonists, had devastating consequences for the indigenous populations in the Falls Church area, as tribes were forcibly removed from their lands and deprived of resources7. As European settlers arrived and expanded their settlements, they brought diseases, violence, and cultural disruption8, which decimated the indigenous tribes in the Falls Church area. This upheaval and displacement led to a significant decline in their population, ultimately erasing their way of life and paving the way for the transformation of the region.

Image 1 Smith, J. & Hole, W. (1624) Virginia. [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,
Chapter 2.

Truro Parish established

In 1734, the establishment of Truro Parish marked a turning point in the region as European settlers arrived, disrupting the lives of native inhabitants9. As these newcomers built homes and communities, they transformed the Native American trails into major colonial transportation routes10. These routes, which would later become Broad Street, Lee Highway, and Little Falls Street, played a crucial role in shaping the development of the area11. The intersection of these trails soon became the site of The Falls Church, serving as a center for worship and community life12. The transformation of Indigenous trails into colonial transportation routes not only facilitated the movement of European settlers but also hastened the disappearance of the region's Indigenous heritage13.

The colonists and Virginia Company members aimed to evangelize the local Native American population, but their efforts largely failed. Believing that Christianity required an English cultural context to thrive, they insisted that potential native converts learn English and adopt English lifestyles before becoming Christian14. However, many settlers felt little obligation to proselytize the indigenous peoples, and some even misused funds donated for that purpose, opting to build an ironworks instead15.

One of the ways the Truro Parish exerted control over the population was through the collection of tithes16. The vestry for Truro Parish was responsible for collecting tithes and establishing land boundaries, with tobacco serving as the main form of currency during that time. This system placed a financial burden on the community, particularly on those who did not adhere to the Anglican faith, as they were still required to contribute tithes to support the church.

1765 Truro Parish and Fairfax Parish, Virginia, Vestry Election Tabulation of Votes document from George Washington Papers (1765) George Washington Papers, Series 4, General Correspondence: Truro Parish and Fairfax Parish, Virginia, Vestry Election Tabulation of Votes. [Manuscript/Mixed Material] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,
Chapter 3.

The Original Wooden Church and Its Legacy

In 1733, Mr. Richard Blackburn reached an agreement with the Vestry to build the original wooden church at the Cross Roads near Michael Reagan's. The church, designed to be 40 feet in length, 22 feet wide, and 13 feet pitch, was weatherboarded and covered, with all the inside work meticulously performed17. This place of worship served both as a spiritual sanctuary for settlers and an outpost of the colonial government18. The construction costs were set at 33,500 pounds of tobacco19. In 1757, the name "Falls Church" was first applied to what had been known as the Upper Church, serving to distinguish it from the Church in Alexandria20.

The church was constructed by enslaved individuals, who were skilled artisans from diverse backgrounds, including stone masons, carpenters, well-diggers, shoemakers, merchants, musicians, and builders21. Despite being stripped of their freedom and dignity, these individuals were tasked with building a place of worship for a community that did not recognize their humanity. Their expertise and craftsmanship played a crucial role in the development of the church, serving as a testament to their resilience in the face of adversity.

Wealthy families in Falls Church, such as the Pearsons, Regans, Gunnells, Trammells, Wrens, Harrisons, Broadwaters, Minors, Robertsons, and Adamses, intermarried and passed land down through generations22. Early British-granted land patents allowed these settlers to establish pastoral tobacco plantations on hundreds of acres in Falls Church. Over time, these large properties were divided into smaller farms as families settled in the area, intermarried, and consolidated their wealth and influence. Their ownership and rental of enslaved people extended their influence into the church community.

Rendering of wooden falls church Artist's Rendering of Original Wooden Church. It had a simple rectangular design with a pitched roof. The exterior was made of wooden clapboards, painted white to protect the wood from the elements, and featured a central entrance, flanked by two symmetrical windows fitted with diamond-paned glass, allowing natural light to filter into the interior23. Inside, there would have been wooden pews arranged in rows, facing a raised pulpit where the clergy delivered sermons.
Image Rights: Little Falls Movement.
Chapter 4.

The Construction of the Current Brick Church

In 1769, architect James Wren designed and oversaw the construction of the brick church using enslaved labor24. Enslaved individuals performed various tasks such as laying bricks and crafting woodwork, all under harsh conditions25. Many of the enslaved individuals who worked on the church were also owned by members of the congregation, further entwining the church's legacy with the institution of slavery26.

The church's leaders, including Wren, participated in perpetuating slavery, and the church served as a platform for disseminating ideas that maintained racial hierarchy and justified enslavement of African Americans27. Recognizing the church's impact on the community requires acknowledging the contributions of these enslaved individuals, the injustices they faced, and the role played by the church and its leaders in maintaining and justifying slavery in the community.

Falls Church, Virginia during the Civil War, photographed between 1861 and 1865 Falls Church, Va. United States Virginia Falls Church, None. [Photographed between 1861 and 1865, printed between 1880 and 1889] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,
Chapter 5.

The 19th Century and Civil War

In the 1860s, Falls Church was deeply impacted by the Civil War. Situated near the Federal Government and the Union, the village found itself on the border between the Union and the Confederacy. The vote on secession on May 23, 1861, revealed the divided sentiments in the community, with 26 out of 70 voters in the Falls Church precinct wishing to remain with the Union, while 44 voted for secession28. Throughout the war, Falls Church changed hands several times between Union and Confederate forces, with each occupation leaving its mark on the community.

The railroad and turnpikes in Falls Church were vital lifelines for Union forces in Northern Virginia. Fort Marcy was constructed as part of the southern defenses of Washington. Confederate Major John S. Mosby and his men were active in the Falls Church area during the Civil War29. The village was left battered after the war, with many buildings damaged or destroyed, including local churches that were occupied and damaged by troops. Landmarks such as the "Hangman's Tree" gained notoriety, and many homes, gardens, and orchards were ruined. Some residents lost their fortunes buried in the area30.

As the United States descended into the Civil War, civilian life in Fairfax County was disrupted as Union and Confederate forces occupied different parts of the region. Union sympathizers in areas not guarded by Federal troops faced harassment by secessionists and were often driven from their homes31. In areas occupied by the Union, civilians suspected of secessionist political activity or spying were arrested32. Residents faced the challenges of wartime, including food and supply shortages, as well as the ever-present threat of violence.

Falls Church became the headquarters of the Union army in October 1861, with General McDowell's corps billeted in the village33. Colonel J.E.B. Stuart reported to General Longstreet from Munson's Hill on August 28, 1861, mentioning 1 killed and 6 wounded. Stuart used a piece of rifled cannon to fire four shots at Bailey's Cross-Roads, dispersing the enemy force and revealing they had no artillery at Bailey's Cross-Roads34. Munson's Hill was recaptured during the summer of 1862, and the residents of Falls Church had to flee during the engagement and bombardment35.

President Lincoln reviewed Union troops on November 20, 1861, at the old Bailey farm near the crossroads36. General McClellan held a review of the National Army at Washington, with nearly 70,000 soldiers present. The review took place at Bailey's Cross Roads and the adjacent hills, Mason's and Munson's. Julia Ward Howe wrote the first version of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" after witnessing a military review near Falls Church37.

War map showing Washington DC Hopkins, G. M. (1861) War map, showing the vicinities of Baltimore & Washington. Philadelphia, Jacob Weiss. [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,
Chapter 6.

Falls Church Gains Township Status

In 1875, Falls Church gained township status, a significant milestone in the community's growth and development. The desire for township status was driven by the increasing population and a demand for self-governance, separate from Fairfax County. Key figures, such as Joseph S. Riley and Merton Church, played significant roles in the town's path to independence38.

Upon achieving township status, Falls Church saw an increase in its African American population, with the town boundary initially including the entire Tinner Hill neighborhood and other areas now part of Fairfax County. This change in the town's demographics led to a more diverse community, with a significant portion of Black residents who had the potential to participate in local governance and contribute to the town's growth.

However, the increase in the African American population, which led to 37 percent of registered voters being Black, prompted a reaction from the town government. In 1887, they decided to move the boundary line northward, deliberately excluding much of the Tinner Hill neighborhood and reducing the number of Black registered voters to just 15 percent of the total population in the township.

The decision to redraw the town boundaries had a considerable impact on the African American community, as it reduced their political representation and access to resources within the township. This move demonstrated a deliberate effort to suppress the influence of Black residents in local governance and perpetuated racial inequality in the community.

In 1890, the Town Council of Falls Church further voted to cede its other majority African-American districts, including the James Lee community, to Fairfax County. This decision resulted in over one-third of the town's land being relinquished to the county. This cession further exacerbated the racial divide, as it removed more African American residents from the town's jurisdiction, undermining their political power and exacerbating existing disparities between white and Black residents in the area.

1890 map of Falls Church, Fairfax Co., Va. by G. Noetzel Noetzel, G. (1890) Falls Church, Fairfax Co., Va. Washington, D.C.: Bell Bros., Photo-Lithographers. [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress,
Chapter 7.

Tinner Hill - A Testament to Resistance and Unity

In the early 20th century, amidst the struggle for civil rights and the fight against segregation, a small but significant victory took place in Falls Church, Virginia. The Tinner Hill community was developed by Charles Tinner, a Black stone mason, and his wife Mary Elizabeth in the late 1800s. In 1915, his son Joseph Tinner, along with neighbor Dr. E. B. Henderson and others, formed the Colored Citizens Protective League to protest a proposed city segregation ordinance. This ordinance would have forced Black residents to sell their homes and relocate to a designated part of town. The Colored Citizens Protective League later became the first rural branch of the NAACP in 1918.

The Tinner Hill community's bravery and resilience led to a U.S. Supreme Court victory in 1917, which outlawed forced housing segregation in Buchanan vs. Warley. Today, Tinner Hill is a small park (tucked in between Sislers Stone and Coleman PowerSports) featuring markers, plaques, and a "Zig-Zag" sculpture by local artist Martha Jackson Jarvis. The sculpture symbolizes the political boundaries drawn in 1887 to dilute the voting power of local Black residents by placing them in larger Fairfax County, rendering their votes less influential. The zig-zag is also a West African symbol representing the performance of the unusual or impossible.

Across the bustling Lee Highway, a 14-foot arch stands as a testament to the Tinner Hill families and their work in creating the first rural chapter of the NAACP. The stone for the arch, originally quarried and cut by Charles Tinner, had a past life in notable structures like the Falls Church Bank. When the stone buildings of Falls Church were razed in the mid-20th century, local families saved and repurposed the remaining stones. Over 30 property owners of Falls Church later donated these stones, collected over two years, to build the arch in 1999. The team of stone mason Roy Morgan, contractor James Ware, and mason’s assistant Tyrone Lee constructed the monument over a three-month period. This arch, a symbol of unity and mutual strength, embodies the unity of different races and the joint efforts of Joseph Tinner and E.B. Henderson. Surrounding the arch, original Tinner quarry stones serve as protective barriers, each bearing a plaque that chronicles the civil rights struggle and the community effort that brought the arch to life39.

Mary Ellen Henderson and her students in front of the James Lee Colored School Henderson Family Collection, “Mary Ellen Henderson, aka Miss Nellie, and her students in front of the James Lee Colored School,” 100 Years Black Falls Church, accessed April 22, 2023,
Chapter 8.

The City of Falls Church Gains Independence

In 1948, the City of Falls Church gained independence, further establishing its identity and autonomy in Northern Virginia. As an independent city, Falls Church had the opportunity to create its governance structure, allowing for increased control over its affairs and better responsiveness to the needs of its residents. This period coincided with social and political changes occurring nationwide, including the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle for greater equality and justice for all Americans.

Throughout its history, Falls Church has been home to a diverse array of residents from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds. These individuals and communities have each contributed in their own way to the growth and development of the city, bringing unique perspectives and experiences that enrich the fabric of our shared heritage.

old school Image rights: The City of Falls Church.
Chapter 9.

Addressing the Legacy of Racism in the 20th and 21st Centuries

As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the 1950s and 1960s, Falls Church began to confront the racial inequality present within the city. In the late 20th century and into the 21st century, efforts were made to acknowledge and address the city's past connections to slavery and segregation. Local churches and organizations played a pivotal role in supporting these efforts and fostering dialogue around the issues facing minority communities.

After conducting extensive research, the church discovered that skilled, but enslaved laborers had built the current Falls Church in 1769. In an effort to honor these individuals and their contributions, a plaque was dedicated in 2017, offering "gratitude and repentance" for the forced labor. The church chose the word "repentance" over "apology," as the latter was deemed not strong enough. Aisha Huertas, the Diocese of Virginia’s intercultural ministries officer, emphasized that this process of repentance is vital for both the church community and broader society. The case of the Falls Church congregation highlights the importance of acknowledging historical injustices and working towards healing and reconciliation.

In the decades following the Civil Rights Movement, Falls Church continued to grow more diverse, welcoming new residents from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. This diversity has enriched the city's cultural landscape, with various community events, festivals, and celebrations highlighting the unique traditions and customs of its residents.

Today, the City of Falls Church celebrates its diverse heritage and strives to create an inclusive environment for all residents, regardless of their cultural or ethnic background. The city's commitment to embracing diversity and promoting equality is a testament to the resilience and unity of its marginalized communities, whose stories continue to shape Falls Church's history and future.

plaque was dedicated in 2017, offering gratitude and repentance for forced labor
Chapter 10.

The Little Falls Movement Begins

In 2023, the Little Falls movement emerged, advocating for a redefinition of the city's identity to recognize and embrace its diverse history and envision a more inclusive future. By suggesting a name change from Falls Church to Little Falls, the movement aimed to move beyond the city's connections to the single colonial-era church and its associated legacy. Instead, the movement's goal was to establish a more representative and unifying identity that celebrates the area's Indigenous heritage, natural beauty, and the contributions of various communities that have shaped the city throughout its history.

The Little Falls movement brought together a diverse coalition of residents, historians, and civic leaders, who actively engaged in conversations about the city's complex past and future.

Historian's Note.

The Need for a New Identity

Falls Church's history, while marked by growth and development, is also deeply entwined with pain, cruelty, and the forced subjugation of the Indigenous and African populations. The church, an embodiment of colonial power, was built on the backs of enslaved individuals and appropriated land. By examining the darker chapters of our history and shedding light on the actions of the church and colonizers, we make a case for a new identity that breaks free from this legacy.

The settlers who founded Falls Church were quick to impose their beliefs and practices on those who called this land their home, displaying little respect for the Indigenous peoples and their way of life. The church, as an institution, took part in this forced assimilation, often leading to the erasure of native traditions and customs. Moreover, the colonizers showed blatant disregard for human dignity as they enslaved Africans and exploited their labor to build the church and the surrounding community.

Such a dark history must not be overlooked or brushed aside. It is time for us to confront these cruel acts and hold the church and colonizers accountable for the pain and suffering they caused. By perpetuating beliefs that furthered the interests of the colonial settlers and justified their exploitation, the church played a central role in the oppression of the Indigenous and African populations. This disregard for the well-being of others in the name of a god and belief system that demanded unquestioning obedience is a stain on our city's history.

To truly acknowledge and address our dark past, we must first break free from the shackles of a name that honors an institution responsible for such cruelty. By choosing a new identity, we send a powerful message of reckoning, accountability, and a commitment to healing the wounds inflicted by our ancestors.

Embracing the name Little Falls allows us to connect with our pre-colonial past, paying homage to the Indigenous peoples who first cherished the beauty and wonder of the Potomac River. In doing so, we create an inclusive and unifying identity that acknowledges the diverse voices of our community, both past and present.

By confronting our history and breaking away from the name Falls Church, we have an opportunity to create a more equitable and compassionate future, where all members of our community are valued and heard. Let us use this new identity as a stepping stone towards collective healing, understanding, and growth.

Up Next:

Nelly's Journey: A Life Unveiled

Uncover the untold story of Nelly, an enslaved person from Falls Church whose life sheds light on the complexities of our local history.

Digital render of Nelly, an African woman in 1800's Falls Church, Virginia