Bel Air is a colonial-era plantation manor located in Woodbridge, Prince William County, Virginia. Built in 1740 as the Ewell family seat, the home was regularly visited by Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, who was a cousin. It later served as the home of Mason Locke Weems (1759–1825), the first biographer of George Washington and the creator of the cherry tree story ("I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet"). Extraordinarily well preserved for its age, Bel Air was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. Today, Bel Air remains a private residence and a working farm.
Bel Air was originally constructed as an English fort in the 1670s by order of Virginia colonial Governor William Berkeley, who occupied the fort himself in 1673. Upon the stone foundation of the old fort, Captain Charles Ewell (1713–1747) built Bel Air as a tobacco plantation and family seat in the early 1740s. As some of the first settlers in Prince William County, Charles and his brother Bertrand first came to the area from Maryland to establish an iron furnace operation on the Occoquan River. Described by Washington in his journals as a "man of affairs," Charles maintained mill interests in Occoquan together with his brother-in-law, John Balladine. Like other planters in northern Virginia, he sent his harvest to the nearby port of Dumfries to be loaded on ships for Glasgow, Scotland. During this time, Dumfries was a thriving tobacco port, and it easily outstripped in population and importance the rival town of Alexandria, further up the river. As a center of culture, the great families in the area would drive into Dumfries in their chariots to attend balls and "tea drinkings". After organizing a joint stock company in 1744, Charles built a warehouse and began a successful mercantile business in Dumfries.
In 1739, Charles purchased 800 acres from Ralph Walker on which he would construct Bel Air. Ewell purchased an additional 1184 acres just west of the town of Dumfries, Virginia from Lord Thomas Fairfax on July 10, 1741. The property was surveyed on May 10, 1749 by 17-year-old George Washington. On this property was the ruins of an old English fort built in 1673 at the direction of Virginia Governor William Berkeley to protect colonists from attacks by neighboring Susquehannock Indians. On the crest of a hill 90 feet above Neabsco Creek, the location was ideal for protection from Indian attacks as well as malaria.
Charles set about constructing Bel Air upon the stone foundation of the old fort, replacing the wooden frame with an all-brick structure. Like other affluent men in the colonies, Charles designed a refined home that imitated the georgian architecture of Great Britain. As the house was constructed before the days of saw mills, every lath was rived, and every timber, joist and even cornice was hewed out of the surrounding woods (as evidenced today by the axe marks on the reverse sides). Every nail, spike and hinge was individually hammered out. Tradition says that the bricks were imported from Scotland in the hold of tobacco ships.