Dr. William Foushee, Sr. (October 26, 1749 – August 21, 1824) was an American physician, politician, and socialite. He notably served as the first mayor when Richmond became a city in 1782, and went on to become a political, social, and commercial leader in Richmond for the next half-century of his life.
This post will recite some of the history of Dr. Foushee’s life, explain the significance of his accomplishments and prominence, and discuss a unique historic gristmill he built that needs our protection.
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Foushee was born to John and Winifred (Williams) Foushee on October 26, 1749, in Northumberland County. He was educated at and graduated from Edinburgh in Scotland. A third-generation Virginian, Foushee’s paternal grandfather James immigrated from France. (Ahhh… Foushee is a French name!)
On March 6, 1775, on the eve of the Revolution, Foushee married Elizabeth Isabella Harmondson in Northampton County, and they went on to have seven children. Dr. Foushee’s three beautiful daughters were called “The Three Graces,” after the mythical name for the three daughters of the Greek king of the gods. Foushee’s youngest of the three daughters, Isabella, married the famous Thomas Ritchie.
Foushee’s son-in-law Thomas Ritchie (1778 – 1854) was a leading American journalist with the Richmond Enquirer as editor and publisher for 41 years, and was called “The Napoleon of the Press.” Thomas Jefferson said of the Enquirer, “I read but a single newspaper, Ritchie’s Enquirer, the best that is published or ever has been published in America.”
Dr. Foushee was the City of Richmond’s first Mayor, and he might also have been called her “First Citizen.” Elected to the mayoralty in 1782, he was a leader in civic, commercial, political, and social affairs for a period of approximately half a century. He lived on Main Street, near the present Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals building, just south of the State Capitol. The home is long gone.
Dr. Foushee was a contemporary of the founding fathers, about 6 years younger than Thomas Jefferson. He headed various civic and patriotic societies, including such groups as the Society of the Friends of the Revolution in 1813, having served as a distinguished surgeon in the Revolution. He cared for George Wythe, Jefferson’s law professor, on his deathbed. As a political leader and a man of wit and social presence, it was also Foushee’s function to preside over large political dinners whenever Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe or other prominent leaders of the Republican (Democratic) party came to Richmond.
During its early years as a City, Foushee was as prominent in Richmond as some of the most revered political leaders of the young United States, or perhaps even more. Note that the first city streets west of 1st Street are named for Foushee, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and Patrick Henry. It appears that Foushee may have taken poor George Washington’s street!
Despite his political and social pursuits and busy professional career as a doctor, Dr. Foushee found time to serve as a trustee of Richmond Academy, a director of the old Bank of Richmond from its establishment in 1793, and as president of the James River Navigation Company (which constructed the James River Canal, predecessor to the James River & Kanawha Canal). The last named post he held for 33 years, succeeding George Washington in 1785 after the latter had organized the company. After construction, the canal was at all times during Foushee’s life a significant water route for agricultural and other products around the falls of the James.
Perhaps because of his involvement in the canal, one of his business pursuits was constructing in 1819 a two-story grist mill above the City, between the canal and the north bank of the James River. The remains of this mill are located in the City’s James River Park, and can still be seen in the vicinity of Texas Beach (so-called because it is accessed from the North Bank James River Park parking area on Texas Avenue, and the sandy shores of the river in the area). Foushee sold the mill before his death to his son-in-law Thomas Ritchie in 1824. Sadly for Ritchie, the mill was destroyed by flooding in 1832.
This grist mill Dr. Foushee built nearly 200 years ago may be one of the only original still standing structures in Richmond that is connected to a truly important person of our City’s history that is abandoned, mostly unprotected, largely unknown and crumbling away. We’ve been told that the roof and windows were largely intact through the 1950’s. During the past few months, some have sadly defaced it with graffiti.
For the last sixteen years of his life, Foushee served in the capacity of Richmond’s postmaster, having been appointed to that position in 1808 by President Jefferson. On August 21, 1824, Foushee died in his home. His body is interred at Shockoe Hill Cemetery on Shockoe Hill in Richmond.
Dr. William Foushee was an important political, social and economic force in the early days of the City of Richmond. In his time, he was as prominent as governors of Virginia and presidents of the United States. Or, as shown by his recognition on the first city street west of 1st, perhaps more prominent. Doing something to preserve and protect the remains of his unique historic gristmill would be an excellent way for us to honor the legacy of Richmond’s “First Citizen,” Dr. William Foushee, just as a previous generation did in naming the street after him.
Directions: To reach the Foushee Mill, head down to the riverside trail along Texas Beach and walk upstream. Once you pass the canal outflow below Maymont but before you reach the Nickel Bridge, begin looking for the stone remains. If you reach the Nickel Bridge, you’ve gone too far.