Located in Spotsylvania County, 61 miles north of Richmond and 60 miles south of Washington, D.C., between the Tidewater and Piedmont regions of Virginia, Fredericksburg was a major port on the Rappahannock River, a significant crossroads during the late 18th and early 19th centuries and an important center of trade and commerce. The town was also the scene of fierce fighting and considerable destruction during the Civil War.
In an attempt to offer an alternative voice in postwar Virginia and to help boost the slowly recovering regional economy, the Free Lance was established in Fredericksburg in 1885 under the leadership of William E. Bradley and John W. Woltz, a former chairman of Virginia’s Republican delegation. Thirty-four stockholders also contributed to the operations of the paper as investors in the Free Lance Newspaper and Job Printing Company. It was apparent from the earliest issues of the Free Lance that the war was deeply imprinted on people’s minds and that political divisions in the South were still bitterly contentious. The Free Lance characterized itself as an “Independent” paper “devoted to Agricultural, Commercial and Manufacturing Interests of Fredericksburg and its Vicinity.” Its chief competitors, the Fredericksburg Star and the News, were decidedly Democratic. The Star immediately questioned the political leanings of Woltz and the paper’s stockholders, prompting the Free Lance in its second issue to reply:
We repeat, we see enough already to convince us that the Star is disposed ‘to pick a quarrel’ with the Lance, which we shall be slow to enter, and which we now proclaim will be unprofitable, unwise and which, we shall avoid if possible and permitted.
In fact, the Free Lance defended its mission–and its stockholders–with vigor. “Republicans, (even though they be unnatural human beings from the standpoint of the Star), don’t feel like spending their money with those who malign and otherwise abuse them, and who profess not to want their patronage. . . . If the majority of the gentlemen, who are stockholders in the Free Lance are not now and have not always been Democrats, then, indeed, would there be some reason for the puny cry of the Free Lance’s being ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing.’” By 1900, the Free Lance had a circulation of 2,000, exceeding the 1,460 of the rival Star. Two years later, the Free Lance actually absorbed the semiweekly edition of the Star. In 1926, the Free Lance and the Daily Star merged to form the Free Lance Star.
The Free Lance became Fredericksburg’s first tri-weekly in 1896 and the first newspaper in the city to be run on a power press, capable of printing 1,200 papers an hour. Another of the paper’s early efficiencies was the use of a folding machine, which creased papers as quickly as they were printed. Between 1880 and 1910 a typical issue of the Free Lance included “General News Items” as well as “Local and Current Comment” (a popular gossip column); political, judicial, social, and cultural news; poetry, war stories, personals, and dedications; and a healthy dose of local advertising, reflecting the city’s economic recovery. While its content was similar to that of other papers of the time, the Free Lance was unique in offering readers from the Piedmont to the Tidewater a highly outspoken and independent viewpoint.