Side View of Shirley Plantation

Side View of Shirley Plantation

After a long hiatus from travelling (known as teaching school), it is finally Spring Break and time to be back on the trail again. This Spring Break takes my mom and I on a true bit of Legacy Hunting, as we will be pursuing our own family roots in Virginia. And where better to start than with the oldest active plantation in Virginia.

Today (3/23/14), we headed over to Shirley Plantation, located just off Route 5 in Charles City, Virginia. The Shirley Plantation was settled in 1613 by Sir Thomas West, who named it the West and Shirley Hundred (West for him and Shirley for his wife Cecily Shirley (Cessalye Sherley), who remained in England) He apparently had a two story wooden house there, though the house is no longer in existence. Also, the fact that Sir Thomas West is the man history books refer to as Lord De La Warr (Delaware), means he probably had his hands full being the governor of Jamestowne and warding off Indian attacks. When he returns to England and is lost at sea, the property passes into his wife’s possession. Having her own life established in England, she chooses to sell the property, which passes to Edward Hill I, whose family owns it to this day.

Distant view of Shirley Plantation and Outbuildings

Distant view of Shirley Plantation and Outbuildings

Edward Hill I would establish Shirley Plantation as a farm in 1638, an act which secures its place as the longest existing family owned business in North American history. He’s not just a farmer, though. This man would also put down Ingle’s rebellion and return land to Leonard Calvert (younger brother to Cecil Calvert–Lord Baltimore).

The house currently on the property was started in 1723 and finished in 1738 as a home for Elizabeth Hill (great-granddaughter of Edward Hill I, who inherited it when her brother died of consumption) and her husband John Carter. Filled with many original pieces, the house is an amazing thing to experience. In addition to the many family portraits, it boasts a “flying staircase,” a staircase that appears to be flying since it has no obvious means of support–apparently, the only one of this architectural style in North America.

350+ year old tree on the Plantation Property

350+ year old tree on the Plantation Property

But, it was the personal stories that really piqued my interest. The first story I enjoyed is the fact that Robert E. Lee’s parents, “Lighthorse Harry” Lee and Ann Hill Carter were married in the parlor. The house boasts portraits of Lee and his parents. (I had never seen a picture of Robert E. Lee’s parents, but was immediately impressed at how much Robert E. Lee favors his mother more than his father in appearance.) Robert E. Lee spent his early years in this house.

The second is a sad story, but a fun one as well. One of the Carter descendants had an arranged marriage that she did not want. In order to get out of having to marry a man she did not love, she looked for a legal way to prevent the marriage from taking place. At the time, a woman could call the wedding off if the diamond in her engagement ring wasn’t real. To prove the stone’s value, she tested the theory that a real diamond can etch glass. Unfortunately for this young woman, her ring was indeed real, and she had to marry the man after all. But, her actions inspired the Carter women who came after her, who each etched her name, initials, or another memento on the windows around the home. While not all are dated, I saw many etchings, including one from 1834 and the most recent one from 1995.

Original Slave Cabin just off the Plantation property

Original Slave Cabin just off the Plantation property

Finally, being a Civil War enthusiast, I loved the story about Mary Braxton Randolf Carter and her sister who woke up one morning to a lawn filled with wounded Union men. McClellan had fought the Battle of Malvern Hill and was withdrawing his wounded to the field hospital at Berkeley Plantation, but he soon realized many wouldn’t make it. When the sisters saw the many wounded men in their yard, they took them soup, bread, water, and bandages made from their own linens. They proceeded to care for the men and read to them. These acts of kindness saved, not only their own lives, but also Shirley Plantation. McClellan issued them a Federal Order of Safeguard, which protected them and their house from the Army of the Potomac. The family still possesses the original document, but visitors get to see a copy of the Safeguard.

All in all, Shirley Plantation is an incredible place to visit and one I highly recommend!

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