The road to Smith's Fort

The road to Smith’s Fort

Somehow, as many times as we’ve come to Williamsburg, we have never managed to be at Smith’s fort or Bacon’s castle when it’s actually open.  Today (7/17/15), we got our opportunity.  For those who would like to visit, both sites are usually only open on the weekends, though it doesn’t hurt to check the Preservation Virginia Website for information.

When we arrived at Smith’s Fort Plantation, we had just missed the start of the tour.  This is one of the difficult things about this location–you don’t know when a tour will be.  It’s basically, wait until there’s a group, then go.  The ranger told us to go on down to the fort and then come back in about a half an hour for the tour.  So we went down to check out the site.  When we’d come in the past, we had not ventured down to the fort because the rain had made the dirt road impassably treacherous.

Marker for remains of fort:  Earthworks behind.

Marker for remains of fort: Earthworks behind

Even in nice summer weather, there were still spots we could have gotten stuck in our low riding car.  Definitely something to be aware of if you plan a trip.  We still headed out in the car, though we passed a few families who opted to take the path on foot. When we arrived at the fort, I walked past the sign out to the tree line to see where the fort was.  Walking down the path a little ways–through a spiderweb) I determined it was not the way to the fort, so I went back to read the signs.  One of the signs informed us that the only thing that remained of the fort were the two foot earthworks behind the marker.  While there’s not much to it, this site was declared the oldest English structure in Virginia.  John Smith had chosen this spot as a retreat in case they had trouble in Jamestown — it was somewhere they can fall back to. They worked on the fort from 1608 to 1609. But, we were later to learn that the rats had eaten up all the corn stored here; otherwise, there might have been more to the fort, but they abandoned it when the stores were eaten up.

John Smith Plantation

John Smith Plantation

After seeing what was left of the fort, we headed back to the house to see if it was time for the tour.  After a few minutes wait, we were ushered into the house.  The ranger informed us that the Preservation Virginia (formerly the APVA) had been formed in 1889. Since that time, they have saved over 200 historic properties. They receive no federal or state funding, but operate solely on Membership, donations, and patrons.

This area was a dowry gift to John Rolfe and Pocahontas for their marriage in 1614. Rolfe probably didn’t live here, but he farmed tobacco here, starting the tobacco industry. Rolfe had a farming background and thought he could make it work here. He initially tried the local tobacco, but it was bitter, and he knew England wouldn’t buy it.  But, he was able to blend seeds from Trinidad with native plants to produce a sweeter leaf.

Rear of the Smith Fort Plantation

Rear of the Smith Fort Plantation

John Rolfe arrived in Virginia in the Spring of 1610 after being shipwrecked in Bermuda. His ship, the Sea Venture was the flagship of a 9 vessel fleet. Seven of them arrived in Jamestown. Unfortunately, the Sea Venture took on 9 feet of water–especially unfortunate since they had the supplies for the colony.  It’s crew was pumping the water out and realized they couldn’t keep it afloat. They surrendered themselves to the care of God, expecting to die.  But, the watchman spotted land, and they were able to ground the ship in Bermuda, which was uninhibited at the time. They were stranded for nine months. Amazingly, they were able to salvage enough of the ship to build two smaller ships, aptly named The Patience and the Deliverance. The voyage to Jamestown took 11 days with 150 people on board.  One interesting thing our ranger shared is that the wreck of the Sea Venture provided the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Tempest.  I doubted that was true because John Rolfe landed in 1610 and Shakespeare died in 1616.  But, on research, it is actually possible, since the Tempest was written between 1610 and 1611, and they had heard about the wreck of the Sea Venture.

Corner cabinet with butterfly shelves

Corner cabinet with butterfly shelves

Going through the house, the ranger told us that in 1613, the colonists were having so much trouble with Indians, they decide to kidnap Pocahontas and hold her for ransom. They were trying to build a stable relationship with Powhatan. They’re plan didn’t work, though.  Powhatan let her stay with the English. She probably could have escaped, but perhaps she was as curious about the English as they were about her.  While in captivity, Reverend Alexander Whitaker taught her English, converted her to Christianity, and renamed her Rebecca. Rolfe and Pocahontas met while she was in captivity and fell in love. Rolfe wrote a four page letter explaining why he wanted to marry her. The Governor gave his permission, and on April 5, 1614, they married. One year later, they had son Thomas. The Virginia company would pay their expenses to England.  The family stayed 8 months, and by all accounts, everyone in England loved Pocahontas. They had her portrait commissioned a portrait (thought they lightened her features.) They treated her as royalty. In fact, Pocahontas was invited to attend royal events that her husband was snubbed from.

When it was time to come home, many of the Native Americans were sick.  Their immune systems were just not used to all the disease going around England at the time.  The group would board in London, but were not even down the Thames when Pocahontas was so sick she had to be carried ashore to Gravesend.

Bedroom in Smith Plantation

Bedroom in Smith Plantation

There, she died at the age of around 21.  She’s buried at St. George’s church. Thomas was left with Rolfe’s relatives in England. Rolfe never saw Thomas again. Thomas came back in 1635 to gain this property as his inheritance.  Though people currently lived on the property, they became his tenants. Thomas married Jane Jane Poythress.  They had a daughter named Jane (who incidentally married Robert Bolling, whom I was studying when I started this blog!)  By 1652, Thomas had sold the property to Thomas Warren. In fact, the first record of a dwelling on this property is by Thomas Warren. Thomas builds a 50 foot brick house–the only description in the registry. The building here is roughly 48 1/2 feet, so they originally thought this was the house. But, it is not.

King James Bible 1622 Edition

King James Bible 1622 Edition

Excavation showed the lumber used to build the house was cut between 1751-1763. So it’s not the Warren house. They also found the archaeological remains of some of the out buildings.

The building does have a lot of original material, though.  One interesting artifact was a King James Bible dated 1622–just 11 years after it was initially published.  Also, since the house was originally bought by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, it was also interesting to find some Williamsburg connections, albeit unfortunate ones.  The Faulcons, who owned the house around the 1750’s, had 5 children. One of them was termed “feeble minded” (retarded), possibly from lead poisoning. He was institutionalized in the mental hospital which is not the Dewitt Wallace Museum in Colonial Williamsburg.  He lived there for 35 years!

Antique mold with spoons made from it

Antique mold with spoons made from it

Finally, as we were in the cellar, we got to see some of the artifacts found on the property.  One of the coolest items was an 18th century antique spoon mold found in the ceiling over girls’ room.  The foundation still uses the mold to make spoons to sell in support of the foundation.  All in all, it was fascinating to walk through the house and hear about the history of it, even if Pocahontas and John Rolfe never lived here.

We had gotten the combination ticket for the Smith Fort Plantation and Bacon’s Castle, so we headed over there.  Bacon’s Castle holds the distinction of being the oldest British brick building in New World, and the only Jacobean dwelling.  The house was built by the Allen family, and actually should be known as it once was by the name “Allen’s Brick House,” especially since Nathaniel Bacon never lived here and barely visited.

Bacon's Castle

Bacon’s Castle

The Allens arrived in 1630. The house was built by Arthur Allen I, and is 5,300 square feet, making it the seventh largest in 17th century Virginia. Archaeologists have found evidence of 7 kilns, further proof that the bricks used in the house were actually made on site.  It was Arthur II (the son) who was the owner during Bacon’s Rebellion. Arthur II knew Bacon had targeted his house, so he buried his valuables and fled. Seventy of Bacon’s followers lived here for four months, which is what gives it the name Bacon’s Castle.

Initially indentured servants and then slaves helped work the 1,000 acres of tobacco planted here.  We know Allen brought three indentured servants with him from England and  his son had four slaves at the time of Bacon’s Rebellion.  Nathaniel Bacon also had support from indentured servants.  After Bacon’s rebellion, exterior quarters for indentured servants and slaves start being created to increase the separation.

Artistic detailing added by Elizabeth

Artistic detailing added by Elizabeth in the crossbeams of the ceiling

Elizabeth Allen was the longest living relative.  She was landed when she became an Allen and even had a legal note stating that she had the larger estate at the wedding, so that when her husband died, the inheritance would go to her. She was apparently a shrewd business woman and endowed a school in Smithville.  She was also apparently an amazing hostess and was incredibly hospitable.  She also lays claim to the oldest English formal garden in America.  In the 1980’s, they discovered the original garden, and the spot is now maintained by the Garden Club of Virginia.

A cool story we heard was about the names etched on windows. There is a “Louisiana” (Hankins) etched there, who apparently warned of the Civil War. She worried about the house and its safety.

Her son James also has his name there.  He survived Civil War and came home, only to die in a duel in 1866. He is buried on the property.

WWII Dogtags found on the Bacon's Castle site

WWII Dogtags found on the Bacon’s Castle site

One curious artifact among those found at Bacon’s castle was a WW II dog tag soldier from Minnesota. The Museum keeps it on display in hopes of one day finding the owner so they can return it.  I’ve posted a picture here to see if anyone has information on it.

All in all, it was an incredible house to see, but it is also evident that it is in need of restoration.  Since 2015 is the 350 anniversary of the house, the foundation has a goal to raise $350,000 for renovations to the site, including a roof, security items, and restoring the brickwork.  To donate, you can click on the Preservation Virginia website here.

Tomorrow, we head for home by way of Patrick Henry’s estate.  We’ll see what mischief we can get into there.

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