You can never go home again,
but the truth is
you can never leave home,
so it's all right.
~ Maya Angelou
Last weekend, I went to my second site visit for the course that I am taking. I selected the Shirley Plantation, Virginia’s first plantation erected after a royal land grant carved the plantation out of the Virginia frontier in 1613. This was just six years after the settlers arrived at Jamestown to establish the first permanent English Colony.
It is considered the oldest family-owned business in North America dating to 1638 when Edward Hill I established a farm on the banks of the James River. The mansion on the land today was built from 1723 when Elizabeth Hill married John Carter, the eldest son of Robert “King” Carter, and was completed in 1738. Direct descendants of Edward Hill I currently reside in the home.
When I arrived, I had just missed the tour so had time to explore the gardens and grounds. I walked around looking at the Ice House, Smoke House, Stable, and the gardens which includes a rose garden and a willow oak that has been on the property for over 350 years. I took several pictures of roses and plan to ask Connie at Hartwood Roses if they are old, historic roses or if they are newly planted.
Walking the grounds took approximately 45 minutes. At that point, I entered the Store House to purchase a ticket. Since I was using the Richmond Regional Tourism pass, I purchased a book and a silver-wares ring to show support. At that point, I was given a visitor orientation map of the grounds. This probably would have been helpful prior to walking the grounds but sometimes we rely too much on man-made visual aids when it’s nice to orient oneself among the trees and landscape.
While in the gift shop, there was an older couple (probably in their mid-70s) asking about the plantation being haunted. I note this because I have tried to select the most conventional sites from the tourism list since I am naturally drawn to spooky places. I also wonder if an increase in ghost hunting shows has created sofa-paranormal-investigations across age groups.
The associate mentioned that only a portrait was haunted and that nothing “bad happened here like at Berkeley Plantation.” I had planned to go to Berkeley after my visit since I wanted to travel in chronological order; but, after touring Shirley, I decided to keep these visits separate. In October, there will be “Haunting Tales & Tours” at Shirley Plantation, Berkeley and at Edgewood.
After the purchases, I headed to the Root Cellar, which was the site of the North Flanker, a freestanding wing that no longer exists. The cellar was creepy and I worried that I would drop my phone as I was trying to look inside.
Before the guided tour began, I met Edie, our tour guide, who was seated on the porch. This is her tenth year giving tours at “Shirley.” Edie is a retired fourth grade history teacher and says that she enjoys giving tours to the school groups.
As the group gathered on the porch, Edie greeted us and gave an overview of the Shirley Plantation that was established in 1613. She explained that the “Great House,” the home that was built from 1723 until 1738 has never been vacant and is currently occupied by descendants of the Hill-Carter family (11 generations that have lived here). Edward Hill built the house for his daughter, who had married John Carter, son of Robert "King" Carter. All of the buildings are made of brick; the bricks were made on the property.
As we entered the home, it was noted that there were no doorknobs and that Edie was entering with a replica key, the large skeleton original key was framed in the front room.
The tour focused mostly on the architecture of the home (e.g. how the home was designed for central heating; and, that all of the pine floors and panels and the black walnut banisters were taken from wood on the plantation); and, there was a good amount of history about the Hill-Carter family but with eleven generations and individuals having similar names it was challenging to follow even while taking notes.The "flying staircase" was a significant feature of the home. While visitors are asked not to take pictures, I found this picture online if you're interested in viewing the details of the stairs.
What I can easily recall is that the first floor is open to visitors, and the family lives on the top floor with a modern kitchen and laundry being housed in the basement. The family currently has young twins so the stairs are used quite a bit.
There were also several who’s who moments of those who have visited Shirley Plantation. Ann Hill Carter became the wife of Harry Lee and was the mother of General Robert E. Lee.
Shirley has experienced several wars. During the Revolutionary War, it served as a supply center. During the Civil War, it became an impromptu field hospital for the Union soldiers when the Hill-Carter looked out the windows and saw hundreds of wounded soldiers. Believing that other women would do the same for their men, they used their linens to make bandages, and they cooked soup and bread to feed the hungry men. This received noticed from the Union General McClellan, who in a formal letter (a copy of which was passed around during the tour) thanked the family and notes, "Their actions spared Shirley from attack."
Edie explained that these stairs, which were quite stunning, were also historically significant since “the floating stairs” appear to have no visible means of support. The secret is hidden wrought iron beams underneath.
From the website, I was eager to learn about “Siah Hulett [who] escaped from Shirley Plantation to serve on the USS Monitor”; however, I did not find any signage sharing his story. From doing a bit of research through the Charles City “Slave Ancestor File,” I learned that “Siah Hulett alias Carter, Seaman, USS Commodore Barney, National Archives, Washington, D.C. Martin Hewlett was enlisted in the U.S. Navy 18 JUL 1863 on the James River. He was described as 20 years old, a laborer and waiter, 5'4" tall. He served on the USS Memphis and the USS Kennebec.” Additionally, in TheMonitor Boys: The Crew of the Union's First Ironclad, Quarstein writes, “Siah Hulett Carter, confessed that he was the first slave to escape from Shirley Plantation. Carter had been warned by his master, Colonel Hill Carter, not to go on board any of the ‘Yankee ships’ because ‘the Yankees would carry them out to sea…& throw them overboard” (137).
I have come to believe that all Southern history, perhaps all history, includes elements of dark tourism. While there was little acknowledgement of the enslaved Africans who had lived on the property, there was mention of a haunted portrait of a family member who never lived in the home. Martha Hill who was known as Aunt Pratt, went to study in England. She never returned to the United States, and died in England. Before she left, she left a portrait of herself.
Allegedly, whenever the portrait is moved from that location “bad things happen” as noted by the Shirley Plantation store associate. In HauntedPlantations of Virginia, Brown explains, “The tale that has been passed down through the generations is that Pratt’s portrait hung on the first floor for decades without incident. During a period of redecorating, the painting was moved to a second floor bedroom. The night it was hung in its new location, the family was awakened by the sounds of the portrait banging violently against the wall”(41-42). The story continues that when the portrait was returned to the original location, peace returned to the home. Later when the portrait was sent to New York for an exhibit, similar occurrences were seen by the museum curators.
The Virginia Is For Lovers website offers more haunting occurrences. The site lists, “Shirley Plantation reports scary rocking sounds and strange noises, possibly made by Aunt Pratt, who was angry about the placement of her portrait and is still lurking the premises.”
While I was visiting, the place moved me in a way that I did not imagine it would. The land was beautiful; there was an amazing 350 year old tree that I hugged; and, the house felt, well, loved as if it were part of this family. I probably become a bit too attached to inanimate objects and historic items but I do believe they hold a kind of energy and that sometimes we can feel it.
Brown, Beth. "Heading Upriver: Central Plantations. Shirley." Haunted Plantations of Virginia. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Pub., 2009. 38-43. Print.
"Shirley--James River Plantations: A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary." National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, n.d. Web. 15 Sept. 2016.
"Slave Ancestor File." Hulett- Carter, Siah. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Sept. 2016.
Quarstein, John V. Monitor Boys: The Crew of the Union's First Ironclad. Charleston, SC: History, 2011. Print.
"Virginia's Ghostly Haunts." Virginia Is For Lovers. Official Tourism Website of the Commonwealth of Virginia, 30 Sept. 2015. Web. 15 Sept. 2016.