Shirley Plantation, located along the James River of Virginia, lays claim to being the oldest plantation in Virginia and the longest continuously family-owned business in North America. It is one of the historic James River plantations which also include Berkeley, Westover, and Sherwood Forest. It is also the most charming of the historic James River plantations.
In 1607, English colonists, funded by the Virginia Company of London with a royal charter from King James, landed in Virginia and established Jamestown. Jamestown was the first permanent English colony in America (the lost colony of Roanoke was established in 1585 and the colony of Plymouth was established in 1620). From the start, the colonists had difficulties in growing crops and acquiring supplies from the Powhatans. Many colonists starved to death, died from disease, or were killed in attacks by the Powhatans angered by the aggressive intrusion on their territory. In the winter of 1609-1610, the colonists suffered from the harsh climate, food shortages, and Powhatan attacks. In the spring, when Sir Thomas West (Baron De La Warr or De La Ware), arrived with reinforcements and supplies, a colony of almost 300 had dwindled to a colony of 60. The colonists were desperate to return home to England. But, Sir West prevented the colonists from leaving and helped to reestablish Jamestown as a more prosperous settlement.
In 1613, land along the James River was given by royal grant to Sir Thomas West, now the Governor of Virginia, in appreciation for his efforts in preventing the abandonment of Jamestown. The property was named West and Shirley Land, but Governor West’s wife, Lady Cessalye Shirley, lived in England and never set foot in America. When Governor West was lost at sea, Lady Cessalye Shirley sought to sell the property. In 1638, Colonel Edward Hill I purchased the property and began a farm which would be known as Shirley Plantation.
In 1723, already home to the well-connected Hill family, Shirley Plantation was further connected to the most prominent families in the colonies. In that year, Elizabeth Hill, only daughter of Edward Hill III who was a merchant ship-builder and tobacco farmer and great-granddaughter of Colonel Edward Hill I, married John Carter, eldest son of Robert “King” Carter who was the richest man in the colonies and served as two-time Virginia Speaker of the House and College of William & Mary trustee, board member, and rector. Through her marriage to John Carter, Elizabeth Hill (Carter) became the sister-in-law of Ann Carter who married Benjamin Harrison V (signer of the Declaration of Independence, father of President William Henry Harrison, and owner of Berkeley plantation) and the sister-in-law of Landon Carter and Charles Carter who married into the Byrd family (which owned Westover plantation). Elizabeth Hill (Carter)’s granddaughter Ann Hill Carter was the wife of General Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, Governor of Virginia, and the mother of General Robert E. Lee, General of the Confederate Army. Also in 1723, Elizabeth Hill (Carter) and John Carter began construction on the great house which was finished in 1638.
Shirley Plantation has remained the home of the Hill-Carter Family from the earliest days of the colonies, surviving war as a voluntary and involuntary host of armies during the American Revolution and the Civil War, to the present day. As it is still a family home, only the first floor is open to guided tours. There is a well lived-in feel to the house, and there are many well-loved family heirlooms to learn about during the guided tour. The house contains a “flying staircase” which is the only architectural feature of its kind in North America. Family legend has it that a Hill-Carter bride decided to test the genuineness of her diamond ring by scratching a glass pane of one of the windows, and it became a family tradition for Hill-Carter brides to scratch their initials on the window glass. I really enjoyed the guided tour which relayed the comings and goings of the family through the ages and included a modern love story. In the 1950s, to create an additional revenue stream for Shirley’s maintenance, Charles Hill Carter Jr. opened Shirley to the public and guided the tours himself. One day, a Danish tourist came to Shirley, and Charles Hill Carter Jr. fell in love and proposed. Their eldest son, Charles Hill Carter III, and his family currently reside at Shirley.
A note: While I enjoyed the beauty of Shirley, I could not help but feel that it would be remiss to neglect to acknowledge that Shirley was built and operated by a system of slavery. Shirley has exhibits on slavery but has no memorial (in the manner of George Washington’s Mount Vernon). But, I also thought about the Great Pyramids of Egypt—also built by a system of slavery—which are considered one of the classic seven wonders of the world. I would recommend visiting Shirley as a beautiful, enduring monument of human innovation and American history while being mindful of its past.
Address: 501 Shirley Plantation Road, Charles City, VA 23030
Hours: (Mar-Nov) 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; (Dec-Feb) 10:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m.
Fees: Grounds + Great House (first floor) Guided Tour, $11.00 adult
On the history of Shirley Plantation
Shirley Plantation, “History,” http://www.shirleyplantation.com/history/
Virginia’s James River Plantations, “Shirley,” http://www.jamesriverplantations.org/Shirley.html
National Park Service, “Charles City County: Shirley Plantation,” https://www.nps.gov/articles/shirley.htm
On the history of Jamestown
Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, “History of Jamestown,” http://historicjamestowne.org/history/history-of-jamestown/
National Park Service, “James River Plantations – Colonization,” https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/jamesriver/colonization.htm
On the history of slavery at Shirley Plantation
Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, “Shirley Plantation,” African American Historic Sites Database, http://www.aahistoricsitesva.org/items/show/387
On the architectural history of Shirley Plantation
Theodore R. Reinhart and Judith A. Habicht,“Shirley Plantation in the Eighteenth Century: A Historical, Architectural, and Archaeological Study,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1984, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4248685
On the difficulties of maintaining Shirley Plantation as a family-owned, financially-sustainable property
Doug Donovan, “All in the Family,” Forbes, December 27, 1999, http://www.forbes.com/forbes/1999/1227/6415274a.html
Virginia Shepherd, “Far From Downton Abbey,” Richmond Magazine, July 25, 2013, http://richmondmagazine.com/news/far-from-downton-abbey/
Marissa Hermanson, “The Tie that Binds,” Virginia Living, [no date listed in the article but cited in Linda Young’s Historic House Museums in the United States and the United Kingdom: A History as published in 2014], http://www.virginialiving.com/home/the-tie-that-binds/