With Halloween fast approaching, it gets you to thinking about haunted houses and other ghostly family fun. It stands to reason that if a house was going to be haunted, it would probably be a southern plantation. These grand houses have seen so much political unrest, human drama, and social change that even if your family doesn’t see a ghost, they will leave having learned something.
Shirley Plantation is the oldest family-owned working plantation in Virginia. What makes this plantation special is that it is still owned and occupied by the family that built it almost 300 years ago.
The Shirley lands were first established back in 1613, after the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown. The farm, which came a little later, in 1638, was established by Edward Hill I. You can imagine the English ladies’ reaction to the rustic living quarters of the early American settlements when they arrived off the boat from England. Some of them got right back on never to return to the young America.
Three generations later, when the Hill family ran dry of male heirs the lands were passed on to the youngest Hill daughter, Elizabeth Hill. Elizabeth married a man named John Carter (son of the wealthy Robert “King” Carter) and they began construction of the present Georgian mansion in 1723.
Completed in 1738, the mansion, referred to as the “Great House,” is largely in its original state and contains some of its original art and furniture.
During its long history, Shirley Plantation has survived Native American uprisings, Bacon’s Rebellion, the American Revolution, the American Civil War, and the Great Depression. That is a lot of history lived in one residence. It would be fun to ramble through the attics in this old house but the second and third floors are off limits to visitors because a family member currently lives there.
As a Yankee, I knew little about southern living before my visit. In the early years, plantations consisted of a main house, where the prominent members of the family lived, side houses, where other family members would live and guests would stay. These were in addition to outer buildings that housed the kitchen and laundry facilities along with the indentured servants and slaves that worked in them. These quarters were separated to protect the main house if there was a fire in the kitchen (and there frequently were).
At this plantation, the kitchen and laundry are intact but none of the guest quarters remain: one caught fire and burned to the ground and the other was removed over time. The plantation also boasts an intact meat smoking house and a Dovecote, which housed doves, a delicacy to early Americans.
The Shirley Plantation of course has its own ghost but that story is best told by the guides. Guided house tours are available daily and include stories of tragic deaths, mysterious hauntings, and the tale of the legendary “Aunt Pratt” portrait featured in numerous books and known as the most documented ghost story in Virginia. The house is also the first stop in the Haunted Tales and Tours, which visits three historical and haunted properties but you must make a reservation.
Angela is the History Buff Traveling Mom. In addition to her love of travel and books, she explores the history of NYC houses and their restoration in her blog, BrownstoneCyclone.com.