We headed out to the James River plantation row on the road between Richmond and Jamestown/Williamsburg. With a number of plantations to choose from, we decided on the Shirley Plantation, which is the oldest settled plantation in VA. What makes it even more interesting is the fact that it has been continuously owned and operated by the same family since the mid 1600’s. Certainly, that alone is more than can be said about most modern businesses and may well be the oldest continuous business in the country. While the physical facilities do not leave you with any real WOW factor, what is very impressive is the plantation’s long history both in length of time and the part it enjoyed in the history of this young country. Due to the wealth and influence of the various owners (in one family) and its strategic location on the James River, the plantation hosted many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and other notables such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and even Robert E. Lee. Lee’s mother was born in this home and where she married Lee’s father. Lee spent time here both as a child and after the Civil War was over. It has continued to be an operating plantation throughout its history. Indeed, while we were visiting, the harvesting of the cotton crop was in progress.
At its peak, it was over 4000 acres and had up to 150 slaves working the fields. The eldest of the family which oversaw this operation also owned a number of other plantations in a number of counties and reportedly had over 800 slaves. He was referred to as King, since he was thought to be the wealthiest man in the colonies.
When you reflect on the history that is embedded in this relatively small part of this country and the detail that is known about places such as Shirley Plantation, you realize how little you really know about the history of this country. I have always amused myself with the idea that I was fairly well informed about certain parts of our history, but I am forced to admit that I have never heard of this influential family or their relationship to many of the well known figures in US history. Looks like I need to keep traveling to improve myself!