Wednesday, July 13, 2016

A Day in Surry County

History has a sense of humor.  Surry County, Virginia, is a place forgotten to time though it was once the most important place in all of British was where the money was made. THIS is the kind of place the Traveling Patriot seeks out.  A place full of forgotten history.  A now nearly desolate place with a glittering past.

In the mid 17th century, Surry County, Virginia, was the economic engine of the American Colonies.  Her rich soil produced the very best in highly sought after "sweet" tobacco.  Whatever fields were not growing tobacco grew tall and prolific producing corn to feed the growing population.  Surry County is right across the James River from the then capital of Virginia, Jamestown.  My good friend, Jack, and I spent a day recently in Surry County soaking the history that surrounds this very special place.  Jack's ancestor, William Spencer, came over on the Susan Constant in 1607 and eventually received a land grant in Surry County. Another one of his Surry County ancestors was the Hart family who owned property along Gray's Creek.

HOW TO GET THERE: Take Interstate 64 East from Richmond to Williamsburg, VA.  Take the Colonial Parkway West exit to the ferry ramp.  The trip over the James takes about 15 minutes or so and the views are spectacular!  By the way, the ferry ride is FREE!  Surry County is an easy day trip from Richmond, Norfolk or Raleigh-Durham.  Any further away, plan on spending a night over.  Go on Monday - Wednesday to get the best value.  Williamsburg is very close by and is best for motel space.  (Map courtesy of Wikipedia)  All photos are by: Russ McCullough unless otherwise noted.  (Map courtesy of Wikipedia)

The ferry lands you in a little place called Scotland, VA.  You are now in Surry County!  There are a number of places to see and experience in Surry County.  These are the ones we enjoyed the most and you will too!

SMITH'S FORT PLANTATION EARTHWORKS - Smith's Fort Plantation was by far the most compelling of all the historical sights we visited for two reasons.  One, it is the most ancient of historical sights in Surry County.  Needing a fall back defensive position from potential attacks from either the Spanish or the Powhatan's, Capt. John Smith threw up earthworks on the banks of Gray's Creek, a tributary of the James in 1608.  The site is on a steep bluff and very defendable. The earthworks are still visible and one can literally stand on the same ground that John Smith did.  The views are spectacular and the trees are very large and ancient by 21st century standards.

With the then navigable Gray's Creek in the background one can still see the rise in the ground of the works thrown up by Smith and his men.  (See photo left)  Beyond the earthworks is a very steep cliff of about 30 feet.  The site was abandoned when Smith returned to England the next year in 1609..

Secondly, this site is compelling because it is part of the dowry land grant of Chief Powhatan to his son-in-law John Rolfe who married his very famous daughter, Pocahontas.  We now know that the couple never actually lived on the site but they most certainly benefited from the tobacco and corn grown there for them as they traveled back to England.  Pocahontas died in 1617 on her way back to Virginia with her husband John and young son two year old Thomas.   John returned to Jamestown where he died in 1622. Pocahontas is buried in England. Thomas eventually made his was to Virginia and inherited his parents land on June 10,1654.   We now know this land as James Fort Plantation. (1)  Access this site from the Jacob Faulcon House located on this same property.  You can walk or drive.  Should you drive, keep in mind that the dirt road is poorly maintained and  is often muddy.  To see the only the earthworks is free but there is a charge to see the main structure, the Jacob Faulcon House.

SMITH'S FORT PLANTATION - JACOB FAULCON HOUSE - Built between 1751 - 1765, it was thought for years to have been inhabited by the Rolfe family in the 17th century.  (See photo left)
Recently, new technology has proven the structure dates a 100 years beyond what was first believed.  James Faulcon was a merchant. He sold goods to the various households in Surry County.  His home was the retail store of his day.  The downstairs was where he displayed his wares.  The family lived very Spartan like upstairs.This home has been completely restored and is available for guided tours.  For more information, see the website:

The tour of this home was by far the best of our trip and one of the best tours I have ever experienced anywhere.  The reason?  Our tour guide was a very learned and historically energetic man by the name of Doug Reynolds.  Make SURE he is your tour guide, ask for him by name.  By the time you finish the tour you will pinch yourself to make sure it's not 1770!  Doug will introduce you, not just to the property, not just to the history but the very real people who once lived here...both free and slave.  Downstairs you will see something intriguing,  At first glance it may appear to be just any run-of-the-mill touristy gift shop,  It is more of a museum / retail store.  There are a few "touristy" items but for the most part what is for sale is material directly related to this very place.  There is much primary and secondary research material here for sale.  Doug loves to take questions so don't hold back!  Smith's Fort Plantation is money well spent.

EDWARDS HAMS, SURRY, VA. - There are few restaurants of any kind in Surry County BUT the one's that are there are fantastic!  For lunch we stopped by a very special local favorite, Edwards Hams.  (Edwards photos courtesy of YELP)   Highly recommended by everyone we met (including Doug), the food was exceptional.  The shaded front porch dining, the incredible sweet and spicy chow-chow and delectible Virginia ham made an experience out of lunch! Edwards suffered a devastating fire back in January and are slowly coming back on line.
Edwards has a very large on-line order business and one can enjoy world class ham by just clicking on a mouse. I can assure you that the next time I'm in the area I will most assuredly be stopping by again!  In addition to lunch, Edwards has a very nice selection of food related gifts, cookbooks and sundries.  The staff is attentive and friendly.  Food prep is to order and you may have a few minutes to wait but it will be worth it!  For more info, check out their website at:  One other thing, Edwards is American owned and operated.  At a time when the largest Virginia based ham provider has been sold to the Chinese, patronage of Edwards is downright American!

BACON'S CASTLE - By far the most visited of all Surry County historical sites is Bacon's Castle.  It was also our most disappointing site to visit despite the fact that it should be one of the premier historical site presentations in all of America.  (Public domain photo via Bing Images)
The tour was lackluster, elementary and very touristy.  Our tour guide seemed bored and in a hurry to get our group through the house.  The vibrant history associated with the site was left to last and was far from informative.  Worst of all was the very disappointing gift shop.  It lacked serious books, maps and other source material.  What was there was embarrassingly politically correct.  On display were a number of fictional and quasi "historical" books focusing on nearly everything but the very important history that took place there in 1676.  Having said this, any visit here is worthwhile because of the homes architectural significance.  Technically, the "Arthur Allen House" built in 1665, Bacon's Castle is the oldest remaining all brick home in Virginia.  More significantly, Bacon's Castle is the only remaining "Jacobean" style home left in America.  If you're into architecture, by all means go.  If you're into history, go...but do your own research first.  For more info, here's their website:

CHIPPOKES PLANTATION - Located inside Chippokes Plantation State Park, Chippokes Plantation is another "must see" historical attraction to experience in Surry County.  A rarity in America, Chippokes Plantation has been a continuously working farm since the land was first granted in 1619...nearly 400 years!  In that year, the lieutenant governor of Virginia, Captain William Powell was granted nearly 1,500 acres of rich farm land just across the James River from Jamestown.  Sadly, Captain Powell was killed in a firefight with the Chickahominy Indians in 1623.  His son, George Powell inherited the land from his father.
(Photo left: a view of the James River from the Chippokes property.)  A natural for both farming and trade Chippokes Plantation has had an economic impact ever since.  The Powell family eventually sold the land in 1837 to Alert Carroll Jones of Isle of Wight County for $12,000.00.  He resided in an older structure on the property known as the "River House" for 16 years until he completed his new mansion house in 1854.
Jones - Wilson Mansion House.  Photo by Virginia State
Parks staff Beautiful grounds at Chippokes Uploaded by
Albert Herring, via Wikipedia Commons
It is said that the plantation survived the Civil War because Jones sold his home made brandy to soldiers of both sides.  Jones died in 1882  and the property passed from one relative to another until his sister, Isabella Cuthbert.  On September 24, 1918, she sold the property at public auction for $47,000.00 to Victor W. and Evelyn Stewart of Wilson, NC.  The Stewart's restored the Jones mansion house and added a modern bed and bath addition in 1955.  Mr. Stewart passed away in 1965.  In 1967, Mrs. Stewart, not wanting the property to be subdivided by relatives, donated the entire property to the Commonwealth of Virginia for perpetual use as a museum, a park and a working farm.  She passed away in 1969.  Both Victor and Evelyn are buried in the lovely garden on the property.  Like we found at the James Faulcon House with Doug Reynolds, we found another enthusiastic and informed historian at the Jones - Stewart House at Chippokes.  Her name is Gloria LaBoone.  Her mother was a personal friend of the late Evelyn Stewart.  She has a true love for this home, it's history, gardens and preservation.  Make SURE she is your tour guide!  You will be mesmerized.  (Ask her about the mirror placement in the home and why there is a portrait of Pres. Lincoln in the foyer)  Also, make sure you go to the garage and see Mr. Stewart's 1941 Packard.  You will appreciate Chippokes. There is a modest admission cost.  For more information, check out their website:

SURRY SEAFOOD COMPANY - The last stop of our day was Surry Seafood Company.
We enjoyed a fine meal and a view second to none.  SSC is brand new and is likely the finest dining establishment in all of Surry County.  Jack's ancestors, the Hart's, had a land grant on Gray's Creek and "may" have owned this track of land at one time.  SSC is located on the banks of Gray's Creek and as you can see, the view is spectacular!  I enjoyed a fine plate of fried clams and oysters.  The sweet tea was good, done "southern style."  Prices were reasonable, the staff friendly and the clientele quiet.  Should you want to take your boat, there is a new boat ramp next door to the restaurant.  Check out their website:

The Traveling Patriot enjoyed this trip to Surry County, Virginia. You will as well.  You will experience some of the oldest history in America, experience rare sights and reconnect with America's exceptional past.  Visit Monday - Wednesday for the best value and choice in lodging and food.  If you have time and opportunity, visit other compelling places across the James in America's "Historic Triangle."

  1. Boddie, John Bennett. Colonial Surry. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1974. Web., March 12, 2013. (Via Wikipedia)

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