If I were to write a History Tourist romance novel, it might go something like this: A beautiful foreign traveler tours a historic southern plantation. She falls in love with the tour guide and he with her. The tour guide turns out to be none other than the owner of the plantation, a member of the first of the First Families of Virignia. His family objects: she’s not a Randolph, or a Lee, or a Custis, or a Hill. Her family objects: he’s … he’s… American. Still, love conquors all, they marry, and she becomes mistress of the plantation.
There exists almost 50 plantation houses built in the early 18th century — collectively called “the James River Plantations” — along the James River south of Richmond, Virginia. So there no shortage of sites where I could set my novel. There were two James River plantations open to the public along our route from Jamestown to Richmond: Berkeley, birthplace of 9th U.S. President William Henry Harrison, and Shirley. We opted for Shirley for no more profound reason than it was the first place we found.
Four thousand acres on the James River in southeastern Virginia was given by James I to Thomas West, 3rd Baron de la Warr, Virginia’s first governor (for whom the state of Delaware was named) in 1618. West named the property Shirley, for his wife, Cicely Shirley.
In 1651, West sold Shirley (the property, not the wife) to Edward Hill, a politician and solider. It was Edward’s great-granddaughter, Elizabeth Hill, and her husband, John Carter, who built the house at Shirley Plantation, finishing it in 1738. John Carter was the son of Robert Carter, the wealthiest man in colonial Virginia.
Shirley is a pleasant change from the plantation story we’d heard through our Virginia travels: the owners live above their means and the house gets sold to pay debts. The house at Shirley has always belonged and continues to belong to the Carters. Current owner, Charles Hill Carter III, is a direct descendant, ten generations removed, of the original Edward Hill.
The guided tour covers the first floor of the main house, consisting of an entry hall (with the house’s most striking element: a flying staircase), a dining room, a parlor and a bedroom. The Carter family occupies the upper floors.
“Who are the ladies in the three portraits?” asked Kathie.
The guide talked about two of them, then quickly ushered us out before anyone could ask a follow-up about the third portrait, of a young, early-18th-century woman in blue. The third, a little online research showed, is of Martha Hill Pratt, younger sister of the house-building Elizabeth Hill Carter. There’s a ghost story associated with the portrait (it moves whenever it isn’t happy with where it’s located), and our guess about the guide’s incomplete response is that she just didn’t want to talk about it.
The tour is 90% family stories and 10% objects and architecture. I prefer more of a balance but, in my experience, that’s the way it is with privately-owned properties. They tell what they know and what they know is their own family history. We visited the outbuildings — kitchen, laundry, ice house, store house, stable and others — on our own. There also is a small exhibit of artifacts found on the property.
Just because the house was never sold doesn’t meant that family fortunes didn’t go up and down. Family fortunes were down in the early 20th century when John D. Rockefeller offered to buy the plantation, because he thought it would make a nice ancillary property to Colonial Williamsburg, about 30 miles away. The Carters refused, but they did sell him a portrait of George Washington by Charles Willson Peale for $75,000. It now hangs in the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum at Colonial Williamsburg. When asked how she could sell such an heirloom, Marion Carter Oliver apparently replied, “Well, it’s not like he’s family.”
The Carters corresponded voraciously and kept record meticulously, so their history is well-recorded. The family papers are in the collection of the Colonial Williamsburg library. In the introduction to the catalog of the collection, Williamsburg’s archives director gives an interesting account of his search for all the papers, which were scattered throughout the property. They found letters from Robert E. Lee (whose mother was a Carter of Shirley), in the hayloft in the barn. Among the letters: reams of correspondence from Landonia Randolph (her mother was a Shirley Carter and her husband’s sister was married to the Shirley owner) recording her efforts, in the years right before the Civil War, to free her slaves and repatriate them to Liberia.
When my romance novel becomes a blockbuster movie, the promos will say that it’s “based on a true story.” Helle Klingemann was a Danish tourist on a visit to Shirley Plantation in the 1950s when she caught the eye of the tour guide. That guide was Charles Hill Carter Jr., the owner of Shirley Plantation, who was trying to keep the family estate together by opening the house for tours. I made up the strum and drang: for all I know, their families loved each other on first sight. But what is true is that they married and she was mistress of the plantation for 49 years, until he passed away in 2009.
Sad for aspiring young plantation mistresses that the Carters no longer need to guide tours themselves. Shirley tourism is a thriving business and the only family we saw were the cats.