Bacon’s Castle and Smith’s Fort

Bacon’s Castle in Surry, Virginia, is not too far north of the town of Smithfield.  Smithfield is known for producing ham, which comes from pigs, who also provide bacon.  Which is the reason the house is called “Bacon’s Castle.”

I kid.  It’s just that the true story of how Bacon’s Castle came to be named is equally … reaching.  Nathaniel Bacon lead colonists in a 1676 armed rebellion again Virginia Governor William Berkley that became known as Bacon’s Rebellion.  During the rebellion, some of Bacon’s troops occupied the house (Bacon himself never set foot on the property) and — based on archeological finds — spent a lot of time drinking in the wine cellar. That’s the tenuous connection that gives the house its name.  No attempts to explain the “castle” except by Wikipedia, which says that because it was occupied by troops, it was considered a “fort,” which is almost the same as a “castle.”  Really?

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Bacon’s Castle is the oldest datable brick house in Virginia, built in 1665 by planter Arthur Allen.  Arthur Allen’s son was a stanch royalist, which is how he came under attack by Bacon’s troops.  Bacon lost Bacon’s Rebellion and the house returned to the Allen family, where it stayed until 1844.  It’s now owned by Preservation Virginia, and is open to the public.  It is, says Preservation Virginia’s website, “one of only three surviving high-style Jacobean structures in the Western Hemisphere.”  The other two are in Barbados.

The historic sites west of the James River in southeastern Virginia seemed to be (somewhat) on the road between North Carolina and home.  So we took an extra day to wander the area and see as much as we could, starting with Bacon’s Castle.

There were more people there than I expected, possibly because it was Virginia Historic Garden Week and Bacon’s Castle was on the Garden Week’s tour.  The house can be seen by guided tour only, and started with an intro by the tour guide.  We then went through all three stories of the house, starting with the servant’s sleeping quarters at the top and working our way down to where the kitchen once was, in the basement.  Be careful coming down the steps from the third floor to the second – one of the frequently told stories about Bacon’s Castle is that there’s a ghost who will push visitors down the stairs.

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The thing I remember most about the house: there was a lot of 19th century graffiti found when wallpaper was removed during restoration.  One says, in what looks like a child’s hand, “September 20, 1888. I am sick today.”  The husband of the last of the Allens to live in the house scratched a love poem to her in a window pane.

Preservation Virginia has kept the structure of the house as it was when they acquired it in the 1970s.  That means that 19th and 20th century alterations and additions remain.  If you look at the front of the house, in the photo at the top of this post, the original house is on your left.  In the mid 1800s, the two story Georgian on the right replaced a smaller structure, and the front door was moved to the hyphen.  You can see the shadow of the original door and pediment in the pop-out in the original part of the house.

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There also were dependencies, including slave quarters, and a circa 1690 formal English-style garden.  Garden Week aside, it was a late spring this year and the gardens weren’t doing much of anything that third week in April.

There’s also one room of artifacts found on site.  No photographs allowed of the interior of the house and the guide was refreshingly candid about why.  “We want you to buy our book,” she said.

After Bacon’s Castle, we drove a few miles north to Smith Fort Plantation.  The sign on the door said something along the lines of, “Giving a tour.  Please wait for next tour.”  We wandered the garden.  Again, not much happening there, so we sat on a bench and enjoyed the afternoon sun.  Soon, the doors out of the basement opened and a group wandered out.  With them came the guide, who approached and invited us in.

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The house was built in the mid-18th century by a Jacob Faulcon and was bought and restored by John D. Rockefeller Jr. in 1930s. It’s a beautiful little brick Flemish bond brick building with original wood paneled walls and built-ins.   The guide explained that because it had always been owned by a class of people who couldn’t afford to renovate, the house had not changed much from the time it had been built.  The house is furnished with English and American antiques “mostly donated to us by various people,” said the guide (I think his name was Ed, but don’t hold me to that).

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But the property’s claim to fame lies with the fact that it is directly across the river from Jamestown and was once the site of a fort built by John Smith in 1608.  The land belonged to Chief Powhatan and he gave it to John Rolfe on Rolfe’s marriage to his daughter, Matoaka (aka Pocahontas), in 1614.  The land eventually was inherited by their son, Thomas.

After the house tour, the guide encouraged us to visit the site of Smith’s Fort, down a narrow, pothole-ridden dirt road.  There isn’t anything there now except a mound and a sign that says, “On this site in early 1608 a new fort was built by the first settlers of the Jamestown Colony under the leadership of Captain John Smith for protection from Indian attacks and the Spanish.”

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If you’re in the area and have time for only one tour, I’d recommend Smith Fort over Bacon’s Castle.  The house is a gorgeous little gem, and – the primary reason – the guide is amazing.  He seems to be a one-man visitor services department, and knew everything there was to know about the property.

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11 Responses to Bacon’s Castle and Smith’s Fort

  1. Those are both on my list of to-dos. I can’t wait to get out that way – what beautiful homes!

  2. I love the origin’s of names. My granddaughter is called Molly Petcher and I never knew until she was named about the story of Molly Pitcher!

  3. Molly Pitcher — I haven’t run across her since I was a child. What a fun namesake for a little girl.

  4. Kathie Shattuck says:

    Always wanted to see Bacon’s Castle. Massachusetts also has a T-shaped 17th century two story mansion – the Spencer Pierce Little Farm in Newbury. Dates to 1690 and now owned by Historic New England (previously the Society for Preservation of New England Antiquities – SPNEA, you can see why they changed the name!!) One of my favorities of their houses, they have kept different rooms at different time frames. And it still sits in 200 acres of farmed land, so you get to see it without modern distractions, which I love. The Fort does look like a perfect little jewel with that great brickwork, wood roof and all the land around it. Very peaceful.

  5. I am rather surprised to hear there are only three Jacobean properties remaining in the western hemisphere. Or doesn’t Great Britain count? I think we have rather more than three left.

  6. Dianna says:

    My mother grew up in Bacon’s Castle with her parents and 11 siblings. They lived in the house from 1921-1941. Thomas Rolfe sold the property at Smith’s Fort to Thomas Warren, who was my 8th great grandfather. I’m proud of my deep roots!

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