Shirley Plantation is the oldest James River Plantation, as well as North America’s longest continually running business. Having been founded in 1613, Shirley Plantation has been a part of Virginia’s history from Thomas Dale’s administration to the present, as the Hill-Carter Family treasure on the James River can attest. It is fitting, therefore, that one of the most famous Virginia ghost stories comes from her historic location.
Martha Hill, known better as Aunt Pratt, “Pratt” being a family pet name, was the daughter of Edward Hill III. She didn’t spend much time at Shirley, but she was part of the Hill family, which entitled her to have a portrait painted and added to the family collection.
Aunt Pratt moved to England after she finished her schooling, married one Hugh Griffin (Griffith and Gifford in some sources), before she passed away, never having returned to Shirley in her lifetime. But many believe that she returned after her death, as can be evidenced by the utterly bizarre happening centered upon that now famous family portrait.
All photography used on this site is owned and copyrighted by the author unless otherwise noted. The featured image is of Aunt Pratt’s famous portrait. All subsequent images are from my visits to Shirley Plantation.
Thomas Dale and his fellow Virginia Company leaders spent much time in Ireland before they trekked to Virginia. While they were subjugating the Irish, Dale and others learned a few things about how to set up a system of plantations.
It was reasoned that the best way to dominate a region was to first subdue it, and then build self-sustaining units on the newly conquered lands. Dale certainly subscribed to this school of thought, and began establishing a plantation system along the James River.
This system would not, however, be centered upon Jamestown. It was too unhealthy. Instead, Dale had Henricus built, but he planned an even larger power center on the bluffs overlooking the James and Appomattox Rivers that he called Bermuda Cittie.
Bermuda Cittie would then be the governing location overseeing a series of 5 separate plantations that were all established in 1613 –
Nether Hundred (Later called Bermuda Hundred)
West and Shirley
Diggs His Hundred
These 5 plantations, however, were not the only plots of land that had activity on them. Many claim that in 1614 Captain John Martin began working the lands of what is today Upper and Lower Brandon Plantation.
It’s hard to validate the claim, as it is hard to say much about any work done on these plantations, but the 351 settlers still alive by 1616 were busily, if not miserably, working lands along the James River. It was their work on increasingly independent lands that began making Virginia a desirable destination. A destination that attracted a greater migration after 1616.