Halloween brings out a series of ghost tours throughout Virginia from Colonial Williamsburg to Alexandria, Fredericksburg, Portsmouth, and so on. But such tours have only become popular recently. They’re popular, and draw large crowds to Virginia’s many famous sites, but why were such tours frowned upon for so long?
Dr. Alena Pirok joins me to discuss Ghost Stories and their importance to Colonial Williamsburg as well as Virginia. She details how Ghost Stories influenced Colonial Williamsburg’s founding, as well as how Virginian’s have viewed ghosts historically. Her new book reveals just how important those stories were and still are to the Commonwealth. Without them, Virginia’s tourist industry would never be the same. In fact, those frowned upon stories paved the way for the largest history museum in the world’s creation. They might even ensure that such places continue to endure well into the future.
Virginia’s earliest history saw the colony grow unlike other British and European colonies. The setup was quite sparse with no cities and at best a few small towns along major river outlets. In time, settlers began pushing westward into the Piedmont and mountainous regions. With such moves came new opportunities and ways of life. Through it all, Virginians continued to build smaller town centers along new roads. One such town was Abingdon, which slowly sprang into life along the Great Wagon Road extending southward into Tennessee.
During the mid to late 18th Century men like Daniel Boone and William Byrd III explored the region, before settlers under Thomas Walker began building homes along the Road. Because of unrest between settlers and the nearby Cherokee tribe the English built Black’s Fort, which saw some action during Lord Dunmore’s War, as well as the American War for Independence. After the latter war the settlement around Black’s Fort became known as Abingdon – so named perhaps due to a connection to Martha Washington’s home town Abingdon-on-Thames.
The Settlement continued to grow around a strong community of Scots-Irish immigrants, who built a marked local identity in their adopted Appalachian homeland. Though small population growth steadily increased during the 19th and 20th Centuries, Abingdon never lost her identity. One of the surest ways to witness Abingdon’s charm is visiting her historic district, which, in a nod to the Martha Washington tradition, includes places like the Martha Washington Inn – the former Martha Washington College.
Across the street from the college-turned-inn is the locally and internationally renowned Barter Theatre, or as it is officially known, State Theatre of Virginia. The Theatre moved into an old Presbyterian church during the Great Depression’s darkest days. Work was hard to find for anyone, which meant that little money could be spared for actors trying to ply their trade.
It was during this time that 5th generation Scottish descendant Robert Porterfield from nearby Wythe County embarked upon an acting career and returned to Southwestern Virginia. He worked hard to discover a way to help struggling actors, and founded the Barter Theatre in the process.
Since Porterfield’s original founding of the Theatre, only 3 others have served as the Producing Artistic Director, with Katy Brown being the current office holder. She’s the first woman to hold the position and the perfect person to discuss the Theatre’s history. She joins me to illustrate the Barter as well as offer a glimpse into Abingdon’s charming community.
All photography used on this site is owned and copyrighted by the author unless otherwise noted. All images for this episode are used with permission from the Barter Theatre, and can be found on their Facebook Page.
Music used for this episode – Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers,”Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” available on Apple Music, and selections from “The Appalachian Spring Suite” by Aaron Copeland, performed by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein also available on Apple Music.
Piracy became quite a serious issue for Colonial Virginia during the late 17th Century. Many leading figures were split regarding how to handle the situation. Some didn’t want to handle it at all, as they saw piracy as useful outlet circumventing the hated Navigation Acts.
Governor Francis Nicholson chose to fight. His choice affected the colony in profound ways, as our guest for this episode argues in his newest book Colonial Virginia’s War Against Piracy: The Governor and the Buccaneer. Jeremy illustrates a battle that took place between the Virginia Capes, at the inlet of the Lynnhaven Bay.
Nicholson, the oft-beleaguered governor, won the day. His victory helped future governors in their fight against piracy, most famously Alexander Spottswood’s involvement with Blackbeard. It also aided in bolstering rule of law in such a way that later influenced the American War for Independence.
Tune in to this episode to learn more about Nicholson’s fight with Louis Guittar, and then click the links below to purchase Mr. Moss’s books, as well as follow his work.
All photography used on this site is owned and copyrighted by the author unless otherwise noted. The Featured Image is Mr. Moss’s newest book – Colonial Virginia’s War Against Piracy: The Governor and the Buccaneer, from The History Press.
Researching Virginia’s First Families can be an adventure. For anyone studying the Wormeleys this is certainly true. Their connections extend far back into World History, linking them to many of Medieval and Early Modern names and places.
Eventually a branch of the Wormeleys from Hatfield, Yorkshire extended into the Caribbean and then northward to Virginia, where they first settled along the York River at a creek bearing their name today – Wormeley Creek.
Their formerly important status came with them, in custom at least, when they established early plantations, most notably Rosegill along Urbanna Creek on what Virginian’s call the Middle Peninsula. From there, the Wormeley name is found deeply embedded into Virginia’s rich history.
Though they rose to prominence with celerity, their demise came even more rapidly. The Wormeley’s found themselves on the losing side of the American War for Independence, and suffered for it.
Another Wormley line appeared as the main line faded. This one claims to have potentially descended from the Wormeley’s, but conclusive proof has been elusive. Regardless, the Wormley‘s, most likely former Wormeley slaves, were very influential after the American Civil War in establishing schools for black children. They also ran an important D.C. Hotel that was used to broker the Compromise of 1877, allowing Rutheford B. Hayes to become President.
Today’s Wormeleys are all over the world, but they can be confident in that their imprint is firmly stamped upon not only Virginia’s history, but also England’s and much of the world as well. For that, the Wormeley’s are an intriguing study, and should not be forgotten.
Perhaps the Armisteads, pronounced “Ahmi-steyud” by colonial Virginians, are not the most important First Family of Virginia, but their impact is without question. They feature in most First Family genealogies, including two presidential lines the Tylers and Harrisons. They also have ties to other important figures such as Robert E. Lee and Robert “King” Carter to name a few.
Beyond family connections, the Armisteads were involved in settling along early Hampton and Norfolk as well as the Middle Peninsula, where the main family branch settled. Soon thereafter, the Armisteads were involved in not only Virginia, but also Maryland, and then North Carolina, before they started to spread south and westward into the evolving United States.
Along the journey, Armisteads featured in all of early America’s Wars from Independence to 1812, Mexico, and the Civil War to name a few. The most notable figures from those conflicts were William and his slave James, George, and Lewis Armistead respectively.
The Armisteads did more than fight America’s wars; however, they helped unite leading families, and build a Commonwealth as well as a newly formed Country. For that, their inclusion in the First Family list is undeniable.
Music used for the first episode – Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers,”Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” available on Apple Music, and “The Crossing” performed by The East Pointers, also available on Apple Music.
It’s hard to think about Yorktown, VA without the Nelson family. In fact, one could say it another way – It’s hard to think about the Nelson family without Yorktown. They were so instrumental in creating the once prominent port city that they’ve often been called the city’s founders. Whether they were or not is debatable, but what is not debatable is that Yorktown as we know it would not have existed.
“Scotch Tom” emigrated to Virginia in the early 18th Century, began many businesses, and established a solid foundation for his descendants in the process.
Those descendants became major figures that shaped Virginia and then the United State’s History. Undoubtedly that history would be quite different had this important family not existed, which is why the Nelson’s must be discussed.
The Parke Family may not have endured as the others on the First Family list, but their impact, mostly negative due to Daniel Parke, Jr, is undeniable. They burst onto the scene in both England and Virginia relatively quickly. Within a few generations, all that remained of them was their name, which was curiously demanded to be added to any who wanted to inherit Parke wealth.
The Parkes helped build Yorktown and Williamsburg. In the process, they found themselves at the heart of a thriving colonial community. It was a community that the last Parke male heir wanted to govern, but he couldn’t govern himself. In the end, the family that had intermarried with Ludwells, Byrds, and Custises saw their inheritance pass into those and other leading families of their day.
All families on the First Families list were involved across the world in one way or another, but arguably no one was more involved than the Custises.
Their family history is relatively short, but from their rather humble beginnings as Cliffes in England, they grew into important figures. The Cliffe name morphed into Custis, and then the Custis name spread to Ireland, Belgium, The Netherlands, the Caribbean, and Virginia.
Along the way, they mingled with royalty and aided some of history’s most famous people. Then, they became important and famous themselves. The main Virginia Custis line may have ended in the 1850s, but their accomplishments and landmarks endure, from the somewhat obscure Custis tombs to the hallowed Arlington National Cemetery. Indeed, without them, there wouldn’t be an Arlington.
In this pair of episodes, we take a look at the Custis family beginnings, and detail how they became the great family who played an important part in so much of Virginia’s history.
All photography used on this site is owned and copyrighted by the author unless otherwise noted. The Featured Image is of the Custis Family Crest. Woodlawn and the Tudor Place are both from Wikipedia. The Arlington Mansion sketch is from Northampton County.
Westover is one of the great James River Plantation manor homes. After the Byrd family purchased the land, they undertook the spectacular monument meant to reflect their prestigious colonial position. The Byrd’s left their mark all over the land, from William Byrd II’s grave to powerful eagles adorning the carriage entrance gates. A nearby graveyard once attached to Westover Parish also contains Byrd family remains.
Beyond the tangible reminders, however, the Byrd’s left a much more ethereal, paranormal reminder behind. William Byrd II’s daughter Evelyn Byrd, the colonial beauty, who, according to tradition, caught King George I’s attention, causing him to comment about all of the beautiful birds in his Virginia colony, fell in love during her English visit. Her love choice, however, was not met with William’s pleasure. He demanded their separation, which sent Evelyn into despair.
Upon the Byrds’ return to Virginia, William became more detached and Evelyn fell into melancholy. She never married. She did cultivate at least one close friendship and that was with neighbor Anne Harrison. The pair made a pact stating that whoever died first would visit the other who remained alive.
That pact was put to the test just before Evelyn’s 30th birthday, she caught smallpox and died soon thereafter. Evelyn honored her agreement, and ever since that first meeting between ghost and living, Evelyn has been witnessed by many.
All photography used on this site is owned and copyrighted by the author unless otherwise noted. The featured image and subsequent images are from my various trips to Westover and Evelynton Plantations.
If one is seeking to understand the philosophy driving The 1619 Project as well as the Project‘s goals, then Dr. Grabar’s work is a must read. I trust our discussion illustrates my claim, and that my listeners will get a copy of this important new book.
All photography used on this site is owned and copyrighted by the author unless otherwise noted. The Featured Image is Dr. Mary Grabar from the author’s website.
Music used for this episode – Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers,”Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” available on Apple Music, and Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber, The New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein also available on Apple Music.