A Visit to A Colonial Estate, by Frederick S. Daniel

A Visit to a Colonial Estate

By Frederick S. Daniel

Note: The following essay is taken from the March 1888 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (vol. 76, pp. 517–24), published in New York by Harper & Brothers, Publishers. Its author, Frederick Stone Daniel, was during the Civil War an aide-de-camp to Confederate General John Buchanan Floyd (1806—1863). Daniel wrote two other articles for Harper’s, ?In an Old Virginia Town? (March 1885, pp. 601–12), and ?Some Colonial and Revolutionary Letters? (July 1890, pp. 205–9); he also contributed to Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly. Daniel wrote a book-length war memoir, Richmond Howitzers in the War: Four Years Campaigning with the Army of Northern Virginia (Richmond, 1891), and privately printed a volume of essays written by his brother, John Moncure Daniel (1825—1865), the pro-slavery editor of the Richmond Examiner, entitled The Richmond Examiner During the War, or, The Writings of John M. Daniel (New York, 1868).

Romancoke Plantation



AS it was first settled, and has been least disturbed, the section of Virginia between Richmond and the sea affords today the best preserved landmarks of the beginnings of the nation.

These South Virginia counties show up in a sadly neglected condition; their principal merit consists in the fact that they are dotted thick with relics from the colonial era—dwelling-houses, churches, monuments, estates. One may fancy that Washington, who was familiar with and lived in the neighborhood, would recognize it at sight if he were to be suddenly brought back to life. To a certain extent things remain pretty much as they were looked upon by that serene countenance. There has been no immigration: the people are of the original stock, handed down from father to son, with the same speech, manners, and ways, and are sparsely settled on large estates and small farms. Two small intersecting railroads scarcely mar the retrospect. In many respects, however, the appearance of this portion of Virginia is vastly different from that presented under its well-to-do owners who were the contemporaries of Washington. Then it flourished under the impulse given by wealthy and intelligent English settlers, who established perforce their homes where they first landed. Gradually, as they died off, their descendants moved to other more fertile and healthy portions of the State, and ultimately spread out upon the continent. As this gradual abandonment of the first area settled was persevered in, it is not surprising that the counties between Richmond and the sea became, as it were, obsolete, and at last fell into the wrecked and ruined condition in which they are now seen. The attractions elsewhere being so great, the area of the early settlements, even with their fine old buildings and monuments, but also with their swamps and fevers was given up, and thus it was, according to the Virginian claim, that North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and several other Indian reservations were peopled and enabled to be admitted as States in the Union. Within the decayed circle there still exist under cultivation several large estates inherited from the old colonial owners; but as a rule the land has a sorry, forlorn aspect.

Upon invitation the writer recently visited the owner of a colonial estate situated on the Pamunkey River, in the counties of King William and New Kent. A truly rural railway passes through this estate on the way from Richmond to the village of West Point, at the head of York River; but as it is a short line (the distance being only forty miles), and little patronized, its accommodations are rustic, its trains running at such a moderate rate of speed as to create the impression in the wayfarer’s mind that the engine-drivers are opposed to disturbing the sweet repose of the wilderness to which they are accustomed. For verily the line passes through a wilderness of trees and swamps.

Robert E. Lee
Photographed by G. S. Cook, Richmond, Virginia.

When we had reached a distance of thirty-four miles from Richmond, the conductor obligingly stopped the train to put us off at the station called for by our tickets. The name of this station–a roof on four poles–was “Romancoke,” and “Romancoke” also was the name of the colonial estate whither we were bound. Emerging from the clump of pines around the station, we soon came in view of refreshingly open fields extending for miles, and saw, about a mile distant, the jaunty cottage inhabited by the owner of “Romancoke,” Mr. R. E. Lee, Jun., the youngest son of General R. E. Lee. “Romancoke” and “White House,” consisting of a tract of eight thousand acres, constitute what was formerly known as, and is still called, the “Washington estate,” from the fact that Washington came into possession of it by his marriage with Mrs. Martha Custis, and lived at the “White House” a short while after his marriage, before transferring his residence to Mount Vernon. George Washington Parke Custis, the adopted son of Washington, bequeathed the estate to his daughter, who was the wife of General Lee, and from her it was inherited by his son.

The “White House” portion of the estate is about ten miles from Romancoke, and the site of the old building in which Washington and his wife dwelt is now occupied by a small modern structure. As one nears the “White House,” souvenirs bearing upon the great national hero thicken. Not far off, on the road leading from Richmond to New Kent Court House, there is still pointed out the farm of “P. Chamberlayne, Esq.,” at whose country-seat the hero first met the blooming young Martha Custis, then a widow of three years’ standing, with two children.

Although G. W. Parke Custis, in his Recollections, states that Washington’s marriage took place at the “White House,” then the residence of Mrs. Martha Custis, and other historians have merely followed his statement, it is still a mooted point whether the marriage took place there or at St. Peter’s Church, which is three miles distant. The tradition of the neighborhood is that the ceremony occurred at the church. The Rev. Henry S. Kepler, who was the last rector in charge of it, related to his son an account of the affair, obtained from an aged servant of the Custis family, which asserts the marriage to have taken place at the church. In substance this account was as follows: “I recollect all about it, because I was one of the servants at the ‘White House’ at the time. The wedding took place at St. Peter’s Church. I saw them married, and I saw the wedding party coming back from the church to the ‘ White House,’ where the festivities, dancing, etc., occurred. All the servants on the entire estate were given a holiday for the day, and all, in their holiday attire, joined in the general merrymaking. Washington and Mrs. Custis rode to the church in a gorgeous chariot, and the invited persons followed them in vehicles of various shapes. When they stood up before the minister to be married, Washington towered beside his betrothed, who looked unusually small and low in stature, and this difference was remarked on by all who had been present. Washington was in uniform, and Mrs. Custis was arrayed in a fine white silk dress. As they came out of the church the newly united couple had a joyful appearance, Washington himself smiling upon and chatting with several of the attendants. He looked very youthful and handsome, and tripped around in a very lively manner. When the whole party got back to the ‘White House,’ it rang with laughter, merriment, music, and dancing; a good deal of wine was drunk at the supper, which was of the genuine old-fashioned sort, but there was no intoxication or disorderly proceedings. Washington and his bride took part in the dancing of the minuet, but retired early; the rest of the assembly enjoyed their fun until a very late hour, some staying in the house all night, and others departing for their homes. All the house servants were given a piece of the wedding-cake and a small gratification in money. The next morning Washington, Who was an early riser, took breakfast with his bride in their chamber before any of the guests had risen.”

Washington's Breakfast Table

That the couple took breakfast “in chambers,” as it were, is rendered quite likely from a tradition to that effect, and a piece of furniture handed down in the Custis family, viz., the identical small table upon which the wedding breakfast was served, and which was transferred from the “White House” to the cottage at Romancoke, where it is now preciously preserved, along with the old warming-pan which was used in airing the sheets on the wedding bed. The table is small, about three feet square, but quite sufficient to hold a déjeuner à la fourchette, such as we may fancy that to have been, although all signs or notes of the menu are lacking. Of course this little table is dingy and rickety now; a part of the top has been removed, but the bottom slips still hold the four legs firmly together.

St. Peter's Church

St. Peter’s Church was erected in 1703, at a cost of 146,000-weight of tobacco— currency of the locality; its steeple was put up twelve years afterward. Both on account of its record and its simple, pleasing old English architecture, it is the most attractive colonial church still standing in Virginia. It is built in the form of a parallelogram, with tower and surmounting steeple connecting at one end with the body of the edifice, all the proportions finely harmonizing. The walls of red brick are three feet thick, the windows are small, with rounded tops; the tower is quite large, with four rising projections capped with spheres, and is surmounted with a low steeple, holding on its extremity the cross-keys of St. Peter as a weather vane.

Langston, Pamunkey Chief

A short distance below the “White House” we passed through a curious collection of log huts and cabins, situated on the banks of the river, and constituting what is styled in the neighborhood “Pamunkey Town.” It is a settlement of Indians, the last remnant of King Powhatan’s fierce Pamunkeys and Mattaponies, who were the terror of the early English settlers. They number about sixty persons, including men, women, and children, and are the most peacefully inclined part of the State’s population to-day. They have a government reservation adjoining of fifteen hundred acres of land, which they cultivate, and upon which they hunt and fish, these latter pastimes being the ruling passions strong in their decay. None of these Indians, who have dubbed themselves the “Pocahontas” tribe, are of pure blood, as their progenitors for several generations intermarried with the negroes, whom they resemble in appearance and habits, despite the distinct Indian marks stamped on their faces. The land on which they reside is exempted from taxation by the State government. Hunting and fishing being their chief delights, it need scarcely be remarked that they are poor farmers, and rather thriftless on the whole. They still make pottery after the fashion of their ancestors, and it is said that their jars, whether from the peculiar quality of the clay or the making process, have the advantage of keeping milk sweet for a long time. A habit of yearly sending presents of game and fish to the Governor of Virginia is one of the very few old customs they adhere to. Not a trace of Indian language is to be found in their speech, which consists of corrupt English.

Fishing Shores at Indian Reservation

The present owner of Romancoke has in his possession the original deed by which the estate was conveyed to the Custis family. This yellow-stained old parchment bears the signatures of Thomas Jefferson and Carter Braxton (“signers”) as witnesses. “Romancoke” is an Indian name, used on Captain John Smith’s map, and it has been construed to mean a circling of water, as at that point the Pamunkey River makes a bend of seven miles, which at its neck is only a quarter of a mile across. The land enclosed in this bend is only covered with grass and weeds, and presents a fine open-plain view backed by forest and hill. The Romancoke cottage is located immediately on the banks of the river, near the narrowest portion of this little peninsula; the site is charming, as one can stand in the vine-covered porch and scan the passing panorama of steamers, tugs, arid sail craft of every description as these dot the distant horizon. There are no stately trees around the cottage, and it stands out emphatically in bold relief on the plain, though there is an orchard with young fruit trees, and shrubs and flower bushes in the garden round about. The owner of the estate is a practical farmer, and all its operations are carried on under his personal supervision and direction. The nearest neighboring dwelling is three miles away. The building is tasteful in external form, and cozy and comfortable within. Its contents, rather than the house itself, are noteworthy, for, with the exception of a few modern implements and contrivances, most of the furniture and other household objects date from the olden days, and have been inherited from the Washington, Custis, and Lee families.

Naturally many of the articles in view have reference to General Lee. A good deal of their acuteness has been bestowed by the genealogists upon R. E. Lee, somewhat in the way that Napoleon Bonaparte was tackled by gentlemen of the same calling after he became famous. Thus there is at Romancoke a curious and quite an elaborate document claiming to connect Lee by an unbroken genealogical chain with no less nor later personage than Duncan, King of Scotland.

Light-Horse Harry Lee

The pictures, painted and photographed, hung on the walls of the principal rooms in the cottage are entirely family illustrations. There is a representation of Stratford House, situated in Westmoreland County, on the Potomac River, where General Lee was born, and the residence of his father, “Light-horse Harry.” Stratford is yet a very well preserved building, and owing to the solid excellence of its architecture, it is unequalled by any other colonial structure now existing in Virginia. A large oil-painted portrait of General Lee hangs on the wall of the dining-room. It was painted by Professor Weir, of the United States Military Academy at West Point, at the time Lee was its superintendent, and represents him in the uniform of a lieutenant-colonel. Just over the mantel-piece in the same room is the companion portrait of his wife, represented as a young woman, painted by Hansen. Both are well done, and both bear evidence of a remarkably handsome couple. They were married in 1831 at Arlington, where Mrs. Lee was born and raised.

Over the mantel-piece in the parlor are two small portraits of George Washington Parke Custis and Nelly Custis in their old age. The reminiscences of the owner of Romancoke in regard to his maternal grandfather are very vivid, as lie was brought up from childhood at Arlington, which was built by this somewhat queer and extremely patriotic old gentleman. Arlington, in all its amplitude of Grecian portico, and fronting the Capitol at Washington, was the favorite residence of the many he owned, but its erection nearly ruined him. He had not sufficient capital to complete the building, and accordingly one of the largest rooms was left only lathed and roughly plastered. This room he occupied as a studio, his greatest delight being to shut himself up in it and paint the livelong day; for he was a painter—decidedly an amateur artist—as well as an author. In both art and literature his only subject, his whole “stock in trade,” was the “Father of his Country,” whom he spoke of as “THE CHIEF” at all times and to all persons: Washington was a bonanza on which lie set his whole heart. His style of painting was a very loud one; his pictures were sensational, not from the love of sensationalism, but because his subject-matter required to be treated in deep colors and big, broad lines. Extensive—ay, colossal—canvases stood on his easels or propped against the walls, aiming to portray the leading events and some of the principal battles of the Revolutionary war, and whether the unities allowed or not, on all of them the foremost figures were “General Washington on a white horse, and the British streaking it.” In alluding to his reminiscences of the war of 1812 he was wont to say that he had been present at the battle of Bladensburg, “the only fight” he had ever seen and “never saw the enemy except running.” The British were always “going it” in his eyes: dreaming or awake, he fondly had them on a perpetual run, with Washington and American bayonets driving them into space. In reality he never saw a shot fired.

The silver, porcelain, and glass in ordinary use at Romancoke antedate the republic, many of the articles having seen service in the beginning of the last century. These silver bowls, pots, mugs, cups, candlesticks, graceful and light yet substantial, porcelain plates, cups, and saucers, queerly shaped champagne-glasses, etc., have, in addition to the family associations clinging around them, an intrinsic solidity combined with high artistic merit quite eclipsing the similar ware of modern invention. At the present day Romancoke is well cultivated, the improvements made upon the estate having greatly increased its yield. An abundance of game is to be found roaming through its forests and over its broad fields, and parties of gentlemen from Richmond and Washington frequently visit the mansion in order to indulge their taste for the chase. Fox-hunting is still followed throughout these lower counties, but it is no longer the delight, as it used to be among the “fine country gentlemen” of one hundred years ago, when England was much nearer, so to speak, than she is now. The citizens of to-day find that this is an age in which work passes before pleasure, even the pleasure of keeping a pack of hounds, with horses to match.