Jai Williams and Charlene Giannetti spent six months visiting 40 plantations in Virginia, taking tours and talking with the families and the professionals tasked with caring for these historic properties. Their new book, Plantations of Virginia, has just been published by Globe Pequot Press. Virginia has produced eight presidents and three of those – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison – were Founding Fathers whose leadership and inspiration were critical to the birth and success of the new country. Their homes, Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier, remain the crown jewels and should be experienced by every American for their historic value.
But there are many other plantations worth a visit, including the grand mansions located along the James River. Like so many other areas of the country, Virginia has become focused on preserving its history, which, in many cases, involves saving and restoring these homes and surrounding grounds. These “works in progress” have fascinating stories to tell.
Jai and Charlene talk about what became for them a transformative journey, researching and writing Plantations of Virginia.
How did the two of you come together to write this book?
Charlene: About five years ago, my husband and I began dividing our time between New York City and Alexandria, Virginia. Although we had lived in Washington, D.C. in the 70s, we hadn’t spent much time in Virginia. So we began to explore Virginia’s history and a great deal of that history, particularly about the Civil War, can be discovered by visiting plantations. Our country continues to grapple with slavery’s legacy and that issue certainly played out in the state’s plantations.
Jai: I’ve lived in Virginia for quite awhile now and you are subconsciously immersed in history wherever you go. After visiting various plantations with my mother over the years, I began to realize that the tours were often glorified to be ones of “happier times” for all and additionally some narratives were specifically left out. I felt that those stories needed to be told, even if briefly to include all persons involved in plantation life.
How did you select the plantations you visited?
C: Of course we had to include the crown jewels – Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier – the homes of our Founding Fathers. We also knew we wanted to visit the plantations along the James River, including Westover where the HBO miniseries John Adams starring Paul Giamatti was filmed. Andrea Erda and her family still live in this magnificent home and she was very gracious showing us around and talking about Westover’s history. After that, we broadened our search to every corner of the state and were rewarded with some amazing finds, including some plantations that are now mere shells but being renovated in order to preserve their history.
J: Virginia is thriving with plantations both publicly and/or privately owned. Others listed in text were either no longer standing or unavailable to contact, although the information stated as such. Because of this, a list was compiled and we reached out to each plantation individually to ask their permission to come and tour, photograph, and write about their history.
Can you tell us how you gathered your information?
C: Before each visit, we read all the information that was available in print and online. We took the tours, some provided by volunteer docents others by historians with extensive knowledge. We learned not only about the specific plantation, but about how the home and its inhabitants – both the family and the slaves – were affected by the Civil War. We also focused on the architecture and, if the structure was being restored how that work was being done. The amount of research involved in these restorations is amazing and those who work on these projects are truly design detectives.
J: Sites like the National Register of Historic Places as well as the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Historic Register were researched alongside information provided by each plantation’s docent, website and text. To make sure that the information was correct as some reports were written in the 60s, 70s, and 80s on the aforementioned sites; we provided each plantation with a copy of the text before we submitted it to the publisher for a final fact check.
Jai, You took the photos for the book. Can you tell us how you approached that part of the assignment?
J: With the exception of a few plantations such as Montpellier, Mount Vernon, etc., photographing each plantation was therapeutic. At times, being in a place that held so much untold history felt heavy, especially as the book developed. Regardless of how each story was told by the docents, capturing the house, its interior, and grounds, my goal was to provide each reader with an opportunity to draw their own inference based on the text. Furthermore, shooting towards the end of the year (autumn/winter) removed, in my opinion, the lightheartedness sometimes conveyed when these same places are shot during the (spring/summer).
It seems these plantations are now used in different ways. Can you explain?
C: Many are strictly preserved as historical sites and attract thousands of tourists each year. Families still live in some of these homes and we were fascinated that young children were being raised surrounded by such rich history. A few have been turned into inns or operated as bed and breakfast places. These provide another experience for those who wish to truly immerse themselves in history. And then there are those that are being brought back from rubble, determined individuals on a mission to preserve history.
J: While others have been turned into event places and offices for staff.
What was the most surprising discovery?
C: For me, it was what I learned while touring Montpelier. The home of James and Dolley Madison had passed through many hands and was last owned by Marion du Pont. With each owner, the buildings and grounds underwent dramatic changes. When Marion died, her heirs transferred ownership to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, an organization that vowed to return Montpelier to what it had been during Madison’s lifetime. Visiting Montpelier, I learned more about Madison, known as the Father of the Constitution and the Architect of the Bill of Rights. And his wife, Dolley Madison, was a huge celebrity in her time and the first President’s wife to be called the First Lady.
J: Two things: First, that many tours would either omit or gloss over the slavery aspect. However, plantations like Poplar Forest, Sully Historic Site, Monticello and a few others give dedicated slave tours in addition to their regular tours. Hopefully, other plantations will consider adding something similar as there is interest and to tell the whole story, certain voices cannot be omitted.
Secondly, how interconnected plantations were in Virginia. Numerous owners built or inherited more than one plantation over the course of their lives, particularly among those considered Virginia royalty such as the Carters, Berkeleys, and Tayloes.
What did you discover about the slave experience at these plantations?
C: Learning about a slave’s life on the plantations was always the most sobering part of the journey. How a slave was treated varied depending upon the plantation’s owner. We heard many horror stories which brought to mind scenes in the Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave. It was disappointing to realize that Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, despite their battles for independence and human rights, all kept and never freed their slaves. The Marquis de Lafayette, who was instrumental in helping America win the Revolutionary War, couldn’t understand how his fellow patriots and friends were slave owners.
We also found that slavery continues to be a difficult topic in the state. While some of the plantations were very upfront discussing this part of their histories – many had special exhibits and even asked for the public’s help in locating descendants of slaves – others said they preferred we skip that part of their stories. Of course, we didn’t and that often meant digging deeper for the facts.
J: There are many narratives left to be discovered.
Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier are perhaps the most visited plantations in Virginia. What should people focus on when they visit these three sites?
C: There’s so much to focus on with these three plantations. Plan to spend a full day at each. Monticello and Montpelier are close together so spending a weekend in that area of the state will allow, not only enough time to see these homes, but also provide a side trip to Virginia’s wine country. There’s even a bed and breakfast featured in the book- The Inn at Meander – where you can stay. The guides at Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier are very knowledgeable, so taking the tours is a must. Ask questions! We never found a query that stumped one of these guides. Besides learning about the actual buildings, visitors learn about these three figures who had a major impact in setting up our democracy (including, of course, the Electoral College!)
J: Visit their libraries! There is so much information available to those interested and although you may have to set up an appointment, it is worth it.
Many of these plantations have undergone serious renovations. What is involved in restoring these homes and grounds?
C: Meticulous attention to detail. We were impressed with the amount of research involved. Experts are consulted about paint colors, fabrics, and the materials used inside and outside the home. Sometimes help comes from unexpected places. During one renovation, a mouse nest was discovered in a wall. The creature had used a piece of the home’s original wallpaper for its bedding. The restoration team was able to recreate that wallpaper for an authentic look.
J: Colonial Williamsburg is often used as a standard for checking information, dating objects, etc.
How were these plantations affected during the Civil War?
C: Virginia was in the thick of it during the Civil War. Many homes were occupied, sometimes by Confederate forces, but also by Union soldiers. What often happened was that the family would flee, leaving behind slaves to manage the property. When the families returned after the war, they often found that their homes had been virtually destroyed. Some were rebuilt, others abandoned.
J: As the economic tide changed, many homes were unable to recover and were either sold for meager prices or left behind altogether. Sadly, many were used as hospitals in which floors were painted black to cover the blood-stained wood to grounds being used as unmarked cemeteries.
Patrick Henry’s Scotchtown
Do any of the personalities you write about in the book stand out?
C: I didn’t know very much about John Tyler, who became our 10th president after the death of William Henry Harrison. Tyler named his plantation “Sherwood Forest,” seeing himself as a latter-day Robin Hood. He had two wives, his second wife, the much younger Julia Gardiner, was the daughter of a New York senator. Although Julia turned down his first proposal, after he saved her during a tragedy on a naval ship, she agreed to marry him. A slave owner and Confederate supporter, Tyler would never be recognized for any of his contributions to the nation until 1915 when Congress build a monument in the cemetery where he and Julia are buried.
J: A few such as Patrick Henry who lovingly dealt with a wife who was mentally ill. Or William Berkeley who was exceptionally cruel to his slaves. And of course John Hemings who was an excellent carpenter.
What do you hope people will learn from reading this book?
C: After reading about the history of these 40 plantations, we hope that people will be inspired to visit many of them. We’ve grouped them together geographically, so spending a weekend in one area will allow for visits to several. Reading about a plantation’s story beforehand will allow a richer experience once the reader actually sees the real thing. We hope our book will start people on a journey. We applaud the many dedicated professionals who are working so hard to preserve these buildings and their stories. We can’t move forward until we truly understand where we have been. And the timing has never been more urgent for all of us to educate ourselves about this part of our nation’s history.
J: Whether you are passionate about history, architecture, slavery/slave accounts, or military involvement there’s something for everyone in this book. More importantly, to the public institutions and private families who make a conscientious decision to keep Virginia’s rich history available to all.
How did writing this book affect you?
C: I’ve always loved history and researching and writing this book has fueled my desire to learn even more. I was most affected by the people stories. We take so much for granted, our access to clean water, food, heated homes, health care, convenient transportation. Despite the grandeur of many of these homes, living was often a struggle. So many women died young in childbirth. We also heard many times of women who had died of “a broken heart.” (When that term was used to describe Debbie Reynold’s death, we were reminded that tremendous grief can indeed take its toll.) Living through the Civil War was horrific. So much destruction, so many lives lost. It was never easy to hear stories about how slaves were treated. It brought home how much work we still have to do to mend race relations in our country.
J: Realizing that intersectionality is a necessity for progression to occur in a country that so many people from all walks of life call home.
Photos by Jai Williams
Top photo: Tuckahoe Plantation
Plantations of Virginia
Jai Williams and Charlene Giannetti