Along the James River, near Williamsburg lays several plantations. One of these grand estates is Westover Plantation. A beautiful Georgian style mansion with numerous Tulip Poplars Trees sits quietly on the banks of the James River and is considered the seat of the Byrd Family of Virginia. Known for its secret passages, magnificent gardens and architectural details.
The first owner of Westover was Sir John Pawlett. He sold the plantation in 1665 to Theodorick Bland for 170 pounds. Bland would live on the property until his death in 1671 and would be buried in the chancel of the original Westover Church which he help build. His eldest son, also known as Theodorick and his brother, Richard would jointly inherit the plantation. In 1688 with 1,200 acres of property, the brother would sell the plantation to William Byrd I for 300 pounds and 10,000 pounds of tobacco and cask.
The Georgian style mansion is thought to have been built by William Byrd III in the 1750. It was first thought to have been built in 1730 by his father, William Byrd II, founder of Richmond, but after testing was conducted on boards and planks of the house, it was shown to be dated later in the 1750s. The plantation was named for Henry West, fourth Lord Delaware and son of Thomas West, Governor of Virginia.
Like the other plantations along the James River, Westover was first devoted to the cultivation of tobacco, the major commodity of colonial Tidewater Virginia. The Byrd family depended on the labor of hundreds of enslaved Africans, as tobacco was a labor-intensive crop. The original grounds included slave quarters, and slaves served also as domestic servants and skilled artisans of many types. As tobacco cultivation exhausted the soil, in the 19th century planters shifted to mixed crops.
After the death of William Byrd III’s widow in 1814, Westover was sold out of the Byrd family.
During the American Civil War, Major General George B. McClellan was headquartered at nearby Berkeley Plantation; McClellan’s protégé, General Fitz John Porter was stationed at Westover with his troops. Legend has it that Westover’s East wing was hit by a cannon—intended for Union troops—shot by Confederate soldiers on the south side of the James. The wing caught fire and lay in ruin until Mrs. Clarise Sears Ramsey, a Byrd descendent, purchased the property in 1899. She was instrumental in modernizing the house, rebuilding the East wing and adding hyphens to connect the main house to the previously separate dependencies, thereby creating one long building.
The house is considered one of the most outstanding example of Georgian architecture in America. Of special notice is the unusually steepness of the roof, the tall chimneys in pairs at both ends. Another special touch is the elaborate doorway, which continues to be recognized as “the Westover doorway” despite its adaptation to many other buildings.
The special charm of the house lies in its elegant yet extremely simple form and proportions, combined with its perfect setting in the landscape, the essence of the artistic ideals of its period adapted to the style of living in Colonial Virginia.
The two wings were originally identical and not connected to the three-story central structure. The east wing, which once contained the famous Byrd library of more than 4,000 volumes, burned during the War Between the States.
The present east wing was built about 1900, and both wings were connected to the main home at that time.
The shady tulip poplars framing the building are more than 150 years old. “Ancient” is the best word to describe the boxwood hedges which enclose the lawn.
Dry Wall with tunnels
Just east of the house are the ice-house and a small structure containing a dry well with passageways which led under the house and to the river, as an escape from the Indians. Across the driveway from the ice-house is the Necessary House.
Turning from the river to the north side of the house, the visitor will find the famous Westover gates, with William Evelyn Byrd’s initials incorporated in the delicate ironwork. The lead eagles on the gateposts are a play on the name “Byrd.” The pillars of the iron clairvoyee on the north side of the house are capped with icons of virtue:
Continuing to circle the house, the visitor will come to the formal gardens, which were re-established about 1900. At the center, where the paths cross, is the handsome tomb with its interesting epitaph honoring the colorful William Byrd II, “Black Swan of Westover,” who was buried there in 1744.
Tombstone of William Byrd III
Located in the Formal Garden
His epitaph begins on the north side of the monument:
Here lyeth the Honourable William Byrd Esq being born to one of the amplest fortunes in this country he was sent early to England for his education where under the care and instruction of Sir Robert Southwell and ever favored with his particular instructions he made a happy proficiency in polite and various learning; by the means of the same noble friend he was introduced to the acquaintance of many of the first persons of that age for knowledge, wit, virtue, birth, or high station, and particularly attracted a most close and bosom friend-ship with the learned and illustrious Charles Boyle Earl of Orrey. He was called to the bar in the Middle Tem-ple, studied for some time in the low countries, visited the court of France and was chosen Fellow of the Royal Society.
It continues on the south side:
Thus eminently fitted for the service and ornament of his Country, he was made Receiver general of his Majesty’s revenues here, was thrice appointed publick agent to the Court and ministry of England, and being thirty-seven years a member at last became President of the council of this Colony to all this were added a great elegancy of taste and life, the well-bred gentleman and polite companion the splendid Oeconomist and prudent father of a family with the constant enemy of all ex-horbitant power and hearty friend to the liberties of his Country, Nat: Mar. 28 1674 Mort. Aug. 26 1744 An. AEtat 70.
His daughter, the beautiful and tragic Evelyn Byrd, is buried near the original site of Westover Church, up the river a quarter-mile west of the house. There also are buried Theodorick Bland, from whom William Byrd I bought the Westover property in 1688; William Byrd I and his wife, the former Mary Horsemanden; and other distinguished early Virginians. Here also, according to some historians, is the third oldest known tombstone in America–that of Captain William Perry, who died August 6, 1637. The arms and epitaph engraved on this stone have been effaced by the elements in recent years.
One last story, that of Evelyn Byrd, daughter of William Byrd II. When Evelyn was young, she was considered to be an intelligent, but spoiled child. When she turned ten, her father sent her to England to be schooled. It was during this time that she fell in love with a man, many historians believe to be Charles Morduant. But her father was adamantly against the relationship. He told Evelyn,
“As to any expectation you may fondly entertain of a fortune from me, you are not to look for one brass farthing… Nay besides all that I will avoid the sight of you as a creature detested.”
So reluctantly, Evelyn returned to Westover in 1725. But she never forgot her lost love. In 1737, Evelyn passed away from what most say was a broken heart.
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just beautiful. are you going to hire people to take care of the house, like cleaning or cooking?
Are you asking me for a job?? lol just kidding. We are going to have a service to clean. I don’t think I can handle 8,000 sq ft alone. I will be doing the cooking though.
i have thought of it many times, working in that fabulous mansion…………can’t help it. i am in love with the home and the grounds and everything about it
I know its hard not to be. Believe me it kills me to leave every time! Hows your brother doing? I’m sorry, I am so far behind in reading.
I had to place him in a nursing home November 2012. His Parkinsons is just advancing so much I needed more help. I miss him but I know he is better off with more care
Aw, I’m sorry I wasn’t there to support you! I know it had to be so hard on you. But truly, I understand. With my step dad having the same things going on, after mom’s death, we did the same. I want you to know that you are on my heart and in my prayers!
I’ve never visited Westover. Michelle, I can’t seem to find your e-mail address: would you drop me an e-mail, please?
Its on the way!
I love Westover. It is off the beaten path, but is so beautiful! Some day I hope to see inside!
Lovely place. I was there ages ago. Want to go again.
It’s one of my favorite plantations along the James River Plantations!
Deb, you have to get back here to Virginia and you and I need to hit up all these wonderful places!
Would so love to do that!
I’ve been to Westover many times. I patterned a part of our gardens based on theirs, along with our brick piers, etc. i was to finally get a chance to go inside when a hurricane hit(Gaston 2009?) and damaged their roof and trees. It is only open for 2-3 days dring VA garden week. The folowing year, not opened due to water damage inside from that hurricane, too. So for years I’ve longed to go inside…anyway, the icehouse was the last thing renovated and I have pictures, too. The iron fence in the back into the concrete piers has pictures from me for proof to our very annoying Historic Commission in this town. They insisted that the fencing we were having installed would pullout from the piers. Well, over 300 years and look at how nice the fence still looks there! The necessary is my favorite, too, and all is kept in good repair. I used. The proportions from things there-gate, piers, etc.- for our home here. That you may see part of on my blog or on http://www.thegardens.us
Glad you went and you’ve now seen most all of what I’ve seen over 23 years of going there!
This was one of the first plantations I saw in Virginia back in the 1990s! I fell in love with it then and I love it now. I love their formal garden too. That is why I want to have a formal garden too!
Thank you for sharing yours!
Great post! Love the pictures you added today! Thanks for sharing!
You are so welcome! I really love this one! Thank you!
Thank you for sharing these beautiful photos and the historical information. It’s a joy to “tour” with you.
Thank you! Just wait! I am getting a special tour ready of the interior of Belle Grove Plantation!
I like your pictures of this beautiful mansion. I am sad for the 4000 books that were burnt. I can just imagine what the library looked like and would have a lot of fun filling the shelves. I also like the pictures of the necessary :-).
It was sad to think such wonderful book were lost. Yes the necessary was kind of fun! Did you see the movie “Lincoln”? If you did, do you remember the story about the necessary and Ethan Allen?
Wow, beautifully done blog entry. I’m a little amazed that there wasn’t more specific documentation on the date of the construction of such a grand house (1730s versus 1750s).
Thank you! Those things can get lost between the wars and families coming and going. They weren’t even able to confirm Belle Grove’s construction date until the did the restoration in 1997. They found a stud with the name of the workman and the date 1791. Just a confirmation.
Wow! Have you ever thought about running photography workshops at the plantation. So much to photograph. Fabulous!
Thank you! Yes we have already got that on the radar for the future!
So sad about Evelyn . . .
The long, tree-covered roads leading to these plantations remind me of Tara in Gone With the Wind.
Well we are a Southern Plantation. But I don’t think you will find Scarlett at the house 😉