Couch Potato

Jul. 11th 2013

Yesterday, I took off for the day and made my way to Orange, Virginia. If you  have been following the blog, you know that Montpelier and the James Madison Museum are located here. I had read on Facebook that the James Madison Museum was going to have a new exhibition opening on July 7th and in this exhibition was something I would be interested in.


Before I went to the museum, I decided to stop off at Montpelier to meet Matt, the head of the Archeaology Department. I have wanted to meet him for some time now and being in the middle of the week, I knew this might be my only chance. As most of you have read, we have had some really great “finds” lately and I wanted to get his opinion on them.


The first piece I showed was our two plate pieces. I had gotten a date from Mara at Ferry Farm that this was from the time period of 1740-1755. Matt confirmed that it was. This really makes me excited because when we first started researching Belle Grove, we were told that the house that James Madison was born in had long ago disappeared into the river. We later heard that the foundation was located between the house and the current bridge. We recently read a letter from the early 1900s that placed it between the current house and the church. But by finding items that date to this time period it shows that there was active life here near the house from that period. It also gives some credibility to the foundations we have under the Small Dining Room and behind the Garage. Maybe one day we can fund a dig there!

He also answered my question on a second piece. It was a very badly rusted piece of metal that I thought might be a knife. Matt says it looks more like a barrel ring. It came from the same hole as the plate. Maybe we have a small trash pit here! We will have to see!

After my talk with Matt, I headed back into Orange and to the James Madison Museum. I couldn’t wait to see what I came to see!


The James Madison Museum

Orange, Virginia

Bethany greeted me at the door with a warm smile and hug. Then she ushered me back to the new display.


Here before me stood three Virginia Sectional Sofas. The first one was the Salubria Sofa from Culpeper, Virginia. It had been in a home built by the Reverend John Thompson in 1757. Robert Grayson purchased it in 1851. His mother, Sara Mason Cooke Grayson was the granddaughter of George Mason of  Gunston Hall. (Funny how places we go and people we learn about here in Virginia seem to connect together) Robert Grayson was with the 6th Virginia Calvary during the Civil War and his brother, John Cooke Grayson was a surgeon in Farmville, Virginia Hospital. Robert Grayson’s son, Admiral Cary T. Grayson would serve as personal physician to President Woodrow Wilson. It is currently owned by the Memorial Foundation of Germanna Colonies in Virginia and was donated to this foundation by the Grayson family in October 2000. It is currently on loan for a short time to the James Madison Museum by the owner and descendant of Admiral Cary T. Grayson.


The second sofa to greet me was the Port Royal Sofa. This Sectional Sofa from Virginia was made between 1825 and 1840 and is thought to have begun its life in Warsaw, Virginia (just 30 minutes from Belle Grove Plantation) at the Mount Airy Plantation. It is known that it came to Port Royal (across the river from Belle Grove Plantation) in 1911 when Courtneyay Tayloe Crump married Richard Pratt of Camden Plantation in Port Royal. It has been almost two years since I last spoke of Camden, but I had the opportunity to view it in January 2012. This family is connected to Belle Grove through Elizabeth Pratt Hipkins (mother of Fanny Hipkins Bernard, who the main section of Belle Grove’s Mansion was built for in 1791) and Carolinus Turner, whose family married into the Pratt Family. This sofa spent much of its time at the foot of a bed at Camden. This sofa, unlike the other two in the exhibit, is held together with a simple latch to allow it to be used as a day bed. This sofa remained in the Pratt Family until 2007. Today it is on loan from Laura and Hal Stuart.


The last sofa was the one I came to see!

The Conway Settee is entirely original and unupholstered. It is believed that it was crafted and/or shipped in/from Falmouth, Virginia. (20 miles north of Belle Grove Plantation). It was shipped to Mrs. Lucy Conway on October 18, 1848. Lucy Hartwell Macon Conway was married to Reuben Conway during James Madison’s second term as President Jefferson’s Secretary of State. Her mother was Sara Madison Catlett and was James Madison’s sister. Reuben Conway was the son of Catlett Conway. Nelly Conway Madison, mother of James Madison was Reuben’s aunt. The settee is made entirely of yellow pine. They used animal blood based paint on the exposed wood to simulate mahogany. The frame is pegged and it has a slatted wood base. The upper upholstery is a heavy Osnaburgh linen. There is no evidence of casters ever being affixed to it. It has a deep seat box and a simple turned leg with original button-down covering tacked to the frame. On each of the sectional you can see Lucy’s name. This settee is a gift from the Orange County Historical Society.



I have to say I was in awe at this piece! How exciting to see a piece of Conway Family History! 


While I was there, I also saw a very wonderful colonial table. I have seen many card tables in our search for tables for Belle Grove, but this one was very unique.


The top of the table rotates around!


Then opens up and lays on top of the frame!

This table dates to the 17oos and may have been made by slaves. It was on the farm of James B. Daniel , known as “Grandpa Jim”. Mr. Daniel ran the Post Office in the community that was named for him, “Daniel” Virginia. The family used this table for generations until it was donated to the museum. It was a gift from William Downer in 1986.

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Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Darnell History | 11 Comments »

Making a Mark on the World

Jun. 20th 2012

James Madison

The Conway Family had a very big impact on the land that would become Belle Grove Plantation as well as the nation as a whole. When Edwin Conway passed in 1698, Francis Conway I inherited the plantation as well as took care of his mother, Elizabeth Thornton Conway until her death in 1732. Francis would marry Rebecca Catlett in 1717. They would have six surviving children.

It was under Francis Conway I that Belle Grove grew to become one of the most successful plantations in the area.  The primary crop from the beginning of this plantation had been tobacco. While tobacco constituted a major percentage of the total agricultural output, tobacco growth was hard on the land itself. Tobacco is a weed that uses up the nutrients of the land quickly. This is why most tobacco plantations had large acres of land. As the land become less fertile, the plantation owner would clear more land and plant a new crop. A plantation would also grow corn and wheat to feed the plantation as well as vegetable gardens and herbs for medicinal purposes. There would be livestock too, generally pig and cattle, but the animals would be marked and set loose in the woods so they would not have to raise feed for the animals as well. At the height of this plantation under Francis Conway I, there would be a warehouse to store tobacco and a granary for the corn and wheat. There was also a wharf for shipping these items to Europe and for receiving goods.

Of the children of Francis and Rebecca, there are two I would like to talk about. The first is a daughter named Eleanor Rose Conway, known as Nellie. Nellie Conway was born on this plantation in 1731 and grew up here until she married James Madison Sr. in 1749. James Madison Sr. was from Orange County Virginia. He was a prominent plantation owner and was a colonel in the militia during the Revolutionary War. His father, Ambrose Madison was the plantation owner of Mount Pleasant. Ambrose Madison died in 1732, thought to have been poisoned by his own slaves. James inherited Mount Pleasant in 1744 and called the plantation Home House. He would acquire more land throughout his life, bringing his holders to 5,000 acres. He was the largest land owner in Orange County.

James Madison Sr.

Nellie Conway Madison

Shortly after their marriage, Nellie became pregnant with their first child. In the middle of winter, she traveled back from Orange County to her childhood plantation to have her child. There are no records of her thoughts of her childhood home, but it can be assumed that she had a great love for Belle Grove.

James Madison as a young boy

On March 16, 1751, Nellie gave birth to James Madison Jr. Jemmy as he was called would grow up to become our 4th American President and the Father of the Constitution. Nellie would have nine more children. Nellie would return to her husband’s plantation and would live at Montpelier until her death in 1829. One of her children, Nellie Madison Hite would marry and settle down in Middletown, Virginia. When she and her husband, Isaac Hite built their plantation from 1794 to 1797, she chose to name her plantation “Belle Grove” after her mother’s childhood plantation.

Belle Grove Plantation – Middletown, Virginia
Home of Isaac and Nellie Madison Hite

The second child I want to point out is Francis Conway II (1722-1761). At the death of Francis Conway I, Francis would have inherited the plantation, but he was only 14 years old at the time. His mother Rebecca Catlett Conway would retain the plantation until he would become of age. Rebecca married a second time sometime after 1737 to John Moore (1698-1759). Together, she and John would have two more children. It was John Moore that is credited with giving Belle Grove its name. Rebecca and John managed Belle Grove well and at her death, Belle Grove was still a very successful plantation.

Conway Family Bible

Francis Conway II married Sarah Taliaferro (1727-1784) in 1744. They would have three surviving children. In 1748, Francis Conway III was born.

In 1743, Francis Conway II should have taken possession of Belle Grove. But from my research, it looks as if he did not get the plantation until the death of his mother, Rebecca in 1761. There is a record of another plantation that was owned by Francis Conway II, Mount Sion located in Caroline County. Shortly after his mother’s death, Francis Conway II also passed away. For Francis Conway II, the same circumstance that had happened to his father was now being played out with his mother. At his father’s death, Francis Conway III was only 13 years old. His mother, Sarah Taliaferro would remarry in 1765 to George Taylor, but have no more children.

Captain Francis Conway’s signature

Francis Conway III would grow up and become distinguished gentleman.  Francis became a member of the King George County Committee of Safety form 1774 to 1776. He served for 3 years in the Continental Line as a Minutemen from 1775 to 1778. He was commission a 1st Lieutenant on September 12, 1776. He served as 1st Lieutenant of the four companies of Minutemen from the Caroline District. He was commissioned a Captain in October, 1776.

Later in 1842, his service was called into question. He was one of the cases of Revolutionary Claims rejected by the Congressional Committee on claims in 1842, with the statement that, “His name is not on any roll now to be found, nor was he paid, by Virginia, or the United States for any service. It is altogether impossible he could have performed a service of these years, though his heirs were allowed the bounty of 4000 acres for that service, September 1, 1838.” In 1844, this claim was proven.

During the Revolutionary War, Belle Grove Plantation started to decline. Unlike Rebecca, Sarah and her husband did not manage Belle Grove well. Sarah held onto Belle Grove until her death in 1784. Shortly after his mother’s death, Captain Conway took possession of Belle Grove. He sectioned off 10 acres of his land and divided it into half acre lots. In May, 1784, Captain Conway received rights by Act of Assembly to sell the lots and to establish a town by the name of Port Conway, of which John Skrinker, George Fitzhugh and others were made Trustees.

Elizabeth Fitzhugh Conway

Captain Conway married Elizabeth Fitzhugh March 20, 1770. They would have six surviving children. One of these was Francis Fitzhugh Conway (1772-1803).

After years of decline, Captain Conway sold Belle Grove Plantation on July 1st 1790 to John Hipkins for a sum of 2,000 pounds. This tract of land had been in the Savage/Thornton/Conway Family for 120 years.

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Year of the Virginia Historic Homes | 44 Comments »