Thank God for Newspapers!

Nov. 10th 2012

Belle Grove Plantation
View from the River

In 1893, Susan Turner Hunter, daughter of Carolinus and Susan Turner and her husband Frederick Hunter sold Belle Grove. In looking at the year that Frederick passed, it looks as if he may have been in declining health and wasn’t able to run the plantation as he had. They sold the plantation to John Tayloe Thornton of Port Royal, Virginia.

Now remember I told you in the previous post that these past days had been somewhat of an odyssey? Well, here is the reason. When I started doing the research on John Thornton, I ran into several road blocks. First, there is no information on John on the internet as there had been for previous owners. I had to make educated guesses as to where he may have come from. I got lucky and found some information about some property he owned in Port Royal. So that gave me the connection to Port Royal. Then I used “Find a Grave” and located him, his wife Louise Disney Thornton and their son, John Tayloe Thornton Jr. at St Peter’s Episcopal Church in Port Royal. Now Port Royal is not a large town so I was pretty sure I found him. Then looking at the list of graves at St Peter’s I found who I guessed was his father, Champe Brockenbrough Thornton and his mother Elizabeth Grammar Thornton. Using his father’s name, I was then able to find his father and mother along with his brothers and sisters. But these still didn’t give me the connection to Belle Grove that I needed to confirm it was the right person.

So then I started looking at local newspapers. I found a link for archive newspapers and found several articles on John Thornton. It was through these articles, I was able to put together the connection and about his time at Belle Grove. All I can say is Thank God for newspapers!

My first article comes from the Alexandria Gazette dated July 3, 1893. It talks about a gentleman from Fredericksburg who relates that John Tayloe Thornton of Port Royal has purchased Belle Grove. It states that he is a wealthy bachelor. This seems to be correct. I have found information that his father, Champe B. Thornton was a wealthy merchant from Port Royal. I also found that John owned several lots in the town of Port Royal too. It goes on to say that John Thornton has paid $9,000 for Belle Grove which was $20 an acre. This means that he purchased 450 arces. Now this is the first time I have seen the arces change from the 700 that was sold to John Hipkins. I am not sure who had the other 250 arces. I did find out that the Robb Family, Anna Turner Robb and her family had a home on the back section of the 700 acres. It could have been that she received it from her father and mother at the time of her fathers death.

But here is the best part of this article. It seems that John Thornton purchased Belle Grove in order to convince a young lady to marry him. It says in the article that this young lady told him that he had to purchase Belle Grove or she wouldn’t marry him. So he purchased Belle Grove. Question is, did she marry him?

A second article appears in the Times from Richmond dated July 6, 1893 confirming that John Thornton purchased Belle Grove Plantation. It doesn’t mention the young lady, but it does mention that this plantation is where President James Madison was born.

John T Thornton Purchase Belle Grove for Lady
Alexandria Gazette 07-03-1893

John T Thornton Purchase Belle Grove
The Times 07-06-1893

Now you may remember this photograph from 1894. I found it early on in my research. But for several months I was under the assumption that the person on the front porch was an African-American in a white dress. I assumed it could have been a former slave of the plantation. It wasn’t until just last month, while we were viewing the original glass plate photo that I realized that it wasn’t an African-American woman, but a man in a white suit sitting down next to a young boy in a dark suit! Looking at the dates of the photo, this could only be one person, John Tayloe Thornton! I am not sure who the young boy is. At the time of the photo, he was not married and didn’t have a younger brother. Could it be a nephew or even a child of the young lady he is wanting to marry? Either way, you have to note the wonderful bow tie he is wearing as well as the fact that his hair is parted in the middle and slicked down. And if you look close, the young boy looks to have knickers on! Very handsome indeed!

Belle Grove
July 19, 1894

Meet John Tayloe Thornton
July 19, 1894

Our next article comes from the Alexandria Gazette dated July 28, 1897. Seems that the young lady decided not to marry dear John Thornton. So now he is stuck with this huge plantation. So it looks as if he is selling Belle Grove. But what a surprise to find out who John is selling it to and what they plan to do with Belle Grove. In the article, it states that another Washington paper has claimed that Belle Grove has been sold for $15,000 for 500 arces of land. Belle Grove is to become an Industrial College and Farm for Colored Students.

It states that Belle Grove has six dwellings on the property, one with twenty rooms. I would assume that would be the mansion. There seemed to have been a convention of some sort in Colonial Beach, which is just 20 minutes from Belle Grove. At this convention, $7,000 was raised of the $15,000. It also states that one of the people working on the project is a “colored man” that owns President James Monroe’s birthplace. This is located just outside of Colonial Beach. It names the new President for this Industrial College as H.A.J. Cyrus of Port Royal. It also mentions J.M. Langston who either lives or works in Washington D.C. I am assuming that he might be a representative or senator.

Farm for Colored Students
Alexandria Gazette 07-28-1897

Just a couple months later the Alexandria Gazette dated September 16, 1897 states again the John Thornton has sold Belle Grove to Charles W. Hillers of West Pittston, PA for $15,000. But here is another article from the Alexandria Gazette dated March 26, 1989 that states Charles W. Hillers Of Pittston, PA has purchased Belle Grove from John Thornton for $13,000! Somewhere along the line, $2,00o got knocked off. Could this be a sign that this group purchasing Belle Grove is having issues raising the remain balance?

Belle Grove Sold
Alexandria Gazette 09-16-1897

Belle Grove Sold
Alexandria Gazette 03-26-1898

Well here is our answer! This article from the Alexandria Gazette dated April 1, 1899, over a year later, states that a lawsuit has been ongoing over the sale of Belle Grove. It seems that a judgement in the case between John Thornton and Charles Hillers (Hellers) has been passed down. In the case John Thornton states that the terms of the sale had not been met. The judgement awarded Belle Grove back to John Thornton.

Law Suit of Belle Grove
Alexandria Gazette 04-01-1899

So after the lawsuit and John Thornton receiving Belle Grove back, the history goes a little dark on Belle Grove. Two years would pass before we again hear that John Thornton has moved into Belle Grove with his family! I have not been able to find a date of marriage for John and his bride, Louise Disney Thornton. I don’t think she was the young lady that he purchased Belle Grove for to start with. I think she came along during the two years of no history on Belle Grove.

This article and a second from the Times in Richmond dated May 15th and May 23rd of 1901 also gives us a little detail of the mansion at Belle Grove. It talks about how splendid the house is. It states that it has marble mantels, large porches and beautifully carved brown stone steps. The article talks of it costing $20,000. I am not sure if they are thinking the steps cost $20,000 or the whole property. This is a little confusing because the steps were there when he purchased Belle Grove in 1893. You can see them in the 1894 photo. And I don’t think that John Thornton had to purchase Belle Grove again since he had already won it back in 1899. So that part is a little unclear. Unless John sold it after the lawsuit and had to purchase it back. I don’t have any information on that, but you never know.

The second article also talks about the fact that John Wilkes Booth died just two mile away from Belle Grove.

John Tayloe Thornton moves to Belle Grove
The Times 05-15-1901

John Tayloe Thornton at Belle Grove
The Times 05-23-1901

I don’t have an article on this, but I do know that John and Louise’s first child, Elizabeth Grammer Thornton was born in August 14, 1901. She was named after his mother. Grammer was his mother’s maiden name. Just three months later we would see our next article from the Free Lance Star in Fredericksburg dated December 03, 1901. It tells about an event on November 28, 1901 at Belle Grove. Elizabeth Grammer Thornton was christened. This is the first time we have found a christening at Belle Grove. It states that Rev. Turner performed the ceremony. Could this be one of the relatives of Carolinus and Susan Turner? Most likely yes. I just don’t know which one.

The ceremony was witness by a large group of friends from Port Royal and King George. It states the house was decorated with holly and chrysanthemums. It also states that refreshments were served.

Christening at Belle Grove
Free Lance Star Fredericksburg 12-03-1901

Now you know that John was a wealthy man when you find an article stating that he and his family just went to Fredericksburg! This article is from the Free Lance Star of Fredericksburg dated January 23, 1902. Could they have been there to show off their new daughter? Or maybe a little shopping.

Thorntons in Town
Free Lance Star Fredericksburg 01-23-1902

The next article from the Free Lance Star of Fredericksburg dated June 7, 1902 gaves us a look at the farm and some of what they had on the farm. Here they are looking to sell ten good Milch Cows. Okay, I am not a person who knew what a “Milch Cow” was, so I had to look it up. A Milch Cow is a cow that is kept for milking. A dairy cow. The image I got was that of a cow you see in the Chick-fil-a commericals. These ten cows are said to be gentle and kind. They are also looking to sell five good horses from three to nine years old.

They are also looking to purchase thirty steers and heifers. Could they been thinking of starting a dairy farm?

Belle Grove Stock Farm For Sale
Free Lance Star Fredericksburg 06-07-1902

There is no article for this next event for the Thorntons. On April 12, 1903, John Tayloe Thornton Jr. was born to John Tayloe Thornton and his wife Louise. But this joy wouldn’t last very long. Just two months later they would lose baby John on June 23, 1903.

After the sad loss of baby John, we don’t hear again from Belle Grove until an article from The Free Lance Star of Fredericksburg dated May 10, 1904 appeared. This article talks of visitors to Belle Grove. Two visitors from Fredericksburg, Mrs. Frances Tabb Newman and her niece Miss Parker Herndon had been visiting with the Thorntons at Belle Grove and had just returned home.

It talked of a tea party that the Thornton’s gave at Belle Grove for several of their friends. They served refreshments in the “handsome and spacious” parlors. How cool to know that we will be following tradition with serving tea and conducting tea parties at Belle Grove too! After the tea party, it states that the young people played a game of tennis! Do I see a grass tennis court coming to Belle Grove in the future? Could be!

Entertainment at Belle Grove
The Free Lance Star 05-10-1904

After years of use, every home needs a little improving. In the next article from the Free Lance Star of Fredericksburg June 23, 1904 talks of improvements that were done at Belle Grove. It tells about painters, slaters and tinners working on this beautiful home. It is the first time we see that the mansion is painted a cream yellow with white trim and green blinds. Surprising this is the current color of the mansion! During the restoration from 1997 to 2003, the mansion had been taken from the green exterior walls back to this color combination. Could it be this history that they were bring back to the mansion?

Also in this article we get another look at the farm and its working. It talks about ten men working the wheat fields cutting wheat. He is also selling corn at 65 cents from the barn.

At the end of this article we get a view of Port Conway that we have never seen. We have known of the Ferry House and the Post Office from pictures. We have also known that Port Conway had twenty lots with one being a church. But this is the first time we have found out that Port Conway had a hotel! Hotel Harriman is spoken of and is said to be doing well. They are expecting to built a new hotel soon. And what is this? Port Conway had long distance phone! And a daily steamboat. This steamboat seems to be bringing outside visitors to the area who are looking to move into some of the farms. What’s this? Two of these outsiders came to see Belle Grove! Oh no! Are we looking to see Belle Grove again? I am with this writer who states “If I owned Belle Grove, I would never sell it”.

Belle Grove Improvements
Free Lance Star 06-23-1904

In what I would called a “gossip column” of the Free Lance Star of Fredericksburg dated August 13, 1904 we see Arthur Thornton and his family visiting Belle Grove. Arthur is John Thornton’s youngest brother.

Arthur Thornton visting Belle Grove
The Free Lance Star 08-13-1904

This next article has to have one the prettiest headlines. But sadly the news isn’t as nice. This piece from the Free Lance Star of Fredericksburg dated September 29, 1904 tells us that a “colored man” named John Smith broke into Belle Grove and stole a gold watch. For his crime, John Smith will spend six months in jail. This is the first crime we have confirmed at the plantation.

Break in at Belle Grove
Free Lance Star Fredericksburg 09-29-1904

You know you are big time when your Christmas celebration makes not just one, but two papers! The first article is from The Daily Star dated January 1, 1906. It talks about how the Thorntons and little Elizabeth received a visit from Santa Claus at Belle Grove with several friends. What a wonderful insight of little Elizabeth answering the door bell (the first time we have heard of a door bell at Belle Grove) and greeting Santa. It tells us that she ushered him into the dining room where he greets other guests and children. From there they went to the parlor where a large tree was decorated with lights (most likely candles!) and gifts were presented to each of the younger children along with a cornucopia of candy. The older children enjoyed refreshments.

Later the children would play a game of “Snapping Dragon”. Now here is what I found out about this game. According to Wikipedi:

“Snap-dragon was a parlor game popular from about the 16th to 19th centuries. It was played during the winter, particularly on Christmas Eve. Brandy was heated and placed in a wide shallow bowl; raisins were placed in the brandy which was then set alight. Typically, lights were extinguished or dimmed to increase the eerie effect of the blue flames playing across the liquor. The aim of the game was to pluck the raisins out of the burning brandy and eat them, at the risk of being burnt. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language(1755) describes it as “a play in which they catch raisins out of burning brandy and, extinguishing them by closing the mouth, eat them”. 

According to Robert Chambers’ Book of Days (1879) the game was accompanied by a chant:

Here he comes with flaming bowl,
Don’t he mean to take his toll,
Snip! Snap! Dragon!
Take care you don’t take too much,
Be not greedy in your clutch,
Snip! Snap! Dragon!
With his blue and lapping tongue
Many of you will be stung,
Snip! Snap! Dragon!
For he snaps at all that comes
Snatching at his feast of plums,
Snip! Snap! Dragon!
But Old Christmas makes him come,
Though he looks so fee! fa! fum!
Snip! Snap! Dragon!
Don’t ‘ee fear him but be bold —
Out he goes his flames are cold,
Snip! Snap! Dragon!”
The house is also decorated in holly and cedar. I bet that smelled wonderful! Now we have an idea of how to decorate for next Christmas! Anyone up for a game of “Snapping Dragon”?

Christmas 1905 at Belle Grove
The Daily Star 01-01-1906

Christmas 1905 at Belle Grove
The Free Lance Star 01-02-1906

There isn’t an article for this event. On August 6, 1906, Louise Beatrice Thornton was born at Belle Grove. She would be the last of the Thornton Family to be born at Belle Grove.

In an article from the Free Lance Star of Fredericksburg dated October 4, 1906, we learn that the Thornton Family’s time at Belle Grove has come to an end. John Thornton would sell Belle Grove to Mr. J.F. Jack of Los Angeles, California. Mr. Jack already owns Walsingham, the plantation just next door. In the time of the Turners, Walsingham was owned by George Turner while Carolinus Turner owned Belle Grove. George was Carolinus’s cousin. By combining the two plantation, there would be 1,400 acres of farm land.

Mr. Jack will not take Belle Grove until January, 1907. He would live at Belle Grove in the mansion. Walsingham had lost it’s beautiful home years before.

In the second article from The Times-Dispatch of Richmond dated October 4, 1906 we find out that Mr. Jack purchased Belle Grove for $22,000. Not a bad profit for John Thornton of $13,000.

Belle Grove Sold
Free Lance Star Fredericksburg 10-04-1906

Belle Grove Sold to Californian
The Times-Dispatch Richmond 10-04-1906

John Thornton would own Belle Grove for just thirteen years. In that time he would get married, have three children, lose one as an infant and set himself up as a prominent member of the community. He would improve the mansion giving us the warm cream yellow walls with white trim and green shutters. He would also give us the oldest known photo of Belle Grove and the first photo of an owner as well.

Best of all, through the newspapers of the time, we have had an opportunity to view a little of what life was like for a family at Belle Grove.

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Year of the Virginia Historic Homes | 49 Comments »

Family Feud

Jun. 27th 2012

Wikipedi Hamilton Burr Duel

There is one more story I want to tell you about before we move on to a new family at Belle Grove. This story involves Francis Fitzhugh Conway, son of Captain Francis Conway, founder of Port Conway and his wife Elizabeth Fitzhugh Conway. This story takes place several years after the Conway’s had already sold the plantation to the Hipkins-Bernard family in 1791.

After Captain Francis sold Belle Grove, he and his family moved to a plantation in Caroline County called Mount Scion. This plantation had been in his family for some years, have been built by his father, Francis Conway on a piece of land that was part of a land grant to his grandfather, Edwin Conway. In 1794, Captain Francis Conway passed away. Elizabeth Fitzhugh Conway would remarry to Colonel James Taybil, date unknown.

Elizabeth Fitzhugh Conway

Another person involved in this story is William Thornton. William was a cousin of Francis Fitzhugh Conway. Their connection was through Francis Thornton, who married Alice Savage and was the second owner of Belle Grove. William’s Great-Great Grandfather, Rowland Thornton Sr. was Francis Thornton’s brother. Francis Thornton was Francis Fitzhugh Conway’s Great-Great Grandfather.

The incident in question was a duel between cousins. This form of dueling started in Early Modern Europe. It general started with an offense occurring to which the offended would demand “satisfaction” from the person who had caused the offense. The person who was offended would signal his displeasure with an insulting gesture such as throwing a glove down before the other person. This is where the phrase “throwing down the gauntlet” come from.

The two parties would then select a second to represent them and a field of honor would be determined. The weapon would then be selected. The seconds would later check the weapons before the duel and then make sure the rules were followed. The offended would then select the conclusion of the duel. This could be one of the following out comes:

  • To first blood, which means the duel would end as soon as someone was wounded, even if the wound was minor
  • Physically disabled opponent
  • To the death

In the case of pistols being used as a weapon, there would be one round of shots fired. If neither were hit, the challenger would have the right to stop the duel or to continue until one or both parties were wounded. It was considered barbaric to shoot more than three times so few duels ever went beyond that.

The story of Francis Fitzhugh Conway and William Thornton occurred in December of 1803. The offense involved the affections of another cousin. Now I have read this story and the name of the cousin has been different in a few of them. The first story I read states the name of the cousin was Lucie Madison. The other name I saw as Nellie Madison. In doing some research, I have concluded that Lucie was far too young to have been the object of affection. At the time of the incident, Francis was 31 years old, William was 25 years old and Lucie would have been only 3 years old. On the other hand, Nellie Madison would have been 19 years old and a more appropriate age. Nellie Madison was the daughter of James Madison’s brother, Ambrose Madison, making her James Madison’s niece and cousin of both Francis and William.

National Park Service – Chatham Manor

The offense occurred in Fredericksburg, Virginia at Chatham Manor. Nelly was visiting the manor for Christmas and there must have been a Christmas party that both gentlemen were invited to. Both gentlemen had arrive on horseback and had had their horses stabled. To impress Nellie, Francis had purchased a new bridle (some stories say saddle) and had planned to unveil it that evening to Nellie. Francis had made the mistake though of boasting about the purchase before hand to which William heard.

When it came time for the gentlemen to leave, the horses were brought out. But to Francis’s surprise, the groomsman had switched the bridles. William’s horse had the new bridle on and it made a great impression on Nellie. Francis quickly accused William of the deed stating that he had bribed the groomsman to make the switch. William’s denials only aggravated the disagreement. Feeling offended, Francis challenged William to a duel. The duel was settled to occur at Alum Spring with pistols. John Spotwood Wellford, William’s half brother acted as his second. It is not known who acted as Francis’s. – Alum Springs Duel Path

The site they chose is a narrow pathway between a rock cliff and a pond. There was only one round of shots fired. Both shoots found their mark. Both gentlemen were wounded in the lower abdomen.The pistols belonged to Robert Patton, who after the duel threw them into the river opposite of the old mill. William was able to make it back to Fredericksburg to his stepfather Dr. Robert Wellford’s home. In fact, one of the witnesses stated that William did not even know he was wounded until he reached home and found blood in his boots. It is unsure if Francis died on the spot or if he was taken back to town and died. William lingered for two days and then died. According to family tradition, William and Francis both dead from their wounds the same hour. It is also said by family tradition that William had a miniature of Nellie Madison on him at the time of his death.

It is said that Nelly would never speak of the incident with anyone as would anyone connected with her. Her feelings for either of the gentlemen were never known. Nelly would later marry Dr. John Willis.

Family tradition says that Elizabeth Fitzhugh Conway had a premonition of the death of her son. She woke and told of a dream of a man riding up on a white horse to give her the news of her son’s death. Shortly after she walked to the window to see the messager riding up. She fainted at the window.

William Thornton was buried on Willis Hill, but sadly no markers can be found for him. Mary Thornton, sister of William, cut a lock of William’s hair and placed it in a gold locket with the inscription “William Thornton, born 24 September 1778, died 27 December 1803. You that have lost a Brother pity me”. It is thought that Francis was laid to rest with his father in the family cemetery on Mount Scion.

A few days later the Virginia Express Newspaper in Fredericksburg, Virignia ran this article:

“Thursday, December 29, 1803

With infinite regret, we communicate to the public, an event, the most distressing in its nature, and fatal in its consequences of any within the compass of our recollection. On Monday last Mr. William Thorton and Mr. Francis Conway met, in consequence of a previous misunderstanding, in the neighborhood of this town, and sorry are we to announce that the event proved fatal to both parties. By their untimely fate two weeping Mothers are left to deplore the loss of two dutiful sons, their children two affectionate brothers, and society two most promising citizens. The surviving relations are in a situation easier to be imaged than described. We sincerely regret the frequency of a custom so prevalent in our country, and hope the melancholy catastrophe, here related, will prevent others from endangering their own lives, or embittering the days of their surviving relations.”

Two months later the Virginia Hearld newpaper carried a notice that a brace of brass-barreled pistols were found near Alum Spring. It was undetermined if they belonged to Francis and William or could have belonged to another duel that occurred there.

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Year of the Virginia Historic Homes | 20 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 »

Back to the Beginning

Jun. 19th 2012

Belle Grove Plantation – Plantation side – Front Portico

Since we skipped ahead for Father’s Day, we need to return to the beginning to fill in the first part of the story. The history of this land that would become Belle Grove started hundreds of thousands of years before the arrival of English settlers. This land was inhabited by primitive people known by the artifacts found in the surrounding area. On the plantation next door to Belle Grove, primitive tools, shear heads and pottery have been discovered. One of these items has been examined and is considered to be over 10,000 years old.

Stone Tool

Leather Tanner



Captain John Smith

In 1608, Captain John Smith, explorer and soldier, sailed up the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers searching for areas to expand the new colonies. In his log, Captain Smith spoke of weather, the waterways and land around him.

Sunset view of the Rappahannock River from Belle Grove Plantation

“The temperature of this countrie doth agree well with English constitutions.”

“There is but one entrance by sea onto this country and that is the mouth of a very goodly Bay, the wideness of which is near 18 or 20 miles.”

“Within is a Country that may have the prerogative over the most pleasant places of Europe, Asia, Africa or America for larger and pleasant navigable rivers’ Heaven and Earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s being of our Constitutions were it inhabited by industrious people.”

Captain Smith also noted the many Indian Settlements along the river banks. These Indians were part of the Powhatan Nation.  This was a confederation of Indian tribes within Virginia. At the time of the settlement of Jamestown in 1607, it is believed that there were about 14,000 to 21,000 people in this nation. Wahunsunacawh, also known as Chief Powhatan, father of Pocahontas had brought together this nation of 30 tribes within the eastern side of Virginia in an area call Tsenacommacah (“densely-inhabited Land”). Each tribe had its own chief, but all tribes paid tribute to Chief Powatan.

Chief Powhatan

It is believed that the Nanzemond Indians were the tribe that inhabited the land, but I have not been able to confirm this. Since we have never had any archaeological digs at Belle Grove, I can only go with what has been passed down through local lore.  The closest tribes I do know that were in the area were the Potabago Indians of Essex County, Rappahannock Indians of Tappahannock and the Nanzatico Indians of King George. In my research, it looks more likely that it would have be one of these tribes that inhabited the land. The Nanzemond Indians seem to have been primarily located in and around the present day cities of Chesapeake and Suffolk, Virginia. Maybe the name Nanzemond got confused with the name Nanzatico as it was passed down from generation to generation.

Sir William Berkeley

The next mention of this land came when a royal land grant was given by Governor Sir William Berkeley to Thomas Chetwood and John Prossor. Under the Royal Charter of 1649 on September 28, 1667, 5275 acres of land, known as “Nauzem” was granted to Chetwood and Prossor in consideration for transporting 163 persons from England. Of these 5275 acres, it is said that the land that would become Belle Grove was the heart.

On April 13, 1670, John Prossor sold a 1,000 acre tract to Anthony Savage. I have found two names for this tract, one being “Mangecemuzen” and the other being “Mongoheocala”.  Anthony Savage was thought to be the son of John Savage of Castleton, Debyshire, England. His birth date is unknown. The earliest record of him places him in Gloucester County, Virginia in 1660, when he was commissioned as a Justice or Sherriff. Anthony Savage (died 1695) was married to Alice Stafford Savage (died 1701). The Savages had two surviving children, daughters Dorothy (1635-1702) and Alice (1653-1692). By the time, Anthony had purchased this tract, his daughter; Dorothy was already married to William Strother I and was living next door on a 500 acre plantation that they had purchased just six months before. His other daughter, Alice would marry Francis Thornton (1651-1726/27). Dorothy and William had six surviving children. Alice and Francis had seven surviving children. Two of these children, Margaret Thornton and William Strother II would marry.

One small note, I have been told that Lawrence Washington, grandfather of George Washington, grew up at Mattox Creek, just 9 or 10 miles from Belle Grove and he was childhood friends with William Strother II and Margaret Thornton.

Belle Grove Plantation

At the death of Anthony Savage, the 1,000 acre tract was divided into 700 acres for the Thornton family and 300 acres to be given to Margaret Thornton Strother and William Strother II. By this time, Alice Savage Thornton had passed and Francis Thornton had remarried. Francis Thornton, an attorney and land owner, was a very prominent attorney. In my research of archived items, I came across a large number of items with his signature. He also increased his land holding into Stafford County. At his death, most of his Stafford County land holdings went to his sons, but the 700 acre tract went to his eldest child, Elizabeth Thornton Gibson Conway (1673/74-1732). I believe she was already living on the tract prior to his death. She first married Jonathan Gibson (1672-1729) and had two surviving children. At Jonathan’s death, she married Edwin Conway (1653-1698). With Edwin, she had one more child, Francis Conway I (1696-1736).

(To Be Continued Tomorrow – the Conway Family)

Posted by Michelle Darnell | in Year of the Virginia Historic Homes | 30 Comments »