James River plantations were established in the Virginia Colony along the James River between the mouth at Hampton Roads and the head of navigation at the fall line where Richmond is today.
The colony struggled for five years after its establishment at Jamestown in 1607. Finally, a profitable export crop was identified through the efforts of colonist John Rolfe. After 1612, a sweet form of tobacco became the largest export crop, customarily shipped in large hogsheads.
Because the river was a highway of commerce in the 17th and 18th centuries, the early plantations were established on the north and south banks along it, with most having their own wharfs. A site of 100 acres (0.40 km2) was a common unit of size, which may explain why many early plantations included the word "hundred" in their names. However, most were much larger than 100 acres (0.40 km2). A more likely explanation is the name derived from the English tradition of subdividing shires (counties) into "Hundreds".
While most are now long gone, some of the larger and older of the James River plantations are still in use and/or open to the public. Almost all are non-government-owned, and houses and/or grounds are generally open daily to visitors with various admission fees applicable.
Partial listing of plantations in early 17th century
Based upon the makeup of the House of Burgesses, a partial list of early plantations and their representatives were:
Plantations north side of James River
Listed from east to west, some of the plantations on the north side of the James River were:
In Hampton, Virginia (formerly Elizabeth City County, Virginia), the Herbert House, an 18th-century, two-story, brick plantation house built by a sea captain stands on the point of land where the Hampton River flows into the James, and is the oldest house still standing in the City of Hampton. Abandoned and neglected for many years, the house was nearing collapse in the early 21st century when it was donated to the city. It has been restored and adapted for use as a house museum.
In western Newport News (formerly Warwick County) are located the former sites of the Richneck and Denbigh plantations. Farther west, on Mulberry Island, the Matthew Jones House, a small 17th-century brick plantation house, still stands overlooking the James River on the Fort Eustis Military Reservation. A few miles away, Endview Plantation has been restored and is located near Lee Hall; the Lee Hall Mansion stands just north of US highway 60.
Lee Hall Mansion is a large 19th-century Italianate plantation house built in 1859 as the home of Richard Decatur Lee, a prominent local planter who was not directly related to the famous Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The mansion was used as headquarters for Confederate generals Joseph E. Johnston and John B. Magruder during the Peninsula Campaign of the American Civil War in 1862. Lee Hall Mansion is now a museum.
Just west of Lee Hall in James City County east of Williamsburg, Carter's Grove Plantation stands on the former site of Martin's Hundred Plantation and Wolstenholme Towne. It closed to visitors in 2003.
The former site of Green Spring Plantation near Jamestown is currently under archaeological study. Historically the home of Virginia's Royal Governor William Berkeley and other famous Virginians until the American Civil War, the site is now owned by the National Park Service. There are plans underway to open it to visitors by 2008 as part of the Colonial National Historical Park.
In Charles City County to the west across the Chickahominy River, the plantations on the north side of the James River are generally accessed from State Route 5 and the largely parallel Virginia Capital Trail (for bicycles, pedestrians and non-motorized traffic). North of State Route 5 were smaller plantations owned by common planters, typically with frame houses.
- Sherwood Forest Plantation is the home of President John Tyler, the first Vice President to ascend to the presidency. Tyler was twice Governor of Virginia, a U.S. Senator, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, a Virginia state senator and member of the Virginia House of Delegates. A graduate of The College of William and Mary, he later became Chancellor of that institution. As a supporter of state's rights, he re-entered public service in 1861 as an elected member of the Confederate Congress. He died in 1862. The house and its 1600 acres (6.5 km²) have been continuously owned by his direct descendants. In the mid-1970s, the residence was restored by President Tyler's grandson and his wife, the current owners.
- The House, circa 1730, is "Virginia Tidewater" in architectural design, and is the longest frame dwelling in America. It was expanded to its present length, 300 feet (90 m), by President Tyler in 1845, when he added the 68-foot (21 m) ballroom designed for dancing the Virginia reel. Sherwood Forest is a National Historic Landmark, Virginia Historic Landmark, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Sherwood Forest is open to the public seven days a week, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
- Kittiewan Plantation, overlooking Kittiewan Creek and the James River, is a typical Colonial-period medium-size wood-frame plantation house characteristic of the Virginia Tidewater. Built in the 18th century, its first known owner was Dr. William Rickman. In 1776 Rickman was appointed by the Continental Congress to oversee the Virginia hospitals during the American Revolution. During the early 20th century, the magnificent paneled interior was identified as a potential acquisition for the Metropolitan Museum of Arts' American Wing, although the owners did not entertain the thought of removing this significant feature of the house. Stewardship of the house and surrounding 720 acres (2.9 km2) is administered by the Archeological Society of Virginia. The house and grounds are open to the public by appointment.
- North Bend Plantation was built in 1819 by John Minge. In 1853 the home was doubled in size by Thomas Willcox. Architectural detailing from the expansion included Greek Revival detailing reminiscent of the designs of builder/architect Asher Benjamin. In 1864, during the American Civil War, North Bend served as the headquarters of Major General Phillip Sheridan as 30,000 Union troops prepared to cross the James River on a pontoon bridge. The home has been in Copland family since 1916. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The grounds are open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily and guided tours of the house are available daily by appointment.
- Upper Weyanoke The plantation site was settled by English colonists during the 17th century and has been continuously occupied ever since, as indicated by archeological investigations. During the 18th century and early 19th century, the locally prominent Minge family owned the property, as well as others on the Weyanoke peninsula, such as North Bend. The one-and-a-half-story, early 19th-century brick cottage was probably built by John Minge as a two-room dependency to a now vanished main dwelling. The grounds of Upper Weyanoke also include a Greek Revival style residence built for Robert Douthat in 1859. The commodious two-story brick home has a side-hall plan typically utilized in urban homes, rather than rural plantation houses.
- Belle Air Plantation is a unique surviving example of a wooden house with post-medieval-type exposed interior framing, and is probably the oldest plantation dwelling along State Route 5. The original five-bay portion of Belle Air possesses architectural details characteristic of seventeenth-century construction, with a floor plan and façade fenestration characteristic of 18th-century design. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The house is open for guided tours during Historic Garden Week and by appointment.
- Piney Grove at Southall's Plantation was established in the eighteenth century as a seat of the Southall family. During the late eighteenth century, the 300-acre (1.2 km2) plantation was owned by Furneau Southall. The original log portion of Piney Grove was built before 1790 as a corn crib, later converted and enlarged into a general merchandise store, and in 1905 enlarged and transformed into a residence. The home survives as a rare and well-preserved example of Early Virginia Log Architecture. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The grounds are open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily and guided tours of the house are available daily by appointment.
- Greenway Plantation is a wood-frame, one-and-a-half-story plantation house that stands just north of Route 5 in Charles City County, Virginia. Located just west of the Charles City Courthouse, it is one of Charles City's earliest and most distinctive Colonial plantations and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Greenway was built circa 1776 by Judge John Tyler, Sr., the father of president John Tyler. Future President Tyler was born here in 1790. When Judge Tyler died in 1813, John Tyler at the age of 23 inherited Greenway and lived there until age 39 (1829), when he sold the plantation and moved to nearby Sherwood Forest Plantation. The plantation is privately owned and maintained. The structures have remained well-preserved over the years with little alteration.
- Evelynton Plantation was originally part of William Byrd's expansive Westover Plantation. Named for Byrd's daughter, Evelyn, this site has been home to the Ruffin family since 1847. The 2,500 acre (10 km²) farm is still family owned and operated. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The house, lush grounds and gardens are open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily.
- Westover Plantation was built circa 1730 by William Byrd II, the founder of Richmond. It is noteworthy for its secret passages, magnificent gardens, and architectural details. The grounds and garden are open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, but the house is not open to the public.
- Berkeley Plantation was long the seat of the Harrison family, one of the First Families of Virginia. It was the birthplace of Benjamin Harrison V, son of the builder, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and three-time Governor of Virginia. His third son, William Henry Harrison, was born at Berkeley. A famous Indian fighter known as "Tippecanoe", William Henry Harrison later became the ninth President of the United States, in 1841, although he died shortly after taking office. His grandson, Benjamin Harrison, was the 23rd President. On December 4, 1619, early settlers from England came ashore at Berkeley and observed the first official Thanksgiving in America. It was also the site of the first playing of Taps at the conclusion of the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 during the American Civil War. It is normally open for tours 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily.
- Shirley Plantation, settled in 1613, is the oldest plantation in Virginia and the oldest family-owned business in North America, dating back to 1638. Occupied by the Hill family and their descendants since 1738, Shirley was the birthplace of Anne Hill Carter, the mother of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In 1793, she married Light Horse Harry Lee in the mansion's parlor. Shirley Plantation has been designated a National Historic Landmark. It is normally open for tours 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily.
- Upper Shirley The gracious late 19th-century dwelling at Upper Shirley with its beautiful site overlooking the James River has been the seat of several leading families of the Commonwealth. Built by Hill Carter for his son William Fitzhugh Carter during Reconstruction, a period in which few Virginians could afford to erect substantial residences, the original portion of the dwelling was constructed using bricks salvaged from a large 18th-century building that once formed part of the architectural complex at nearby Shirley Plantation, the seat of the James River branch of the Carter family. The estate is privately owned and is not open to the public.
In Henrico County, some of the former plantations are still working farms, notably including Malvern Hill; Curles Neck Plantation, home of Nathaniel Bacon, the leader of 1676's Bacon's Rebellion; and Varina Farms, home of John Rolfe and Pocahontas between 1614 and 1616; and Tree Hill, just below the falls of the James near the city limits of Richmond. (None open to public).
Plantations south side of James River
Most of the extant plantations south of the James River are accessed by State Route 10, which runs between Suffolk and Richmond via Smithfield, Surry, and Hopewell.
The south side plantations, from east to west, include:
- Bacon's Castle
- Rich Neck Constructed in the early nineteenth century, the house is remarkable for the number of original accessory features which survive. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places, May 19, 1980, Rich Neck provides a vivid impression of life on a prosperous Southside plantation in the early nineteenth century. Long connected with the Ruffins, one of the prominent families of Southside Virginia, Rich Neck possesses a collection of buildings which are among the best preserved and most noteworthy of their type in the region. Situated behind the house are a nineteenth-century smokehouse, an early and mid-nineteenth century office; and an outhouse, well house and chicken house, all built in the twentieth century. Original sashes, most of the doors, hinges (many with their leather washers), locks, and other hardware remain. The Ruffin family figured in Virginia's social and intellectual history throughout the colonial and early national periods. Its most notable member was Edmund Ruffin, an ardent secessionist and agricultural pioneer. Research indicates Rich Neck was owned by the Ruffin family until 1865. Rich Neck Farm has long stood vacant and is in a state of disrepair. In 2011 Preservation Virginia listed Rich Neck Farm as one of the most endangered historic sites in Virginia.
- Upper Brandon Plantation - This was part of an original land patent known as Brandon, granted to Captain John Martin, one of the founders of Jamestown. William Byrd Harrison inherited the upper 3,555 acres (14.39 km2) of Brandon, which became Upper Brandon. He built a large brick manor house in 1825 and developed the farm into a model of modern agricultural management. It remained in the Harrison family until 1948. In 1985, a Richmond-based corporation purchased the property, and restored and furnished the long-vacant manor house for use as a corporate retreat. Upper Brandon is a working farm currently owned by a group of private investors. The mansion and conference center are available for meetings and events.
- Willow Hill Plantation
- Aberdeen Plantation
- Flowerdew Hundred Plantation dates to 1618/19 with the patent of 1,000 acres (4.0 km2) on the south side of the James River in Virginia. Sir George Yeardley, the Governor and Captain General of the Virginia Colony, may have named the property after his wife, Temperance Flowerdew. Their primary residence was in Jamestown when Sir George called the first General Assembly in Jamestown in 1620. With a population of about 30, the plantation was economically successful with thousands of pounds of tobacco produced along with corn, fish and livestock. Sir George paid 120 pounds (possibly a hogshead of tobacco) to build the first windmill in British America. The plantation was purchased in the 1960s by David A. Harrison,III, a member of the prominent Harrison family. He permitted extensive archaeological digs to be conducted on the property. The artifacts collected during these digs were donated to the University of Virginia. Today, Flowerdew Hundred plantation is a private residence.
- Hatches Plantation
- Maycox Plantation (now incorporated into the James River National Wildlife Refuge)
- Greenway is located on the south side of Rt 10 east of Hopewell. The residence was built ca. 1800 and is among the oldest houses still standing in Prince George County. The house, built over an English basement, is a typical wood frame, hall and parlor, farm house with gabled dormers and large end chimneys. Many of the windows have the original blown glass. Greenway is a private residence and is currently operated as an American Saddlebred horse farm.
- Beechwood Plantation (home of Edmund Ruffin and site of the Beefsteak Raid) Built in the mid 19th century by Edmund Ruffin for his son Edmund Ruffin, Jr., the house is a large, two-story frame mansion, built in the Greek Revival style, sided with plain weatherboards set on a full raised brick basement. There is a low, hipped tin roof with two pairs of corbelled interior chimneys, and a total of 12 fireplaces. Long vacant and open to the elements, Beechwood stands in a state of ruin as of 2011.
- Tar Bay Plantation
- Bouvier Castle Plantation
- Evergreen Plantation (birthplace of Edmund Ruffin)
- Appomattox Manor (at City Point)
- Weston Manor is a large five-bay, wood-frame, plantation house built in 1789 for William and Christian Eppes Gilliam on land in Prince George County. The Gilliam family arrived in Virginia in the 17th century as indentured servants. By the late 18th century the family had amassed several plantations in the area. Christian was the daughter of Richard Eppes of Appomattox Plantation. Her maternal grandfather was a descendant of Pocahontas, as were many members of the First Families of Virginia.It is noted for its period interior, and is open for tours from April 1 through October 31 each year. Hours are Monday through Saturday 10am - 4:30pm, Sunday 1pm - 4:30pm.
- Presquile (at Bermuda Hundred now Presquile National Wildlife Refuge)
- Mont Blanco also known as Mount Blanco was a plantation set on a high bluff overlooking the James River in Chesterfield County, Virginia. The two-story, three-bay, wood-frame plantation house was built in the last decade of the eighteenth century for John Wayles Eppes, a United States Representative and Senator from Virginia who married a daughter of Thomas Jefferson. The name Mont Blanco is said to have been suggested by his father-in-law Thomas Jefferson, due to the height of the bluff and the expansive views across the broad river valley below. (Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in the Alps and in Western Europe.) During the American Civil War, the plantation was plundered by Union soldiers of the Army of the James under General Benjamin Franklin Butler, who occupied the area during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign. The 18th-century house at Mont Blanco was heavily damaged by fire in the mid 1950s. But, its charred ruins remained standing for decades. In the early 21st century, the agricultural operation was discontinued, and the last remaining tract of Mont Blanco land was sold for development. Today, residential homes occupy its fields. The name of the subdivision, "Mount Blanco", is the only reminder of the historic plantation that once stood there.
- Meadowville Plantation
- Rochedale Hundred Plantation
- Kingsland Plantation (owned by Christopher Branch at Henricus)
- Bellwood Plantation was built between 1797 and 1804 as the manor house on a large plantation that is now the site of the present-day Defense Supply Center, Richmond. When the U.S. Army purchased the property in 1941 from the last private land owner, James Bellwood, the manor house was turned into an officers' club. The structure, although renovated and adapted for use by the military, still retains much of its original architecture, including its original pine flooring, paneled doors, stairs, ornamental locks and doorknobs, and window frames. The Bellwood Club is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a registered historic landmark in both Virginia and Chesterfield County.