The history of Flowerdew is told best through the words of those people who lived there. They recorded their everyday lives in letters and diaries. Census records, estate sale inventories, maps, deeds and will provide detailed information on land usage, building construction, and personal possessions.
Archaeological evidence indicates that American Indians occupied this land for approximately ten thousand years before the Europeans arrived. The first Native American occupants were nomadic hunters in search of large game animals. Later groups began to build villages along the rivers and streams.
Many American Indian groups lived in palisaded villages at the time of European contact. Their houses were built of poles, bent and tied together at the top, and set in the ground in a circular or rectangular fashion. They were covered with bark or fiber mats. Archaeologists have found evidence of similar structures at Flowerdew Hundred.
When the Europeans first arrived, they found that agriculture played an important role in the lifeways of the aboriginal inhabitants. The American Indians cultivated crops of corn, pumpkins, and beans for food, while continuing hunting, fishing and gathering activities.
The arrival of European settlers permanently changed the existing pattern of native life. The resulting conflict between the two cultures led to the almost total destruction of the traditional American Indian way of life.
17th Century: Virginia Frontier
By 1618, the Virginia Company of London had granted Sir George Yeardley a 1,000-acre tract 25 miles upriver from Jamestown. At that point of land, previously cleared by American Indians, Yeardley established a plantation and named it Flowerdew Hundred in honor of his wife’s family. The settlement at Flowerdew Hundred was organized for the production and exportation of tobacco.
An Indian uprising in March 1622 devastated most of the English settlements in the Tidewater area; however, Flowerdew Hundred was well defended and only six people were recorded killed. By 1624, this thriving plantation supported a population of sixty people who raised livestock and produced corn and a yearly tobacco crop of about 10,000 pounds. As the threat of Indian attack lessened, people moved away from the river and settled inland.
Increased political and economic stability encouraged greater diversity in housing. No longer were the single-room wattle and daub dwelling dominant. Following the sale of the plantation in 1624 to Abraham Peirsey, ranked the second wealthiest man in Virginia, the merchant-planter constructed a hall and parlor house, the earliest example of permanent architecture in the English colonies. By 1673, the original Flowerdew Hundred tract was divided into two separate properties.
18th Century: American Cultural Identity
By the time Prince George County was established in 1703, the original 1,000 acres Flowerdew Hundred land grant had been divided into several smaller tracts. During most of the eighteenth century, the largest portion of the tract was owned by Joshua Poythress and his descendants.
Demand for land dedicated to tobacco production brought about the development of a plantation society supported by slave labor. The resulting wealth and economic stability increased the demand for goods. To meet that demand a more direct route between the commercial centers of Williamsburg and Petersburg was needed. As part of this route, a ferry was established at Flowerdew Hundred.
The European and Chinese trade routes supplied the wealthy plantation owners at Flowerdew Hundred and elsewhere with imported commodities important for both everyday life and as status symbols.
19th Century: Civil War and Social Change
John Vaughn Willcox, a wealthy Petersburg merchant, married the heiress to the Poythress estate in 1804. Adding to his wife’s inheritance through the purchase of adjacent tracts of land, Willcox and his son, John Poythress Willcox, assembled a 1400 acre tract. By 1855 the Willcox property included the original 1000 acre land grant. Mary Jane McGowan Willcox exercised full control of the property after the death of her husband in 1857.
The track became strategically significant during the Civil War. On June 12, 1864, Lt. Peter Michie of the United States Corps of Engineers surveyed three possible crossing sites on the James River near Fort Powhatan.
The site selected stretched from Weyanoke Point, 1,992 feet across the river to Flowerdew Hundred. By 4:00 p.m. on June 14th the pontoons had arrived and the bridge was under construction.
The entire Army of the Potomac was across the river by June 17th and the bridge was disassembled. Following their crossing of the James River, 115,000 men bivouacked at Flowerdew Hundred for three days. During this encampment, Mary Jane Willcox continued in residence with her two daughters and elderly mother.
Although the Civil War erased the old plantation society, Mary Jane Willcox successfully managed the property during and after the Reconstruction Period. Flowerdew Hundred remained in the hands of the Willcox family descendants until the early twentieth century.
20th Century: Interpreting the Past
Interpreting the history of Flowerdew Hundred is an ongoing process. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, the current landowners have supported research and promoted the interpretation of this important historic site. Archaeological excavations from the 1970s through the mid-1990s have produced vital information concerning the centuries of habitation along these banks of the James River.
The unique artifacts uncovered during the excavations serve as the central focus for the Flowerdew Hundred Museum exhibits. Ongoing research in the laboratory has added significant data to Virginia’s archaeological record, thereby contributing further knowledge to the Commonwealth’s historical database. Check out also this post about Historical Beachwood in New Jersey.
Built on a ridge overlooking the James River, the post-type windmill at Flowerdew Hundred commemorates the original mill, considered to be the earliest in English North America. Constructed by English millwright Derek Ogden, the present windmill is representative of a type once common in the English Midlands and incorporates features that reflect the development of windmill technology through the eighteenth century. It is an outstanding example of the art and work of an almost extinct craft, that of the traditional millwright. Both the windmill and the replicated detached kitchen are central to the twentieth-century view of the past four centuries at Flowerdew Hundred.