In the 1600’s land grants were being offered by colonizing countries to promote colonization of new lands, as well as a reward for loyal service. Shirley Plantation was founded in 1613 via such a land grant from England. The original name of the plantation was the West and Shirley Hundred, named after its owner Sir Thomas West and his wife Lady Cecily Shirley. While the plantation retains the name Shirley, neither she nor Sir Thomas ever actually lived on or even visited the plantation. At the time, England was full of tales describing the colonies as untamed wilderness with mosquitoes as large as a person’s hand and dangerous savages. Understandably, Lady Cecily was not eager to see if these myths were true.
In this area of the country, the prime cash crop was tobacco and Shirley plantation was no exception. During its most lucrative periods, prior to the Civil War, there were as many as several hundred slaves which worked on the property. Even after the Civil War and other agricultural advancements, over a hundred slaves stayed on at Shirley plantation as tenant farmers. Robert E. Lee, the commanding general of the Confederacy during the Civil War, was actually raised on the grounds of Shirley plantation and always held the place very close to his heart. As he was drawing close to the end of his life, he insisted on visiting the grounds one final time in order to die in peace. Prophetically, he died two months after making that final trip.
Shirley Plantation is the most intact 18th century estate in Virginia according to at least one architectural historian. No where else in North America will you find an example of the architectural style that its “Flying Staircase” and Queen Anne forecourt represent.
Just like many other historical locations, Shirley house is full of quaint, quirky, and even spooky stories. There are tales of a haunted painting that wouldn’t rest until it was in its proper place, as well as a marriage tradition among family women which carries on to this day. These stories and more are waiting for you in the documentary.