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Patrick Henry's Scotchtown

The House and Plantation

The House and Plantation

On July 15, 1717, Charles Chiswell received a grant of 9976 acres of new land in Hanover county from Lt. Governor Alexander Spotswood "in consideration of the sume of fifty pounds of good and lawfull mony." On this land he built the house that would later come to be known as Scotchtown. Tradition dates the construction of the house to 1719, based on the supposition that land grantees were required to build within two years of receiving a grant. If any structure was on the present Scotchtown site in 1719, however, it was most definitely smaller than what is there now, and Chiswell's initial settlement may well have been eleswhere on his property. In the absence of an historic structures report, a date range of roughly the second quarter of the 18th century seems the most reasonable for the present structure.

At some point after receiving the land grant, Chiswell and his wife Esther moved to the new property, and in addition to agricultural production, Chiswell also established an iron manufactory nearby. William Byrd describes his 1732 visit to Chiswell's iron manufactory in his "Progress to the Mines" in which he describes Chiswell as "a sensible, well bred man and very frank in communicating his knowledge in the mystery of making iron, wherein he has had long experience." He describes the Chiswells' house as "very clean and [everything] very good," although presumably the house was fairly small because while the two men spent considerable time together, Byrd lodged elsewhere.

Charles Chiswell died in 1737 and the property transferred to his son, Col. John Chiswell. Col. Chiswell moved to the site with his family, which grew to include four daughters. The family remained there until 1752 or 1753, when they relocated to Williamsburg. Archaeological evidence suggests that the house was expanded to its present size during this period. The house also appears to have obtained its current name during Col. Chiswell's occupancy. A 1757 sale of property by Col. Chiswell first gives the name "Scotch Town" for the house on his Hanover property. In addition to agricultural pursuits, Col. Chiswell operated a store out of the house during the 1750s (and possibly earlier) where he purchased local tobacco to transport to England.

In 1759 or 1760, Scotchtown was transferred to Col. Chiswell's son-in-law, John Robinson, probably as partial payment for debts. Robinson does not appear to have ever lived at the property. In 1766, Col. Chiswell murdered a man at Mosby's Tavern, died while on bail, and was refused burial in Williamsburg. His body was returned to Scotchtown. The same year, Robinson himself died, deeply indebted to the state. In order to repay some of Robinson's debts, Scotchtown was offered for sale, eventually selling in 1770 to an unnamed buyer. A 1769 advertisement describes Scotchtown very much as it stands today: "a large commodious dwelling-house built of wood with eight rooms on one floor and a very large passage. . ."

The chain of title for Scotchtown between 1770 and 1800 is unclear. Several families, including, most notably, the Henry family, owned the house. Patrick Henry is currently believed to have been the 1770 buyer of the property, although he did not make final payment for the 960 acres that he purchased until 1772. Some have suggested that John Payne (Dolley Payne Madison's father) purchased the house and lived there during this period. Late in life, Dolley Madison did recall having lived at Scotchtown for a short time as a young girl, but no documentary evidence exists to support this supposition. It is more likely that the Paynes stayed briefly with Henry, who was their relative and known for his hospitality, before they purchased their home at Cole's Hill in late 1771. Madison's recollections, which are quite vague and somewhat inaccurate regarding house itself, may also be of visits to the house rather than of a time spent actually living on the property.

Patrick Henry, his wife Sarah, and their six children are the first known inhabitants of Scotchtown after the Chiswells moved out. The family probably took occupancy in the spring of 1771 because by September Henry was producing Tobacco, which he sold to a local store owner. Around the time that the family relocated to Scotchtown, Sarah Henry began showing signs of mental illness. Eventually she had to be confined, probably in a small basement apartment. She died at Scotchtown in 1775. During his years at Scotchtown, Henry was busy with civic activities. It was from Scotchtown that he rode in 1775 to journey to St. John's Church in Richmond to deliver his famous "Liberty or Death" speech and again in 1776 to be elected first governor of Virginia. In 1777, Henry married his second wife Dorothea Dandridge and relocated to the Governor's Palace in Williamsburg. Scotchtown was offered for sale that year and again in 1778. Little is known about the house during Henry's time there. His brother in law described his furniture as being "all of the plainest sort, consisting of necessaries only-nothing for show or ornament" but few domestic accounts from this period, clouded as it was by family sorrow and political upheaval, have survived.

Scotchtown was purchased in 1778 by Wilson Miles Cary and his wife Sarah. It is unclear whether the Carys ever lived at the property, although it seems likely they did, if only briefly. Cary was charged for tax for a two wheeled carriage, a four wheeled carriage, eighty-one slaves, fifteen horses, and thirty-four head of cattle. Baron Ludwig von Clozen also visited the property during this period, describing it as: "one of the most pleasing establishments in America." The Carys offered the property for sale in December 1781 with occupancy to begin the following fall. The initial offering was apparently unsuccessful because they offered the property for sale four more times, eventually selling it in 1787 to Benjamin Forsythe. Forsythe is charged with tax for nine slaves, seven horses, fifty-five cattle, a two-wheeled carriage, and a white man, probably an overseer, suggesting the possibility of a small plantation operation. Very little information survives for Scotchtown between 1787 and 1801. It is unclear whether Benjamin Forsythe ever lived at the property, how long he held onto it, or to whom he sold it.

Around 1801, Scotchtown was purchased by John Mosby Sheppard, whose descendants lived in the property until its transfer to the Preservation Virginia in 1958. Comparatively little is known about Sheppard or his later descendants the Taylors. Several letters that Sheppard and his daughter wrote to a son away at medical school survive, as do several tax listings for the family while they lived in Hanover County, but documentary evidence about the family and how they furnished and used the house is extremely limited.

Information about the exterior of the house and the grounds during this period does exist, however. Sheppard appears to have made significant changes to the property, building several outbuildings and adding a lean-to to the side (probably a kitchen) that survived into the twentieth century. All of the surviving images of the property date to the Sheppard/Taylor period including three Mutual Assurance policies dating to 1802, 1805 and 1816 that depict the dwelling house, a kitchen, a laundry, a barn, and later a smokehouse. There is also a color drawing from a survey plat made ca. 1820 by J. D. G. Brown, which shows the house, grounds, and outbuilding as they appeared at the time. In the mid-19th century, the interior of the house was extensively remodeled and the chimneys moved to fit the fashionable double parlor plan of the 1830s. The land was divided as it descended through the family until the last two owners of the property, Misses Sallie and Lavinia Taylor, were left with only 99 acres in 1958.

The Scotchtown property was sold at auction in 1958 where it was purchased and later transferred to Preservation Virginia for $17,000. The Hanover County Branch of Preservation Virginia oversaw the initial restoration and furnishing of the site. The house was extensively restored in the late 1950s to return it to its appearance during the late 18th century. In 1964 a caretaker's cottage was constructed. Archaeological excavations were conducted on the site between 1968 and 1987, resulting in the reconstruction of several of the early 19th century outbuildings including the icehouse (1967), kitchen (1975), law office (1967). Foundations were also located for a dairy/wellhouse and a barn. In the early 1970s, the Garden Club of Virginia oversaw landscaping of the property. Further restoration to the property took place in 1971 and again in 1987.

In the early 1990s, operational control of Scotchtown transferred from the Hanover County Branch to the Preservation Virginia statewide offices in Richmond. In 1993, Scotchtown applied for and received a CAP Grant from IMLS to reexamine its policies, procedures, and the current condition of its collection and structures. Today, Preservation Virginia has made a commitment to reexamine the public experience at Scotchtown in order to bring it in line with organization-wide programming benchmarks and better meet the needs of the communities that it serves.

Crawford, Alan Pell. "The Upstart, the Speaker, the Scandals, and Scotchtown." Colonial Williamsburg Journal. Winter 2001-2002. pp. 14-21.

Cote, Richard N. Strength and Honor: The Life of Dolley Madison. Mount Pleasant, SC: Corintian Books, 2005.

Couture, Richard T. To Preserve and Protect: A History of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. Dallas, TX: Taylor Publishing Co., 1984.

The Hanover County Historical Society. Old Homes of Hanover County, Virginia. Hanover, VA: Walsworth Publishing Co., 1983.

Unpublished documents from the Preservation Virginia archives.