Friday, July 21, 2017  

The Burwell's Fairfield Plantation


If you have had the occasion to drive through Gloucester Courthouse you may have, as I did, wondered what it is that is going on with the little old Texaco Service Station at the intersection of Main Street and Route 14 that has generated so much interest. Passing at night recently, you may have seen the new solar-powered array of lights that was paid for by a grant from Dominion Virginia Power. The old Edge Hill Service Station is now the Fairfield Foundation’s Center for Archaeology, Preservation and Education.

The former Edge Hill Service Station is slated to be the hub of the activities for the Fairfield Foundation. Spearheaded by co-directors Dr. Dave Brown and Thane Harpole, the mission is to “Do History”. The Fairfield Foundation is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization dedicated to archaeology, preservation and education on Virginia’s Middle Peninsula. Their mission is to promote and involve the public in hands-on archaeology, preservation and education activities within Virginia’s Middle Peninsula and surrounding areas. By preserving the physical elements of the past, future generations will better understand where it is they came from and what the lives of their ancestors were really like. Some of the physical evidence, like the old Edge Hill Service Station, is still standing and can be restored. The Burwell home and other buildings at Fairfield Plantation on the other hand, are in ruins.

It may be true that some of us are not terribly enthusiastic about archaeology because it conjures up images of boring stuffy old college professors wearing three piece suits and bow ties or dusty old mummies found in places that are hard to pronounce. Dave and Thane are the complete opposite of those images. They are young, strong and energetic archaeologists/historians whose enthusiasm and knowledge of the various projects in which they are involved shines like a beacon from even the dustiest, crumbled ruin. Finding something as simple as the broken bowl of an old clay pipe after scraping layers of dirt and sifting it through a screen, brings them a contagious joy and celebration of that human story about which they are “doing” history. They bring an excitement to learning that makes those involved a part of it and eager to known more and more about the subject. They will enchant you with their description of something as simple as a common brick that once was a part of the foundation of a magnificent building.

No detail is unimportant. They are able to describe what they are doing in a way that makes you want to be a part of it by getting down into one of the excavation units and searching for that very special artifact that will reveal new information. Things like learning where and how a chimney was placed, the exact location of a main entrance, or how they figured out where the slave quarters were located become fascinating stories when told by Dave Brown and Thane Harpole.

Dr. Dave Brown and Thane Harpole are leading the archaeological excavations of the Burwell home on land which was first patented in 1648. The manor house was home to six generations of Burwells, starting with Lewis Burwell I. While the home was incredibly large and impressive for the area and the era, it should not be surprising because the Burwells were one of the first families of the colony of Virginia. They were, in the opinion of John Quincy Adams, typical Virginia aristocrats of their period; forthright, bland, somewhat imperious and politically simplistic. In 1713 Governor Spotswood complained that “the greater part of the present Council are related to the family of Burwells,… there will be no less than seven so near related that they will go off the Bench whenever a Cause of the Burwell’s come to be tried.”

Major Lewis Burwell, born in Ampthill, Bedford, England, was the first Burwell to live at Fairfield Plantation. He married Lucy Higginson who, when Lewis died, remarried twice. First to Col. William Bernard and, at his passing, to Col. Phwilip Ludwell. The Burwells had a son named Lewis Burwell II born about 1652. He would help establish the new colonial capital at Williamsburg, foster the College of William and Mary and become a member of the Governor’s Council between 1702 and 1710. He died in 1710.

The “Burls”, the name many Virginians used to refer to the Burwells, were, over the years, a major influence in Virginia, particularly through the buildings they built. In addition to Fairfield Plantation in Gloucester County, there were other homes and plantations built by the Burwells such as Carters Grove. Burwell descendants included men like Lewis Burwell III who established Kingsmill Plantation.

Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller, the famous World War II Marine hero for whom General Puller Highway in Middlesex County is named, is a Burwell descendant. Known as “President”, Lewis Burwell I/II was president of the Governor’s Council and acting Governor of Virginia in 1751, coinciding with the arrival of the Cherokee Delegation to Williamsburg and completion of the famous Frye and Jefferson map of Virginia. Carter Burwell, grandson of Lewis Burwell II, built the home at Carter’s Grove on property he inherited from his other grandfather, Robert “King” Carter.

Fairfield plantation grew to over 7000 acres by the Revolutionary War, but was at its most productive during the first half of the 18th century. It produced tobacco but experimented with crop diversification early in the century, as did many of the elite. Cattle were raised in quantity by the end of the century as well. The work of building the manor house and maintaining the fields was done by slaves and some indentured servants. Too much debt and exhausted soils led to the plantation’s sale in 1787. There are no good records of what happened to the enslaved Africans that lived on the plantation, however it is believed some may have been purchased by neighbors. Part of the work being done is studying these people, their lives, and the physical survivals of their culture, including African American cemeteries.

Brown and Harpole have been “doing” the history at Fairfield for approximately 14 years. They are assisted by Anna Hayden and countless volunteers who spend hours and hours scraping and sifting in the more than 600 test units that have been dug where artifacts, buildings, and other physical remains may be found. Volunteers, interns and contributions are welcome.

The former Edge Hill Service Station will soon open its doors as the C.A.P.E. which stands for the Center for Archaeology, Preservation and Education. It will be more than a place to view artifacts, see photos, listen to oral histories and learn about Fairfield Plantation. It will be a place where the public can learn about the archaeology that is ongoing in the area.
It will be an archaeology lab that will open up the wonders of “doing “history.

In addition to their work at several sites in the area, including Native American villages, the Fairfield Foundation is continuing to examine the extensive collection of historic documents related to the Burwell family and Fairfield plantation. Through its Oral History program, more recent historical data is being preserved to yield a more accurate understating of the lives of slaves, servants, land owners and all of the various other plantation residents. It will make clearer the changing plantation landscape and the development of the African American community in this area.

As you drive by the old Edge Hill Service Station, think about one day stopping in to learn more about what is happening there. Soon it will be open and ready to excite and intrigue you with the work of the Fairfield staff and many interns and volunteers. Listen to an oral history, view an artifact- I guarantee you will learn things about the community and your history that you never knew you never knew. Stop in and do a little history. Let your mind roam over your local history. If you listen really carefully to your memory you may, as I did, hear the old jingle from the Milton Berle TV show: “We are the men of Texaco we work from Maine to Mexico…”. For information visit www.fairfieldfoundation.org.