Tidewater Aristocracy: Virginia's First Families

Dr. Cynthia D. Hatch, Ph.D.

Robert "King" Carter Reigns Supreme in Colonial Virginia

The Tidewater Region, with its heavily tree-lined winding roads, leads to one of the oldest historic properties in Virginia. Shirley Plantation, on the banks of the James River in Charles City, stands as a testament to the history of the Tidewater Aristocracy. Established in 1613, during the reign of King James I of England, it is the "oldest plantation in Virginia" and remains the "oldest family business in North America." The Tidewater Aristocracy, with their powerful characters who regularly sailed to England on the business of the colony and commerce, helped shape the region, leaving a lasting legacy. In the mid-seventeenth century, tens of thousands of immigrants found their way to the shoreline of the Tidewater region of Coastal Virginia. The common thread many of the well-to-do newly minted Virginians shared was a "sense of honor [and] a hierarchical conception of liberty." These characteristics, brought from England, were a significant part of the region's identity. Virginia, in its early days, mirrored much of England, both socially and religiously, as the Church of England was established with the arrival of the Jamestown settlement in 1607 and solidified as the religion of the colony upon the establishment of the House of Burgesses in 1619. Opportunity abounded for many families, and great wealth was amassed by many families in the Tidewater region of Coastal Virginia. One example of the staggering amount of wealth on display was a painting in 1680 by an unknown artist depicting the young Edward Hill III of Shirley Plantation, who died as a young child. The richness of the oil painting was unique "because of its highly aristocratic, Baroque English style and use of classical costume." The painting was similar to paintings of noble families found in the great houses in England. To find it on the shores of the James River, a short distance from Jamestown, Virginia, denotes the power of the Hill/Carter family even as early as the seventeenth century. The Tidewater Aristocracy's impact was not just in wealth but in establishing a unique social structure in the colony, which is still visible today. Due to the laws of primogeniture, many of England's younger sons found themselves in Virginia, eager to make a name for themselves and re-establish a familiar society on the shores of Virginia. One of these men was William Byrd I (1652-1704). As the son of "a London goldsmith," he sailed to Virginia to meet relatives in hopes of establishing a prosperous life in the colony. In the early 1670s, Byrd married Mary Horsmanden Filmer. As the daughter of "Warham Horsmanden, a Royalist émigré and former member of the governor's Council, and the widow of Samuel Filmer, who in turn was a younger son of Robert Filmer, author of the famed monarchist tract Patricarcha (1680)," Mary brought with her great prestige to the marriage and helped solidify Byrd's social ranking in Virginia and through the colonies. The marriage was a well-matched, socially advantageous union that linked Byrd to high-ranking figures in England. By 1688, William Byrd I was a member of the House of Burgesses and amassed 1,200 acres through a land transaction from Theodorick Bland's family, who was "a member of an ancient English family, and a member of the Virginia council." Westover Plantation on the banks of the James River in Charles City, Virginia, was sold to Byrd for “£300 and 10,000 pounds of tobacco.” As the seventeenth century ended, the Byrd family estate became the backdrop to well-positioned marriages and a who's who of Virginia society. Ursula Byrd, the daughter of William Byrd I, would go on to make a worthy union with the marriage to Robert Beverley, a native-born Virginian. The young Robert was “educated in England” in the late 1600s, which afforded him a broad education upon his return to Virginia. Surely, his education encompassed social behaviors and etiquette expectations befitting his life station. Beverley was a politician, planter, and writer, and several works were attributed to him over his lifetime. Through a series of political and commercial dealings, Beverley accumulated more wealth. In turn, it assisted in establishing his family for advantageous marriages to the most distinguished families of Virginia. Beverley's son with Ursula, William, married Elizabeth Bland. The Bland family was the family from which William Byrd I obtained his estate in the late seventeenth century from Theodorick Bland. Given its rural geography, the Tidewater Aristocracy was limited to the eligible marriage matches. Consequently, many of the same names appear in family trees multiple times.
Tidewater Aristocracy: Virginia’s First Families
Shirley Plantation, established in 1613

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Tidewater Aristocracy: Virginia’s First Families
William Randolph I (1650-1711)

The Randolph Family and its Many Branches

With powerful ties to the Bland family and wealth, William Beverley built an estate to demonstrate his societal position. Blandfield Plantation sits along the brackish waters of the Rappahannock River in Essex County, Virginia. Today, constructed in 1750 for William and his wife Elizabeth, the property boasts "approximately 4,000 acres" with several hundred acres of marshlands and farmlands that its current owners have preserved. Elizabeth Bland's sister Mary made a well-matched marriage as well. Mary Bland wed Henry Lee I of the influential Lee family of Virginia. Mary and Elizabeth Bland came to their marriages with a well-bred pedigree of their own family, which was well established in Virginia at the time of their marriages. The maternal line of their family descended from William Randolph, who was Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, Richard Bland, and Peyton Randolph’s great-grandfather. It seemed everyone’s family tree had a Randolph somewhere in the branches. In the running of elite families in Virginia, it is safe to estimate the Randolph family was one of the most prominent families for over one hundred years or more. As late as the 1780s, a French traveler noted, "You must be prepared to hear the name Randolph frequently," as they were involved in all aspects of society at the highest levels. Nestled along the James River, not far from Shirley Plantation and other well-known plantations of the day, the Randolph family established their seat in Virginia society as early as the mid-seventeenth century. The Virginia Museum of History and Culture notes that over ten neighboring estates were directly related to the Randolph family, making them incredibly influential in British North America. Serving in the House of Burgesses, Attorney General for the Colony of Virginia, Clerk of the House, or Royal Council were all offices held by many of these families in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Eventually, the Randolph family would marry into the Lee family and produce not one but two prominent military Generals—Lighthorse Harry Lee in the Revolutionary War and Robert E. Lee in the Civil War. The Byrd/Beverley family, within a generation or two, would marry into the Hill/Carter family, where Robert "King" Carter reigned supreme along the James River. According to the National Park Service, the Carter family owned Berkeley and Brandon Plantations, in addition to Westover Plantation. At the time of Robert “King” Carter’s death in 1732, he was in possession of almost three hundred thousand acres of land in Virginia. Peerage in the New World never came to pass for many reasons, though when the House of Burgesses was established, it was discussed but never acted upon. The freedoms enjoyed by the Tidewater Aristocracy existed due to the physical distance from the Crown and, in many ways, were improvised as the conditions fit the circumstances presented in the Colony of Virginia. The younger sons of nobles and the wealthy elite who made their fortunes in agriculture created a unique social structure for the colony. In many ways, it is still seen today in places such as the Shirley Plantation and Westover Plantation, where a glimpse of the past can be seen, touched, and experienced, and many of these historic homes are now open to the public. These families established the finery that peers could recognize in England but were decidedly marked with the hallmark of ingenuity born out of the necessity of life in the complex New World of the Colony of Virginia. The elite families recreated the social structures that fit their needs, such as high-born marriages and business dealings, and created a distinctly different social structure in the colony than what was used in England. Tradition and expectations of family structures of the Old World straddled the complex societal makeup of the New World, which was ripe with unique circumstances to negotiate for both men and women of the era. The families of the Tidewater Aristocracy created the nuances of high society in the Colony of Virginia with the ruggedness to persevere and establish a New World.
Ancestry UK
Tidewater Aristocracy: Virginia’s First Families

Dr. Cynthia D. Hatch, Ph.D.

Dr. Hatch, a distinguished historian and author specializing in the Revolutionary War, dedicated a decade to meticulously researching the legal impact of the escalating conflict between the Colonies and England from 1750 to 1781 in the historically rich Tidewater Region of Virginia. Her comprehensive studies revealed compelling family connections among the prominent figures of the era, adding a layer of complexity and richness to the narratives of the Revolutionary War.
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