Surry County has the lucky/unlucky position of being across the river from Colonial Williamsburg, Historic Jamestown, and Revolutionary Yorktown – three of the most important cities in America’s history. People hit those three sites and mark Virginia as done. This is a mistake. Take the free Jamestown-Scotland Ferry that connects the Historic Triangle (Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown) to Surry. The ride takes about twenty minutes and gives you access to a whole new section of American history.
If you have time to see only one place in Surry, this is the one.
You can just make out our guide, Ryan, standing in the doorway.
Nathaniel Bacon is…strange. He was a self-absorbed, genocidal, spoiled terror and yet people labeled him an American hero for standing up to the gub’ment. What gives?
- Small groups of Native Americans attacked colonists in separate events (one that led to the death of Bacon’s overseer).
- Bacon, a ridiculously wealthy Englishman in his mid-20s, asked permission from the governor to kill (all) Native Americans.
- The governor, who was cool with most of the tribes, told Bacon to sit down and shut up.
- Bacon responded by killing a bunch of men, women, and children from the tribe….only, it was the wrong tribe. Dude just hauled off and murdered people whose only crime was being the same skin tone as the guys in the first bullet point.
- Fast forward little bit: Bacon next goes to the capital, with 500 of his drunken bros (black and white), and demands a commission to kill some more Native Americans. The governor refuses. Bacon then tells his followers to point ALL their guns at the governor.
- The governor, a straight up G, rips open his shirt and says, “Go on then. Do it.”
- Bacon froze a second. Apparently, he was cool with killing a ton of native women and children, but the thought of killing this one guy freaked him out. Instead, he told his boys to aim at the burgesses (basically colonial congressmen), who were nowhere near as diesel as the governor. These burgesses gave Bacon the permission slip (an actual piece of paper) to go on the warpath.
- Fast forward a lot: After a whole bunch of foolishness, Bacon forces the governor out of office and, just for kicks and giggles, burns down the capital, Jamestown. A proper old school Philip of Macedon style razing. Before Bacon can make his last stand, he dies of explosive diarrhea at age 29.
We could get into a history fight about land, money, government control, and promises of protection, but that’s a different post…
Annnnnyway, Bacon’s Castle is where his supporters fought the last battle of this rebellion. It is a beautiful house – one of only three Jacobean houses present in the Western Hemisphere. It’s also the oldest brick house in the Commonwealth still standing.
Ryan, our guide and a descendant of Bacon, was hilarious. The dude wants to be a history teacher – he’ll be a freaking great one.
Above: There are several buildings on the property. This one served as slave quarters. It was much smaller then and would have held four families. After slavery, tenant families moved in and greatly expanded the structure to what you see today.
Above: This wood was already 300 years old when someone, 300 years ago, used it as flooring. The original nails still hold it together.
Above: Root Cellar in the Main Building.
The garden has been repopulated with old world plants that would have come from England for the well-to-do.
After spending time on ground walked by Pocahontas, John Smith, and John Rolfe in Williamsburg, you’ll find the rest of the story in Surry. Smith’s Fort is likely to be your first stop off the ferry. At the end of an impossibly long lane, a moderate sized house awaits. This 1750’s home is on property given to John Rolfe by Chief Powhatan in 1614, after Rolfe’s marriage to Pocahontas.
Pocahontas goes through a miserable death in England. Ugh. Her son with Rolfe also falls ill. The kid gets so sick that dad leaves him England and returns back to the colonies…where he dies. The now parentless kid stays with an uncle in England. Years go by and when the child becomes a man in his twenties, he sails back to the colonies to claim this land and the rest of his inheritance. That’s what this home is all about.
Above: A 1621 King James Bible in the bedroom. Right about here I gave up on the zoom and just decided to move in as close as I could, lol.
What’s really cool is the stuff in the back. Beyond the garden pictured below, you’ll find the ruins of a not-even-almost-completed fort that John Smith started in 1609.
Heads up: While the road to the house is RV friendly, the dirt patch to the ruins is not. If you are coming in a large vehicle (my van couldn’t make it), prepare for a long, mosquito-heavy hike down a muddy and cratered road.
Definitely get the Bacon’s Castle / Smith’s Fort Combo Ticket
Bacon’s Castle and Smith’s Fort with run you $10 each. Instead, a $14 combo ticket gets you into both locations. This ticket includes guided tours and free range to roam the grounds. You can pick up one at either place, but you’ll need to ask for it.
See Chippokes Plantation State Park…Maybe
Look, I underestimated this place. It broke me. I was miserable.
Bad news first?
- You’re going to need a lot of mosquito repellant.
- The place is crowded (maybe because of the lack of other affordable camping in the region?)
- From the perspective of historical sightseeing, I was underwhelmed. To be fair to Chippokes, I’d just had an amazing tour of Bacon’s Castle and I was hungry.
My tip? Either give this place the two full days it deserves or avoid it completely.
Now the good great news!
There really is a lot to see. One of the oldest American farms in continuous use, Chippokes will have something for you to enjoy…so long as you’re not in a rush or hangry. I was both. There are almost 2,000 acres to explore, so bring comfortable shoes, sunscreen, and lots of water. Here’s what you can find there:
For history folks:
- Two manor houses (1830s River House and 1854 Jones-Stewart House)
- A forestry museum
- Slave quarters
- 1850s hearth cooking demonstrations
- 19th-century carriage house
- Old World Garden
- 19th-century two-story kitchen (next to the JS House)
For adventuring folks:
- Fossil hikes – You can keep any shark teeth you find on the beach. Check near the bottoms of trees. They get caught there when the tide rolls out.
- Canoe tours
- Biking and hiking trails (12 miles)
- Nighttime forest tours
- There are 9 history based geocaches on the property. Stop by the park office for a hunting kit.
For camping folks:
- Water and electrical hookups (one dump station near the front)
- Pool, playground, and picnic areas
- Shower facilities
- Yurts are opening later in the year.
But…yeah…this place gets crowded. Luckily, there’s a winery nearby. You will need its gentle libations after going to the park.
Check the Surry County Calendar for Family History Meetups and Cultural Events
Family history can be tough in the South. Many courthouses were torched in one battle or another. Surry is one of the few places whose records survived the Revolutionary War AND the Civil War. It’s a goldmine for folks tracing Black and White family history.
Because of its well-maintained records, the Surry Courthouse is always full of people trying to find out about their ancestors. Surry’s records are easy to access, but you’re on your own. Bring your “starter” research with you. You don’t want to go in there blind.
Notably, Surry had the largest population of free Black Americans in the South. Generally speaking, pre Civil War Black cemeteries are rare. Not here. Surry has a whole host of antebellum churches and cemeteries that have been continuously managed by the African American community. The county also hosts African-American and Nottoway (Native American) cultural events throughout the year.
I hope you visit this small community. If you do, come back and let me know in the comments!
For more on Bacon’s Rebellion, read the National Park Service’s write up here.
And to read the full text of Bacon’s Declaration, visit this page from George Mason University’s History Department.