The Rosewell Plantation
The following is a transcription of the audio from Southern Gothic: “The Ruins of Rosewell”
Introduction: First Families of Virginia
In 1632 Williamsburg, Virginia was founded as Middle Plantation, a fortified settlement on the Virginia Peninsula. Little is known of the Plantation’s early years, but by the middle of the 17th century, it grew in size and wealth. Colonel John Page and his wife Alice Lucken Page emigrated to Middle Plantation from England sometime around 1650 and built the first brick home of this new Virginia settlement. Other wealthy families followed suit and by 1699 Williamsburg was the capital of the Virginia colony. Today, the Page family, and several others of wealth and prominence, who made considerable investments in these early settlements, are known as the First Families of Virginia-- the social elite of the new colony.
But, after the construction of the Williamsburg-based Governor’s Palace in 1706, a descendent of Colonel John Page used his family's wealth to build his own mansion that would rival the new Colonial Capitol building. The resulting estate, just across the York River in Gloucester County would be home to the Page family for over a century. Yet today, this once exquisite estate, named Rosewell, is nothing more than ruins abandoned to the elements; where many have claimed echoes of its past continue to haunt as its remains crumble away.
Construction of Rosewell
Gloucester County, Virginia was founded in 1651 and named for King Charles I’s youngest son Henry Stuart, the Duke of Gloucester. Land patents in the region were granted as early as 1639, but due to colonists’ tense relationship with the natives, almost a decade passed before it was considered safe for settlement. Prior to this colonial intrusion, the region was the capital of the Powhatan Confederacy, a union of approximately 30 tribes, best known for their legendary priestess, Pocahontas. But within several decades of nearby Jamestown’s founding, the Algonquian people had been pushed out, their population decimated by the diseases brought from Europe.
The fertile farmland of Gloucester attracted many wealthy English settlers, who built immense tobacco plantations that ran on imported slave labor, and in 1725 construction began on one of the most grandiose-- Rosewell. It would be the center of a three thousand acre tobacco plantation owned by Mann Page, located on Carter’s Creek. Mann Page’s intention was for his new home to rival the Governor’s Palace just across the York River, and at 12,000 square feet and three stories in height, the Page family home would be the largest and most grandiose of colonial Virginia.
The design of Rosewell, which scholars believe Mann Page did himself, was largely influenced by the elaborate London homes of the time, featuring Flemish bond brickwork using rose red bricks made on sight. The resulting brick walls were three-and-a-half feet thick, and the large pitched roof was made of led. In addition to four chimneys and 17 fireplaces, the main floor of Rosewell featured thirteen-foot-high ceilings, home consisting of 35 rooms total, as well as a grand staircase that not only extended to the roof, but was so large it is said eight adults could walk shoulder-to-shoulder up its steps. Imported marble and fine mahogany were also featured materials in the home’s interior.
Unfortunately, Mann Page would never see the building completed. Some locals claimed “God struck him down for his excess,” but for whatever the reason, he died in 1730 while in the front hall, leaving Rosewell to his wife Judith Carter, the daughter of the richest man in the North American colonies, Robert “King” Carter. But the construction of the mansion had crippled the Page family’s finances, so Mann Page’s grandiose vision was not completed for another seven years when his son Mann Page II took ownership and sold significant portions of the Page’s land holdings in order to finish what his father had started. He and his wife then resided at Rosewell for several decades before leaving the property to yet another generation of the Page family, their eldest son John and his wife Frances Burwell.
Governor John Page
John Page is arguably the most historically distinguished member of the Page family and his time at Rosewell included some of the mansion’s most notable guests, specifically Thomas Jefferson, a close friend of John Page since their time at the College of William & Mary. As a result, Jefferson visited Gloucester County frequently, and some historians even believe that an early draft of the Declaration of Independence may have been written in one of the second-story bedrooms of Rosewell.
While some of the First Families of Virginia stayed loyal to the King as the American Revolution grew near, the Page family clearly did not. John went on to serve as an officer in the Virginia Militia during the Revolution, and was later elected to represent the new American state of Virginia in the First United States Congress, eventually becoming the 13th governor of the state. But it was near the end of his friend Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, in 1808 when the former governor passed away, leaving his second wife, poet Maragaret Lowther Page, the Rosewell mansion as well as the last 750 acres of adjoining land; however, his widow chose to reside in Williamsburg after his death.
Then in 1837, Rosewell left ownership of the Page family for the first time since construction began over a century prior.
Fire at Rosewell Plantation
Thomas B. Booth purchased the plantation and began to remove portions of the mansion, which had been renovated by John Page in 1771. This included the removal of the marble floor of the grand hall, marble mantels and mahogany paneling; as well as, the lead roof and turrets. Booth stayed in the home for only decade, then sold it to his cousin. The property continued to change hands about a half dozen times over the following decades.
Then on March 24, 1916 the life of Mann Page’s palatial mansion finally came to an end when a fire broke out in the home. The flames gutted Roswell, its roof caved in and interior completely demolished. It’s said to have smoldered for two weeks. All that was left behind were sections of the brick frame, including its four massive chimneys; and with no hope to repair this damage, the once exquisite mansion was abandoned and left to be overtaken by nature.
Hauntings of the Ruins
Today all that remains of the Rosewell Plantation are ruins, including the crumbling east wall and immense chimneys. Yet many claim echoes of the long life of this lavish plantation remain. As can be expected from such an exquisite estate, inhabited by such a prominent family, Rosewell was famous throughout all of Virginia for the lavish social gatherings, parties, and balls hosted there. The Page family imported wine and champagne from France, and prepared massive spreads of gourmet food, entertaining guests till dawn. And visitors to the ruins have made claims that some still do.
Purportedly music has been heard playing from nowhere, a spectral harpsichord or lone violin still reverberating from centuries before. And it has also been said that the apparitions of guests have appeared descending the once great entranceway, sometimes accompanied by the appearance of young men with lanterns guiding them into the mansion. The most infamous apparition though, is that have a young woman who descends the steps of the front entrance each and every night.
Some visitors to the ruins have also claimed to hear the disembodied voices of slaves working in the fields. As early as the 1670’s the Page family had been involved with the practice. In fact, after emigrating to nearby Williamsburg, the family’s patriarch Colonel John Page worked as an agent for the Royal African Company in Virginia, which imported slaves to the colony. Tobacco was big business in Virginia through the mid-eighteenth century, and slave labor was unfortunately the engine that drove its prosperity. According to documentation from 1744, the Page family owned 76 slaves-- men, women and children. Governor John Page continued the practice as well. One unsubstantiated rumor claims that some of these men were buried in Rosewell’s cellar walls and believed to still appear. Numerous other reports have also claimed encounters central to this cellar, some claiming disembodied sounds, others strange drops in temperature.
The haunted stories of these abandoned ruins are vast, some downright frightening. In the 1970’s three teenagers reported seeing mysterious red lights while visiting the ruins at night. Initially thinking it was taillights, they were surprised when the red orbs began to rise. More lights appeared in front of the ruins, and as they prepared to leave, the driver unexpectedly threw the truck into reverse, plowing backwards through a cornfield, as if he’d seen something terrifying. Two of the three boys believe something supernatural happened that night, but oddly enough, the driver continued to claim he saw nothing.
One of the eeriest claims of spiritual encounters was by nearby James City County resident Raymond West. He and three friends were driving through the area at 2:00 am one night, when the group decided to visit the infamous ruins.
“As we made the last turn to the left, there before us was an old black car with 1930s license plates blocking the driveway. It had old half moon windows in the back and was facing away from us. It stunned us. I slammed on the brakes, and a big dust cloud rose up then cleared, you could see the car real well in the headlight beams. It was eerie.
Then, as we sat there in silence, we saw the head of a woman rise up in the rear window and she stared at us. She had coal black hair and an ashen-white face. We panicked. I tried to get the car in reverse, but the gears kept sticking, and all the time that woman kept looking at us, unblinking. Finally, I got the car in gear and we burned rubber getting out of there [...] At daybreak, we drove back down the driveway to the spot where we had seen it, and there was nothing there! The car and the woman had disappeared. There were no tracks or anything.”
Some preservations who’ve worked at Rosewell have attempted to debunk several of the haunted claims, blaming the disembodied sounds on rodents living in the ruins during the excavation, and the old car as a coincidence, but the eerie occurrences vary so greatly that no one explanation is enough.
The Rosewell Foundation
The Rosewell Foundation has been charged with preserving and studying what is left of the Rosewell mansion, allowing visitors to tour both the ruins as well as a visitor center that displays some of the many archaeological finds from excavations of the long lost home. But while all that remains of this once palatial estate are portions of its decaying and crumbling red-brick skeleton, Rosewell is not only still a beautiful reminder of the status and history of one of the First Families of Virginia, but also the frailty of human development over time, and its inevitable return to nature.