Since the founding of the Americas, the plantation at Rosewell has served the historic demography of the Powhatan tribe of Native Americans, English immigrant settlers, and the African American slaves who labored to develop the early settlements. Today, resting on over two-hundred acres by the creeks of the York River in Gloucester County, the ruins exist as the eerie shell of a once prominent plantation home in colonial Virginia.
The plantation at Rosewell, previously called Werewocomoco, was originally the capital residence for the Native American leader, Chief Powhatan. It was on this site of Werewocomoco that Captain John Smith was captured and allegedly rescued from impending execution by Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas.
In 1725, Mann Page, a member of the Governor’s Council, began work on constructing his dream of an ambitious structure: a three-story mansion that would be remembered by time as one of the largest and most luxurious homes of the colonial period – rivaling and even surpassing the grandeur of the Governor’s Mansion in Williamsburg. Mann Page was ultimately unable to complete the mansion and died five years later. After inheriting the estate from his father, Mann Page II sold slaves and land holdings in order to fund construction costs to complete the structure. The Flemish bond structure’s primary construction materials were imported from England and consisted of brick, marble, and mahogany. The foundation walls were built three and one-half feet thick, most likely as a result of building codes following the Great Fire of London. With accruing debt, land forfeiture, and toilsome slave labor, the Rosewell mansion was finally completed in 1737.
According to James Joseph McDonald, author of Life in Old Virginia, the Rosewell mansion was indicative of refined taste, prestige, and wealth. Over the decades, the mansion became renowned for visits by prominent guests and magnificent events in the large reception hall. Thomas Jefferson became a frequent visitor of the Rosewell mansion. Allegedly, Jefferson devised a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence during one of his many vacations to the plantation.
In 1904, Judge Fielding Taylor and his wife became the fourth and final family to live at Rosewell. The illusion of permanence can obscure the potential for disruption. Such was the case in 1916 when flames suddenly erupted engulfing the Rosewell estate. According to local historians, in the early morning of March 24, the Taylors were awakened by billowing smoke from a fire that started on the first floor of the mansion. The fire uncontrollably swept the estate and burned for nearly two weeks leaving the mansion in a stabilized shell. Surprisingly, a magnificent shell of the structure remained as remnants of the four brick chimneys, the east wall with its regal compass head window, and a vaulted wine cellar. Originally believed to have been indestructible, the Rosewell mansion would become a dilapidated testament to the impressively skilled architectural craftsmanship of the past.
In 1876, Lucy Page Saunders penned a short story called, Leonora and the Ghost.
The story recounts the author’s memories of childhood at Rosewell – and the capture, death, and potential ghost haunting of a runaway slave.
In 1979, the plantation was donated to the Gloucester Historical Society with the mission of preserving, studying, and presenting the historic ruins to the public. With its manifestation of battered decay and woodland location, the ruins invite sensations of historic and ghostly intrigue. After dark, Rosewell attracts trespassing tourists interested in experiencing potential hauntings. Since fire swept the mansion, varying accounts tell tales of unexplained sightings. Claims of strange phenomena depict the apparition of a woman standing deep within the dark and desolate wine cellar, with arms reaching out to whoever may see. Similar accounts tell tales of ghost slaves, levitating orbs, and shadowy figures – as well as the sounds of screams, inaudible chanting, firing of muskets, and other unexplained noises from within the ruins. On Halloween night, the Rosewell Foundation opens the ruins for ghost tours – volunteers share the lore of Leonora and the Ghost, the Scarlet Lady, and the young boy who lights the doorway at night.
For one hundred years, the ruins at Rosewell have remained a spectacle of both architectural development and disintegration. It is within reason to conclude that the ruins of an antiquated structure resting on a historic tract of land invite ghostly intrigue and speculation. However, is it within the realm of possibility that spirits of the dead linger in the hollow shadows of the present – abstract apparitions reaching out to an intangible world of the living? Some things are never what they seem.