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‘two sides of the coin’ at historic westover

Digging for long-hidden history at a former plantation in Charles City County

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As a longtime resident of the former Westover Plantation — it was her childhood home, and she returned there a decade ago with her husband and children to manage the estate — Andrea Fisher Erda knows well the stories of the Byrd family and others who owned the place before her family acquired it in 1921.

Less clear is the history beneath her feet, but she hopes the results of an archaeological dig last week will begin to bring that into focus.

“These are extraordinary places with so much history attached to them, and the problem is that only one side of that history has been told,” Erda said of the James River plantations in general and Westover in particular.

Westover, in Charles City County, is her family’s private residence, but it also is open to the public for visits.

“Now, that is not an active whitewash, which some people accuse plantation owners of, but it’s what is in the public record. As a family home, I don’t have the staff, and I don’t have the resources, to comb the records for stories that probably weren’t even written down. It’s super-important to tell those stories, but it’s not as if they’re right there: Do I want to talk about the rich white man, or do I want to talk about the person who was enslaved? I’d love to talk about them both.”

A team led by Michael Clem, an archaeologist with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, went looking for 19th-century enslaved living quarters on the grounds of Westover last week and found 19th-century artifacts — machine-cut nails, a common ceramic, bottle glass and other materials — that could be evidence of such quarters. They also found small arrowheads, spear points and lots of pottery, indicating the presence of Native Americans many centuries or even millennia ago, Clem said.

“People have been living on that spot for thousands of years very likely,” he said, noting further analysis will be conducted on the materials that were found.

Perhaps 100 yards away, but within the same general area that is believed to have been a community hub in the 1600s, Clem’s friend Bob Chartrand of Chartrand Geoarchaeological Solutions used ground-penetrating radar to locate what is believed to be the foundation of old Westover Church, an early Colonial church that was constructed perhaps as early as the 1630s and was gone by the mid-1700s. They also believe the radar located piers for floor joists or roof supports for the church and a number of previously unknown graves. A small cemetery where members of the Byrd family are buried is nearby.

Records and maps also indicate a courthouse and ordinary for travelers visiting the courthouse were nearby — though evidence of neither was found last week — in what would have been “downtown Charles City” at the time, said Judy Ledbetter, a volunteer with the Richard M. Bowman Center for Local History in Charles City.

“It’s really exciting,” Ledbetter said of the discoveries at the sites of the church and enslaved quarters. The prospect of future excavations and investigations bode well for uncovering a lost history of the James River plantations that have neither the high profile of presidential homes, such as Monticello or Montpelier, or the support of deep-pocketed foundations to fund such research. The involvement of the Department of Historic Resources at Westover is “absolutely” a big deal, Ledbetter said.

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Erda first met Clem last summer after she had contacted the VDHR for advice about arrowheads that tenants were finding along the riverbank on the 1,000-acre Westover property. She learned it was fine to collect arrowheads found in the open but not to dig for them. Any arrowheads collected should remain on the property where they are found, she was told.

Erda mentioned her desire to find sites related to the enslaved population on the property.

“She realizes it’s an important aspect of the history there that has not been told, and she wants to remedy that and do whatever research is needed to honor those folks as best as possible,” Clem said. “I agreed to help and quickly found historic maps that provided clues that led us to the area we tested.”

It was well-known that the church, courthouse and ordinary were somewhere on the property, but he found a small map and other writings by William Byrd II that gave him a starting point to look for them. Clem performed some “shovel tests” in the area last year, and returned last week with Chartrand and volunteers from the Archaeological Society of Virginia during Historic Garden Week — Erda thought it would be interesting for visitors to see archaeological projects going on — and went to work.

Clem said he often gets calls from people who have interesting artifacts, but the items often were collected decades ago, and the people no longer have access to the property where they were found.

“It’s not all that common to have a property owner with so much in one place,” he said.

The area where Clem and his team were working is in an area now somewhat partitioned by boxwoods, near the river, about a quarter-mile from the magnificent main house at Westover.

There was thought the courthouse might have been in the area where the enslaved quarters were later built, but no artifacts from the 17th or 18th century — when the courthouse would have been on the site — were found. Now it’s believed the courthouse could be under an adjacent field currently being farmed.

Once it goes fallow later this year, Clem could return to have a look for the courthouse, the ordinary and more evidence of the enslaved population.

“We’ll absolutely come back ... it’ll be a long-term commitment,” he said. “I’m determined to tell the story of these folks whose story is every bit as important as that of the owners of the property.”

Westover’s grounds and gardens never closed during the pandemic, Erda said, because she thought it important for people to have a beautiful place to visit in such a difficult time.

“The setting is extraordinary; it’s been called the most beautiful house in America,” she said. “It’s just a restorative, peaceful place on the river.”

However, she quickly added: “But how can you say it’s ‘restorative’ if there’s so much tragic history behind it?”

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Though it didn’t close during the pandemic, Westover’s website went dark for six months in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020, except for a statement from Erda and her family expressing their outrage and voicing their support for the Black community in the fight against violence and discrimination.

They also explained how they had tried to make Westover a welcoming place for visitors to engage with the place and its history, but that they recognized that “for many people, particularly African Americans and Native Americans, places such as Westover serve as reminders of a far grimmer and horrific past and that peace and respite are quite opposite to what they feel here.”

The statement went on to say they would be listening and learning and supporting “real change and equality.”

“History cannot be undone, but we hope that in its truthful telling, there are opportunities for reconciliation and healing for people of all skin colors,” the statement said.

Finding more of that history to tell is an important step along the way, Erda said.

“I want people of all colors to come out here and be able to take in the beauty and have that be restorative, and I want people of all colors to recognize the full history that was here,” she said. “It’s sort of the horror and the beauty, two sides of the coin. I don’t think one can erase the other, but at some point there has to be healing.”

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